Apple’s Second Most Hated Device, And Why You Should Own One (Warts And All)

It’s no Apple TV, but the mix of awe and ire around the Time Capsule make it the perfect focus for a deeper, real-life look.

Like most GeekDrawl readers, I’m that guy who catches the first questions of friends buying new computers. Specifically, I most often get questions around moving from Windows to Mac (as I did ~5 years ago). I’ll be the first to admit the hardware is more expensive, but I’ve found the difference is often more than made up in lower software costs.

My summary often goes like this: Macs simply work as you expect them to; they’re stable enough to require restarts only following major system updates (every 30-60 days); and AppleCare warranty extension is a must-own. The tipping point is the role of the Genius Bar at Apple Retail stores in the event you do have a problem. It’s as easy as making an appointment and allowing the smart kids to work their magic. But, clearly I digress…

So as a fully committed Apple owner, the logical question is what’s your lynchpin device? My answer is simple: my 500GB Time Capsule. In an environment that includes an iMac in my office, a MacBook Pro in my backpack and my wife’s MacBook, the combination of a true dual-band wireless router and backup solution is an absolute winner. Even with its software-only configurations and less-than-full-depth feature set, it gets the job done for me.


Wireless Router Features



As with any piece of consumer electronics, there are more opinions than owners when it comes to features. I’ve heard all the complaints about not being able to manage the router functions directly via IP address, or you can’t block network access to sites and/or services.

And then there’s the cost: the 1TB model runs $299, and the 2TB model runs $499 (hint: the kids at MacMall consistently price gear ~10% less than Apple with full warranties and free shipping). Sure there are cheaper, more feature-laden solutions out there, but that’s missing the point in my estimation.

What the Time Capsule does, it does flawlessly. In less than five minutes, my fiber network had a PPPoE connection established and three networks were broadcasting:

  • A dedicated 5Ghz-only N network for my MacBook Pro, MacBook and Apple TV (I run my multicast rate on High to maximize throughput, although it does limit my footprint to one side of the house.)
  • A blended 2.4Ghz G/N network to support the G devices like the Wii, both iPhones, and two Tivo adapters (and occasional Windows visitors I trust to print)
  • And a visitor network that’s internet-only and can’t access any connected devices like hard drives or printers

If you’re anything like me, and someone says PPPoE there’s one reaction: cringing. I recall a difficult year or so in the mid 90s when I could only get my Mindspring DSL via PPPoE and it was an unadulterated mess. Well suffice to say it’s come a long way. My connection is absolutely bulletproof and the only service blinks have been caused by network outages. I literally have hard-restarted my router once in the last two years.

And as for the feature race, I’m completely fine with not having every toggle switch and dial of something like a Linksys WRT610N. I can tweak my individual network settings, setup dedicated IP addresses by device and use my Apple AirPort Express N Routers as network extenders as needed. (Hint: the combination of a Time Capsule and one or more AirPort Express N routers can easily create a monster footprint network that your Macs are smart enough to intelligently pass between while moving throughout the house – slick stuff!)

So as I tell my friends of other Mac products, the Time Capsule simply does everything it should while never requiring attention or maintenance. Good enough for Dave…


The Real Reason to Own It


So let all the magazine reviewers whine about wireless features, but for me the Time Capsule is about one thing: backup. As someone who has a borderline out-of-control media library (85,000 iTunes songs in ~480GB and 24,000 iPhoto pics in ~120GB), I’m a bit of a backup freak. And like everyone else, I have a ~100GB of critically important business and personal files across all three Macs.

So given my Time Capsule is only 500GB, you’re probably trying to figure out how I’m setup. All the photos live on the iMac and each laptop has its own share of personal and business files (I use MobileMe to synch everything in the cloud across the three Macs so I have all files all the time.) The Time Capsule literally sits at the center of my network and wirelessly backs up all three machines on an incremental basis multiple times daily across the 5Ghz N-only network. (My iTunes library lives on an external 1TB drive that’s backed-up to separate 1TB drive hanging off my Time Capsule, which we’ll discuss later.)

As I type this while watching my preferred late night host Craig Ferguson, the Time Machine software in completing a backup. When I’m active on the network, the system defines when the backups are auto-started. Again, it’s something that happens 100% in the background and has zero effect on my work or productivity. If the little icon wasn’t spinning in my menu bar, I’d have no idea anything was happening.


What I Plug In



While I love the wireless features, there are two specific devices I choose to wire direct to the Time Capsule via gigabit Ethernet: my main gaming box (recently the xBox360, now PS3) and the office iMac because I just want the fastest connection to my desktop machine. Again, some will complain it only has three network ports, but let’s remember there are literally hundreds of wired gigabit Ethernet routers that play perfectly well auto-assigning IP addresses within the range of the router.

