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Summary:

Back In October ’09 I wrote an article about a disturbing failure-rate in Apple’s Time Capsules that was starting to gain some attention in the press. An apparent design flaw in the device was causing some units to die after about 12-18 months in operation. Reports […]

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Back In October ’09 I wrote an article about a disturbing failure-rate in Apple’s Time Capsules that was starting to gain some attention in the press. An apparent design flaw in the device was causing some units to die after about 12-18 months in operation. Reports on the Apple discussion forum at that time suggested the same flaw also affected Apple’s Airport Extreme, a device that shares an almost identical form factor.

In what would prove disastrously precognitive, I wrote:

Imagine, then, the pain when a well-used Time Capsule croaks, taking up to 18 months’ worth of incremental backups with it. I don’t mind admitting that the thought of it strikes fear into my heart. I use two Time Capsules every hour of every day.

I can’t help thinking that I don’t own two Time Capsules; I own two ticking Time bombs.

Fast forward to early last week when my Mac Pro’s 1TB Time Capsule breathed its last and died a sudden — if not entirely unexpected — death.

I called Apple Support and the guy on the other end of the phone asked me for the TC’s serial number. A moment later he confirmed Apple was aware of “a fault” with that model and offered to replace it for free. So far so good.

The process was explained to me; I would receive the replacement TC in a few days, whereupon I had to return the dead TC to Apple. Immediately alarm bells rang in my brain.

“But what about my stuff?” I asked. There was a year’s worth of data stuck on that thing. Finances, contacts, personal and shared calendars, photographs, email… I didn’t relish the thought of sending all of that data to someone I didn’t know. Not even if it was an Apple technician.

“Don’t worry, we will wipe the drive thoroughly for you,” offered the support guy, “It’s safe with us.”

No it isn’t, I worried. “Can’t I just remove the drive and wipe the data? I’ll put it back if necessary, only, I’m concerned about–”

“No. You must not open the unit. If you do, you will void the warranty.”

“It’s already out of warranty,” I replied as politely as possible, not wanting to sound like a jerk. “You’re replacing it because of a design flaw, right?”

The Apple Support guy wouldn’t budge. “If you open the case we will charge you the full price of a new Time Capsule.”

The bottom line; Apple forbade me from retrieving my data from their Time Capsule. Doing so would somehow make me responsible for its death, even though they admitted the product was already faulty.

Now, I understand Apple wanting to retrieve faulty gear for study. Doing so helps them improve their products. But this isn’t a broken mouse or keyboard. This is a device that stores a lot of valuable personal information. In this instance, shouldn’t Apple exercise a higher degree of flexibility and sensitivity to customers?

I know what you’re thinking; maybe they’d wipe it right before my eyes at the Apple Store? So I asked. He replied, “No. They’ll give you a replacement but they will send the faulty device back to us for wiping.”

So, either way, I get a replacement Time Capsule… but I have to surrender my personal data to Apple.

Trust

Apple sells a Time Capsule as part of a complete backup solution. Time Machine + Time Capsule = Backup. Right? The Time Capsule website even proclaims, “…you never have to worry about losing your important files.” I guess the small print needs to add “…except when you’re handing all your data to us.”

Apple's bold promise on their Time Capsule website

What’s more, in the days it took for the replacement to arrive, I had no satisfactory backup solution. Of course, it’s not Apple’s responsibility to ensure I always have a complete and reliable backup strategy in place, but it sure felt like Apple had let me down. (Yes, now I’m just ranting.)

Thankfully, Apple is doing the right thing by replacing (most) affected units, even if they’re out of warranty and not covered by AppleCare. Yet I can’t help feel that there’s more they could have done; starting with permitting me to take responsibility for my own data, rather than threatening me with a hefty charge to my credit card if I did so.

Apple normally pays close attention to the little details other companies miss, but here it feels like they failed to appreciate the single biggest issue – the proper handling of customer’s valuable personal data. If they had paid closer, more careful attention to that detail, I might not feel so indignant today… and I might still be recommending the Time Capsule to my friends. As it stands, the Time Machine + Time Capsule solution is great when it works. But if it breaks, customers may have to face zero backup functionality and a worrying lack of perspective from Apple when it comes to allowing them to take steps to secure their personal data.

