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How to Turn your USB-enabled Wi-Fi Router into a Time Capsule

When hosting an external drive, a router can work as a Time Capsule alternative. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Since I first published the post on how to turn a router into a NAS server, I’ve received a lot of requests on how to make that a Time Machine backup destination. In other words, folks want a Time Capsule alternative.

And that makes sense since Apple got out of the networking business a couple of years now ago. As a result, using third-party hardware with the same backup capability is the only option going forward for Mac users.

This post will walk you through this process of turning a USB-enabled router into a Time Capsule. I used mostly the Asus RT-AX89X here, as an example, but the steps are the same on other Asus routers and similar if you use a non-Asus one.

Which routers support Time Machine backup

To be able to work well as a Time Capsule alternative, a router needs to meet a few criteria.

  • It has to have a peripheral port — mostly a USB port — for storage hosting. 
  • It has to support Time Machine.

On top of that, ideally, the router should have updated hardware specs. Get a high-end Wi-Fi 5 router or a new Wi-Fi 6 one. 

Generally, from my experience, most routers (that have a USB port) from Asus, Linksys, Netgear, and TP-Link support Time Machine. Among these, Asus routers’ support is the most comprehensive.

Many from other vendors do, too. But not all routers with a USB port can handle this. To make sure, though, check with the manufacturer on a specific model.

Why do you want a Time Capsule?

Time Machine works when you plug a drive directly into your Mac’s USB (or Thunderbolt) port. However, that can be cumbersome for laptop users, plus the drive can host the backup of just one computer.

Using a Time Capsule, you can backup the Mac via your local network without having anything attached to it. Also, you can use a single storage device as the backup destination for multiple Macs.

Steps to turn a router into a Time Capsule alternative

There are three general steps to get your third-party Time Capsule up and running.

1. Prepare the external drive.

Make sure you use a drive that has a decent amount of storage space. Generally, you want to use one that has a higher capacity than the data stored on your Mac computer(s). The larger the storage device, the longer you can go back in time to restore information when need be.

Check to make sure the device uses a file system that the router supports. Most routers support popular file systems, including NTFS (Windows) and HFS+ (macOS). If it’s a new drive, you should format it.

READ MORE:  File System Explained: Take Control of Your Storage

On an Asus router, you can use the router’s web interface to perform the format. With most other routers, it’s a good idea to format the drive before you connect it to the router.

Things to keep in mind when formatting a drive for Time Machine
  • Just because you want to use the drive for Time Machine, doesn’t mean you need to use the HFS+ file system necessarily. Even though Time Machine requires a Mac-specific file system, that only applies to the case when you plug a drive directly into a Mac’s USB port. But since you’re a Mac user, it doesn’t hurt if you use HFS+.
  • Netgear routers can support the existing Time Machine drive, so if you’re using one, you can unplug it from your Mac and use it with your router. 
  • Asus routers can be flexible and will work with a drive that already has data on it. Some routers, like those for Linksys, tend to require a freshly reformatted drive for its NAS feature to work.
  • You can format the storage device into multiple partitions (logical drives) and use one for Time Machine. It’s an excellent way to keep Time Machine’s storage under control. That’s not necessary with an Asus router since you can enforce a storage limit this using the router’s web interface.

Once the drive is ready, plug it into the router’s USB port.

The Time Machine setting on a TP-Link router’s web interface. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

2. Turning on Time Machine backup on the router

This step varies from one route to another and requires you to log into the router’s web interface to manage.

On a Linksys router, for example, there’s nothing to do, you just need to turn on the router’s network-attached storage feature. That’s also the case of a Netgear router.

On a TP-Link router, you have to check the box that says, “Time Machine: Enable.”

Asus router has a whole section for Time Machine that you can configure.

Step to configure Time Machine backup on an Asus router
Log into the router’s web interface and navigate to the USB Applications and then on Time Machine. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

1. Open up the router’s web interface. You’ll find the USB Application on the menu. Click on it and, then, on Time Machine to open up the section.

Turning on Time Machine. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

2. Turn the slide to On for the Enable Time Machine setting. After that, you need to configure two options:

Select the Backup Path: Click on it and pick the partition you want to use. You need to do this even if there is just one partition. If you have formated the storage device into multiple logical drives — as mentioned above — pick the one you want to use for Time Machine.

Time Machine Volume Size: Enter the size (in Gigabyte) that you want to use for Time Machine. Leave it as 0 if you want Time Machine to use the entire drive’s capacity.

3. Click on Apply. The router will restart. After that, it will function as a Time Capsule.

Your Asus-based Time Capsule is now ready. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

3. Connecting your Mac to the third-party Time Capsule

Once you have prepped the router to work as a Time Capsule, it’s time to make your Mac use it.

You can connect to a router, in the role of a server, by using its IP address. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

For most routers, you’ll first need to connect your Mac to the router the way you do any network server. To do that, use the combo Command + K then type in:

smb://RouterName

Then click on Connect.

RouterName tends to be the router’s model number. If you don’t know what it is, you can use the router’s IP address. The same address you use to access the router’s web interface, as mentioned above. You’ll need to enter the credentials, use those that allow you access to the router’s interface.

If you use an Asus router, it’s quite simple. As soon as you connect your Mac to your local network hosted by the router, via a network cable or Wi-Fi, the router’s Time Capsule function is ready.

Steps to using an Asus-based Time Capsule on a Mac

1. Run Time Machine.

Steps to start Time Machine on a Mac. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

To start Time Machine, click on the Apple icon (at the top left corner), pick System Preferences.., then click on Time Machine.

2. Browse for the available backup destinations.

Click on Select Backup Disk to browse for available Time Machine destinations in the network. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

On the Time Machine window, click on Select Disk

Select the new Time Machine destination. Note the router’s name. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

Under Available Disks, you’ll note the new Time Machine backup destination. By default, it has a name prefixed by the router’s model number. Select it and then click on Use Disk.

3. Enter the authentication

Use the same username and password for the router’s web interface. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

By default, the system will ask you to enter the credential to access the router’s resources. Enter the same username and password you used to access the router’s web interface. Then click on Connect.

And that’s it. Your new Time Capsule system is now ready and running.

Notes on using third-party Time Capsule

Just because your new Time Capsule system is running, doesn’t mean it works well. A couple of things to keep in mind.

A third-party Time Capsule setup doesn’t have the support from Apple. Also, the router’s vendor can’t guarantee that it works well, either, since they don’t have full control of the Time Machine function.

The Time Machine backup is in progress to the new third-party Time Capsule. Dong Ngo | Dong Knows Tech

That said, it’s a good idea to do a test restore once in a while. You can choose to recover just one or two files to a new location to make sure the function works.

By the way, unless you use Wi-Fi 6, you should make the first backup using a wired connection. If that’s not possible, pick a time when you don’t use the computer — like before going to bed — to make sure you have the first successful backup via Wi-Fi. 

Finally, if you want to know which router makes the best Time Capsule alternatives, check out this regularly updated post on how to turn a router into a NAS server.

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About the Author: Dong Ngo

Before Dong Knows Tech, I spent some 18 years testing and reviewing gadgets at CNET.com. Technology is my passion and I do know it. | Follow me on Twitter, or Facebook!

2 Comments

  1. I did some extensive testing of Time Machine with Asus RT3200AC and then RT-AC88U. The backup worked perfectly for about 8 weeks then would corrupt itself. Attempting to recover proved useless and it was necessary to wipe the backup and start over. After one year of testing I gave up. The problem was consistent.
    Now it is not uncommon for Time Machine to have issues even on a Time Capsule. That seemed to go about a year between corruption of the Sparsebundle backup. YMMV. I see different numbers in different reports.. but don’t consider a week or two of testing definitive.
    The alternatives that work well.
    1. Synology NAS or Synology Router, which several of us (group on Apple Discussions) have tested with excellent results. The router firmware got lots of goodies from NAS firmware. I have tested this on the older RT1900AC as well as RT2600AC. You might even pick up the older one second hand and use it bridged purely for network Time Machine.
    2. Use alternative like Carbon Copy Cloner. Although Time Machine is popular since it is built in and well integrated, a cloner does a more reliable job of backup. Using a local disk is better as the clone can then work as full boot drive, which is the easiest way imaginable to test a backup, but network backup work for laptops. There are lots of reports of issues with Time Machine in later Mac OS.
    3. Time Capsule combined with using Time Machine still works best if you are upgrading Mac since it shows up immediately in recovery. Other backups remain hidden and you need to dig them out.
    For the DIYer a Gen3 A1355 or Gen4 A109 can still work ok plugged into the main router.. bridged and wireless off used for nothing more than Time Machine. Apple built the earlier model with a Marvell processor commonly used in low end NAS. The optimisation shows it faster and better than the last AC version. Better built and tougher too. I would replace the hard disk which is now old and power supply with modified external.
    Remember these things only support AFP and SMB1 protocol and will fade away eventually.

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