I lecture, hector, bully and berate people about backing up of their data so that on the inevitable day when coffee spills on their laptop...

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I lecture, hector, bully and berate people about backing up of their data so that on the inevitable day when coffee spills on their laptop, a hard drive goes up in smoke, a machine is stolen, or they select Secure Empty Trash in Leopard after errantly flushing a folder, they have those files somewhere else, easy to retrieve.

Time Capsule, a new hardware backup appliance from Apple, should remove even more effort from using the Time Machine archiving feature built into Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard). The less effort, the better.

I wrote about Time Machine on March 1 many readers told me of their particular problems with it. Since then, Apple distributed software updates for Leopard and its Wi-Fi base stations designed to improve Time Machine’s reliability and performance. I’ve found Time Machine behaves more consistently and works much faster across a network after installing the free updates.

Apple also recently updated AirPort Express, a low-cost method of adding Wi-Fi to your home.

Time Capsule

If you’d rather never think about making backups, Time Capsule makes it even easier to forget about them. Time Machine requires either free space on a drive inside your Mac or connected to it, or a drive shared over the network from another system running Leopard. But it can also work with drives inside and connected to Time Capsule.

The notion with Time Capsule is that you plug it in, run through some basic network configuration, and then point Time Machine to Time Capsule’s drive on all the machines on your network running Leopard. (The network configuration options have been much improved, especially for networks that already have Apple base stations on them, since the last major update in fall 2007.)

Time Capsule combines all the features and ports of an AirPort Extreme Base Station with Draft N (the fastest current flavor of Wi-Fi) with an internal hard drive, either 500 gigabytes ($299) or 1 terabyte ($499). Like an AirPort Extreme, Time Capsule has four gigabit Ethernet ports and a USB port for attaching one or more printers and hard drives that can be shared over a network.

While the cost may seem high, Apple says they didn’t cheap out on the included drive, using the same hardware they put in their high-end servers. It’s a good deal: take the $179 for an AirPort Extreme Base Station and couple it with an inexpensive external drive of the same capacities, and you’re well above $300 or $500.

The first backup over a network takes the longest, and may be extremely slow if any of your computers are using 802.11g, found in most Macs and other computers released before 2007. I recommend plugging your computer in via Ethernet overnight for the first backup, which copies all files except those files, folders or volumes you’ve excluded. After that, Time Machine only copies changed files.

Time Capsule, like other Time Machine backups, can be used to populate a new Mac with files from another; restore a Mac that’s died; or used with Time Machine to select particular files to retrieve.

You can attach external drives to Time Capsule for additional network storage or to create a backup of the backup that you can store away from home or work for additional safety. As part of software updates released three weeks after Time Capsule shipped, Apple added an Archive button to its AirPort Utility configuration that clones the internal drive to an external drive. Apple turned on the ability to use external drives on an AirPort Extreme Base Station for Time Machine backup with the recent software updates, but the company doesn’t recommend it nor would they provide technical support for it.

Time Capsule’s storage capacity is high enough for small office networks, but Time Machine automatically runs on every computer every hour. This frequency may tie up office networks and seems to push Time Capsule into the home category.

Is it worth the price? If you don’t use 802.11n on your own network already — and thus could use a network upgrade — you’ll be happy with the range, while the tight software integration with Leopard makes it even less effort to keep backups current and automated.

AirPort Express

The AirPort Express has been one of Apple’s most stripped-down hardware offerings since its introduction in 2004 as a cheaper alternative to the AirPort Extreme Base Station. Priced at $99, the AirPort Express has a single Ethernet port, a Wi-Fi radio, a USB jack for printer sharing and an audio port for analog and optical digital output. It’s a grab bag of options useful for a home network.

The latest revision to AirPort Express boosts the Wi-Fi standard inside the tiny device to Draft N, which Apple now supports across nearly all its computers, as well as the Apple TV. (The iPhone, iPod touch and Mac mini use the older 802.11g standard.)

The single Ethernet port — running at either 10 or 100 Mbps — means that an AirPort Express can be typically used in just one of two ways: to offer Internet access to computers via Wi-Fi while the Express is directly connected to a broadband modem; or to extend an existing network, especially for streaming audio. The Express can also connect to an existing network via Wi-Fi and then share access via Ethernet or Wi-Fi.

The AirPort Express has two different radios within it, just like its more expensive sibling, the AirPort Extreme. The Express can use either the crowded 2.4 gigahertz (GHz) band, or a newly fashionable 5 GHz band. The higher frequency spectrum is less used, and Apple allows a special “wide channel” mode in that range that allows even higher network throughput.

The upgrade lets you improve the range over which Wi-Fi can work in your house, because Draft N devices are more sensitive at hearing far-off signals. Older devices benefit exclusively from the range, while computers with Draft N built can transfer data faster to and from the base station over even greater distances.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to gfleishman@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists