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Why now is not the time to jump ship on Apple’s Airport and Time Capsule

Posted 2017-01-14

On the latest episode of hist podcast, John Gruber complains that Apple’s Airport Extreme and Time Capsule Wi-Fi base stations are woefully out of date and Apple needs to release improved/faster models. Which is not going to happen. However, now is not the time to jump ship and replace your Apple base stations with new and shiny ones from a different vendor.

The argument I’m making here is that you shouldn’t replace your Apple base stations based on the notion that Apple has abandoned them and they won’t release something better in the future. Of course, if you’re unhappy with your Airport Extreme or Time Capsule today and think a different product will serve you better, that’s a different story.

The thing is, Apple’s base stations that were last updated in 2013 still do everything Apple wants them to do today, four years later. They have no reason to update them. The 2013 Airport Extreme and Time Capsule handle the highest Wi-Fi speeds that the latest Macs support: 1300 Mbps 802.11ac. So if you’re not getting the highest possible speeds over the internet, it’s not because your Airport Extreme or Time Capsule lacks raw bandwidth.

Sure, the drive in a Time Capsule tops out at a meager 40 MB/sec and the best third party base stations provide significantly better signal coverage, but those complaints aren’t new and there’s no reason to think that Apple is suddenly going to care about these issues.

It’s entirely possible that Apple disbanded the team that worked on these products because that team simply had nothing to do right now. We have no way of knowing whether this means that Apple is never going to release new Airport Extremes and/or Time Capsules. The current AE/TC were updated to support the then new IEEE 802.11ac standard in 2013. The successor to 802.11ac will be 802.11ax, which should be four times as fast and drive real world bandwidth well into the gigabit range. However, ax won’t be standardized until at least 2018 and probably 2019. So if we’re going to see new Airport Extremes and Time Capsules, it will probably be in 2019.

If you don’t want to wait that long, or believe that Apple isn’t going to release new Wi-Fi base stations, there’s still two good reasons to wait a year or so before switching. Those reasons are 2.5 and 5 Gbps Ethernet and Apple’s new file system, APFS.

Even after a decade, 10 Gbps Ethernet has had a hard time getting traction on the desktop. So those of us who still use wired Ethernet are still stuck on Gigabit Ethernet, which has been available since the early 2000s. The new 2.5 and 5 Gbps Ethernet standards are supposed to fix that, and we’ll probably see reasonably priced 2.5 / 5 Gbps products appear in the next year or so. So unless you have a good reason to upgrade now, it’s probably a good idea to wait for this to shake out.

Last but not least, there’s APFS. If you’re looking for just Wi-Fi networking, Apple’s new file system isn’t very relevant. But one of the big reasons to get a Time Capsule is that the TC allows for simple and easy wireless backups using Time Machine. In the early days, you really needed a Time Capsule to get networked Time Machine backups, but these days most NAS (network attached storage) devices that support Apple’s old AFS protocol for mounting network drives will let you make Time Machine backups.

However, it’s very likely that all of this is going to change in some way when APFS becomes available. Time Machine is built entirely around backing up whole files, while APFS’s snapshot features lend themselves much better to block level backups. It would be a shame to buy a new NAS that allows Time Machine backups today but won’t be compatible with a new version of Time Machine.

So there you have it. If Apple’s Airport Extreme or Time Capsule base stations serve your needs to a reasonable degree today, it makes sense to keep using them for another year or two and see what kind of new base stations and NASes become available and how they work with the Apple ecosystem as it exists at that point.

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