Time Capsule vs. Airport Extreme

Our home wireless network has undergone several changes. We adopted early to a pre 802.11n router provided by Belkin. I refer to those as the bad old days where our wireless signal would drop at the slightest hint of traffic. Eventually, we replaced our Belkin router with a new Airport Extreme wireless base station. What a difference it made. Not only did it bring the real wireless experience to our home, but I could also plug in my 500GB usb drive too (and our printer). The only drawback now is my MacBook Pro is an early model and doesn’t have 802.11n capability.

So I finally get the new base station paid off and now there is a new gadget in town, Time Capsule. Somehow, the Apple engineers managed to shoe-horn a “server grade” hard drive into what appears to be the existing Airport Extreme base station. I say appears since you won’t be able to get your hands on one until February. Anyway, would it have been worth the wait to have an integrated device rather than the two (base station and external drive) I have now? Again, it’s hard to say since I can’t compare the two. However, I am leaning towards no.

Foremost is portability. I can take my drive and MacBook Pro (and external drive) with me to work, home, or wherever. You can’t do that with Time Capsule, unless you want to haul around your base station wherever you go, and risk family or roommate mutiny when they can’t connect to the internet while you’re out. Also, if you just plunked down $299 or $499 (which is a pretty good price for a base station and storage), you’re going to want to do more with all that drive space than just backups, especially if you decide a MacBook Air is right for you, and you just can’t be as mobile when all your data is tethered to a base station.

Coming in a close second is bandwidth. Most external drives ship with USB 2.0 as a connection. The USB 2.0 spec has a maximum throughput of 480 MegaBytes per second while 802.11n maximum bandwidth is theoretically 540 Megabits per second. The astute reader will notice that megabytes and megabits are not quite the same. Geeks will know that 8 bits is one byte, meaning that the maximum bandwidth of the 802.11n spec is about 64.3 megabytes per second and all wireless base stations, be Apple or otherwise, will never be anywhere close to the maximum. That means the first time Time machine syncs up your 250GB iMac drive it’s going to take a much longer time than if it were plugged in via USB.

Finally, there is the issue of replacement. Replacing my current external drive would be simple and only involve the cost of a new drive. What happens if when you fill up the storage on time capsule, or if the “server grade” hard drive fails? Either your base station spends some time at the Apple certified repair center or you get the opportunity of getting a new base station.

But you can run time machine using Time Capsule, which you can’t do at the moment with a regular Airport Extreme base station. However, the software that ships with Time Capsule (assuming that doesn’t change) is the same software that ships with the Airport Extreme base station. I would bet that by February, us Airport Extreme owners will also be able to use Time Machine on our drives. Otherwise, it’ll be back to the bad old days of not having the complete wireless experience.