Apple’s Time Capsule Gets a Second Chance, But Really Needs An iTunes + iPhoto Server

Apple’s Time Capsule Gets a Second Chance, But Really Needs An iTunes + iPhoto Server 1

We were genuinely excited when Apple announced its $299 and $499 Time Capsule back in early 2008—so much so that we were amongst the first people to run out and buy one when they hit stores in late February. Soon thereafter, we highlighted it on Backstage since it was technically outside of iLounge’s typical scope of iPod, iPhone, and iTunes coverage, but it was obvious that there could be some overlap. Apple had released a wireless network hard drive capable of serving as at least a backup and at most a shared storage device for our growing libraries of media files, something that we’d been hoping Apple would do for years, and though the price was higher than we’d hoped, we felt that it was certainly worth trying.

Apple’s Time Capsule Gets a Second Chance, But Really Needs An iTunes + iPhoto Server 2

Yet one or two days later, we were probably amongst the first people to return that Time Capsule to the store, our hopes for its utility as an iTunes streaming system deflated by its slow speed. Similar comments quickly began to appear elsewhere on the Internet, and Apple subsequently released updated software that somewhat improved the unit’s performance. It also published a technical support document warning users—at least, those who were searching Apple’s support pages for answers after purchase—that their initial backups were going to be slow. “This may take overnight or longer,” said Apple, “depending on how much data you have.”



Part of the problem was inherent in using a wireless network to transfer tens or hundreds of Gigabytes of data, but part was due to the fact that the wireless network might be choked by the demands of various slow devices. So in early 2009, the company debuted a new version of the Time Capsule hardware with another performance-boosting feature: “dual-band mode,” which sought to improve wireless speeds by letting old 802.11b and 802.11g devices occupy one Wi-Fi network while newer 802.11n devices shared another, faster one. Time Capsule’s price was still too high—arguably even moreso than before given that its hard drive capacities were the same while competing alternatives’ prices had dropped—but when we saw that retailers were beginning to discount the 1TB version, we decided once again to give it a try.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the new Time Capsule is very much the same as the one we returned last year, and still has problems that users shouldn’t have to deal with. Even with a new MacBook as the only device on its 802.11n wireless network, the initial backup process remains maddeningly sluggish—it took us something like 8 or 10 hours to create a 100GB Time Machine image—and the software is still flaky. When we tried to troubleshoot some connectivity issues, we found Apple Discussions noting that the latest 7.4.2 software had screwed things up for a bunch of people, and in the absence of a fixed version, they were struggling to figure out how to downgrade back to earlier software. We went through similar issues; it’s a mess, so though the newer Time Capsule has some nifty little features, we’re not feeling entirely satisfied with it even at a discounted purchase price.

But despite these sorts of issues, we still are holding out hope for Time Capsule, because it feels like a missed opportunity for Apple—a product that is desperately needed for and technically capable of doing something great, yet it’s puttering around in the Apple product family doing something else. Put another way, a dual-band Time Capsule has the ability to serve as a multi-user media storage device, but due to problematic software and network connections, it’s been forced to stutter along as a comparatively boring background backup drive.


Apple’s Time Capsule Gets a Second Chance, But Really Needs An iTunes + iPhoto Server 3

Nearly four years after the introduction of the first video-capable iPod, iTunes libraries—and users’ media libraries in general—have consequently become out-of-control huge. Even users who aren’t big music, video, or app downloaders no doubt have at least one digital camera, which quite possibly can make short movies as well. One of iLounge’s editors has an iPhoto library that contains only a small fraction of his total collection of digital pictures, and occupies over 30GB of hard drive space, while a larger, multi-year photo collection occupies over 130GB on a separate drive. His pared-down iTunes library, optimized for the lower-capacity iPod touch and iPhone devices, occupies another 36GB of hard disk space, with a full iTunes library requiring over 260GB on a separate drive, thanks mostly to videos. We’re not going to even get into the details of another Editor’s (Jesse Hollington’s) libraries, but suffice it to say that his media collection—and its backup systems—would put all but the most tech-savvy celebrities’ libraries to shame.


