Walt Mossberg

Apple’s Time Capsule Gives You Easy Way to Back Up Wirelessly

With its new Leopard operating system, Apple tried to solve one of the most nagging problems faced by home-computer users: how to regularly back up their computers completely and painlessly. Leopard includes a feature called Time Machine that automatically and continuously backs up a Macintosh computer’s entire hard disk, without requiring the user to do any tedious setup or have any technical knowledge.

Time Machine is a key selling point for Leopard and the Mac. It is more complete, and yet simpler, than the built-in backup feature in Vista Home Premium, the most popular home version of Windows.

But Time Machine has a major drawback: It works much better on desktop Macs than on laptop models. That’s because it’s primarily designed to operate with backup hard drives you connect directly to the computer. And it’s a pain to plug a backup drive into a laptop, which can move around the house. While Time Machine will work with a remote hard disk under certain circumstances, that option requires a second Mac running Leopard, a costly condition.

Now, Apple (AAPL) has attempted to fix the problem with an unusual new companion product called Time Capsule. This is a $299 stand-alone networked gadget that packs both a giant hard disk and a speedy Wi-Fi wireless router into one slender case. It just plugs into your existing home network, and any laptop within wireless range can connect to it. It can back up multiple computers.

Time Capsule is designed to seamlessly work with Leopard’s Time Machine. But it can also be used as a wireless Internet connection, and/or a remote hard drive, for manually storing and retrieving files by Windows PCs running either Vista or Windows XP, or by Macs running Apple’s older Tiger operating system. And you can also use it with certain other backup programs, such as the ones built into Windows XP or Tiger.

In my tests over the past week, Time Capsule worked well in all of these scenarios. However, Time Capsule isn’t meant to do as many different tasks as some other networked drives.

Apple stresses that Time Capsule is a limited, targeted device meant primarily for backup — especially with Time Machine — and as a wireless base station. Unlike some other networked storage devices, like Hewlett-Packard’s MediaSmart home server, Time Capsule doesn’t allow users to simultaneously stream music or videos to multiple PCs, to easily access its contents via the Web or to stream videos to TV sets.

The $299 Time Capsule model comes with a 500 gigabyte hard disk inside, and there’s also a $499 model with hard disk that can hold one terabyte of data, or roughly 1,000 gigabytes. Both models use the same “n” class of Wi-Fi, the fastest version with the longest range. Both also work with computers equipped with the older “g” and “b” versions of Wi-Fi.

You can buy networked hard disks in these sizes for less money and simply use them with your existing Wi-Fi router. However, Time Machine won’t work with them, according to Apple. The company says the only standalone networked hard disk Time Machine can use is Time Capsule.

In my tests, Time Capsule performed perfectly with Time Machine. It also was easily recognized by several of my Windows machines running Vista and Windows XP. On all of these machines, I was able to speedily access the Internet via Time Capsule. Time Capsule can be set up to either replace or supplement your existing Wi-Fi router.

All the machines, even the Windows ones, also could recognize the Time Capsule as a remote hard disk, and save files to it and retrieve files from it. For instance, I manually copied a song, a photo and a Word document from a Mac laptop running Leopard onto the Time Capsule. On a Dell running Vista, I then opened the Time Capsule and launched that same Word document in the Windows version of Word, opened the photo in Vista’s Photo Gallery program, and played the song in Windows Media Player. This same process worked in reverse.

Apple doesn’t guarantee that Time Capsule will work with all backup programs. But it says it will work with the backup software built into Tiger and will likely work with some other backup software.

In my tests, the built-in backup program in Windows XP Pro worked fine with Time Capsule. But the built-in backup program in Vista failed. Microsoft said the problem I encountered was due to a new Vista security feature for backups that foils some remote hard disks, not just Apple’s.

Setting up Time Capsule was easy, using a step-by-step utility program that Apple supplies in both Mac and Windows versions. The device has a USB port that can be used to add either an additional hard disk or a networked printer. And it can be connected to a network via a wired connection if you don’t want to use its wireless functionality.

If you use Time Machine on a Mac laptop, then Time Capsule’s $299 price is money well spent. If you don’t, there are cheaper or more versatile solutions to the backup problem.


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