|Cloud-based storage solutions are all the rage these days, but if you don't want to trust your files to a third-party data center and deal with the risk of hacker attacks and unexpected downtime, maintaining your own centralized storage platform is the way to go. This is where network attached storage (NAS) devices come into play. With hard drive prices as cheap as they are, owning your own NAS box is a totally viable option for wrangling your data, automating backup routines, and serving up files to a growing number of connected devices, including tablets, notebooks, smartphones, game consoles, set-top boxes, and more. Plus, there are no monthly or annual subscription fees to deal with.
There are benefits for small and medium businesses (SMBs) too. Many of today's NAS boxes are loaded with IT friendly features that make it easy to access data and backup devices from remote locations. NAS boxes offer redundant protection without the risk of third-party cloud services, and in fact can be thought of as your own personal cloud, one that you're in complete control of. As your business grows, so can your storage architecture.
Convincing yourself you need or could benefit from a NAS box is the easy part. The hard part is in sifting through the seemingly million-and-one options out there and picking the best one for your needs. To help you do that, we reached out to a number of NAS vendors and asked them to send us their recommended NAS device for a 3-5 bay shootout. Three were willing to play ball.
The first NAS box we'll be looking at is Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro 4, a four-bay device the company sent pre-populated with quad Seagate Constellation ES 2TB hard drives for a total of 8TB. Like all three NAS boxes in this roundup, the ReadyNAS Pro 4 is essentially a server built around Intel's Atom platform designed to deliver affordable storage without the cloud subscription fees or the need for a dedicated IT staff. As configured, the ReadyNAS Pro 4 carries a hefty MSRP of ($3,499), though we've seen it street for as low as $1,509. Netgear's differentiating feature is the use of X-RAID2, which is the company's proprietary, auto-expandable RAID technology. We'll get into that in more detail later.
Next up is the Thecus N4800. It also features an Intel Atom dual-core processor, but wields 2GB of DDR3 instead of 1GB found in Netgear's device. The N4800 has four drive bays and shipped to us without hard drives. At around $630 street, it's the least expensive NAS box in this roundup, and also the only one that boasts HDMI output and a built-in mini-UPS in case of a power outage.
Finally, QNAP sent us its TS-569 Pro device. Like the other two, this one has a dual-core Atom processor tucked inside, but it's the only one of the three to bring five drive bays to this particular NAS party. Sans storage, a naked TS-569 Pro streets in the neighborhood of $1,000. Even though it's billed as a "high-performance 5-bay NAS server for SMBs," the product's price tag puts it within reach of high-end SOHO consumers looking for a compact centralized storage solution without having to roll their own machine.
On the following pages, we'll be taking a close look at each one's overall feature-set, ease of setup, backup routine, and performance. To help us do that, Western Digital provided us with four WD Red 3TB hard drives designed specifically for NAS applications. That's a lot of storage, but if we're going to do this thing, we want to do it right. Brace yourself folks, it's about to get NASty up in here.
|Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 4 Design and Build Quality|
|Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro 4 is constructed from lightweight black aluminum, though as assembled and populated with hard drive, the compact box packs some heft. It measures 5.28 inches (W) by 8.07 inches (H) by 8.78 inches (D) and weighs 10.35 pounds before you cram it full of hard drives. Some key specs include:
A mesh server door swings open to reveal the four hot-swappable drive bays. The drives pull out and install with minimal effort, though it's not a totally tool-less affair (we'll get to that in a minute). A power button sits on the upper right corner and cycles through different functions depending on how many times you press it. Once turned on, hitting the power button a single time turns on the LCD, which is located on the bottom. Pressing it again shows the unit's IP address, and a third time tells it to power down.
On the top left is a USB 2.0 port for connecting external storage devices (with support for FAT32, Ext2, Ext3, and NTFS) or an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) with monitoring and auto-shutdown support. To the right of the USB 2.0 port is a programmable one-touch backup button for on-demand backups.
