|Introduction and Specifications|
With the wide variety of network storage device offerings hitting the market, you'd think that this was the year of the NAS (network-attached storage) device. Considering how many people need or want a central location--a "hub" of sorts--to store their media and other files, share these files with other people, and access this data remotely, the NAS device has finally become mainstream...It's no longer just how powerful is your PC or how fast is your broadband connection; but now it's also how much data can you store on your home network.
Of course, not everyone actually needs a NAS device. But if you have a large or growing collection of digital photos, videos, and music, and want to share this media with other users in your household--or perhaps you want to consolidate all the media from different users and systems to a single source--then you can benefit from a NAS device. Add in automatic backups of all locally-networked PCs and remote access to the device over the Internet and you have the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub device.
The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub comes in three different versions. The NMH305 comes with 500GB of storage that can be user-upgraded to 1TB, and it sells for $299.99 (MSRP). The NMH405 also has 500GB of storage that can be user-upgraded to 1TB; but it also includes a color LCD status window, a media-card-reader, and sells for $349.99. Finally, the NMH410 has the same features as the NMH405, but it comes with a full 1TB of storage and sells for $429.99. We evaluated the 500GB NMH405.
If you examine the specs above, you might notice that the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub doesn't appear to be that different from many other NAS devices. This might be true of the device's specifications, but the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub offers a rather unique feature, and that is its Web-based interface, called the Media Browser, for streaming media to locally-networked and remote devices. The Media Browser interface is designed to be user friendly and make accessing, viewing, and listening to your media a very simple process. Unfortunately, we ran into a number of problems and limitations with the Media Browser along the way that significantly diminished the value this unique feature is meant to offer… But more on that later...
|Design and Build Quality|
The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub comes in a short, black chassis, which has a glossy sheen on its front and top, while the sides and back are flat black; the front and top of the device are ringed by a dark gray frame. The glossy portions of the case tend to attract noticeable fingerprints. The most noticeable feature of the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub is its 1.8-inch (176 x 220-pixels, 64K colors) LCD status menu. Below that sits a four-way navigation pad, a blue-lit power button, a CF card slot, an SD/MS/XD card slot, and a USB 2.0 port. The back of the unit includes a Gigabit Ethernet port, another USB 2.0 port, AC adapter jack, a Kensington Lock slot, and a cooling fan vent. The device was very quiet most of the time, even when data was being accessed from the drive; however, it gets momentarily very load as the fan spins up when you first power on the device--luckily the device is meant to stay powered on all of the time.
The top of the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub pops off with the press of a button that releases a latch. Note that while it is possible to open the device's chassis while it is still powered on, it is not a good idea to do so. We appreciate the ease with which you can open the case, but we think that too many curious passerby's--especially children--will be tempted to press the button to see what it does. The only occasions you should need to open the case would be to swap out a drive that has gone bad or to add a second drive to populate the device's second SATA drive bay. Perhaps this goes against design-101 principles and the ease-of-use mentality, but we actually would have preferred the device be more difficult to open.
The SATA drives are attached to a plastic drive tray that easily slides out once you pinch the tabs on either end. It slides back into place just as easily and can only go in one way, ensuring that you don't try to slide the drive in the wrong way--this assumes, of course, that you installed the drive properly into the tray. A small yellow sticker on the tray shows how the drive is supposed to be oriented. Drives attach to the tray via four screw mounts.
The LCD status menu is navigated using the four-way navigation pad directly beneath it. There's not a lot to the menu, it is easy to navigate, and fairly intuitive. However, we found the menu was sometimes sluggish to respond and it's easy to accidentally push the pad in an unintended direction, sending the menu to other than where you wanted it to go, or for it to perform an unintended action.
The menu's primary function is to give you information, such as how much of the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's drive capacity is used and how much is still available for additional storage. It also reports the drive's usage based on the percentage of music, photos, videos, and other files. There is also a network status window that looks as though it includes chart showing network access over time; the chart is actually just a static graphic and does not report any real information. The purpose of the network status window is let you know what the device's IP address is and to display red or green-colored Internet and LAN access icons to confirm that the device is connected. The settings menu lets you set when the LCD and the LCD's backlight will turn off. The settings menu also reports the installed version of the device's firmware and what the latest available firmware version is; if there is a newer version, it even gives you the option of updating the firmware.
