Friday, July 10, 2009

Airport Extreme: Firmware update, Time Capsule bugs, tips and fixes

Update 12/31/09: Time Machine failed me on an iPhoto Library restore.

Update 10/12/09: There may be a manufacturing defect with Time Capsule power supplies. The average lifespan is 18 months. Until Apple addresses this issue I'd advise against buying a TC.


As best I can tell from very old posts and an ancient (1999) web page, I bought my flying saucer Airport Extreme base station around August 2003.

It served me faithfully for almost six years, but in the past two weeks I’ve been having obvious network outages. At first I blamed my poor ISP (Qwest DSL, and ever since I upgraded to their higher service level they’ve been very reliable), but I finally stripped my network down until I could figure out where the failure point was. It was the AEBS. As of yesterday it worked for about an hour after reboot and then dropped off the network.


Ok, I’m simplifying. I’ve had network wonkiness on and off for 5 months. It’s possible that a not-quite-dead AEBS played a role. Lord, I hate hardware failure. I can’t complain about the lifespan of my AEBS though; most wireless base stations seem to last about 1-2 years (heat? something about the radio?). So five-six years is excellent.

I tried reflashing the firmware just for kicks. I figured I’d reflash to the previous release (@2006 I think) then bring it up to the latest release (@2007). At first I couldn’t figure out how to do this, then I learned Apple has a very elegant (if slightly obscure) solution:

All about Time Capsule, AirPort Extreme, and AirPort Express base station firmware updates

… how can I install previous (earlier) versions of firmware?

Open AirPort Utility.
From the AirPort Utility menu, hold the Option key (Control key in Windows XP and Vista) and choose Check for Updates....
Select the specific firmware version you require.
Select your base station and choose Manual Setup from the Base Station menu, or double-click on the AWD icon.
Choose Base Station > Upload Firmware.
Select a firmware version and click OK.

Wow, that’s elegant. The UI displays images of the appropriate device. I had to scroll a bit since I was going back in time, but it worked. I think I had some odd thing where I had to do this twice, but I wasn’t paying much attention.

I flashed to old then reflashed to new, but it was still busted.

At last! Finally, I could buy new hardware!

I’ve been hurting ever since I fell on my shield and added Gordon’s Laws of Geekery to Gordon’s 4 Laws of Acquisition. Under the new regimen I’ve not been able to buy a darned thing! I thought I’d have a 3GS by now, but I’d misremembered a phone contract termination date so that won’t happen until October 1 (Em is getting my 3G).

I was leaning towards the 1TB Time Capsule because I like the idea of an Apple secured file share and the lightweight NAS approach – but the price differential between the Airport Extreme and the 1TB Time Capsule is absurd. My personal Guru of The Deal (A.M.) advised me to the buy the more reasonable priced 500GB Time Capsule and to track down the ever reusable 10% off Best Buy Coupon (harder to find these days). I don’t normally buy retail, but BFF will slaughter me if I don’t resurrect the WLAN tonight.

The 500 GB will do for now. It’s possible, though not super easy, to replace a Time Capsule drive. In a year or so I might swap in a 2TB drive.

