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Seagate FreeAgent DockStar NAS Device Review
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Date: Oct 23, 2009
Section:IT/Datacenter
Author: Daniel A. Begun
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Introduction and Design


Network-attached storage (NAS) devices come in all shapes and sizes; some even come without hard drives--with the intention that the users will add the drives themselves. There is even a relatively new category of NAS devices that don't have any internal drives at all, and instead use USB-attached drives as their storage source. These NAS devices are typically inexpensive and super-easy to setup and use. We've even looked at a couple of them: the Addonics NAS Adapter ($49) and CloudEngines' Pogoplug ($99).



Now a big name in the storage business, Seagate, has jumped onto this bandwagon and released its own USB drive-based NAS device, the
Seagate FreeAgent DockStar. Instead of reinventing the wheel, however, Seagate chose to license the Pogoplug technology from CloudEngines and integrate it--with a few differences--into the DockStar. The most obvious difference between the Pogoplug and the DockStar is their appearance. While the Pogoplug is essentially a small white cube, the DockStar is a bit more svelte (3.39x3.351.50), with a cradle on top designed to work exclusively with Seagate's line of FreeAgent Go portable hard drives--in fact, the DockStar looks a lot like the Seagate FreeAgent Go Dock. Another major difference between the DockStar and the Pogoplug is that the DockStar has a total of four USB 2.0 ports versus the Pogoplug's single USB 2.0 port. (You could use the USB port in the DockStar's cradle to connect to a drive other than a FreeAgent Go drive, but you'd need to get your hands on a cable or adapter that has a female mini-USB port.)

 


Under the hood, both the DockStar and the Pogoplug are actually fully-functional Linux-based computers: They are system-on-chip (SoC) device, based on
Marvell's SheevaPlug Development Kit. As such, the Pogoplug is easily modifiable via SSH shell access, where users can add additional functionality to the device, such as adding iTunes server or BitTorrent functionality (unlike other more full-featured NAS devices, the DockStar and Pogoplug lack these features). Seagate, on the other hand, appears to not want DockStar users to muck with the works--you can access the DockStar via SSH shell access, but without the password, you won't be able to get past the login prompt. (If Seagate ever makes the DockStar's SSH password public or someone figures it out, then the DockStar can conceivably be hacked to the same extent as the Pogoplug.)

Another difference between the DockStar and the Pogoplug is that after the first year of ownership, the DockStar requires a $29.99 yearly subscription fee in order to continue using the DockStar's file sharing and remote access features. The Pogoplug's $99 cost includes lifetime file sharing and remote access. The DockStar comes with a one-year subscription to the Pogoplug service; if you choose to not renew the subscription when it runs out, you can still keep using the DockStar as a NAS device on your local network, but you'll no longer be able to share files with other users over the Internet and you'll lose the ability to access the DockStar remotely.
 

 

MSRP: $99.99

It is the DockStar's file-sharing and remote access features, combined with how easy it is to use, that truly makes the DockStar such a compelling product. Users can easily make any sort of files available to other users, including photos, videos, and music. When you make content available, the DockStar can even automatically publish updates to social networking sites and publish RSS feeds. By routing these features through the Pogoplug service, all content is available via a Web interface, and you don't need to concern yourself with doing any port routing on your router or even fuss with setting up a FTP server.

 


The DockStar can be accessed via the Pogoplug Web-based interface or directly from systems running the Windows, Mac, or Linux operating systems after downloading and installing client software from Pogoplug.com. In addition to four USB 2.0 ports, the DockStar has a Gigabit Ethernet port. The DockStar is covered by a one-year warranty. And for those carefully watching their carbon footprint, the DockStar comes in fully-recyclable packaging.

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Setup and Local Network Access Options


Getting up and running with the DockStation is very easy: you simply connect the device's power adapter, connect the Ethernet port to your router, attach your USB drives, and activate the device over the Internet. There is one caveat, however, that isn't mentioned in the manual: Whatever drives you connect to the DockStation must already be formatted--unlike more robust NAS devices, the DockStation does not include the ability to format attached disks.

