Apple's Time Capsule makes backing up a snap

One of the biggest selling points in last fall's release of Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard was the inclusion of Time Machine, a nifty new app aimed at making that most onerous of tasks -- backing up data -- not only easy to do, but fun.

For laptop users, however, Time Machine offered something of a conundrum. To back up files, you still had to plug in an external USB hard drive -- meaning you lost out on one of Time Machine's best features: the ability to back up your data continuously in the background without any extra work by you, the user.

Now plugging in an external drive may seem like a minor task, given the obvious advantages of having all of your files, photos, songs and applications safely backed up. Nonetheless, it was a hurdle. And since 90 per cent of Apple's customers told the company in surveys that they don't back up data regularly, any hurdle is one too many.

That's where Time Capsule, which was announced at the MacWorld Expo in January and is now on store shelves, comes in extremely handy -- especially for laptop lovers like me. By allowing wireless backups, it lets Time Machine shine for those of us who don't want to lug around a backup drive or tether our laptops to one sitting on a desk somewhere.

Apple offers two Time Capsules: The 500GB model sells for US$299, and the 1TB version goes for US$499. Both effectively cut the proverbial USB cord when it comes to backups.

AirPort Extreme on steroids

I've been using Time Capsule for a few weeks now, courtesy of Apple, and have found it to be an ideal backup for anyone with a Mac -- especially a MacBook, MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. Not only does it serve as an 802.11n Wi-Fi router, beaming the Internet throughout the house or small office, but it also marries that router with a server-grade Serial ATA hard drive spinning at 7,200 rpm.

(Incidentally, Windows-based systems -- and Macintoshes that haven't been upgraded to Leopard -- can use Time Capsule for wireless network access. However, these machines don't have Time Machine, which only comes with Leopard, meaning they're missing a key piece of the backup equation.)

The device itself it looks a lot like an AirPort Extreme on steroids -- it's housed in a flat, gleaming, all-white square case that's about 7 inches wide and about an inch high. It's also noticeably heavier than the Extreme, no doubt because of the hard drive inside. Time Capsule offers the usual complement of ports in the back that allow you to share an Ethernet Internet connection with three other computers and plug in a USB printer for shared printing. The only functional difference between it and an AirPort Extreme router is the ability to store data.

You can set up Time Capsule in one of two basic ways: as an all-in-one solution in which it serves as both your wireless router and your backup drive, or as an adjunct wireless drive that connects to your current network. If you're still using an old 802.11b AirPort base station -- or relying something more PC-centric such as a wireless router from Linksys or D-Link Corp. -- and you're looking for something simple to set up and use, you'll want to go with the first option. That's because Time Capsule allows you to take advantage of the greater data-transfer speeds offered by the newer 802.11n Wi-Fi standard while at the same time adding storage to your network.

An easy setup

Setup is simple. Plug your Ethernet cable into the Time Capsule, make sure it has a valid IP address (you may need to restart your Digital Subscriber Line or cable modem first), launch the AirPort Utility, and set your network preferences to your liking. Then launch Time Machine, which will recognize the hard drive inside the device and allow you to designate it as your backup drive. Select "Back Up Now," and sit back and wait. And wait. And wait.

According to Apple, you should plan on waiting a few hours while Time Machine does its first backup. Since it's copying all of your files wirelessly, this process will take longer than doing so over a hardwired Ethernet connection. Apple's advice: Start your first backup before you go to bed and let it run overnight. After that, each backup is incremental and takes no more than a few minutes, depending on how many files have changed since the last backup was done.

I can vouch for the amount of time needed for the first backup, which I started one evening just before 8pm. I needed to back up just over 68GB of data on my MacBook Pro. Since my network is a mixed 802.11b/g/n network, and the Time Capsule was 15 feet away from my computer -- and on the other side of a wall -- my transfer speeds were slower than if I had used 802.11n only with the device and my computer close to each other. It took all night for the backup to complete. But when it was done, all my files had been safely duplicated.

If you're only interested in adding wireless storage to an already-existing 802.11n network, just plug the Time Capsule into a wall outlet, launch the AirPort Utility, set up the device to join your network, and then use Time Machine to back up your files. No major network revamp is needed, although you will have to "switch" between your current network and Time Capsule the first time you add it to your network.

