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Time Capsule Failures: When They Happen and What to Do

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All hardware fails at some point, but we generally withhold coverage until a pattern appears, until the problem appears to affect relatively large numbers of people, or when the manufacturer ignores seemingly obvious proof.

Editors at TidBITS have heard anecdotally for many months that users were experiencing failures with Apple's Time Capsule base station/backup appliance units that were relatively new, but outside the warranty period. But with an unknown number sold - it may be hundreds of thousands or even millions, for all we know - it was impossible to determine whether these failures were commonplace or statistical outliers.

TidBITS reader Dean Lombard recently brought this issue back to our attention. He described his experiences with a defective Time Capsule, which died after a short period of use, and pointed to several spots on the Web where other Time Capsule owners were commiserating over their busted backup devices.

The reason we're writing about this now? In late 2009, Apple quietly started acknowledging the problem and replacing certain affected models. And those whose Time Capsules appear to be working properly can do a few things to protect against failure and keep the devices functional.


Symptoms and Suspicions -- Widespread failure apparently began in September 2008, roughly 18 months after the first units were sold. The primary symptom was a failure of the Time Capsule to power up. Users from all over the world - the United States, the UK, China, Australia, and elsewhere - have reported untimely Time Capsule deaths. The average lifespan of Time Capsules registered on a site tracking this problem is 19 months and 20 days; hardly acceptable for what is designed to be a backup device, and well outside the one-year warranty.

Heat is the most likely culprit for these premature deaths. Or, rather, poor heat management leading to overheated capacitors. User Ray Haverfield, having looked closely at the issue and modified Time Capsule hardware to resolve it, posits on his site, "The power supply is well made with good quality components, capacitors etc. [The Time Capsule] is simply dying due to elevated temperatures, as the lifespan of components is greatly reduced running at such a high temperature. Lifespan of electrolytic capacitors is particularly sensitive to temperature."

Haverfield points out that while these devices do have a built-in fan, the fan largely circulates hot air within the casing. He also says that the rubber base of the Time Capsule likely acts as an insulator, worsening the problem.

Since it appears the problem lies mainly with the power supply, as opposed to the hard disk, there is a good chance that information trapped on a dead Time Capsule is retrievable.


The Solution -- The efforts on the part of the Apple user community to organize and publicize the problem have been particularly noteworthy. After being told by Apple that his Time Capsule was past warranty and he was out of luck, user Pim van Bochoven decided to forgo complaining in the usual Apple Discussion Forums and began The Time Capsule Memorial Register in October 2009.

On that site, he collected, tracked, and analyzed data from 2,500 Time Capsule owners whose devices had died in a similar manner and time frame, creating a persuasive argument that this was a widespread design flaw that Apple should rectify. (Again, we don't know what percentage of units sold that 2,500 number represents, but it's a large number in itself, and must be a small fraction of all Time Capsule failures given that only a portion of those whose device died would register its loss.)

In November 2009, Apple posted an internal Knowledge Base article instructing employees to begin checking serial numbers of any dead Time Capsules brought to them by customers; Time Capsules falling into a specific (but as yet undisclosed) serial number range would qualify for a replacement. On 15 February 2010, The Time Capsule Memorial Register site reached 2,500 registered failures and closed, having accomplished its mission of gaining attention for the problem and generating an official response from Apple.


Tactics for Replacement and Recovery -- If you own a dead Time Capsule, you have a few options. First, you can try to have your Time Capsule replaced at no cost by Apple. According to the Time Capsule Memorial Register, Apple will replace your Time Capsule for free if you have a 3-year AppleCare contract on any device; have purchased a computer within the last year (which comes with a 1-year warranty that can be cross-applied to the Time Capsule); or have a Time Capsule whose serial number falls within a specific range.

To pursue this path, call Apple Support or visit your local area Apple Store or Apple Authorized Dealer. Note that if you decide to have your Time Capsule replaced, you will have to send Apple your dead Time Capsule, and its hard disk will be erased. While data recovery is thus not a possibility, your data is also unlikely to end up in anyone else's hands as Apple has assured users it does indeed erase all data. Attempting to rescue your data by removing the hard disk, copying the data off, and then reinstalling it voids your basic warranty, and could be grounds for Apple to refuse your replacement. So if data retrieval is a paramount concern, this might not be the best option for you.

For those looking to salvage data, a second option is to find someone to repair the blown capacitors without replacing or removing the hard disk. If you have Ray Haverfield do the job (most appropriate for users in Australia), expect to pay about $100 plus shipping for a power supply repair and fan modification (to better vent the unit). $130 gets your Time Capsule fitted with an external power supply, and the fan modification. Ray also graciously lists some other repair people elsewhere in the world, should you want to shop around. Remember though, there are no guarantees with these repairs; these people are not Apple employees and their work will certainly void your Apple warranty.

