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

RT AX89X NAS
When hosting an external drive, among other things, a router can work as a Time Capsule alternative.

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.

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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.

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
Navigate to the router’s web interface’s USB Applications section, then select Time Machine.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

On the Time Machine window, click on Select Disk.

Select the new Time Machine destination. Note the router’s name.

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.

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.

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 the best Wi-Fi routers that can also work as a mini NAS server.

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15 thoughts on “How to Turn your USB-enabled Wi-Fi Router into a Time Capsule”

  1. Hello Dong,
    Nice useful post (and site!). I’m hoping to attach an external drive to an ASUS router (maybe an AX86U) and use Time Machine to back up two different MacBook Pros wirelessly in my household. However, I’m discouraged by comments on message boards stating that even when one gets this to work, it doesn’t work for long (a few weeks) because eventually Time Machine “trims the sparsebundle” and then problems ensue. I have already tried the above with a Netgear r7800 and that is exactly what happened — it backed up well for a few weeks, and then started failing with error messages mentioning sparsebundles. And it sounds like I’m not alone. Have you not experienced this?
    Thank you,
    Joe

    Reply
      • Update on the above. Your site is a national treasure. Not writing for help here, because I’ve GIVEN UP. Time Machine simply doesn’t work via a router with a USB-connected drive… for long. I’ve had the same experience with two different router/drive combos now: a Netgear Nighthawk X4S R7800 (AC2600) with a LaCie HDD last year, and now an Asus RT-AX86U with a WD MyPassport SSD (2020) – the latter combo being based on your excellent recommendations (I’m very happy with both devices individually).

        In both cases, the first few backups do indeed work fine; then soon I get this: “Time Machine completed a verification of your backups on [drive]. To improve reliability, Time Machine must create a new backup for you.” As you know, doing so wipes out your entire backup history and requires a prolonged initial backup – which will just be needed again a few days hence.

        In short, my experience tallies with that of Ray Haverfield’s comment here in March. I get that I could use actual NAS, maybe with Synology hardware, or Carbon Copy Cloner – but the world should stop pretending that TM via router-to-USB device is a thing. Thank you!

        Reply
          • Per Carbon Copy Cloner’s article “Choosing a Backup Drive” […] “Disk image files can eventually become corrupted if frequent network connectivity loss occurs while they are mounted, or when free space on the underlying NAS volume becomes constrained. If you’ve seen a recommendation from Time Machine to delete and recreate the backup on a network volume, that’s the same underlying issue.” The strategy of backing up to a network volume may be inherently glitchy, and Apple’s walled-garden approach only a secondary issue.

          • That’s simply untrue, Joe (and for that, I removed the link). If anything that’s the downside of using TM. To be honest, if you use Apple, things are never 100% right when you put a non-Apple device in the mix. But that’s why I don’t use Apple exclusively. 🙂

  2. Hello Dong, I hope you can help. Just got a TP-Link Archer AX6000 router. First, can this router “see” what’s already on the Seagate drive I already had my Time Machine backup with my Apple Airport Extreme or is it one of those routers that doesn’t? Just to clarify, can the Asus router above continue the existing backup for my 2 laptops, or would it create a new backup file, but can still see and access all other existing files on the drive? I am basically trying to find a router that works as close to the Apple Airport Extreme as possible. Thanks for your help.

    Reply
    • Generally, you want to use a clean drive, Tudor. As for viewing the existing content, that depends on many things, so there’s not a simple answer to your question.

      Reply
  3. I am looking for suggestions for how to set up TimeMachine. I don’t want to lose the data already stored on my existing TimeMachine backups.

    Here’s where I am at right now:
    I have an old 2-TB Time Capsule to which I recently added an external LaCie drive. I added the LaCie about three months ago

    I just set up an Asus RT-AX92U to replace my 2-TB Time Capsule router.

    What I would like to know is IF, and if so how, I can connect the Time Capsule and/or the LaCie drive(s) to the new ASUS without losing the archives already stored on them.

    One issue is that the Time Capsule only has one USB port, and that was where the LaCie was connected. And there is only one USB port I can see on the LaCie. I don’t see how to connect both the LaCie and the TimeCapsule to the new ASUS wifi router. (Maybe with a LAN connection to the TimeCapsule?)

    Reply
    • Chances are you won’t be able to keep your existing Time Machine backups, Rebecca. And you don’t need to. But if you really want to, just leave the Time Capsule and the Lacie drive alone and get a new portable drive for the Asus router.

      Reply
  4. Clif again, this was a BIG reason for going with the Asus router to replace my Apple Airport Extremes. Once I address the other issues I’ll look to set this up. Some what assuming the USB drive would need to be connected to the main router and not to a satellite router? Even one that was backhauled?

    Reply
  5. I was facing the issue and could not enable Time Machine on my Asus AX88U and using my Macbook Pro 2019 running Latest Catalina 10.14.4
    Setup SMB on your router
    Setup Time Machine and select the drive (the drive can be in any format that Asus router reads)
    On the Mac Setup a AFP connect to the SNB (afp://192.168.50.1 in the connect window). I also set it up to auto login at reboot.
    On the Mac goto the Time Machine and try to connect, you should see the AFP drive to backup.

    The below link also helped, just replace smb with afp in the link

    https://dongknows.com/how-to-turn-your-wi-fi-router-into-a-time-capsule/

    Reply
  6. 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.

    Reply

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