The top and sides of the ReadyNAS Pro 4 are littered with ventilation holes. Cooling is further aided by a rear exhaust fan attached to the internal power supply. Also on the rear of the device is a pair of gigabit Ethernet LAN (GbE) ports with link aggregation and failover support, and two additional USB 2.0 ports. There's also a Kensington lock on the right bottom corner.
NAS boxes are meant to stay in one place, but should you need to relocate it, there's a sturdy metal handle on the top that makes carrying the device a cinch. None of the other NAS boxes in this roundup have a handle of any sort.
Removing hard drives from the ReadyNAS Pro 4 chassis is, quite literally, a snap. To actually remove the drive from the caddy and/or install a new one, you'll need to reach for a Phillips screwdriver and remove four screws from the bottom. Our test unit came with four 2TB Seagate Constellation ES drives for a total of 8TB, which we used to test the NAS box, along with a second set of benchmarks using Western Digital's Red drives that we used to test the other boxes as well.
|Netgear ReadyNAS Pro 4 Setup and Software|
|Since Netgear populated the ReadyNAS Pro 4 with hard drives, all we had to do was plug the device in to the wall, connect an Ethernet cable (provided), and run the included software. Booting up the NAS box takes about a minute.
Setting up the NAS box involves popping in the included CD and installing Netgear's RAIDar software (supports Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux).Tech savvy users will have no trouble wading through the various options, and while it's also fairly easy for less experienced users, some of the terminology might prove confusing. In other words, it's user friendly, but not necessarily "Mom or Pops" friendly.
Netgear's cleverly named RAIDar keeps in constant contact with the ReadyNAS Pro 4 and offers up system vitals at a glance. It's also your portal to Netgear's FrontView utility (which we'll cover in a moment), which you access by clicking on the Setup button.
As you're going through the setup routine, Netgear will prompt you to configure user accounts and other settings, if necessary. You can configure the ReadyNAS Pro 4 in "User" mode, which allows you to control access to shares based on user or group accounts (and if your network doesn't utilize a domain controller for authentication), or "Domain" mode, which is appropriate for centralized domain controllers or if you login via active directory service (ADS). See what we mean about user friendly versus Mom friendly?
Netgear also prompts you for alert contacts. In the event of a failure, quota violation, low disk space, or other events that might require your attention, the ReadyNAS Pro 4 can send out an email alert.
For tech savvy folks, one of the big advantages Netgear has over the competition is extensibility. There are several first- and third-party add-ons available to extend the functionality of the NAS box, from adding TiVO options to photo sharing. You can even install an add-on that turns the ReadyNAS device into a Network Video Recorder (NVR) for surveillance chores.
Another thing that's unique about the ReadyNAS Pro 4 is Netgear's proprietary X-RAID2 technology. This adds another layer of convenience on top of Netgear's hotswappable drive bays. In a nutshell, X-RAID2 is essentially a better version of RAID 5 that offers faster performance and the ability to add more disks and/or upgrade existing drives to larger ones without any complicated setup options. Simply swap the drive you're upgrading -- for example, removing a 2TB drive and plugging in a 3TB drive -- and the ReadyNAS Pro 4 will do the rest, automatically, and in the background while you continue to use the device.
When we get to the performance portion of this roundup, we'll include both X-RAID2 results using the provided Seagate Constellation ES drives, and RAID 5 results using the same WD Red hard drives that we tested the other NAS boxes with.
|Thecus N4800 Design and Build Quality|
|The Thecus N4800 is another NAS box aimed at SMBs, but with a feature-set that will appeal to home users as well, like HDMI output. It's a smidgen shorter than Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro 4, though not quite as compact with a lengthier and wider frame measuring 6.77 inches (W) by 7.55 inches (H) by 9.84 inches (D). Some vitals:
Four drive bays are hidden behind a plastic door that swings open to the right and clicks shut. It feels a tad flimsy compared to Netgear's ReadyNAS box, which uses magnets to hold the bay door in place without any vertical play. Attached to the backside of the door is a slab of metal mesh to allow cool air to seep through. According to Thecus, the inclusion of a third generation Intel Atom processor means that active cooling isn't necessary, a decision that pays off with a near-silent design.
