Apple's new Time Capsule is one of only two devices we know of that incorporates both a wireless router and a hard drive into the same product. The other -- the year-and-a-half-old Asus WL-700gE router -- offers neither the same high-speed wireless bandwidth nor as much storage capacity as the Time Capsule, which comes in 500GB (for £199) and 1TB for (£329) varieties.
Time Capsule is essentially an AirPort Extreme Base Station with a built-in hard drive and an easy-to-use, Mac-only automated backup program. Most of what we said in our review of the original, standalone AirPort Extreme applies to the Time Capsule as far as its networking capabilities.
Both products provide you with a 2.4GHz or 5.0 GHz 802.11n wireless network. We're happy to report that we were able to connect an Intel-powered Mac Pro, an iMac G5, a Windows Vista-based HP Pavilion tx2000z laptop and the Windows XP-based Lenovo X300 laptop to the Time Capsule wirelessly with little trouble. Each system was also able to read and write to the Time Capsule's hard drive.
The design of the Time Capsule is clean and visually appealing, and almost identical to the AirPort Extreme Base Station. You still get one indicator light up front and a row of ports on the back. That's it. Many routers offer an array of blinking status LEDs, but the Time Capsule gives you only a static green light to let you know that it's working.
The backside provides you with a single Gigabit Ethernet port for a connection to your cable or DSL or LAN connection, three Gigabit ports for hard-wired network devices and a single USB 2.0 input. There's no power button, but you do get a reset button to restore the factory default settings. The power cable -- and it's just a cable, not a brick -- plugs directly into the back.
We should note that while the Time Capsule is basically silent, the top gets hot, especially when the hard drive is moving a lot of data. Be sure to store it in a well-ventilated area.
Apple made the claim that setting up the Time Capsule to manage your network is easy, and if you're comfortable with basic networking concepts, it is. If you don't know whether you have a static IP address or you're unfamiliar with abbreviations like PPP and DHCP, you can still probably navigate Time Capsule's handful of setup screens, thanks to mostly clear English descriptions that accompany each option.
You initiate the installation by inserting the Time Capsule CD, and from there -- on a Mac -- it will update your AirPort Utility, and then prompt you to select various options. Windows drivers are also included on the disc. With your network established, Windows users should be able to see the hard drive in their network folders, and read and write files to it as with any networked storage device.
You can set up a password to connect to the drive, although you get no user management interface like that of the HP MediaSmart Server. You can also access the Time Capsule's drive remotely through a .Mac account, which you have to pay for. The HP Server provides you remote access for free, although it's not a router.
Mac users can use the Time Capsule's hard drive for basic storage as well, but they also get more benefit from Time Capsule than the Windows crowd, due to its interface with Leopard's Time Machine feature. Time Machine lets you set automated backups from the Macs on your network directly to the Time Capsule. It took about two hours to back up a relatively sparse 21GB of data on a MacBook laptop over a wired Gigabit connection to the Time Capsule.
Apple has also preset Time Capsule to perform several backups a day for the first week you set it up, several backups a week after the first day and then throughout each month until you run out of drive space. Each backup only saves the information that's changed, so you don't have to do the complete multi-gigabyte data transfer every time. You can also tell Time Machine to back up manually whenever you want.
This brings us to the Time Capsule's USB port. The AirPort Extreme Base Station had one as well, so much of the functionality is the same. The idea is that you can plug pretty much any networkable USB device into the Time Capsule and share it across your network. It can also accept a USB hub if you want to attach multiple devices.
We successfully added a USB flash drive and a USB hard drive, each of which created another distinct drive volume on our network. Apple offers no RAID capability with the Time Capsule -- unlike the old Asus router-storage combo product -- so it can't mirror added drives or map them into a contiguous volume. Mirroring a drive already set to backup might be excessive, but it would be useful to create a single volume out of multiple drives.
In addition to adding storage, Apple also touts the USB ports for adding printers to your network. We were able to add a Canon Pixma ip2600 inkjet printer with no trouble, even over a powered USB hub that also had a hard drive connected to it. All of the various Mac and Windows-based systems on the Time Capsule's network were able to print to it. We also installed a Wi-Fi-enabled Lexmark X7550 to the Time Capsule's network wirelessly.
The Time Capsule is not a print server, so if you send a job to the printer while it's printing from another system, you'll simply get an error message, instead of the Time Capsule adding the new job to a queue. That's to be expected, although it's still frustrating, as Apple makes a point to advertise the Time Capsule's suitability for network printing.
You should also not consider the Time Capsule as a one-stop shop for your iTunes library across various systems, nor should you expect it to work with an Apple TV. In other words, a completely centralised Apple home media network is still out of reach. We were able to get an Apple TV onto the Time Capsule's wireless signal, but it wouldn't find any of the iTunes libraries.
One thing we feared about the Time Capsule when we first heard of it is that because it's essentially a closed box, if the hard drive or the router fails, you end up losing both. It's been shown that you can peel off the Time Capsule's rubbery bottom and remove the hard drive yourself, but Apple confirmed for us that even if you were to do that, you couldn't treat the Time Capsule as a standalone router, as the hard drive hosts vital data on it for the networking functionality as well.
That's another shortcoming, although Apple assured us that the Time Capsule's "server grade" Hitachi Deskstar hard drive would last a lot longer than the typical desktop or laptop drive.
As for its performance, we're happy enough with the Time Capsule's capability as a storage device. Results will vary depending on what kind of connection you use, but when you connect a system to the Time Capsule via a Gigabit Ethernet cable, you should feel comfortable knowing that its data transfer speeds lie within the range of what we expect from other network attached hard drives.
Although we're satisfied with its storage performance, as a wide-bandwidth 802.11n wireless router, the Time Capsule is decidedly mediocre. On the 2.4GHz performance, the Time Capsule fell behind by a full 20Mbps on our max throughput test compared with a NetGear RangeMax router.
It's also on the lower end of the spectrum when compared on our long range and mixed throughput tests. We don't show 5.0 GHz frequency scores for brevity, but our results on those tests scaled in a similar fashion. Anecdotally, backing up and moving data back and forth between the drive and various systems felt reasonably fast, but if you need your network to be especially speedy, our tests show that you have several faster options out there.
In its niche, then, the Time Capsule is the most advanced product on the market. Its price is also fair compared with a separate router and network-attached hard drive. Mac owners and the space or design-conscious should consider the Time Capsule if they're in need of a router upgrade. Windows PC owners should look elsewhere for more advanced storage capabilities, as should anyone that demands fast wireless performance.
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday