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

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.

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.”

 

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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

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

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?

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