I used the "Manual Setup" option to make sure the Time Capsule settings matched those of my network; just make sure you choose "Extend a wireless network" in the Wireless Mode drop-down menu. I used this setup when connecting Time Capsule to my mom's pre-existing AirPort Express network -- and to my own AirPort Extreme network -- and it showed up on each network without a hitch.

Two storage options: official and not

If you just want to use Time Capsule to back up your data wirelessly on an existing 802.11n network -- and you already have an AirPort Extreme base station -- the decision-making can get a bit complicated. You actually have two options: one official, one unofficial. The official one is to buy a Time Capsule and just add it to your current network as I described above. Or -- and this has been a bone of contention in recent months for Leopard users -- you can plug an external USB drive into an AirPort Extreme and use that "AirPort disk" for backups.

This feature, which Apple does not yet officially support, was made live last month with the release of updates for AirPort Extreme and the AirPort Utility application. The move basically followed through on a promise that CEO Steve Jobs made last year before Leopard was released. At the time, he said AirPort disks would work with Time Machine. But that feature was pulled from Leopard before its release in October, to the annoyance of a lot of Apple users.

Although that function has been turned on (and is exactly how I use Time Machine at home), Apple does not yet officially offer support for it. In fact, the updates released last month made no mention of AirPort disks. Users first found out they could access hard drives attached to AirPort Extreme base stations through Time Machine only after the updates came out.

Is Time Capsule better for backups?

So why get a Time Capsule if you already have an AirPort Extreme? Why not just buy the external drive of your choosing and plug it into your Wi-Fi router?

According to Jai Chulani, senior product marketing manager for AirPort, the hard drives in the Time Capsule are "server-grade" models that have a higher mean time between failures (MTBF) rating than consumer-level drives. In other words, they should last longer than drives you buy off the shelf, although there's some dispute about how reliable a number that MTBF figure is. "These are the cream-of-the-crop drives," Chulani said in an interview. "They're the same ones we use in our Xserve products."

A second reason to opt for Time Capsule is that backups will be somewhat faster, since the drive is integrated with the device, not attached via a USB connection. According to Chulani, a Time Capsule operating in the 5-GHz band will offer read/write speeds of 10MB to 15MB/sec., while a setup with an external drive plugged into an AirPort Extreme router will offer speeds of 5MB to 9MB/sec.

Whether that difference in speed is a major selling point depends on the user's need. As Chulani was quick to note, those speeds are only ballpark figures, since interference and network quirks can easily affect them. Personally, I'm content with what I already have: an AirPort Extreme with a 1TB Lacie drive that I've partitioned so I can back up both of my laptops.

But being able to add a Time Capsule to an existing network like my mom's means she may luck out when her birthday rolls around in May. Right now, she has to plug in a USB drive to back up all the Clay Aiken songs, videos and pictures she's accumulated on her laptop. Remember what I said about eliminating hurdles? A Time Capsule means she wouldn't have to plug in her backup drive whenever she thinks about doing a backup.

Better yet, a Time Capsule allows you to archive data as well. In my mother's case, she could accumulate enough of her Aiken files (her collection is called "clack" for some reason and seems to grow exponentially) to fill up a Time Capsule. Those files could then be downloaded to an external drive for archival purposes, and Mom could start accumulating more.

The process is simple: Just plug an eternal drive into the Time Capsule, click on "Archive" in the AirPort Utility, and the files are stored for future use. When you think about the explosion in digital video that has occurred in recent years, being able to back everything up and then archive it will no doubt come in quite handy in the years ahead -- especially as the per-gigabyte price of storage continues to fall.

Final decisions

If you're uncertain about whether to get an AirPort Extreme or a Time Capsule, look at it this way. An AirPort Extreme base station costs US$179. The entry-level Time Capsule gives you all of the features of the base station and 500GB of built-in storage space for an additional US$120. The 1TB Time Capsule adds US$320 to the cost of a base station (for a total cost of US$499). Given that external 1TB hard drives sell for only a little less than that at retail, the price of convenience is competitive.

Time Capsule performs exactly as billed, offering an easy way to keep all of your files backed up wirelessly. Yes, the first backup will take a while, depending on how much data you have. But it's so set-it-and-forget-it simple that it's worth doing. After that, you can relax, knowing that if your computer dies unexpectedly or your internal hard drive fails, all of your data -- whether it's critical work-related files or a folder of Clay Aiken videos -- is safe and sound.

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