A third option, should you want to salvage your Time Capsule's data, have some experience with electronic repairs, and not feel comfortable entrusting your device and its data to a stranger, is to repair your device yourself. Haverfield's Web site offers several sets of instructions for performing a power supply repair (see this one, this one, and this one.)

If you do decide either to have a third party repair your Time Capsule, or to perform a self repair, take a moment to let Apple know you've had issues with your Time Capsule.


Final Notes -- If your Time Capsule is still working well, consider backing up your data using the Archive function in the Time Capsule view of AirPort Utility. You need a second drive with at least as much storage as has been consumed with backups on the internal drive. Attach the drive to the Time Capsule via USB, then launch Applications > Utilities > AirPort Utility. Select the Time Capsule unit in the list at left, and click Manual Setup at the bottom. In the Disks view, select the drive in the list at left, then click Archive. (You can read more about this process and other Time Capsule and AirPort Extreme hard drive configuration issues in Glenn Fleishman's "Take Control of Your 802.11n AirPort Network.") Backups are especially important if you're storing data other than Time Machine backups on the Time Capsule.

You should also examine your Time Capsule location and venting. You might elevate it off the surface it's on, or position it on its side. The Time Capsule's antennas are designed to work with its broad side flat on a surface, so tipping it may adversely affect Wi-Fi coverage. But modern hard drives can work in horizontal and vertical positions. (Some users on forums have reported noise when the Time Capsule is long side vertical, but that may be related to the fan.)

Replacing the drive with a "green" drive that produces less heat could also help, but may not be worth doing unless you have other reasons to replace the drive. Reports indicate that Apple may have addressed the heat problem in newer Time Capsule units by using drives that run cooler. And of course, adding something like CrashPlan to your backup strategy would give you an entirely independent backup that could also be offsite, if you locate your backup drive at a friend's house.

Kudos to Pim van Bochoven for the creation of The Time Capsule Memorial Register site, where users were able to transform their individual complaints into a larger, more organized, and more powerful force that encouraged Apple to take action. While it's unfortunate that getting Apple to address a widespread problem required such arm-twisting, it's great to see the user community band together and create momentum for their cause.

 

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Comments about Time Capsule Failures: When They Happen and What to Do

Cintra  2010-03-18 13:14
I was without my Time Capsule for several months while it was being repaired last year. The failure like a number of others, occurred on or about the one year mark, however it was repaired 'within guarantee'.

The biggest snag is that I no longer trust it, or use it. The design does not take care of the heat produced, so I have it as a boxed spare in case my Extreme should fail..

That, together with a Macbook AIR iSight failure at or about the 1 year mark again, has jolted my belief in Apple's hardware quality.

Outward design is all very well, but it is the total experience which counts.
My 1TB Time Capsule bit the big one on Saturday of this week. I called AppleCare, and they were aware of an issue with a series of units that included mine. However, having active AppleCare on a couple of computers expedited things. They sent me a new unit immediately, and I returned the dead box.
My Time Capsule was one of the 2500. It was replaced with very little fuss even though it was 18 months old and I had no transferrable AppleCare.

I had stuff on it other than TimeMachine backups when it died though thankfully nothing I couldn't afford to lose. It's definitely not something to use as a primary location of data you want off your Mac or as shared network folders.

What annoyed me the most was I could have whipped the drive out of it and recovered my data if Apple hadn't sealed it inside a rubber base.

The replacement is being used as just an AirportExtreme base station essentially now and my backup regime uses a spare PC with a Linux RAID setup. It's faster, cheaper and safer than a TimeCapsule though not as pretty/quiet.

Why haven't Apple moved the power supply out into an external brick? That would seem to be the main cause of failure and it would be easy to replace.
Tommy Weir  2010-03-19 15:55
The problem seems to be lessened by the use of newer energy saving HDs in more recent models. The reading I have on this issue is that this is not a general problem, it affects early models only.

I had one of the early models which failed and I pushed hard to gain permission to open it up, extract the drive, pop it in my G5, recover the data, re-install the drive and then send it off to Apple.

By the way, It is impossible to open the TC up without destroying the rubber sole, having taken one off I can't imagine anyone doing it successfully.

They ended up, after bumping me up a level or two (be polite and knowledgeable, and keep pointing out how reasonable your suggestions are) they ended up with a supervisor listening to me, and sending me out a brand new TC without requiring that I send in the old one. Data Rescue II found the data once I installed it in the G5. But more than anything, I noted that they took me at my word, which was great service.
Walt French  2010-03-22 08:15
Irony Dept: Although failures are attributed to excess heat, the way to remove the rubber sole is to warm the glue. I used a blow dryer after shredding half of the rubber. Aim the gun under the peeled-up edge. A bit of patience got the rest off w/o making a total hash of it.

