Apple's Time Capsule is one of very few wireless-n routers with built-in storage, making it a simple and attractive all-in-one router-and-backup option for your home. Unfortunately, it's painfully expensive -- the 500GB version costs £230 and the 1TB version costs £380.
The Time Capsule also suffers from some key shortcomings. It lacks, for example, many network-attached storage and networking features, a user-serviceable hard drive, iTunes or media server support, and Web interface management. For about £350, you can get the Linksys WRT610N plus a 2TB Western Digital My Book Mirror Edition external hard drive. That combination would give you all the basic functions of the Time Capsule as well as the aforementioned missing features.
Out of the box, the Time Capsule could pass as the Apple AirPort Extreme Base Station's big brother -- they look similar but the Time Capsule is about 30 per cent larger. Functionality-wise, the Time Capsule is basically a Base Station with a built-in hard drive.
For a wireless router, the Time Capsule is bulky, but it's compact compared with competing NAS servers. It has a clean, square, white design. There are no external antennas, buttons or switches, aside from the tiny reset hole on the back of the device. Stick a pin in this hole and the router will reset to its default settings. Also on the back are three Gigabit Ethernet ports -- one fewer than is offered by most competing routers -- for use with wired clients, and a USB port. The USB port can be used to host another external hard drive or a printer.
On the front, the device has only one status light. The light flashes amber to indicate a problem or stays green to show that everything is in good working condition.
Like the Base Station, the Time Capsule doesn't offer a Web interface, which means you'll need to install the included AirPort Utility software to set it up. The software comes in both Mac and Windows versions. The Windows version installs a number of services, such as Apple's networking service, Bonjour, and AirPort Base Station Agent, which runs whenever your computer boots up. Without Bonjour, Windows won't be able to connect to the device. AirPort Base Station Agent helps by automatically detecting shared folders from the Time Capsule.
Generally, we prefer devices that you can access and manage via a Web interface, letting you get the job done conveniently from virtually any computer that's connected to the device over the network. Apple is the only networking vendor that doesn't offer this type of interface. Some vendors, such as Linksys, also offer a Mac and PC desktop-software application for those who aren't comfortable using the browser for the task.
AirPort Utility does, however, make setting up the Time Capsule easy for novices. Its wizard mode walks you through the configuration process step by step. To customise the router beyond the recommended settings, the software offers a manual mode that includes access to more advanced functions.
The Time Capsule requires a restart to apply any changes made to its settings. This is a nuisance, because it interrupts the connections of all users and makes the set-up take longer than usual. Other high-end routers can apply most minor changes without restarting. Nevertheless, we were able to get the Time Capsule up and running within 10 minutes or so.
Like the Base Station, the Time Capsule supports a maximum of only 50 clients at a time, according to Apple's documentation. This is significantly less than the 200 clients that other vendors claim their routers can support.
Along with the Base Station, the Time Capsule is one of the few routers that offer very little in terms of networking features. Other high-end routers, such as the D-Link Xtreme N Dual Band Gigabit Router DIR-825 or Linksys WRT610N include a Web site-and-service filter (letting you block Web sites or Web services based on certain criteria), port triggering, Wi-Fi protected set-up (allowing you to hook up clients to the network at the press of a button), and dynamic DNS. The Time Capsule offers none of these.
Although easy to use in its most basic configuration, the Time Capsule can be frustrating when you want to use more advanced functions. For example, if you want to add a client to a DHCP Reservation or the Media Access Control address list, you'll have to go to the 'log and logistics' window to view the list of the connected clients, copy the MAC address of the client in question, and then go back to the list to enter it. Many other routers, such as those from D-Link, Linksys and Netgear, display this information more conveniently and allow you to complete the same task with a few mouse clicks.
Some service providers require users to register a client's MAC address to get connected to the Internet. The Apple Time Capsule doesn't feature this ability to replicate a client's MAC address. Most competing routers can take a client's MAC address as its own.
The Apple Time Capsule offers true dual-band wireless n, which means it can provide a wireless-n (802.11n) signal in both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies simultaneously, making it support virtually any existing wireless-networking client. We found, however, that it offers users less control over the wireless aspect than most routers.