 

 You have to activate the DockStar online before you can start using it.


The good news is that the DockStation supports a wide range of file systems: NTFS, FAT32, Mac OS Extended Journaled, Mac OS non-Journaled (HFS+), ext2, and ext3. Once a properly formatted drive is attached, the file system that the drive is formatted with is completely irrelevant to any networking client that attaches to the drive through the DockStation. No matter what a particular drive's file system is--as long as the DockStation supports it--any Windows, Mac, or Linux client can read from it and write to it. At any time you can disconnect a drive from the DockStation and connect directly to a system's USB port--although in this case, you do need to make sure that the client system's OS supports the drive's file system. You can attach either USB hard drives or USB flash drives to the DockStation. The DockStation does not support printer server functions (although you can hack the Pogoplug to be a print server).

 

 

 Activating the DockStar takes only a few quick steps (left);
you can set the Pogoplug app to start on Windows login (right).


Once the DockStation is plugged into a router and power, you need to activate it by going to www.seagate.com/activatemydockstar. First you register the device by supplying your name and e-mail address, and then you create an account using your e-mail address and a password of your choosing. At this point you can access the DockStation via the Pogoplug site's Web interface (by visiting dockstar.pogoplug.com or my.pogoplug.com), but most users will probably want to access the DockStation directly via their system's OS. Windows, Mac, and Linux users can download a small client app from pogoplug.com/downloads, which when installed, mounts the DockStation as an attached hard drive (as opposed to a networked drive).

The Pogoplug app gives you the option of starting at login, which would then automatically mount the DockStation whenever you logged into your system. This is assuming, of course, that you also select the option for the app to remember your Pogoplug login credentials--otherwise, the app would start at login, but you would still have to supply your login credentials in order to access the device and its connected drives.

 

 

 

 Multi-drive mode (left) and non-Multi-drive mode (left and right).


The Pogoplug app includes a "Multi-drive mode" option. If you select Multi-drive mode, then each individual drive that is attached to the DockStation appears as a local volume with its own drive letter. If you don't select Multi-drive mode, then the DockStation appears as a single local volume, with each of the attached drives appearing as folders. A "Files Shared with me" folder is present as well, which links to any drives and folders that other Pogoplug users have shared with you. At this point you can start using the DockStation as though the drives attached to it were connected directly to your system.

One word of warning: there is no user-level control on the Pogoplug. Anyone who accesses the DockStation on your local network has full read, write, and delete access to all of the contents of the drives connected to the DockStation--this is an all-or-nothing proposition: you either have full access or none at all. If you don't want someone to have access to the DockStation, then don't install the app on their system, or at least don't choose the app's "Remember me" option.

 

 

 

 Mapping a DockStar-connected drive via SMB on Windows (left),
the Mac OS (center), and Linux (right).


There is another way to access the DockStation, however, that does not need the Pogoplug app at all. In the Web-based Pogoplug settings, we noticed settings for "Windows File Sharing." It turns out that the DockStation also supports mounting the drives as network volumes via SMB (Samba). You can set the Windows File Sharing access for each drive as "Read and write," "Read only," and "Disabled" (note that these settings only affect the ability to connect to the DockStation's drives via SMB--they don't have any impact on accessing the drives via the Pogoplug app). As long as you know the DockStation's IP address or network name, and a drive name (which is used as the "share" portion of the "\\server\share" taxonomy needed), then you should be able to mount and map any of the DockStation's drives. We successfully did this on systems that were running Windows Vista, Mac OS X 10.6, and SUSE Linux 11.1 (although how you do this differs slightly depending on the particular OS). It is important to keep in mind that logging into a share on the DockStation this way does not require any login credentials at all--no user name, no password--you're logging in as a guest with full read, write, and delete access, unless you changed the Windows File Sharing access level as outlined above.

