Nobody's perfect, as the saying goes. Or in the case of hardware, no device. But what happens when we combine two of the finer products in the market? In theory, we should come a good deal closer to our ideal solution. Are we being too vague? Okay, let's get more specific. How about a storage device with a capacity of 1 Terabyte that can be accessed by several computers via a network connection, is easily expandable, offers backup functionality doubles as a DLNA-capable media server, sports several network interfaces including WLAN, and even acts as a USB print server? Sounds good?
If you're only looking for an easy way to expand your computers storage capacity, our recommendation would be to purchase an external HDD with a USB connection. The appropriate acronym here is DAS, or direct attached storage. Although there is a veritable glut of such solutions in the market today, it is important to pay close attention to the details. If you need high transfer rates, you'll want either a Firewire 800 device or an eSATA drive, as USB 2.0 is a bottleneck for modern disk drives. Also, of these interfaces, only eSATA offers transfer rates comparable to those of an internal drive.
However, direct attached storage solutions have one major drawback - they are only available to the host PC until they are set up to be shared or mapped over the LAN. Also, they can only be accessed when this host system is running. Besides, other network services such as those based on DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance), which allow streaming of music or videos over a network, are becoming increasingly interesting. Such solutions offer on-demand access in real-time instead of having to copy the entire file for playback. Thus, a truly flexible data storage unit ideally incorporates a network interface, so that various devices can access files simultaneously. Such solutions are called NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices.
Current NAS devices have some very handy features built in, such as the option to attach another storage device or the ability to connect a printer and share it on the network. In some cases, NAS devices even come with integrated software that can be used to automate certain internet tasks, e.g. downloads or FTP transfers.
Thecus, maker of external storage solutions, added a veritable of a jack-of-all-trades to its product line a short while ago with the N2100. A look at its spec sheet reveals that it comes with practically every conceivable feature available today - at a bearable price of under £150 / €250. Pair it with a fitting hard drive, and you've got a highly flexible solution. Today, 500 GB drives can be found for around £70 / €100, for example. However, we opted for the super high-end version and chose Hitachi's 7K1000 Terabyte Hard Drive. Can this dream team live up to our expectations?
Huge, flexible, versatile, and affordable - too good to be true?
Good things tend to carry a hefty price tag. This truism applies to all walks of life. A compact all-in-one stereo system will never be able to compete with a hand-picked Hi-Fi combination. The same goes for cars. New gadgets and optional extras will make your bank account cringe - provided you can find them for your model of choice at all.
The hardware segment of the IT industry is no different, either. Only two companies, namely Hitachi and Seagate, offer ultra high-capacity drives. Others, such as Samsung and Western Digital, only target the mainstream market with its higher sales volumes. After all, not everyone can afford or is willing to pay £250 / €350 for a hard drive; even for 1 Terabyte of storage.
Our aim in this project is to put the available storage to use as efficiently as possible by making use of today's technology. Accessing a storage device from different computers requires a NAS solution. Ideally, such a device would offer additional services such as a web server and remote configuration through a browser. Our wish list also includes an integrated P2P client in order to perform complex downloads without a PC. Finally, programmable download managers that can be scheduled to retrieve files at a certain time (e.g. in the middle of the night, when such a transfer won't interfere with other network traffic) are also appreciated.
A client system for such a multifunctional storage device doesn't necessarily have to be a standard PC, though. Media players such as the Xbox, set-top boxes and other home-theater type appliances fall into this category as well. Even a smartphone with a WLAN interface could conceivably act as a client for accessing a multimedia network storage solution.
Another important aspect to bear in mind when considering a networked storage solution is the ability to easily manage music, images and movies. In an ideal scenario, you should be able to continue using the same tools you already have. In other words, we would expect Apple's iTunes to be able to access music on the NAS device. The same goes for a stereo system or a video player on the PC, which should be able to stream movies from the network. The DLNA protocol has established itself for such purposes in the home networking space. It facilitates data exchange between consumer devices and PC-type storage components for multimedia content.
Another such standard exists for printer communication over a network, aptly named the Internet Printing Protocol (IPP). Using this protocol, a printer attached to a NAS device can be accessed as a network printer from other client PCs.
One way of combining all of these aspects from our wish list in one device would be to build a low-power PC and install the appropriate utilities - which would reduce the idea of a compact, affordable and energy-saving network storage device to absurdity. Thecus takes a much more elegant approach, packaging the same functionality in a minimalist computer running a flavor of Linux.
Virtually limitless Storage Space: Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000 with 1 TB
We recently took a detailed look at Hitachi's 7K1000 drive and came to the conclusion that it was a definite recommendation fort the enthusiast crowd. However, we did find some downsides to this disk. For one, Hitachi only grants a three-year-warranty on its drives, compared to Seagate's five-year policy. Also, at £250 / €350, the 7K1000 is rather pricey and its cost per gigabyte high. After all, Hitachi, Seagate and Western Digital all offer 500 GB drives around the £70 / €100 mark.
At any rate, we were very happy with the 7K1000 from a technical perspective. If you're looking for a maximum-capacity storage device, there's currently no alternative.