Apple recommends using the same service-set identifier (the name for a wireless network) for both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, saying the client will intelligently detect the band by itself and, if it supports both bands, it will pick the 5GHz over the 2.4GHz band. In our tests, this worked with a MacBook Pro -- the laptop immediately picked the 5GHz band every time.
Using a Windows-based system was a different story. Our Windows laptop, which supports both 5GHz and 2.4GHz wireless n, picked the 2.4GHz every time. We couldn't figure out why this happened, and the router wouldn't let us manually set the machines to use the 5GHz band to take advantage of the higher throughput speeds.
For this reason, we would recommend always having a separate wireless-network name for each band so you can have more control over which band you connect a client to. The 'wireless option' button in Airport Utility allows you to do this.
Unfortunately, although you can choose to turn off the wireless function of the router altogether, you can't turn off either of the bands separately. This means getting the router to work with 2.4GHz only or 5GHz only is impossible.
All other true dual-band routers we've reviewed allow users to have more control over the router's wireless functionality. In many situations, you'll want to use only the 5GHz band and turn the 2.4GHz band off to save power or keep the spectrum cleaner for other devices. You simply can't do this with the Time Capsule.
You have even less control over the Time Capsule's 'guest networking' feature, which lets you create a separate wireless network that has access to the Internet but not to local resources, such as your computer or printer. The feature worked well in our tests, but we found its functionality somewhat limited. All you can do is turn on or off the guest network, change the network's name, apply encryption to it, and give guest clients the ability to interact with one another. The Time Capsule doesn't let you choose which band you want the guest network to operate in, nor does it allow you to make a separate guest network for each band.
You'll need to install Bonjour on any Windows-based machines that you want to share the printer or the Time Capsule's storage, which is a hassle. You'll also want to check ahead of time to make sure your printer supports Mac. Set-up with some printers didn't go smoothly in our tests.
When we plugged the HL-1850 in using the USB connection, the Time Capsule didn't react at all. The SCX-4100 was recognised by the router, but there's no Mac version of the printer's software driver. Nonetheless, we think it would have been easy to install if there had been a driver, as the printer did appear in our MacBook Pro's 'print and fax' utility.
Other routers we've reviewed, generally have much better support for printers. For example, the D-Link DIR-825 worked with virtually every USB printer we tried it with. We didn't try the D-Link with these two printers, however, as they weren't available at the time of our review.
The Time Capsule's support for USB external hard drives is much better than for USB printers, and better than the Base Station's support, as well. It's still far from perfect, though.
The Time Capsule doesn't read drives formatted in the NTFS file system -- only files formatted as FAT32 and Mac OS Extended. In general, it's more difficult to format a drive larger than 32GB using FAT32 than it is using NTFS. This means that, because the majority of external hard drives nowadays are much larger than 32GB, Windows users can't simply plug most of their USB external hard drives into the router and expect to share the data contained on them. If you are willing to reformat your hard drive, you'll need to use a computer to do so, as Time Capsule doesn't include a formatting function.
Unlike the Base Station, the Time Capsule quickly recognised our external hard drive formatted using FAT32, and it worked as well as when it was formatted in the Mac OS Extended file system. Once our drives were plugged in, the Time Capsule instantly recognised and started sharing them. Sharing worked well in Windows, too.
The hard drives can be shared only as one shared folder, however. You can't make multiple folders and share them separately with different access privileges, which is a common NAS feature. You can, however, use AirPort Utility to create user accounts that each have a private folder of their own.
The Time Capsule's internal hard drive allows you to erase its content or manually archive it to an external hard drive. You can also change the default share name to whatever you like. Unfortunately, you can't physically access or replace the hard drive yourself. Most of the NAS servers we've reviewed, and even some external hard drives, allow users to replace internal hard drives.
Other than file-sharing, the Time Capsule offers none of the more popular NAS features. You can't use the device as an iTunes or media server to stream digital content from the device to computers, set-top boxes or game consoles -- ironic, given that most other NAS servers we've tested feature a server for Apple's own iTunes software. Also, the Time Capsule can't download files by itself or work as an FTP or an HTTP server -- both features normally found in NAS servers.
The Time Capsule lets Mac users access the shared folder remotely via the Internet using a MobileMe account. In our tests, everything worked just as it would if the computer were connected to the device directly via its wireless or wired connection. The shared folder appeared the same as when we accessed it via the local network, but it took a little longer to access because of the Internet connection. We could also access the Time Capsule's settings this way using AirPort Utility. Sadly, remote access is not available for Windows users, even if you use a MobileMe account.
