I have an old PC that used to house my entire (several hundred gigabytes) photo library internally and backed it up nightly to an external hard drive.

I have a MBP that travels between home and work (250 GB HD), and recently bought a MacBook Air (120GB) for home. Neither of these has enough storage to be "home" for my photo library.

My requirements for the setup are:

  • Must be large enough
  • Must be backed up somehow
  • Must be fast enough (> 100 Mb/s so USB 2.0+, Wireless-N or wired gigabit) when accessing it from one of the laptops.

I have considered a few different options:

  • Keep the current setup (yuck, computer is slow and loud).
  • Network attached storage (few highly-rated options on sub-$500 systems)
  • Airport Extreme with attached external HDD (would need a backup solution, I haven't thought of one)
  • Time Capsule.

    This seems like my best option, but here are my questions:

    • I don't use Time Machine, so is it a waste?
    • Backup: how? I could now have two large, separate drives for backup, but I don't know if this is messy.
    • Am I overpaying compared to other similar solutions?

That's it. I've been at a loss for what is my best option, so I could really use some help for a Mac-friendly solution!


  1. I should add that I am looking to replace my current router, as well, so the Time Capsule option would save me that cost.
  2. I am not in love with the idea of cloud backup, which is why I haven't mentioned it; unless someone can convince me otherwise.

A few thoughts come to mind.

Firstly, this is all dependent on what sort of software solution you're using to store your photos. If it's just files in folders, that makes things simpler, and is pretty platform agnostic. But if you're using (or want to use) some sort of organization software, then that obviously complicates things, both in terms of platforms and performance. That said, here's what I think are the best options.

PC as Network Storage

This is what I do (for videos and bulk archival, not photos, but the concept is the same). I have a generic PC with a bunch of hard drives running headless off in an unused room, connected to my network. It runs Linux, and while I have it set up to do various automated tasks, it's main purpose is to be a big network drive I can dump stuff on.

It sounds like this is more or less what you have already. If your current hardware isn't adequate, then look into upgrading. For file serving duty, most old hardware should do just fine (mine is a dual core Celeron circa 2008), the biggest bottleneck is network speed, make sure you have Gigabit and the file server software is behaving (I've found that file sharing between Linux and OS X is much faster over AFP than SMB).

Getting it quiet can take a bit more effort/expense, but it's definitely doable, particularly when you don't need a lot of horsepower (basically, get the biggest heatsink you can, and use a small number of very large fans spinning very slowly).

This option is definitely the best value for your money, but likely means more time invested on your part.

Mac Mini

Using a Mac Mini in basically the same role as above has some merit as well. It's a bit more expensive, and less expandable, but requires less time investment for set up and maintenance. And of course it's a much more compact form factor than your typical PC, and pretty quiet unless you're doing something very CPU/GPU intensive. You can get up to 2 TB internal storage in one (doing so from Apple requires the more expensive "server" model, but you can save a bunch of money by getting the base model and installing the drives yourself - it's fairly straightforward).

In addition to simply acting as network file storage, you can use iPhoto to organize all your photos, and share them over the network to your other Macs. If you add OS X Server ($20 from the App Store), you can have your Mini act as a Time Machine back-up server for your other Macs (I haven't tested this, but I've heard it's much more reliable and has better performance than using a Time Capsule).

Other Options

NAS Appliance

As you've seen there are a wide variety of these. The cheap ones don't have very good performance (few even come close to saturating gigabit ethernet) and lack expandability, and the quality ones ramp up the cost to the point where using a PC or Mac Mini seems to make more sense in most situations. The main selling point seems to be their relative set and forget nature.

Time Capsule

I've never heard very good things about this. As a network storage appliance, it's lacking in performance and expandability. It's major selling point is integration with Time Machine, but its reputation seems to be spotty at best as a back up device. Unless having one device as your Wi-Fi router and network storage really appeals to you, I'd recommend against it. Likewise an Airport with attached hard drive — if you already have one, then it might be worth trying out to see if it meets your needs, but I wouldn't go out and buy one just for this.


For backups, keep things as simple as possible. External drives are pretty cheap, buy one and plug it in to whatever stores your photos. Set up some sort of backup script or program to perform regular backups (rsync should suffice if you're just backing up your photo storage — some sort of cloning software might be better if you want the whole system backed up). For added protection, do backups to second drive every week or two and keep it at your office or somewhere else. Alternatively, look into online backups such as Backblaze, CrashPlan or Arq, which is less labour intensive, but can be more costly and/or problematic depending on your internet speeds and cap.

  • Thanks! I may reconsider the first option but don't have a good place to hide the computer, so a compact device is attractive. I just found the Synology DS212j which looks decent. I suppose if I used that, then USB backup is still an option -- even if laptops are offline. I wouldn't really need the capacity (esp. with a single-drive backup, it wouldn't sense), so I could make the two drives in the NAS RAID 1. How does that solution balance my requirements in your opinion?
    – Nicole
    Nov 23 '12 at 5:01
  • Have a look at SmallNetBuilder.com for good reviews of NAS units. RAID 1 can be nice to have for redundancy, but don't rely on it for backup. I'm not sure if those units can do independent backup to USB drives (probably), but that would be the best option for backup (easier to access if something goes wrong with the NAS, and less chance of something taking out both the NAS and the backup). I don't know about that particular unit, but it's possible the performance won't be much of a step up vs. your old PC — definitely have a look at some benchmarks first.
    – robmathers
    Nov 23 '12 at 5:11

You don't need Server to do Time Machine backups to the Mac Mini. Just create and share a partition for each Mac.

TM is far from perfect but all backup apps and processes have issues. I use both TM and Crashplan for my OS X backups along with images copies for quick recoveries. CP can work with Windows, OS X, and Linux targets.

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