There are two displays on the front, including an OLED display on top with button controls underneath, and an LCD strip on the left side that provides status information on HDD, LAN, and USB Copy activity. Four physical buttons sit underneath the OLED panel to cycle through the different settings and configuration options (as well as to enter a numerical password), though it's not clear at a glance what each one is does. For example, the down button brings up the USB copy command, though there's nothing on the OLED display beforehand to alert you to that.
Along the left edge are a pair of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, a welcome sight considering Netgear's unit is limited to USB 2.0. The power button sits on the bottom left corner.
One of the strengths of the N4800 is its assortment of ports. In addition to a pair of USB 3.0 ports on front, there are two USB 2.0 ports on back, two LAN ports, eSATA, Line out, and both HDMI and VGA outputs. The inclusion of an HDMI port means you can connect the N4800 to your HDTV and manage its functions from the couch, as well as stream HD playback, provided you install the "Local Display Module" Thecus recently made available. This is a slick feature and one that encourages plopping the compact N4800 somewhere in your home theater. The only downside is that the displays are always lit.
On the top right you'll notice a non-standard power connector, which is a bummer if you ever need to replace the power cord. Much more exciting is the removable battery that slides into a slit in the back, providing the N4800 with mini-UPS backup chores in case of a power outage. For some, this is reason enough to choose the N4800 over other NAS boxes
Thecus provides a bit of added security to its hard drive bays by way of a lock on each of the four drive trays. The drives are hot swappable and easy to install, though like Netgear's appliance, it's not a completely tool-less affair (drives need to be screwed into the trays).
|Thecus N4800 Setup and Software|
|The Thecus N4800 is super simple to install and configure. The menus are all straightforward and hold your hand from start to finish so you never feel overwhelmed, regardless of your experience level.
We typically don't care what setup menus look like, so long as they get the job done, but it's kind of cool Thecus went with a brushed aluminum motif. Our infatuation with the aesthetic aside, Thecus did a great job turning what could be a complicated setup routine into a simple task that really boils down to mashing the Next button. Experienced networking gurus may opt to change some of the default configurations, but most users will just breeze through the menus.
Once installed, it's time to log into the Web interface. It's obvious Thecus paid attention to making the GUI (graphical user interface) as user friendly as possible, which is something networking newbies and less experienced users in general will appreciate. The home screen, as shown above, displays a series of icons designated as Favorites so you can access the most used functions without having to dive into thick of things every time you tweak your setup.
All the options are separated into expandable categories on the left hand side. As we dug through the menus, we didn't discover any options that should have been placed somewhere else, so it's fairly simple to find what you're looking for. If you get stumped, the search function works surprisingly well -- just type in a search term and the results appear in a drop down menu.
Despite the fact that the UI is easy to navigate, there are plenty of advanced settings to play with. The N4800 supports a number of protocols and functions, like FTP, iTunes streaming, backing up to Amazon's S3 cloud, setting user quotas,NAS stacking, iSCSI, scheduled backups, and the list goes on and on.
An open module ecosystem extends the N4800's functionality even further, one of which is required to pipe content directly to an external display via HDMI. There are a number of other modules available as well, both first- and third-party.
|QNAP TS-569 Pro Design and Build Quality|
|QNAP's TS-569 Pro is the only NAS box in this roundup to ship with five drive bays; the rest have four. It's also the sole unit to skip an all-black motif in favor of a retro black and silver design with a lightly brushed aluminum aesthetic. We'd never suggest choosing a NAS box based on looks, though if your decision came down to this or another model, and you plan on plopping it in a visible area -- like a home theater setup --- you may want to consider how well one will blend in versus the other. We're far more interested in the actual hardware and feature-set, and the TS-569 Pro has the following:
As the only NAS box to bring five drive bays to our storage party, QNAP's TS-569 Pro also drops the biggest footprint on the dance floor. The unit measures 8.29 inches (W) by 7.28 inches (H) by 9.27 inches (D) and weighs 11.24 pounds (sans drives). In case you don't feel like flipping back, Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro measures 5.28 inches (W) by 8.07 inches (H) by 8.78 inches (D), and the Thecus N4800 checks in at 6.77 inches (W) by 7.55 inches (H) by 9.84 inches (D). Comparison aside, it's still a compact cube about the size of a cheap subwoofer.