Update: A few observations after installing the Time Capsule

  • It doesn't include any USB or ethernet cables. Apple assumes you have these; I certainly did.
  • There's no power brick, just a cord. The power adapter is internal. Nice.
  • There's no WEP. It's WPA or nothing. Good.
  • I created a guest network with no password. My old G3 10.4.11 iBook still asked for a password when I connected to guest. I clicked cancel on the WPA password dialog and it connected. So a bug somewhere!
  • I have NAT on my DSL router and I ran NAT on my old AEBS. This device objected. I had to click the amber icon on the status link to stop warning me of the double NAT configuration. The TC wanted to go into Bridge mode, but then there's no public network share, etc. Odd. It seems fine in double NAT. There's a setting on my 2WIRE Qwest DSL router to allow all ports to pass (disable firewall) so if I discover issues with double NAT I can disable that. I can also put my DSL router in Bridge mode.
  • There's only one USB port. So if you want to connect a printer and hard drive you need to use a powered USB hub (per the manual). I don't know if you could connect multiple USB printers or multiple drives. I'll play with that eventually.
  • The 5GHz 802.11n only network is disabled by default. I enabled it. It's hidden away in Wireless Options. (See bugs below, however)
  • If you connect a printer, you can share it over the Internet (WAN) including using Bonjour.
  • If you connect an external USB disk, you can archive your Time Capsule data (all of it, I think) to the external disk. Then you can take it offsite. I've not seen this feature mentioned; seems like it should get more play.
  • Windows File Sharing is configured under the Disk File Sharing menu. It asks for a Workgroup name and a WINS server. I don't have a WINS server, so I entered my workgroup name. When I tried to connect it declined my authentication request. This isn't covered in the manual and, as near as I can tell, is not documented anywhere! Weird. There are several alternative security options for the NAS drive. Since I haven't exposed it to the public net I enabled Guest access. On my PC when I was prompted for a user name I entered "Guest" and then left the password empty. That worked.
  • In theory you can share disks over the Internet including with Bonjour access without a MobileMe account. I've not tested this.
  • The 802.11n range is impressive. I'm typing this in the basement, two floors beneath my TC. The signal is excellent. I've disabled my old AirPort Express WDS, it now only an AirTunes client.
  • The Time Capsule is fanless and very hot to the touch. Uncomfortably so. It lives in a cabinet with my cables, I think I'm going to move it to an area with more air circulation. The heat output might be a good reason to purchase an Airport Extreme rather than a Time Capsule -- heat is bad for gear.
  • Note that if you use the Time Capsule disk as a file share, you have to figure out how to back it up. You can't use Time Machine!
  • When you use Time Machine with a Time Capsule it creates a sparse disk image for each backup. So you can use the Time Capsule both for backup and and as a file share.
Update: I've found several issues - of course
  • There's a bug affecting my iBook running 10.3.9 with an 802.11b network card. It connected fine to the AEBS using WPA but it can't connect, using the same password, to the Time Capsule. If I enable the Guest network with no password it can connect. The connection failure error message is cryptic: "There was an error joining the AirPort network ..."
  • If you enable BOTH the 5GHz 802.11n network and the Guest network then an 802.11b client will see ONLY the Guest network. With this combination there's no 802.11b LAN connection.
  • My AirPort Express had no trouble running AirTunes when paired to the saucer AEBS (802.11g) in WDS mode. It's now stuttering in conventional client mode.
Update: I somehow fixed the G3 iBook 802.11b 10.3.9 access problem.

I played around with various features. I was abruptly connected, but I'm not sure what happened.
  • I turned off "use wide channels"
  • I turned off 5GHz support
  • I read this 2004 Airport 3.4 knowledge base article and followed the advice ...
    If you see the message after updating to AirPort 3.4, try these steps:
    1. Dismiss the message after it appears.
    2. Press and hold the Control key.
    3. While holding it, reselect the network from the AirPort menu.
The iBook console log had repeated error messages of the form "malloc[273]: error for object ... : Double free".

I see lots of complaints, but I can't find anyone else who's had success getting a machine this old to connect to Time Capsule. I'll update this post as I learn more. I did open an Apple Discussion thread on this problem.

Update 7/11/09:
  • I reenabled the 5Ghz 802.11n support and my 802.11b 10.3.9 iBook is still connected - for the moment. So far my 5.8GHz phones still seem to work.
  • After moving the 802.11n connection to 5GHz my 802.11g connected Airport Express AirTunes service stopped stuttering. (Try saying that quickly.)
  • My iPhone seemed to have some trouble seeing the network prior to connecting, but then seemed fine after connection. That may be a separate iPhone 3 bug.
I've done some further research. It's surprisingly hard to learn this, but it turns out that adding 802.11n to the default 2.4GHz spectrum used by 802.11b/g is a bridge too far. I think the 802.11n was knocking out the 802.11g AirTunes connection.

When I moved the 802.11n to the 5GHz frequency the dropouts stopped.

