Apple has made its name selling high-design computers and epoch-defining music-players. So why in Jobs' name is Apple's Next Big Thing a network-attached backup device?
The answer is simple – or rather, the answer is 'simplicity'. Wi-Fi networks are great in theory, but brain-liquifying in practice. Similarly, backup is something that seems like a great idea, but usually only springs to mind 30 seconds after a calamitous hard-drive failure.
By combining a wireless router with a 500GB (£200) or 1TB (£330) drive, and wrapping it up with its trademark easy-to-use interface, Apple has solved two big problems. Well, as long as you’re running a nice new Mac with the latest version of OS X.
Airport in disguise
The Time Capsule is a renegade from Jonathan Ive's white era. It looks like the twin brother of the Airport Extreme Base Station but is actually about an inch wider and deeper. This would make it perfect for stacking on top of an Apple TV, but the two units run so hot they'd quickly become the scourge of your local fire station.
On the front is a constantly glowing green light, while on the back there are three ethernet ports and a USB socket. The USB can be used to attach a printer or external hard drive that is then shared across your home network.
Time Capsule doesn't just look uncannily like the Airport Extreme Base Station, it also shares most of its features, combining high-speed 802.11n networking with idiot-proof software (including the 802.11n enabler for Macs running Intel Core 2 Duo processors). But the Time Capsule’s secret weapon is its built-in 500GB or 1TB hard-drive.
Back in time
You can tuck into this storage using any Mac or PC on the network, but it really comes into its own when used with the Time Machine backup application built into the latest version of the Mac operating system, Leopard.
Leopard's Time Machine software is pain-free, letting you decide what to backup and when. Stick with the default settings and you’ll be able to enter the ‘time tunnel’ interface. Although this sadly doesn’t give you a portal back to the 60s, it does let you recover single files from snapshots taken hourly in the past 24 hours, daily in the past month or weekly for as far back as your hard-drive will stretch.
Setting up Time Capsule takes a matter of minutes using the supplied software (for both Mac and Windows). Once it’s up and running, its disk drive is visible to any computer on the network. Macs running the latest operating system, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, will be able to use the hard drive with the built-in backup software, Time Machine. If you have a Windows computer or older Mac you’ll need third-party applications to use the Time Capsule as a backup device.
Before you gleefully begin the backing up process, though, we’d put the kettle on – you’re in for a long wait. Even over a high-speed 802.11n network, your initial backup will take many hours. Although Apple strangely doesn’t advise this in its flimsy set-up guide, it’s best to use the Gigabit Ethernet port for your initial backup.
After that, subsequent backups are incremental and only take a few minutes over a Wi-Fi connection. One slight niggle, though, is that there’s no way to limit the size of the backups. Although Time Machine will start deleting your oldest backups and keep functioning, you’ll quickly run out of disk space for other uses.
Even when it's not full, Time Capsule's shared disk facility isn't as useful as it could be. The lack of support for the UPnP standard means the drive can’t be seen by a PlayStation 3 or Squeezebox and, frustratingly, it can't be accessed when you're outside your network either, a missed opportunity that we hope will be fixed by a future software upgrade.
Most worryingly, Time Capsule runs very hot for a device designed to be left on all the time. And although our test model was remarkably quiet, other users have reported loud whirring noises. The heat issue means that you're best off not stacking other devices on top of the Capsule, which is a shame given it's perfectly flat design.
After a couple of days, the heat is the only thing that will quicken your pulse about the Time Capsule. It's not going to change the way you listen to music or watch television. It's just an Apple product that works well for Apple users looking for a Wi-Fi router and brain-free backups. Sometimes it's better to be simple than sexy.