It's important to note, however, that remote access might not work at all if you access the Internet via a corporate network, where, according to Apple, certain services of the Base Station could be blocked for security reasons. Although it's true that corporations tend to have tight control over their networks, other NAS servers' remote-access features, such as those of the Western Digital My Book World Edition, worked well with our corporate network. The Time Capsule and Base Station didn't.
How the Time Capsule shares files with remote users is disappointing. While other NAS servers, like Synology Disk Station DS107+ or My Book World Edition, allow users to share files with multiple users or share photo albums, Time Capsule only works with one MobileMe account at a time.
Note that, unlike the Time Capsule, most other routers support dynamic DNS, which lets you set up remote access without having to pay anything at all. You do, however, need some networking know-how to make that work.
If you have Mac OS 10.5 (Leopard) installed, the Time Capsule works very well with Time Machine, Apple's fancy backup software. All you need to do is run the Time Machine utility and choose the Time Capsule as the backup destination. The actual time taken to do a backup job, however, could be very long, depending on the amount of data you have on the computer's hard drive. Generally, you will want to connect the computer to the Time Capsule via one of its three wired connections for the first backup job. If you have a large hard drive with plenty of data, be prepared to leave it running overnight for the initial backup.
For Windows users that want to use Time Capsule as a robust backup solution, you'll need to invest in a backup software application such as Acronis. Although the built-in backup utilities of both Windows XP and Windows Vista work with Time Capsule (as they would with any external storage device), they -- especially that of Windows XP -- are far from comprehensive. Most network-storage devices we've reviewed come bundled with backup software and don't require additional utilities to work comprehensively in Windows.
The Time Capsule doesn't incorporate a way to automatically back up the content of its internal hard drive onto an external drive, so, to preserve your important files and data, you'll have to do it manually.
Just like the Base Station, the Time Capsule features a built-in firewall and supports WPA, WPA2 and 128-bit WEP for wireless encryption. It also supports Radius access control, so you can manage wireless clients from a centralised location.
Time Capsule doesn't allow parents to filter specific Web sites, but it will let them set time limits for kids' access, provided they follow the steps to get the MAC address for their kids' computers.
We tested the Time Capsule's throughput speeds the same way we tested the Base Station's: by copying data from one computer to another using its wireless connection. This means the scores -- while much lower than the theoretical throughout speed of the wireless-n specification -- are the actual sustained data rates, after all the software and hardware overheads and interference.
In our throughput test, the Time Capsule performed better than the Base Station in the 5GHz band, scoring 70.16Mbps. At this speed, it would finish transmitting 500GB of data in about 57 seconds. In our range test, where the client was 30m away, the Time Capsule scored 57.8Mbps -- slightly slower than the Base Station's 59Mbps.
Like the Base Station, the Time Capsule performed less well in the 2.4GHz band, scoring 32.2Mbps in the throughput test and 20.8Mbps in the range test. In our mixed-mode test, where it was set to work with both wireless-n and wireless-g clients simultaneously, it scored 20Mbps. These scores are among the slowest we've seen in high-end routers.
On the other hand, the Time Capsule offers very good range. In our testing facility, an office building that's not optimised for wireless range, we were able to hold a steady connection to the Time Capsule from further than 90m in the 2.4GHz band and from about 85m in the 5GHz band. Both of these numbers are very impressive.
Since the Time Capsule has built-in storage, we tested it the way we test other NAS servers: by copying data between the router and a computer using a Gigabit wired connection. We used a 7GB file and timed how long it took for the system to write the file to the NAS server's hard drive and read it back. The scores were low, with the Time Capsule achieving only 81.2Mbps in the write test and 114.2 in the read test. These are the slowest numbers among the NAS servers we've reviewed this year. Compared with NAS servers we reviewed in 2008, the scores are about average.
The router ran hot throughout our testing, which made us concerned about the device's lifespan. We recommend you leave it in an open, well-ventilated location when in use.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
(Throughput in Mbps. Longer bars indicate better performance)
The Apple Time Capsule is certainly a convenient, straightforward wireless router and NAS server combination, but, at this price, you should get more functionality.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet