Tuesday, 19 December 2017

The trouble with Routers

I'm a Mac guy. Always have been, since ~1985, when I started working with my first original Macintosh, after suffering with the miserable IBM PC that sat on my office desk.

In 2009 (about 8 years ago), I purchased an Apple Time Capsule as my combination router, WiFi base station and back-up hard drive.
My old beast
Apple uses Time Machine technology, built into the operating system, to do back-ups seamlessly in the background. I've pulled back ups off my system from time to time. Back-ups are good. The Time Capsule offered beautiful back-up integration, so 8 years ago, was an awesome choice.

But as a router, my Time Capsule now leaves something to be desired. It doesn't support fast WiFi protocols like 802.11ac, it only supported 802.11n, and only in draft form. The antennas are internal, and in my weird house, that means several WiFi dead zones and weak spots.

The 1 TB hard drive in it has been spinning for ~70,000 hrs. Apple alleged that the hard drive in it was "server grade" but it was in fact a Western Digital drive that never had a published MTBF for it. And the downside with the integrated drive was that it was impossible to make bigger.

When I upgraded the drive in my MacBook Pro to 1 TB, I got a 2 TB external drive just for it's backups, and connected it to the USB 2 port on the Time Capsule. That slowed the backups, but at least it freed up space.

In the spring of 2017, Apple announced that not only would they stop making Time Capsules, but they were getting out of the router business entirely. They "orphaned" the whole product line (which was last updated in 2013 anyway), meaning they would no longer provide hardware or software/firmware support for any of it, but they would sell the remaining inventory of Time Capsules off. As I type this, you can still buy them, though I don't know why anyone would.

I finally decided to replace the Time Capsule this fall to get better WiFi in the house. I bought a new 2 TB external drive to make up for the loss of the 1 TB drive in the Time Capsule. Following Apple's instructions, I transferred backups from the Time Capsule to the new 2 TB drive -- which took ~16 hrs. Not a hard process, but certainly a slow one, even using an ethernet cable to connect my laptop with the Time Capsule.

And I bought a new router.

The C7
After searching many, many sites, recommendations kept popping up for the TP-Linck Archer C7 as a "perfect" replacement for the router in the Time Capsule. It had 2 USB ports, which I figured would be perfect for the 2 external hard drives for back up.

After buying it on-line from Best Buy at a good Black Friday sale, and setting it up, I discovered...

The Archer C7 does not work with Time Machine.

The C7 does not support the hard drive format that Apple requires for a drive used for Time Machine. So while I could plug the drives in, the router would not recognize them (I searched again and found exactly ONE page where this was mentioned in a review).


So I went on TP-Link's site, and searched. After much searching, I found on this page there are only 3 models of routers that TP-Link makes that do support Time Machine.

  • Archer C9 V4 in the US & the Archer C9 V5 in Europe;
  • Archer C1900 V2, and
  • Archer C8 V4
Back on-line I went (you can't buy these things in a store where I live). I ordered a C1900 from Amazon.

Router #2, the C1900
I received it this morning, and connected it up. But... it turns out there are 4 hardware versions of the C1900, and ONLY the v2 hardware version supports Time Machine and my external drives.

I received the v1 hardware version model. Nowhere on Amazon's site is the hardware version number mentioned. It can't be determined from the product ID. I called TP-Link; the hardware version is marked on the box (which you can't see when you buy on-line).

Hardware version number circled
I searched about 6 on-line stores that sell TP-Link products; NONE show the hardware versions for any TP-Link product -- including the store on the TP-Link site!

On the (very small) bright side, Amazon offers free returns.

So I'm back looking. I suspect I will try to avoid TP-Link products and try to find something from Netgear, LynkSys or D-Link that will work. Either that, or I have to figure out a way to see the physical box of the TP-Link router before I buy it.

My learnings so far:
  • Replacing a Time Capsule is not straightforward; incomplete information abounds on many websites;
  • I do NOT recommend TP-Link products as replacements for a Time Capsule. You need to get VERY precise with their product identification, and run a very high risk of getting the wrong one. Only buy a TP-Link if you can see the box before buying;
  • TP-Link is very poor at offering information regarding Time Machine compatibility with their routers. The grand total information is available on this one FAQ page;
  • Many, many on-line articles regarding Time Capsule replacements mention nothing about hard drive compatibility with non-Apple routers. Do your research. For instance, in the D-Link line, only the DIR-880L router offers Time Machine support, but not actually through Time Machine. Only the Asus RT-AC68U is Time Machine compatible. Many Netgear routers are compatible; see their list here -- but all that do are pricy.
  • The C7 is a fine router. It offered very good WiFi coverage in my house with no dead zones and an excellent signal to noise ratio. But it does NOT support Time Machine functionality, so is NOT a Time Capsule replacement.
  • A search for "non-Apple wireless routers that support Time Machine" is a poor search to do. Most of the pages you'll find are useless and only talk about people attempting to make a non-compatible router work.
Post Script:

I gave TP-Link one last try. I ordered a TP-Link Archer C8 on line from The Source. It was delivered to my local store, where I was able to see the box and verify that it was hardware version 3, not version 4, so was able to process a refund on the spot.

So I started my search again. I went through all the websites for the big router companies. I looked at specific user manuals for pretty much every AC1600, 1750, 2300 or 2600 class router the company had. Here's what I found:

  • D-Link: Really unclear, but after checking model after model and reading the instruction manuals and spec sheets, decided to pass. Near as I could tell, all D-Link routers need to use something called the D-Link SharePort utility to access connected hard drives. Pass.
  • Asus: Was only able to confirm that the RT-AC68U would work with Time Machine, and it's a really expensive router. They may have others, but I couldn't prove it. Pass.
  • Amped Wireless: Could not confirm compatibility of any of their routers with Time Machine or HFS+ (Mac OS Extended Journaled) formatted drives. Their website doesn't even talk about Mac compatibility. Pass.
  • LinkSys: Basically states on the website (if you search hard enough) that all their routers work with Time Machine/HFS+ formatted external drives -- then doesn't mention Macs again in any user manual. I liked the EA6400, EA6900 and EA7500, all of which are either AC1600 or 1900 class. Tempted.
  • NetGear: I was able to confirm on this page the list of NetGear routers that would work with Time Machine. That's many, but not all, of the routers NetGear makes. I didn't even look at any of the WNDR class routers, as they are all 802.11n speed. I was torn between the R6250, R6400 and R7000 models, which are AC1600, 1750 and 1900 speed, respectively  A really good Boxing Day sale caused me to order the R6400, an AC1750 class router. The user manual for it I saw on-line takes 3 pages to explain how to set it up with Time Machine. Cost was $130. I could have had the R6250 for $100 on a Boxing Day sale (Time Machine also covered in it's user manual), but opted for the higher speed of the R6400.
The Bottom Line:

If you want to replace a TimeCapsule and keep using Time Machine, I recommend looking at routers from NetGear (who actually recognize Macs exist and talk about them), or LinkSys (who just build in Mac compatibility and then ignore Mac users). Plug in a good quality external hard drive to the USB 3 port and you should be in business. In the end, my router was $130 and my 2 Tb external drive $80, so $210 puts you back in business -- as opposed to $400 for an orphaned but brand new 2 TB Airport Extreme base station.