I recently suffered the ignominy of a failed Network Attached Storage (NAS) device that contained all of my digital music files as well as a bunch of videos and local copies of DVDs such as music magazine cover discs for easy access.
It was a Western Digital ‘MyBook Live’ and the fault seemed to be in the firmware rather than the hard drive itself as it couldn’t connect to the network. Naturally I hadn’t yet gotten around to backing up the bloody thing so I was motivated to get it up and running. Even though most of it was replaceable, the thought of ripping all my CDs again didn’t exactly excite me so I looked up what my options were.
The device runs an embedded Linux distro and the drive is formatted as EXT3 or EXT4 so I’d need some software to read it on my PC but it seemed like an open and shut case: extract the drive, plug it into my laptop with a SATA to USB converter and install the software and copy the disc to a new drive.
I borrowed a SATA to USB cable and broke open the device to extract the drive and triumphantly plugged it all together only to be greeted with the sight and smell of burning electronics. At this point I resolved to get help. Thanks to the guys at Data Recovery Services they managed to get the drive up and running again and copy the data onto another external drive. It was a little more expensive than I’d hoped but a tiny fraction of the opportunity cost of recreating the data myself so I got over it.
It turned out the drive had some bad sectors as well but they gave me a list of the affected files.
I’d only owned the unit for about 12 months so I wasn’t happy that it had failed so badly in such a short time. Coupled with fairly lacklustre performance I wasn’t keen to buy another unit and was unsure what to do next.
Determined to not repeat the whole experience I set the bar higher this time in terms of reliability, performance and general features. Always in the back of my mind too was the question of how can I make these digital files available to be played in full quality through the hifi in my lounge room without involving my computer or some half-arsed intermediary such as Apple TV that won’t cope with my slowly increasing collection of high-definition FLAC files.
A feature list was beginning to form:
- RAID 1 mirrored and user replaceable hard drives for redundancy
- High performance
- Good build quality but not stupidly expensive
- Software interface that doesn’t suck
- DLNA compatible to help media sharing with other devices
- Direct AV output via HDMI of high-definition audio formats
I had already toyed with the idea of building a Home Theatre PC running something like XBMC as I knew it would give me the flexibility I wanted, but the idea of matching all the parts, setting it up and maintaining it didn’t appeal, and the cost is not insignificant.
Point 5 was for future-proofing: none of my existing equipment is ‘smart’ but I have my eye on a Bluray upgrade to something like an Oppo BDP-105 which supports network music playing and supports HD FLAC out of the box.
Point 6 wasn’t really on the list as I had never come across any NAS that supported it. Sure, I could buy a dedicated music streaming server at great expense but I really wanted a general purpose NAS with RAID and easily user-replaceable hard-drives. It was added to the list once I came across one that did!
Armed with some Google searches for ‘Top NAS reviews’ I was quite impressed by the Synology line, in particular the DS214play:
It certainly would look sweet in the hi-fi rack and had a truckload of other features of varying usefulness to me. The important thing is that it seemed to be a top-quality NAS but with an emphasis on multimedia.
Being the impatient sod that I am I probably wouldn’t have bought it if the local computer store had one in stock but they had everything else but that model so I continued to look around.
I’d come across the QNAP name in my travels so checked out their range as well. It wasn’t long before I found the TS-269L and knew then I had found exactly what I now knew was exactly what I wanted.
This also ticked every box like the Synology, but with one massive extra: built-in HDMI output and the inclusion of the XBMC home theatre software and full support for all its’ add-ons as well as hardware remotes.
From my perspective, the main features were:
- RAID 1 support with dual hard drives
- Small size with built-in fan (there seems to be this mania to build fan-less devices, which is fine – right up to the minute they overheat and die, which is clearly my fault for living in a warm(ing) climate and not leaving the air conditioner on all day. On hot days I can almost fry an egg on my Apple Time Machine, even though the hard-drive is asleep)
- Various ways of sharing music including DLNA, uPnP, ability to act as an iTunes server and of course direct HDMI output
- Support for Apple Time Machine backups in the hope I could consolidate all my backups into one place
- XBMC and everything that gives you, including native support for high-definition FLAC (ok, that is probably more a function of the sound drivers and decoder libraries, but at least there is some hope that they would be used to their full capabilities)
- Reasonable price
- Super configurable
- Some good looking mobile apps
- Fully functional as a standard NAS for the purposes of supporting non-multimedia use cases such as backing up my PC and Mac, plus my wife’s PC as well
- A dozen other interesting features which basically made the whole thing feel very rounded and future-proof
- Upgradeable RAM: I have two 2Gb sticks sitting around since I upgraded the RAM on my Mac so I was hoping one would slot right in which would have been awesome since they are otherwise worthless these days. It comes with 1Gb and can be upgraded with another 2Gb
Really, I felt like this was ‘one NAS to rule them all’ and that it would achieve all my goals with no need to upgrade anything else in my system.
All these devices come without hard-drives and must be purchased separately. I wasn’t going to take any chances this time around so I made sure that the drives were listed on the ‘compatible hardware list’ from QNAP. Thus I settled on 2 x 3TB Western Digital ‘Caviar Red’ drives which are designed for NAS usage. I was reluctant at first due to the failure of my previous WD drive, but that was a ‘Caviar Green’ which some people reckon aren’t the best choice for a NAS so I was prepared to give these a go.
With the addition of a 3 metre HDMI cable, the whole lot set me back $849 (inc GST) from Skycomp Technology with local pick-up in Sydney CBD.
I was taken aback at first when picking up the goods – I checked the box to make sure that I had ordered and that they had delivered the correct item but there was absolutely no mention on it about having HDMI or supporting XBMC etc. The picture of the rear showed what looked like a HDMI connector but it was unlabelled. Trusting I made the right decision I took it home on what appears to be the correct assumption that the original release had the connector but the software was not yet available and the new features only became available in a recent firmware upgrade.
The box contents as well as the hard-drives, HDMI cable and RAM sticks on the left that would hopefully find a new home:
The monstrous power supply was a bit disappointing but seems to be par for the course for anything other than an Apple device. Everything else felt really solid and well made with no sharp edges or flimsy panels.
I decided to try and perform the RAM upgrade before investing time in the initial setup on the assumption that it would either work perfectly and speed up the rest of the process or it would brick the device in which case I would save myself the trouble of going further.
Looking at some forums online it appeared that people had mixed results using anything but the ‘official’ RAM upgrade sold by QNAP at great expense (apparently; I couldn’t actually find it listed), but no-one seemed to have damaged their device so I gave it a shot.
Four screws at the back kept the outer shell on which then slid off stiffly but without fuss. I had to break a plastic cover to access the SODIMM RAM slot but I don’t feel like I violated it in any way.
After inserting the RAM I left the cover off and proceeded to screw the hard-drives into their cradles and then easily slid and locked them into their slots.
So far so good, but upon powering up the device I was greeted with some lights but referring to the PDF manual I wasn’t seeing the lights I should be, and even after waiting a while nothing changed so powered it off and removed the RAM and tried again (later down the track I tried the other stick of RAM with no luck either).
This time it worked and I proceeded to download the ‘QFinder’ software from the website (I didn’t waste time even looking at the included CD on the assumption it was way out of date) to do the initial setup and download any firmware updates.
Stay tuned for part 2 for the gory details of configuration and turning it into the hub of a high definition multimedia powerhouse …