There's no door on the front like there are with the other two NAS boxes, which is either a plus (yay, for convenience) or a minus (boo, for dust accumulation) depending on how you look at it. Each of the five drive bays are lockable. Above the drive bays is a mono-LCD status panel with physical Select and Enter buttons to cycle through the functions, and you can setup a RAID array (with or without encryption) before you even hook it up to your desktop or notebook. That's pretty rad. There's actually quite a bit you can cycle through on the display.
Two more buttons adorn the lower left corner, including a power button and a copy button that surrounds the front-mounted USB 2.0 port for copying the contents of external devices.
A horizontal ventilation strip on the left side of the TS-569 Pro helps carry out passive cooling chores by allowing cool air to flow in. In the back is a large exhaust fan, above which sits a smaller fan. Despite the two-fan design, QNAP's box politely keeps noise to a minimum.
QNAP slapped a wealth of ports to the back of its NAS box. From top to bottom, there's an HDMI port, VGA port, two USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports (for a total of five, including the one up front), a pair of GbE LAN ports, and two eSATA ports. One thing the TS-569 Pro does not lack is connectivity, though like Netgear's product, it lacks a built-in battery backup like the Thecus N4800 has.
As previously mentioned, the TS-569 Pro has five drive bays, and the drive caddies support both 3.5-inch and 2.5-inch form factor drives. Like the others, it's not totally tool-less (most NAS boxes aren't), but the box does support hot swapping.
|QNAP TS-569 Pro Setup and Software|
|Out of the three NAS boxes reviewed here, QNAP's entry is easiest to install and configure (though none were particularly difficult). In fact, we set up our RAID array right from the LCD panel without before we even turned on our testbed.
QNAP's Finder utility is similar to Netgear's RAIDar software, in that it scans the network looking for the NAS box. Once found, you can look up details (like IP info), configure the NAS box, or connect to it and start poking around the GUI.
Once inside, we're quickly reminded of the Thecus N4800's dashboard. Both use a similar icon-based theme with expandable options and a search field on the left-hand side, and both are much easier to navigate than Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro 4. QNAP's menu feels the most fleshed out of all three, though it lacks a customizable Favorites menu like the Thecus NAS device, which is about the only "shortcoming" we could find, if you want to call it that. Overall, we really like the user-friendly approach QNAP employed here.
In place of an extensible platform with add-on support, QNAP includes a bunch of "applications," adding flexibility to already fleshed out feature-set. For example, you can enable QNAP's Photo Stream module or configure the TS-569 Pro to act as a surveillance system, the latter of which seems to be increasing in popularity on these types of appliances.
Other tricks up the QNAP device's sleeves include things like remote replication, Time Machine support, one-touch copying of USB drives, setting up the NAS box as a cloud server, configuring users and user quotas, virtual disk support, and a whole host of other functions.
|Testbed & Performance Showdown|
|While all these NAS boxes support a variety of configurations, including RAID 0, we focused our attention on RAID 5 performance. RAID 5 requires the use of at least three drives and offers a cost effective balance of performance and redundancy. We're also including benchmarks from Netgear's proprietary X-RAID2 format using the drives that shipped with the ReadyNAS Pro 4 (four 2TB Seagate Constellation ES).
To test RAID 5 performance, Western Digital supplied us with quad 3TB Red (WD30EFRX) drives built specifically for NAS duties. WD Red drives feature proprietary "NASware" technology to address concerns like compatibility, noise, vibration, power management, and reliability, all of which are accentuated in a NAS box environment.
We wired each NAS appliance to our Netgear WNDR4500 (N900) router, which is one of the fastest routers around, and measured file transfer performance to and from our testbed consisting of:
To kick things off, we copied a 3GB ISO file through a wired GbE connection.