Virtually limitless Functionality: Thecus N1200
At heart, the N2100 is a NAS-device (Network Attached Storage), which means that it provides storage space on your local network. To this end, the N1200 sports a Gigabit Ethernet connection which is inexplicably labeled as a "WAN-port." This could lead one to assume that the N1200 could even double as a DSL modem. However, that is not (yet?) the case. Additionally, the unit contains a Fast-Ethernet switch with four ports and an integrated DHCP server. This is good news for home networks or small office LANs, as you won't need an extra switch or hub. However, we think Thecus should have gone the distance and made the entire switch Gigabit-Ethernet cabale, as the 100Mbit ports create a bottleneck for the N1200.
The variety of connectivity options is nothing short of remarkable, although in some cases their intended use is not obvious at first glance. Take the USB, ports, for example. These are not used to connect the N1200 to a computer. Instead, they offer an easy way to extend the device's storage space by attaching other USB drives. The N1200 then configures these and makes them available on the network. One USB 2.0 port each can be found on the front and the back of the case. The same goes for the eSATA port, which also allows the connection of additional external hard drives.
The N1200 can be upgraded with wireless capability using a mini-pc card. Thecus names three compatible models on its website.
A little fan that spins at up to 8000 rpm sits in the bottom of the case. It is temperature controlled and very quiet at low speeds. However, when paired with the Hitachi drive, the unit is always audible, while never becoming obtrusive. The drive's operating noise and the fan's whirr blend together with the unit's vibration to form an acoustic cocktail. However, considering the N1200's comprehensive functionality, we are tempted to accept this. Luckily, the N1200 never really gets loud, and the majority of external storage devices available today that come with a fan are noticeably louder. However, when you operate the unit vertically, don't forget to use the base to ensure that the fan is not blocked. Otherwise, you may literally choke off the N1200's air supply.
You can secure the N1200 against theft using the popular Kensington lock, which is also fund on practically al notebooks nowadays. Appropriate locks with cables can be found in almost any computer store.
The back of the unit also houses the Reset switch. It can be pressed using a needle or a ballpoint pen, preventing accidental resets. In the same manner, the power button has to be pressed several seconds. Since the N1200 is basically a miniature computer, it needs a few seconds to start up or shut down.
Six LEDs on the front of the device keep the user apprised of the current status, be it network connections, USB devices or disk activity. The N1200 comes with an external power brick which draws 2 Watts when the device is turned off. While this is not a phenomenal value, it's still acceptable. On the other hand, considering that a Nokia charger draws practically no power when it's not actively charging, there is still room for improvement. In operation, the Thecus consumes between 21 and 25 watts, which is a good deal less than any current conventional PC (40 - 400 watts). Even most notebooks need more power.
Under load, the case heats up to a toasty 48°C. Thecus's specifications allow an ambient temperature of 40°C. With the summers we've been experiencing lately, that's not too far off, really.
Devices connected to the N1200 are made available on the network using fixed share points. Alternatively, pressing the "copy" button on the lower part of the unit's case copies their contents to a directory called USBCopy. In our experience, the read/write performance during this process was pleasantly high. After completion, the copied files can be found in a subdirectory carrying the timestamp of the copy.
A look from below: Always use the base that comes with the N1200 if you want to set it up vertically. Otherwise you may inadvertently "choke" the little fan and overheat the hard drive inside.
The first step is removing this screw so that the cover can be removed.
The drive is mounted in this aluminium cage....
... and then installed here.
Simply insert the drive cage into the case and attach it with four screws.
The Setup Wizard offers a feature for localizing the N1200 on the network.
The Setup Wizard is a compact tool that is required for the initial configuration. The default password iss et to „admin". After the administrator logs on, the unit initializes itself and formats the installed hard drive. Thanks to quick-format, this only takes a few minutes even on our Terabyte drive.
For network resources, a static IP address makes more sense than a dynamic one assigned through DHCP. If the IP-lease expired, the address could change and the N1200 could no longer be reached over the network.
Thecus lets the administrator create user accounts that can be granted certain rights and privileges. User groups can also be managed.
In most cases, users will opt fort he configuration via a web browser, since it can be conducted from any PC on the network.
The N1200's entire configuration can be saved and then restored if necessary.
The Thecus unit supports a number of languages.
The email notifications are a very handy feature. If set up properly, the N1200 can inform its administrator of irregularities via email.
Looking at our Terabyte hard drive in the SATA information window gave us a warm and fuzzy feeling.
The N1200 also supports encrypted acccess using https/SSL.
Mediabolic's media server shares directories when the corresponding service is selected.
The N1200 can even fill in as a server for Apple's iTunes.
The FTP functionality can be switched on and off as well.
The web interface's Photo-Feature lets the user create slide shows. However, a few details could do with a little more attention from Thecus.
The photo tool lets you create slide shows and photo albums. Unfortunately, each image has to be uploaded individually. In effect, this disqualifies the N1200 if you just want to quickly share a photo collection. After all, uploading that 300+ photo set from last weekend sounds like a lot less fun or worthwhile when you have to do it picture by picture. In the end, you're proabably better off using a tool such as Picasa or an online service like Flickr instead. They're faster and offer a lot more features.