AirPort Utility Advanced:Statistics:Logs and Statistics shows all devices and throughput. My current signal, after moving 802.11g to 5 GHz looks like (higher, meaning less negative, is better):
  • iBook (16) 802.11b: - 71 (1 floor down)
  • MacBook (21) 802.11n: -41 (next to AirPort)
  • AirPort Express (61) 802.11g: -80 (downstairs and across the house)
  • iPhone (47) 802.11g: -54 (next to AirPort) and -90 (next to AirPort Express)
Note that the MacBook (802.11n) has a much stronger signal than the iPhone at the same physical distance, and the AirPort Express (802.11g) also has a stronger signal at the same distance.

My impression is that the combination of 802.11n interference and the distance to the 802.11g AirPort Express was causing the AirTunes dropouts. The fix was to move the 802.11n signal to 5 GHz.

It's so sad that I bet Emily this would be easy to configure.

Update 7/13/09: Since migrating the 802.11n to 5GHz and disabling wide channels it's working pretty well. This morning I had another "There was an error joining the AirPort network" message from my 802.11b 10.3.9 iBook; I'd not configured it to auto-connect and I got this on a manual connect. I clicked 'retry' and it connected; it also worked when I restored the auto-connect feature. It's an odd behavior, I wouldn't rule out some distance/interference effect playing a role.

I did test Time Machine from my wired iMac and that worked well. As noted above when you use Time Machine with Time Capsule it creates a sparse bundle DMG for each client machine. So you can use a single Time Capsule disk as both a file server and a Time Machine store.

I'm going to use Time Capsule from my MacBook as well. I'm still using Retrospect as my primary backup with offsite rotation, but I like the idea of a secondary backup that relies on a completely different technology.

I've yet to see how Time Capsule manages multiple external USB drives connected through a powered USB hub and I've no plans to test the print server capabilities.

Update 12/15/09: Things have settled down. It had to be reset a month ago, but otherwise stable. I did read an extremely complex article on 5GHz configuration; hard core geeks will want to study it closely.


Anonymous said...

This is very timely as I have a new 1T Time Capsule sitting in the box waiting for me to make the switch from the flying saucer AEB too. Please post anything else you find.

Julie K

Jeffrey Woolums said...

I found you post very helpful. I too am having a apple wonkiness wireless whiplash with my airport extreme base station. It wont seam to respond to any sort of update or commands. I have the luxury of sluggish internet and I've decided to make the purchase of the time capsule. I've put you in my safari link bar to check back on your comments. Good tech geekery here.!

Jeff W

L said...

I turned off "use wide channels"
I turned off 5GHz support

Can you explain how you did both of the above.

I just got a new Time Machine. It works great with my new MacBook Pro. But my iBook G4 can't connect at all. Keeps saying 'there was an error..." I also tried the "hold contorl" thing but to no avail.

Any thoughts?

JGF said...

The settings I mentioned are part of the manual configuration options for airport utility. Airport - Wireless - Wireless Options.

I'd say to look in the Help menu but it's really lousy.

Also try moving your G4 very close to the TC and see if it will connect then.

Anonymous said...

Is it possible to see an external usb drive connected to the TC from some computer on the WLAN network? ie I can see the default 'Data' share from my computer, but if I connect a usb drive to the TC, I don't see anything new. I have all my music stored on TC, but want to make a backup of this. As you cannot really do that with TC, I want to connect a USB drive and simply copy the whole lot to that. I'd rather do that all the 'connected' route, rather than connecting the drive to my computer and copying the whole lot from TC over the WLAN to the drive. Any ideas?

Anonymous said...

Where is WEP? I have a new TC and can't find WEP.. If it's not there it's really very annoying, as I have a wireless device (not a computer, not a phone) that can only use WEP. Nothing else. The whole reason I bought a TC (apart from the disk) is for dual band, to run a WEP 2.4Ghz network for this device and a WPA 5Ghz network for everything else. But it seems the TC is not flexible enough to do this. Or.. will going to old firmware give me WEP?

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I could not figure this out. The trick seems to have been deselecting Use Wide Channels for me.