Am I overreacting? Should I simply trust Apple with all my personal files, no questions asked? Leave a comment below to tell me I’m a shameless drama queen and how, like you, I should be using an offsite RAID array if I’m serious about backup.

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  1. Great post, Liam. Any chance you could do us a favor and post the model number of your old TC, or give us some other way to compare ours against yours and see if we’re headed for the same headache? Thanks.

    1. Hi Skeptic:

      I did a scan of the “Time Capsule Memorial Register” with includes serial numbers, purchase and death dates, and it appears that the range for the 12-18 month lifespan from manufacturing defect are serial numbers 6F807xxxxxx through 6F852xxxxxx. There are failures for higher, more recent numbers, but they are far rarer, and fail far more quickly, in the ballpark of a 2-4 weeks, which suggests a different set of problems and during which you’d be under warranty or Applecare. You’re probably OK if you’re out of the above range. Hope that helps.

  2. If you open it up and fiddle, it would make finding the problem difficult, and the results ubreliable. You could also just feel like a brand new TC, so just open yours up and fiddle, then shout that it had died of it’s own accord.

    Just because they have you’re info doesn’t mean a sneaky man WILL steal your data. It’s just a small possibility. At the end of the day it’s just about making sure the failure testing is accurate and reliable

  3. I have a TC and am just waiting for that day to come. I have had the same sort of issues with commercial backup and SAN solutions. Our fix has been to eat the cost if the data or regulations prohibit sending off the data. I would say the same personally. If your data is that important and you don’t trust Apple (which I understand not trusting anyone with your data), then the only real solution is to just buy a new TC. That stinks, but you know you have your data. I guess from Apple’s perspective, they can’t determine that you opening the case didn’t case an issue.

    In any event, I understand your side. Thanks for sharing.

  4. I had the exact same thing happen. Mine happened to be under Applecare, so no worries. I did worry, however, about my data. I ended up surrendering it just like you will but it still bothered me.

    I registered my 1 TB Time Capsule at http://timecapsuledead.org/

    Not sure if it’s still around but it showed a definite pattern of about 17 months being a failure point.

    Mikey

  5. You have the same problem with a computer. If the computer breaks, the hard drive contains all this personal information. I have always had great misgivings about giving all the information to unknown persons – trusted or not. And in fixing the computer, it may not be determined ahead of time what is needed to do the fix…hard drive?….motherboard? – all with unclear disposition of your personal data.

  6. You could always irradiate it with a powerful magnet to kill the data. And that doesn’t require opening the TC up…

    1. Awesome idea.

  7. Hi Skeptic, thanks for commenting.

    My Time Capsule serial number was 6F8111BDYZR.

    I’m not sure how helpful that will be, since the replacement from Apple also begins with the same digits!

  8. I would just open it anyway, ideally with an independent witness or capture the whole process on video so you can prove that you did nothing wrong, just in case they try to blame you or charge for the replacement.

    As I don’t own a TimeCapsule I have no idea if there is any tamper proof seal in or on it…

    1. That is very bad advice. Opening the device clearly voids the warranty from a legal perspective. Having a video of you doing proves you violated the warranty and give apple sure proof they don’t need to refund your money. The strong magnet idea is much better.

  9. I have a time machine PLUS an excellent $5/mth backblaze.com complete automatic off-site backup. Cheaper than 1 HDD/yr. w00t!

    1. Well, now, that’s just essentially asking folks to go through your personal files. And you’re paying them to do so…

  10. My time capsule also died after 18 months. Managed to take off the rubber bottom by using a hair dryer to warm the glue (as posted on other sites). Copied the data to another HDD and then wiped it the TC.

    When I took it into Apple, they looked at the serial and then quickly offered me a replacement. My serial # started with “6F” just like all the other dead ones on http://timecapsuledead.org/.

    1. Andrew – how did you copy your data? I keep getting an alias no found kind of error – I got a docking station, it shows I have data on there, in the right amount of gb used that I recall, but can’t seem to be able to access it. can you help? I’m getting a free one tomorrow – FedEx says so – :)

      1. Got it all copied – copy and paste. All is good, new one arrived, I put the old one back together and it is on the way back to Apple. Thanks for this blog! Helped a lot.

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