Apple’s Time Capsule Gets a Second Chance, But Really Needs An iTunes + iPhoto Server 4

These large and increasing storage demands are compounded by a second issue: unless you’re single and living alone, you’re not the only one with media and photos in your home. In fact, there’s probably quite a bit of overlap between your library and a family member’s, and quite possibly you’ve had occasions where you’ve wanted to access a family member’s library to share content for entirely legal purposes. The more content we’ve accumulated, the more we’ve come to understand that having a central wirelessly connected pool for all that content, with separate “personal” sections—stored locally or wirelessly as users prefer—makes a lot more sense than maintaining multiple complete iTunes and photo collections on multiple hard drives. In essence, this would be a client and server-based approach to iTunes and iPhoto, with the Time Capsule server sitting in your home, ready to send audio, video, photos, and apps to whichever devices demand it.

Some might point to a number of possible impediments to achieving this: how would individuals’ iTunes accounts be handled in a shared library? Would an 802.11n wireless network really be fast enough to handle the media demands of multiple users, particularly in large families? And what about privacy concerns—the kid who has music or photos she doesn’t want to share in the pool with her parents, or vice-versa?

The answers are straightforward: iTunes and iPhoto pools would be opt-in, and the programs would continue to work exactly like they do today for content maintained separately and locally. If necessary, joint or family iTunes accounts could be treated as “parents” of individual accounts, letting a master user have ownership rights and the ability to restrict content access to individual users. Users would understand up front that they have the ability to hold files locally on their individual devices—temporarily or permanently—for guaranteed fast access, or take hiccup risks if streaming from the server. And the AirPort software would need to become smarter than it is now, helping a user to clearly, easily check how fast a given device’s network connection to the server is, and intelligently guiding him to take steps to optimize the connection for his actual home environment.

Yes, this would require some extra work on Apple’s part, but frankly, it’s been needed ever since iPods became capable of video playback, and is even more necessary now that iPhones are capable of creating videos and higher-resolution photos. These files are big, they’re numerous, and they’re not things that people want to just throw away. All that new content has to go somewhere, and making it easier to retrieve and enjoy anywhere is the key to both happier Apple users and increased sales of networked Apple servers, say nothing of the clients.

Readers, any thoughts?

  1. I have one of the newer (2009) models of the Time Capsule and it has worked very well as a wireless backup device. My only complaint is the speed of the backups even over 802.11n at 5 GHz, just seems a bit slow for the connection speed.

    My hope for the Time Capsule or a Media Server product is that it would see my MacBook as an iPod-like device. I can pick and choose what albums, playlists, songs, photos, videos, etc. to download to my MacBook. It would also sync the data for my iPhone to the MacBook if the two sync lists didn’t match.

    This way I can have more on my MacBook than my iPhone if need be. Keep music, photos, and some videos on my iPhone and have more videos on my MacBook or whatever I want. Apple has the experience of making iTunes the sync point between the computer and iPod-device now they just need to take it to the next level.

    In addition to what you spoke about with opt-in sharing, I would also like to have a way to put all media on the Media Server and then add that content to MY library. For example, I would have my library as I see it in iTunes now then I could also add music from the main repository where family members add content.

    Surely Apple is actively looking into this. A combo with the Time Capsule and Apple TV as part of the home infrastructure is surely seen as one of the next areas Apple can dominate and one that hasn’t been done very well so far. Right now it is really the realm of hardcore DIY projects and even then not all the features discussed here are available.

  2. In theory I agree but for that I got myself a Synology Cubestation. Whereas it would be nice to have a (pricey) Apple device, I think for simpling file share access it does not need to be a product of the Apple shelf.

    I like the simplicity of the TC (when it works and I had my share of issues with) as a backup and more so the restore needs to be well integrated to the system.

    Simply storing documents, images and photos you can use any NAS that provides some Samba file shares and some admin interface (all of them do these days).

    From switching to Mac about a year and a half ago to the amount of Apple devices in this household now it does not need another piece of hardware with the fruit logo on it. (But then again they come out with stuff with something you did not think you need it but then you want it after all)

    My 2 cents.