We saw some interesting things out of Netgear's ReadyNAS Pro 4. Going from Netgear's proprietary X-RAID2 using the company's supplied 2TB Seagate Constellation ES drives to RAID using Western Digital's Reds, write performance (PC to NAS) took a slight hit, but read performance (NAS to PC) improved to the point where it was the fastest of the bunch.
As far as overall performance goes, QNAP's TS-569 Pro was the most consistent, taking around 31 seconds to read or write a single 3GB file. Both QNAP and Thecus thumped Netgear in write performance, which is perhaps the result of having a faster Atom processor (thereby reducing some of the latency hit).
To test small file performance, we transferred 1GB worth of files ranging in size from around 16MB to 32MB, plus a spattering of 1KB to 4KB files, all unzipped. Once again, Netgear's box took more time to write files, but aligned with the other devices in read performance. This time, however, the N4800 box from Thecus edged out a small victory over QNAP's appliance.
After a little tweaking, we were able to supplement our read and write tests with the popular ATTO benchmark. In order to do so, we had to map a network drive and use an older version of ATTO (v2.34).
Finally, we subjected each NAS box to a round of benchmarking using Intel's NAS Performance Toolkit, which is a "file system exerciser and analysis tool designed to enable performance comparisons between NAS devices." The gamut of tests focus on a variety of real-world use scenarios, such as HD video playback, content creation, file copy performance, and more. Windows 7 64-bit isn't officially supported, but with a little tinkering, we were able to get it to run successfully on all three devices.
Interestingly, Netgear's box showed marked improvement in the HD playback tests when running the company's proprietary X-RAID2 configuration, and bested both other appliances in the 2x and 4x HD Playback runs. In real world terms, that means (in theory) that it's best suited for streaming multiple videos at once, though we're splitting hairs over a few megabytes per second. Still, it's impressive.
Overall, QNAP came out on top by posting the best scores in 8 out of 12 categories (two-thirds). QNAP was especially strong in the HD Video Record, where it benched 125.2MB/s versus 112MB/s (Thecus), 87.6MB/s (Netgear X-RAID2), and 84.3MB/s (Netgear RAID 5).
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: All three of the NAS boxes we tested proved adept at whisking files to and from our testbed with haste, though QNAP's TS-569 Pro stood as a model of consistency from start to finish. It was sometimes the fastest, such as when reading and writing large and small files, and sometimes not, but always in the thick of things. So was the N4800 from Thecus, which isn't surprising considering both it and the QNAP box share similar internal hardware. Netgear, meanwhile, was a bit more erratic. Writing files generally took longer, but read performance was fast --sometimes blazing fast -- and the company's X-RAID2 technology wins bonus points for taking some of the guess work and risk out of managing a RAID array.
As with any roundup with a bunch of quality name manufacturers at play, picking a winner takes considerable thought and analysis; even then it could up for debate, depending on your usage model. We're not looking for sympathy here, just pointing that in this instance, all three NAS boxes have merit, which we'll summarize individually in a moment. That said, our Editor's Choice pick goes to QNAP's TS-569 Pro.
QNAP's box is the only one to feature five drive bays, though that's not why we're crowning it the victor, if you will, here. We're far more impressed with its rock solid performance no matter what you're doing, whether it's moving batches of files to and fro, or streaming video. It never hiccuped in our tests, nor did it ever feel slow. We also like that it has HDMI and VGA outputs, and its menu system feels the most fleshed out and is super easy to navigate. It's the total package.
We also like menu system on the Thecus N4800, which is similar to QNAP's and just as easy to jump around in. Also working in the N4800's favor is that it streets for around $630, nearly $300 less than QNAP's five-bay box and close to a grand less expensive than Netgear's device, yet it's the only one to include a built-in UPS backup. Less impressive are the On-Screen Display (OSD) controls, which aren't exactly intuitive. Unless you read and memorize the manual, you're not going to know that the down button brings up the USB copy command. It's not a huge deal, we just wish things were labeled a bit better. We have no qualms, however, about performance.