So if you’re like the future state of my network, there are two 10-port hard-wired router taking up two of those three slots and every RJ-45 plug (and all the converted RJ-11 plugs) are hot with gigabit Ethernet. Ah, the beauty of having all my drops run with CAT5e…

In addition to sharing fast internet connections, Time Capsule users can jack a wide variety of printers and hard drives in via USB, which become instantly available on the network. Some will complain it didn’t play nice with an old printer, but it’s taken everything I’ve ever thrown at it.

Again, my setup is slightly different in the sense I have the Time Capsule in the basement right on my whole-house audio box – although clearly it’s good looking enough to keep out-in-the-open if you so desire. Therefore, I don’t make use of the wireless printing via the Time Capsule, but I absolutely depend on the networked 1TB drive. That drive serves as my primary backup of my other external 1TB drive that holds my iTunes library.

Again the Time Capsule performs flawlessly, and gives me all the access and speed I need to keep things in order. This is likely the story for 95% of the users in the world, which is why I contend the Time Capsule is pure genius.


Confessions of an Early Adopter



There’s an old customer service mantra that goes: “it's not if you have a problem, it’s how you solve it.” That was proven to me yet again by Apple in early 2010. I was a way early adopter on the Time Capsule, and started hearing whispers of devices crapping out after about 24 months of use (just past the standard one-year warranty plus the one-year AppleCare extended warranty). Some suspected it was heat-related, but the general consensus was a manufacturing defect in early units with how the power supplies were attached to the motherboard.

And then one Friday morning, I awoke to no network. Given my setup is so bulletproof, I started tracing backwards and ended up staring at a Time Capsule with no lights and seemingly DOA. I checked my receipts file, and of course I was about 27 months past the purchase date, so I appeared to be SOL.

I figured it was worth a Genius Bar appointment at the North Point Apple Store to make sure it wasn’t a bad cord (since I didn’t have a spare, and that’s the culprit some significant percentage of the time), but the Time Capsule was in fact dead.

After asking the Genius Bar guy what my options were, he told me to hold on a minute. He went into the back of the store, and reappeared 10 minutes later. He pulled me aside and said my Time Capsule was out of warranty, but that Apple had discovered an unacceptable failure rate in a certain series of the Time Capsules and mine was one of them. So not having a 500GB model there, he called the Lenox Apple Store and had them hold their last one for me to go pickup.

This represents another major differentiator between Apple and other electronics/computer companies. They clearly could have played the out-of-warranty card to drive revenue, but they instead looked at my purchase history and inferred I’m a loyal customer. I’m much more likely to buy a next-generation MacBook Pro, an iPad and/or $200-$300 worth of accessories in a year if I remain happy. And one simple refurbished 500GB Time Capsule could create more brand loyalty and good will than the revenue lift from me buying a new $299 Time Capsule. Pure marketing genius, and the stuff fanboys are made of…


The Lowlights


While I’ll admit to being on the road to fanboy, I still have some gripes with the Time Capsule. Given the device has two important pieces of hardware inside (a wireless router and a hard drive) it boggles my mind it’s not readily setup to act as a home media server. I get the fact the hard drive is designed to be more about backup, but I might have bought the bigger (more expensive) one if I thought I could partition off half of the drive for media serving and keeping the other half for backups.

I also think the Time Capsule (and the Apple TV) are slaves to design, which is a plus for Apple in most cases, but not for these devices. Both have non-serviceable hard drives, no internal fans and run hot enough to damn near fry an egg. Neither device can have anything on or near it, and this can’t bode well for long-term stability. Said simply, heat is the enemy of virtually all electronics and Apple chose to make it look beautiful instead. I understand why, but I disagree in this case…




So overall, I believe the Time Capsule is a watershed device that should be at the center of any network containing one or more Macs. Sure, it’s not going please every network geek who wants to control all aspects of their traffic, but it comes out of the box and sets up in under 10 minutes with no drama. And it runs hot enough to suppose there’s about a three-year shelf life, but the seamless backup is worth the price of admission alone. The simple question is what price would you put on your pictures and music? For me, the Time Capsule protects all and that makes it indispensable – regardless of its flaws...


0 # anthsonyz 2010-04-15 01:00
Don't you go talking bad about the Apple TV. with boxee installed, it is an amazing media center. totally agree with Apple's support policies and cool factor.
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0 # Heath Wilkes 2010-04-18 19:54
The Apple TV gets a bad wrap. We use ours daily, and it streams music throughout our in-home speaker system. Add the iPhone remote, and I have total access to my music collection from any room in my house. Feel free to give me yours, Dave.

I agree the Time Capsule is an essential component to a Mac home or small office network.
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-04-19 11:19
Not quite ready to give it away, but the center of whole house audio could be an interesting setup. Good thought...
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0 # GFRRTDEFF 2010-04-19 11:16
the boxee software is on my list of things to try... we'll see...
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