Still need to try the resurrection steps. Onward!
I own a Time Capsule with one of the effected serial numbers, and feel like I'm sitting on a ticking time bomb. If the situation is really this bad, I'd hope that Apple would own up to the issue and just replace our bad units BEFORE they crash. I've heard that, if nothing else, the newer units do a better job at heat displacement.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-22 10:26
In a situation like yours, I'd encourage you to keep only Time Machine data on the drive (so you don't lose the only copy of other data if the unit dies) and to use something like CrashPlan or Super Duper to make secondary backups to another drive.
Tom Greenfield  2010-03-22 17:01
How do you know your serial number is affected? According to the article the numbers are undisclosed.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-23 07:06
You have to call Apple or take your Time Capsule to an Apple Store. Annoying of them not to release the ranges, but perhaps it would give external data about how many were affected, which they don't want to reveal.
Will Mayall  2010-03-22 16:42
I had a 1TB Time Capsule fail about 2 months ago. It was out of warranty. After reading this article, I called Apple and gave them the serial number of a computer under AppleCare. That was Friday. Today, Monday, I received a replacement Time Capsule. Thanks TidBITS!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-23 07:04
Now that's a success story! Glad it worked out, Will.
Ross Willits   2010-03-22 20:35
Based on this article, I took my 500gb Time Capsule to a genius yesterday. I now have a newish replacement no questions asked.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-23 07:05
Excellent - two for two, after Will's success story above.
Michael Prete  2010-03-25 13:38
Inspired by your report, I called up Apple and asked if my unit qualified for the program based on its serial number. I was told that the unit must fail before they could replace it. They were unmoved by my plea to replace it BEFORE I lost my backup data. Perhaps I'll have better luck at the Apple Store, where I can dazzle them with my engaging smile? Ross, were you very persuasive, extremely charming or just lucky?
How would you recommend elevating the TC safely but effectively?

Note that a computer guy at my workplace suggested having a small fan trained on the TC at all times.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-22 21:41
If you want circulation underneath, I would think you could just put a small block under the middle that was small enough not to obstruct the vents on four sides.
Ed Tech  2010-03-24 10:11
Got my TC replaced yesterday at Apple Store. They were surprised I knew about the replacement plan and that knew to ask if my TC serial number was covered (which it was, of course). I mentioned I saw it on Tidbits and they said tid what? Anyways, another success story. Thanks for the info.
Guy Kawasaki  2010-03-24 17:02
I had a Time Capsule that died two weeks ago right before I left for SXSW. I bought another one because I had to catch a plane.

When I told Will Mayall about this, he told me about this posting--specifically, how AppleCare covers it. I went back to the Apple Store and worked everything out.

So TidBITS, Will, and Apple made my problem go away.
Walt French  2010-03-25 09:08
Thank you for the link to the repair pages. The 3 caps called for in the "LaPastenague" page cost $2.58 at the ever-friendly Al Lasher electronics in Berkeley; a couple of hours later I was again serving WiFi & updating my backups!

There is a caveat that your readers should know, however. Replacing the caps was the most intricate electronics work I've ever done. (I've built ~ 100 devices of all types, some my own design, and was a broadcast engineer.) Newbies will have to move verry slowly, have appropriate tools and be prepared for "oops!" experiences that'll pooch the job. The 10V caps squeezed in OK; that should give me a bit more time til the next fail.

I wish there were a better way of diagnosing the problem but the swollen cap tops convinced me to try. Certainly against the Apple repair price (almost as much as a replacement since the Genius said it was based on the old, higher price I'd paid), it's worth some time to fiddle with tools and sip every few mins on a good Scotch.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-03-25 10:54
Thanks for the hands-on report, Walt, though perhaps the newbies should hold off on the Scotch until they've completed the repair, successfully or not. :-)
When we were setting up our office we were told to buy an Airport Extreme and connect an external hard drive. It provides the same functions as a Time Capsule, is roughly the same price to implement - and there's none of the associated heat issues. Hope this helps if you haven't purchased a TC yet.
Glenn Fleishman  2010-03-26 16:24
Not for Time Machine backups, though. The AirPort Extreme's external drive can be selected still (I believe) as a Time Machine destination, but Apple has never supported the feature, doesn't recommend it, and we have heard of many failures. I prefer a drive connected to a computer for such networked backups for greater reliability.
Michael  2010-03-30 09:36
I didn't know there was a larger problem, so I opened mine, discovered the burst caps, and ruined the bottom rubber cover in the process.

Any idea if Apple will accept it now? I do have a MacBook Pro approx. 6 months old, but there's no getting around the fact that I opened this badly.