The backup menu performs two functions. The first is that it can send a command to all locally networked systems for the systems to automatically perform on-demand backups. Each system needs to have the bundled NTI Shadow backup tool installed and running, and must have backup jobs defined and enabled. Assuming that this is the case, simply pressing the PC Backup button will initiate all enabled systems to begin their respective backups. The second action that the backup menu can do is automatically backup the contents of connected USB media or media cards. If a removable device is connected to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, and you choose to backup that device, its entire contents are copied to the backup folder on the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub.
|Initial Setup and Bundled Software|
Setting up the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub is very straightforward. The printed 16-page Quick Installation Guide includes detailed, step-by-step instructions. Additionally the software installation itself provides the same set of instructions. A removable orange warning label blocks the ports on the back of the device and the label commands you to "Run CD First before connecting cables." When you pop the CD in and the install software starts, it asks you if you are setting up the device for the first time or installing the software on subsequent systems that will be connecting to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. You don't necessarily have to install the software to use the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, but you will need the software if you want to take advantage of some of the device's features. The installation wizard also automatically sets some of the device's settings such as the name of the device and establishing an administrator password.
The next step of software installation is for setting up a system to access the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. This step maps the device as a drive letter in Windows, and installs the NTI Shadow backup tool and Linksys Media Importer applications. The installation process doesn't give you any configuration options for setting up the backup software, so you have to launch the NTI Shadow backup tool after installation is complete in order to set it up the way you want it to back up your system.
The import tool, however, lets you configure its settings during this initial installation process. The Linksys Media Importer scans your system's local hard drives or specific folders you select for any media or other file types you designate. Any folders or files that match the criteria you choose are automatically uploaded to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. When we first set up the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, the Media Importer software informed us that it would take approximately 7 hours to upload the 90.25GB of photos, music, and videos stored on our test system. We let it run overnight and all the media successfully uploaded to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub by the next morning. The Media Importer application is meant to always be running on your system in the background, copying any new media that is added to the pre-designated system folders up to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub.
While the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub has dedicated folders for music, photos, and videos, media imported to the device from systems is not actually stored in these folders. Imported media is actually stored in a series of subfolders that matches the directory structure of the system from which the files we imported. These subfolders sit in a folder that corresponds to the name of the system. All the media that gets imported from different systems resides in this "import" folder structure.
On the other hand, when you copy media directly to the device, you copy files directly into the "music," "photos," and "videos" folders. This might sound confusing, but the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub is designed in such a way that you needn't necessarily worry about where on the device's hard drive the media is actually stored. Every time that new files are added to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub--either manually or via the Media Importer application--the device scans the contents of the drive in order to build an updated database of what media is stored where. When you access the media on the device via its built-in, Web-based Media Browser, you simply choose what you want to watch or listen to in the Music, Photos, or Videos sections, which are sorted alphabetically or chronologically based on criteria such as album, artist, song name, date, or recently added media.
While this can potentially make getting media onto the device easier--regardless of where the media was originally copied from--as well relieving you from the potential headache of trying to figure out where on the device your media is stored, it does introduce the possibility of another problem: duplicate media. If you have the Media Importer set to automatically search your systems for media and are also uploading media directly to the device, then there is a good chance that at least sometimes you will be accidentally uploading media that is actually already there. But as the imported media is stored in a different directory than directly uploaded media, you may never realize it.
We ran into an unfortunate bug with the Media Browser, however. During the initial setup of the device and while setting up connected systems, media was being frequently added to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. As such, it would often be in an active state of scanning the contents of its hard drive in order to update its database of where the media files were stored. We found that whenever the device was performing a scan, the database would temporarily lose track of much of the data that was previously uploaded, until the scan was nearly complete. This was especially noticeable with our relatively small photo and video collections, which completely disappeared from the Media Browser. Only once the scan was near completion did the missing media start reappearing in the Media Browser. The files never actually went anywhere; they were always in the directories where they had been initially copied to--it was just that the Media Browser's file database temporarily lost them. We asked Cisco about this problem, and this was their reply: "It is something that we have heard of occasionally, but have not been able to replicate so we have not been able to remedy the issue. We are definitely working on it though."