  3. As the owner of a 2009 Time Capsule I’ve been pretty disappointed. I was one of the many owners who suddenly couldn’t backup to their device. It’s almost insulting to spend this much money for a device only to have it become basically useless due to WELL known and common issue.

    With the latest software update for the Time Capsule (which took months to come out after problems on Apple’s own forums started arising) it finally works. But the 2 months that I was out of my Time Capsule were very important months full of events and traveling when I NEED those backups. So I had to erase on of my external hard drives to have a current backup.

    I’ll admit that when I got my Time Capsule I thought it was pretty expensive for the feature set. Part of me expects Apple to sort of pull an tv on it and redesign the software and everything. Even if they don’t I’m fine with that because of the Apple logo and convenience. But nonetheless, I don’t think Apple can afford to do overpriced products like this anymore. The TC needs heavy discounts or a much increased feature set.

  4. The short answer is:

    The only product that Apple makes, that could remotely act as a media server is the Mac Mini. Couple it with a stack on hard drive or two, then you have something that can handle media and offer control through a remote and fully operate “Front Row” (Unlike the stripped down version found in Apple TV)

    Saying that, lets talk price. A new entry level Mac Mini is $599, hard drives that stack with the machine start at around $120, and throw in a remote for $20, then a keyboard if needed?

    Lets just say its not exactly economical, even if it might be tempting to some Apple die-hards.

  5. I think this a really interesting post and I couldn’t agree more with all of the points made. I think a lot of people are struggling with this issue and I can’t believe Apple haven’t come up with a solution that works.

    One of the reasons I love Apple is that everything is designed to work together. Apple OS and Apple hardware is more stable and more efficient than a PC ever could be because they are designed to work together. My iPhone and MacBook seem to be a match made in heaven. I feel that effective connectivity and well managed convergence is one of Apple strengths. Which is why I would prefer to always choose an option with the fruit logo, it gives me confidence that things are more likely to work. In this case though Apple doesn’t seem to have the solution I need. I want something that will do time machine backups and act as an iTunes server and based on what I’m reading on the net I’m going to go for the Synology.

    I really think Apple needs to get its head round servers for another reason. Cracking the business market is of increasing importance, hence iWork and the fuss around Snow Leopard and Exchange compatibility. After reading all of the problems people are still having with Macs and Exchange my view is Apple should consider providing a server solution for those (like me) who insist on using Macs for work.

    Maybe I’m wrong, but if you agree with the above point that Apple should get its head around a business server solution it should have ABSOLUTELY nailed the home multimedia/iPhoto/iTunes solution by now.

    I really really hope Steve Jobs reads this article, there is a lot of sense being talk IMHO.

    Fingers crossed 🙂

  6. #6: Downgrade to the prior version of the firmware; the “disk disappearing” problem goes away. Unfortunately, the Time Capsule remains slow and unimpressive anyway.

  7. This is an awful product. My son persuaded my to buy it as it he had a MacBook Pro and the rest of the family was on PC’s and an existing wireless network. We have NEVER been able to get the wireless connection to stay up long enough for anyone to be able to copy much more than a couple of files to the disk the disk, let alone do a back up! Initially we can see the disk on the network; we can copy a couple fo files, and then the disk ‘goes away’. The only way to see the disk again is power the TC down, reboot the PCs etc and basically start again. I have looked at all the blogs regarding this problem and NO ONE has an answer. WHEN is Apple going to address this???

  8. I can’t understand why I can’t just pack my itunes to this machine. I am using a PC, but it still was sold to me as something that I could backup my PC and stream my itunes library. Well- If it is so hard to backup songs and movies- what good is this? Come on apple-

  9. I purchased a Time Capsule in early 2008 after it was released. While I have not had problems with the backup of my MacBook Pro, I am unable to make it work with my PC. I wanted to use it as storage for my PC with Windows 7. My surprise is that I am unable to copy anything from Windows 7 to the Time Capsule. The OS tells me that it could take severals hours to do that and after some minutes the connection is dropped. I though the problem was the wireless network but even with a gigabit direct ethernet connection it does not work. I wanted to have only one repository for the iTunes library but I am unable to do it with the Time Capsule which is forcing me to look for other NAS solutions.

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