Time Capsule creates a challenge

I was thinking something was not right with my wife’s MacBook. It wasn’t because she was complaining about anything; to the contrary over the last week she didn’t say anything about the machine. It was quiet. Too quiet.

Last night while I was sitting down watching TV with Allison she finally let it out:

“That new Mac is really slow. My Windows machine was faster.”

Wonderful I said to myself, let me see what’s up. I grabbed her white MacBook and saw by the dock bar that she didn’t have anything running so I started up Firefox. Sure enough, there was a very long delay before the application window appeared.

“See?” she said “It’s really slow! It’s not just me!”

Apparently I have some deep technical gift, an ability to approach any technology problem in the house and by simply laying hands on the offending device the problem is immediately solved without me doing anything. At least, that’s the way Allison sees it and it’s just one of the reasons she’s kept me around for so many years. My gift had apparently left me.

I quickly scanned around the desktop of the MacBook and noticed that the Time Machine icon was happily spinning away. When I clicked on the icon I saw the little “Preparing Backup…” message. Over the course of the next 10 minutes or so I noticed that it kept spinning and as a result loading up applications was very slow. I tried to kill the process but it would simply not pay attention to me.

I ended up doing a restart on the machine, which took a while by itself. Once OS X restarted and I was back at the desktop I stopped Time Machine and tried loading up applications. Sure enough, everything was nice and fast again.

It turns out Allison’s MacBook was having trouble connecting to our Time Capsule. I went through everything I could, including using the AirPort Utility to attach to the TC, checking all the settings and everything seemed to be fine. Multiple consecutive attempts to restart Time Machine and let it run simply resulted in more waiting while “Preparing Backup…” was spinning away in the background. This led to multiple forced shutdowns while trying different settings.

Finally I started to get some error messages:

Which was quickly followed by:

This last one was interesting because clicking the Initialize… button resulted in Disk Utility loading up, which couldn’t see the Time Capsule drive.

I decided to start over with the Time Capsule since I had another backup of all of Allison’s files. I used the AirPort Utility to erase the Time Capsule drive and start over, then made sure I ejected the Time Capsule in the Finder. I did this because in my scans of various forums I had read that Time Capsule seemed sensitive to drives that were already mounted; it was better to let Time Machine mount the drive as it needed it for backups.

Once I did all of this I started up Time Machine, chose the drive and let it start out as a new backup. Since it had to backup the entire machine it took most of last night and on close inspection this morning the hourly backups were now working properly and the performance was back to normal.

The lesson I learned from all of this is that though I love the work Apple has done with their products, especially making them easy to use for most everything, there is still work to be done. This did not appear to be a configuration problem because I initially had Time Machine and our Time Capsule working just fine; it just suddenly decided to stop working properly, something that my reading last night indicates is a fairly common occurrence.

It also means that I now have to check on Allison’s MacBook more regularly to ensure that the backups are happening properly. Given the plethora of Time Machine error messages my other Macs get I was surprised to find that this Time Capsule situation didn’t generate any visible errors that my wife would report to me so that I knew there was a problem.

If you’ve had Time Capsule issues like I have above and come up with a way to solve them that doesn’t involve reformatting the TC drive and starting over I’d love to hear about it. Something tells me this may happen again.