Setting up the NTI Shadow backup software is also fairly easy as it is wizard-based. When it gets initially installed, its default settings are to back up only the system's Documents folder for the currently logged-in user, every hour, and to keep one previous version of all files. NTI Shadow can be configured to backup any set of folders or files that the system has access too (even networked connections). You can specify or exclude certain file types, such as MP3, TIF, DOC, or any other user-definable file extension. Backups can be scheduled to occur on specific days and times, or at regular intervals based on minutes, hours, or days. You can also choose to save previous versions of files as well--anywhere from none to up to 9 file iterations, or you can choose to save "all the previous file versions." NTI Shadow is a rather powerful backup tool and it does not even have to be used only with the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. Perhaps the only drawback is that when you restore files, they do not automatically get restored to their original location.
|Media Browser Interface|
The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's Web-based Media Browser is meant to be the primary interface through which you access the media stored on the device. The Media Browser has an intuitive interface and is capable of playing back a good number of popular media types. Playing media through the Media Browser also means that you don't necessarily need to install any special media playback software on systems in order to play the media. As the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub is both UPnP and DNLA complaint, any connected devices, such as an Xbox 360 can also access and play the media.
The main page of the Media Browser shows thumbnails for recently added music, photos, and videos. You can click on either the Music, Photos, or Videos icons to access those respective features. The Media Browser's main page also includes a simple pie chart graphic indicating how much of the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's storage capacity is used and how much is available. Icons for USB and Memory Cards indicate if a USB device (such as a flash drive or external hard drive) or memory card are presently connected to the device. (Note that the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub cannot act a printer server.) You can search the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's contents for specific media by name, and you can manually tell the device to rescan its contents in order to rebuild its database.
As we've already mentioned, every time the device scans its contents, there is a possibility that the device will lose track of some media that is stored on it. In a worst-case scenario, following one scan, the device lost track of every single piece of media we had stored on it--about 200GB worth of music, photos, and videos. The media wasn't gone, it was just that the database no longer knew it existed. If you use the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's Media Browser to access the media, then this can be extraordinarily inconvenient. When we encountered this complete loss we tried rebooting the device as well as having the Media Browser scan the device--several times; but it kept reporting that there was no media stored on the device. At this point our only option was to reset the device back to the factory default settings. Thankfully, all the reset does is set the device's configuration settings back to their defaults and does not impact the files that you've already copied to the device. This temporarily (at least until subsequent scans) resolved the issue, but we had to wait quite a while for the device to finish the scan so that all the media once again appeared in the Media Browser.
As long as the music file format type (or codec) is supported by the Media Browser, it plays back music files via a small player window at the top of the browser. You can add songs to a playlist, and music will continue to play while you browse other portions of the Media Browser. As is a problem with most music software, thumbnails are not always available for every album or song. If a music file type is not supported, the Media Browser will attempt to play the file using an external application if an appropriate one is installed on the local system.
Using the Photos section of the Media Browser, you can browse through photos or watch photo slideshows. Any music that you are playing will continue to play even during slideshows. At times, the Media Browser was slow to populate the photo thumbnails; this was especially problematic when the device was scanning or performing any file transfers. When they worked, slideshows worked well. However, on numerous occasions, we spent a significant amount of time staring at a blank screen, waiting for the photos to eventually appear.
For video playback, the Media Browser is dependant on the video playback capabilities of your browser. If you browser supports the video file type, format, and codec, then the Media Browser should be able to play the video either in a window or full-screen.
The Media Browser also includes a File Browser section, where you can see the entire contents of the device's hard drive. This is one of the few sections of the Media Browser that is password protected. In order to access the File Browser, you must supply the administrator password. By default, all media and imported files are stored in the media folder; and all system backups are stored in the backup folder. Also, by default, both of these folders are easily accessible directly via Windows without requiring a password--where you can read, write, delete, copy, and move files and folders (except those at the root directory level, where you have read-only access; if you want to create any additional folders from the root directory, you can only do that using the Media Browser's File Browser). This means that anyone who has access to your network has full access to all of the files stored on the device. To block that access, you would need to disable the device's Windows File Sharing setting.
The Media Browser is a less-than-ideal interface if you need to copy or move any folders or files. It has very limited options, such as the inability to move folders and it can only select up to 50 files at a time. You are much better off using Windows' much more robust interface. Externally connected devices, such as USB flash drives, show up in the media/devices/mnt folder, which provides a peek into the device's underlying linux-based OS.
