Time Capsule, Part III: Parting Thoughts on Slow Transfers and Wireless Interruptions

Since taking possession of another Apple Time Capsule wireless hard drive last week, we’d hoped to eventually write an article discussing our eventual success in achieving two long-standing goals that laptop users might understand: (1) migrating a big iTunes library to a networked storage volume, and (2) merging it with a second, smaller iTunes library, one that we’d maintained for the past 10 months since becoming unable to hold everything in one place. The idea was to enable at least one Mac user, possibly several within the same house or office, to wirelessly synchronize and hopefully play back media from the complete 250GB library of music and movies, splintered into two pieces due to hard drive limitations.

We set these goals because of two very real trends in iTunes usage: consumers are shifting from desktop machines to laptops, and growing their iTunes music, video, and app libraries to sizes that laptop hard drives struggle to fully contain. Put another way, last year’s basic laptops shipped with between 80 to 160GB hard drives, and the iTunes Store now sells TV shows and movies that consume up to 2GB of space a piece—far more if purchased in high definition. Yet Apple doesn’t seem to have any game plan for the long-term maintenance of its users’ growing iTunes libraries. For storage, the suggestion is to buy an external hard drive like Time Capsule, and for backups, the option is either Time Capsule or blank CDs or DVDs. As one video file can span three CDs, that’s not a realistic option any more, and even with DVDs, the thought of backing up a 250GB iTunes library with over 50 blank discs is just ridiculous. Until and unless blank Blu Ray Discs become a viable backup solution, hard drives are the only way to go.

So we’ve tried Time Capsule—twice. First, we tried the original model, thinking that Apple might have finally come up with a decent solution: put your 500GB or 1TB of stuff on a wireless hard drive and access it anywhere in your home or office. But it was slow as molasses, so “putting your stuff on it” took a long time, and then getting stuff off of it—videos, for instance—wasn’t totally smooth. Most likely aware of its major limitations, Apple pitched it as a way to handle Time Machine computer backups in the background, not much else, yet many users found that it was sluggish for even this limited purpose.

Then came the Dual-Band Time Capsule, which was supposed to improve network speeds. We grabbed one of those last week in hopes that its new hardware and Apple’s latest software would make things better. There were signs that it might—our 802.11n Macs ran a little faster on the dedicated 802.11n side of the network—and signs that it mightn’t, as when it told us that it needed 66 hours to transfer the 250GB iTunes library from a wired hard disk to its wireless hard disk. That’s 66 continuous hours, as in, don’t do anything that interrupts the network connection for almost three days, or else it gets screwed up and needs to start over again.

After trying experiments with three different Macs, we were able to find one—a MacBook Pro—that initially promised to do the transfer via an Ethernet cable in 40 hours. We gave up that machine to the process for a day, and the transfer actually took less time, finishing in roughly 10 hours. Yes, that was ten hours to send files from one hard drive to another that was sitting right next to it and connected via wires.

So goal (1) was accomplished: the 250GB iTunes library was indeed on the Time Capsule. That left task (2)—merging this library with the 36GB smaller “subset” library we’ve kept on a laptop hard disk for times we’ve been unable to sit next to the wired unit. We tried to accomplish this merger wirelessly, but the network connection—normally pretty stable—dropped five times during the transfer process, for unknown reasons, coinciding with using iChat, trying to access the iTunes Store, and other things that might demand some minor fraction of Time Capsule’s wireless network resources. Software? Hardware? Something else to blame? No idea. But it’s 100% Apple equipment from end to end, and after 5 hours of trying to get the 36GB library over in various ways—at once, by folders, and then by individual files—we decided to just give up for now and publish the article as-was, with the process incomplete.