When you connect an external device or media card to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, the device's LCD prompts you if you want to import media from the device. If so, the media gets copied to the media/import folder in a set of folders that correspond to the date the import took place and the name of the device from which the media was imported. When we connected an external hard drive that was formatted with the FAT32 file system, we were able to read and write to the drive. When we attached a drive that was NTFS formatted, we could only read from the drive.
We also ran into a problem where we could no longer access the Media Browser's File Browser. Either we would get stuck on the password screen or we would receive the cryptic message: "Error #2302." The only way we were able to resolve this problem was to perform yet another factory reset of the device.
By registering the device with the CiscoMediaHub Website through the Media Browser's Configuration settings, you can access the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub remotely from virtually anywhere over the Internet. You use the CiscoMediaHub site as a portal to access the device. All you need is the name of the device (you assign a unique "Remote Device Name") and the administrator password to get access. This service is provided free for one year, after which "fees may apply thereafter." The Web-based remote access interface is almost identical to the Media Browser interface--even down to the frequent missing media. We were able to successfully access the device remotely, but not before wrestling with an invalid security certificate. The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub also supports FTP access as well. We easily connected to the device via FTP over out local network, but we were unable to successfully establish a remote FTP connection over the Internet, even after following Cisco's instructions as to which ports we needed to open up on our router.
Based on the many problems we encountered with the Media Browser as well as its limitations, we don't recommend using the Media Browser for actually accessing media stored on the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. Instead, we recommend using something like iTunes to access music, and Picassa for accessing photos. The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub can be easily set as an iTunes server, and Picassa can easily be set to use networked folders. There are a few downsides to this approach, however. First and foremost is that iTunes and Picassa only serve your needs on your local network. If you want to access the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub remotely you have no choice but to use the remote Media Browser interface or perhaps spend more time than we did wrestling with the FTP access. Also, in order to be able to access your media with these applications from local-network connected devices, you need to make sure that the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's Windows File Sharing setting is enabled.
The Media Browser's Configuration page is where you can glean some information about the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub as well as change a number of the device's settings. This is one of the very few areas of the Media Browser that is accessible only via the administrator password.
The Configuration's Overview page is where you first land after selecting the Configuration button and providing the password. It provides the name you've assigned to the device, it's IP address, a quick-look at the device's available storage capacity, and indicates which of the device's settings are enabled. The System page provides more in-depth information about the device, such as the firmware version and what the device's current "up time" is. On this page you can also set the device's IP address, change the password, and reboot the device.
The Disk page shows you how the device's storage is used by usage type and provides information on the device's physical hard drive. It is from this page where you can reformat the hard drive or set the RAID mode if you were to add a second hard drive to the device. Whenever you add a second hard drive, all data from the first drive will be erased. Also, if you add a second drive and want to set up the device to use the drives in a RAID 1 (mirror) array, both hard drives should have the same storage capacity (otherwise, the total storage capacity available will be equivalent to the drive that has the least storage capacity).
The Backup page couldn't be simpler, as it has just a single Backup button. When you click the Backup button, it sends a command to all local-network connected systems. If a system has the NTI Shadow backup tool installed, active, and an enabled Backup Job with On Demand backup enabled, the on-demand backup will initiate and back up the relevant files to the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. The Services page is where you can enable and configure the device's remote access, Windows File Sharing, media server, iTunes server, and FTP server capabilities. By default, remote access and the FTP server are disabled.
In order to test the functionality of the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, we placed it on our Gigabit-Ethernet network and accessed it from a variety of Windows and Mac desktops and laptops. We connected to it via both wired and wireless connections (the device was attached to a wireless router), as well as remotely over the Internet.
To test the device's performance, we conducted a number of data-transfer tests to and from the device over our network using an HP Pavilion Elite m9550f desktop (2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300, 8GB PC2-6400 DDR2 SDRAM, 1TB NTFS 7200RPM SATA hard drive, ATI Radeon HD 4850 512MB, Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit) via a Gigabit-Ethernet connection. We conducted large-file write and read tests where we copied a 1.7GB ISO file between the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub and the HP Pavilion Elite m9550f. We also conducted small-files write and read tests where we copied a 267MB folder made up of 70 JPGs ranging in size from 2.27MB to 4.38MB between the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub and the HP Pavilion Elite m9550f. We conducted these tests by dragging-and-dropping the folders and files in Windows. We disabled the NTI Shadow backup tool and the Linksys Media Importer, so that there wouldn't be any background data transfers occurring during testing.
For comparison, we conducted these same tests on the Maxtor Central Axis Business Edition NAS device we reviewed recently. We also repeated all of our tests on an older 500GB Maxtor Shared Storage NAS device--copying files between the Maxtor Shared Storage device and the HP Pavilion Elite m9550f. Additionally, we ran our tests on an external hard drive connected directly to a USB 2.0 port on the HP Pavilion Elite m9550f; the drive we used was a 320GB Western Digital Caviar Blue drive (7200RPM SATA-II, 16MB cache) placed into an external enclosure and formatted using the NTFS file system.
The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub took 113.2 seconds to write and 114.8 seconds to read a 1.70GB ISO file. This is nowhere near the 66.9-second write time and 12.7-second read time of the directly-connected USB hard drive, but we wouldn't expect network transfer performance to be anywhere as near as fast as a directly-connected drive. That said, Linksys by Cisco Media Hub was still the fastest of the three NAS devices we tested. The large-file transfer rates on our tests equate to about 13.1MB/Sec (109.6Mb/Sec) for writing and 15.2MB/Sec (127.2Mb/Sec) for reading.
The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub took 25.4 seconds to write and 24.8 seconds to read a 267MB folder of small files. While the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's small-file transfer speed are a bit slower than its large file transfer rate on our tests, it still bested the performance of the other NAS devices. On our tests, the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub writes small files at about 10.5MB/Sec (88.1Mb/Sec) and reads small files at around 10.8MB/Sec (90.2Mb/Sec). The USB-connected hard drive, obviously, beat all three NAS devices. In fact, we couldn't even generate useful numbers for the USB drive's small-files read performance as Windows cached the files in memory and essentially performed instantaneous transfers whenever we repeated the file copy (all tests were run multiple times to ensure repeatability).
As to more anecdotal performance observations, we found that the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub was very quick to respond to file access in Windows, as long as the device wasn't already performing any file transfers or was scanning its contents to repopulate its media database. At those times, the device became somewhat sluggish to respond. We found that the device spent so much time scanning as new files were added that we experienced this lag frequently. Once we disabled the Linksys Media Importer on our systems, and chose to subsequently copy all media to the device manually, did the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub perform far fewer performance-impacting scans.
Using the Media Browser's File Browser to transfer files, on the other hand, was a much slower affair than using Windows. The same large-file read that took only 114.8 seconds in Windows, took a whopping 31 minutes using the File Browser interface. We had trouble trying to reproduce our other tests with the File Browser as it does not allow you to download folders, you can only download one file at a time, and the maximum file size the File Browser allows you to upload is about 1GB in size.
We also connected the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub to a power meter to get a sense of how much power it consumes. Whether the device was sitting idle or under load, it consistently sipped only about 12 to 13 watts of power.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Unfortunately, the feature that makes the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub unique is also its biggest detriment. If you remove the device's Media Browser interface from the equation, however, then the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub is a simple, capable NAS device with very good performance--with the significant caveat that you won't see that performance whenever the device is busy rebuilding its database--which we found was a frequent occurrence.
It's also a shame that media kept disappearing from the Media Browser's interface, as it is intuitive and easy to navigate. But no matter how easy it is use, if the media you are looking to access is not there, then that simplicity is utterly wasted. This is why we recommend that you skip using the device's Media Browser interface altogether and instead use other locally-installed apps, such as iTunes and Picassa, to access the media on the device. Taking this approach, however, doesn't help you when you want to access the device remotely over the Internet, when you have no choice but to use the Media Browser interface which relies on the device's flaky media database capabilities. Linksys is working on the issue, however, so hopefully it will be addressed with a firmware update at some point in the future.
We also found the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub's $349.99 price tag to be high when compared to other 500GB NAS devices--which often sell for more than half what the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub costs. We were hoping that this was just an inflated MSRP to make the actual street price seem like a great deal, but this was not the case. The vast majority of vendors we found selling the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, were selling it for the MSRP or even higher. For roughly the same amount of money, you can find the much-more capable, Maxtor Central Axis Business Edition with up to 2TB of storage capacity, which we recently bestowed with a HotHardware Editor's Choice award. Weighing all the factors, we find it difficult to recommend the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub as a NAS solution--there are better, more capable options out there, for a lot less money.