In contrast, the Pogoplug does not have a Windows File Sharing option. That does not mean, however, that you can't connect to the Pogoplug via SMB. But in order to do so requires a bit of hacking. We queried CloudEngines if the Pogoplug would have a Windows Windows option or similar SMB-support built into the Pogoplug Web interface, and this was the company's reply:

"The current Pogoplug firmware does have support for Samba, however we chose not to reveal it in the UI. Our concern was that the user experience would not be consistent with the Pogoplug message of simplicity, consistent user experience across multiple operating systems, and access to your data from anywhere. With Samba only working in the home, and having different configuration and user experiences on different operating systems, we chose to focus on the Pogoplug drive app, which we make available for free for both Pogoplug and Dockstar. Having said that, we are firmly committed to keeping Pogoplug open for users to modify if they want. Samba and several other common NAS applications have been successfully added by users and instructions are available on sites like www.pogoplugged.com and www.openpogo.com."


 Pogoplug General Settings page (top), Payment Settings (middle) page,
and Windows Sharing page (bottom).


All of the DockStar's settings are controlled from the dockstar.pogoplug.com or my.pogoplug.com sites. The General Settings page allows you to add additional e-mail accounts for your account, add or change your screen name, and change your password. You can also rename the DockStar or any of the attached drives. If you want to remove an attached drive from the DockStar, you'll need to first eject it from the General Settings window. If you have more than one DockStar or Pogoplug device, all the devices will appear on the General Settings windows, as well as in the My Library window. A Payment Settings windows show you when your yearly subscription is set to expire.

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Remote Access


If you are on the road and want to access the DockStar remotely over the Internet, doing so is no different than as if you were accessing the device over your home network. If the Pogoplug app is installed and running on your system, the device's attached drives will still show up as locally-attached drives. You can also connect to the device via the Web interface (dockstar.pogoplug.com or my.pogoplug.com). The only real difference you are likely to encounter is that the remote connection will probably be slower than when connecting over your local network.

 

 Pogoplug Web interface.


The Web interface is a very simple affair with all of the available drives listed on the left side of the window. Each drive listing includes a set of preset searches, such as files added or changed today, last week, and last month; other search options let you search for photos, music, and movies, as well as doing a custom search. The left side of the window also allows you to view any files that other DockStar or Pogoplug users have shared with you, and view any files that you have shared with other users (more on this on the next page). You can view files using a list view, or by small, medium, or large thumbnails. You can sort the view by file name, size, date, or type.

 

 

 Browsing and playing audio files (left); viewing photos as a slideshow (right).


If you mouse over a file, action items appear, such as download, rename, or delete. Mousing over a folder adds the additional option to share the folder. If the file you mouse over is a photo, video, or audio file (assuming that the file format is supported by the Web interface), you also have the option to preview the file either by selecting the preview item in the Actions section or more simply, just by clicking on the file. Photos and videos open up in a window that overlays the page; audio files play in a small player that appears in the lower-right-hand corner of the window. You can also view photos as a slideshow. We didn't throw every type of media file possible at the flash-based Web interface, but we did have luck viewing BMP, GIF, JPG, and PNG image files; M4V, MOV, and MP4 video files; and M4A and MP3 audio files. (We couldn't get the Web interface to view or play TIF, PDF, WMV, FLC, FLV, 3GP, 3G2, AAC, AIFF, or WAV files.)

 

 

 Browsing video files (left); playing a video (right).


  

 

 

 The Pogoplug iPod app in action.


If you own an iPhone or iPod touch, you can also connect to the DockStar locally or remotely with the free iPhone Pogoplug app. With the iPhone app you can navigate through the folders on all the drives attached to the DockStar, as well as files shared with you. (You are supposed to also be able to see files you share with others, but there is currently a bug with this feature--see the next page for information about the bug.) You can upload photos from your iPhone, as well as view or play media files from DockStar-attached drives. We were able to view GIF, JPG, PDF, and PNG image files (interestingly, we could view PDFs on the iPhone, but not using the Web interface); M4V, MOV, and MP4 video files; and M4A and MP3 audio files. When we selected a BMP file, the app attempted to show the image, but instead displayed a blank window; with our test WAV file, the app played less than the first second of the song, before the app crashed and dumped us back out to the main iPhone screen. The app also crashed on us a few times when trying to upload photos. If you don't renew your yearly DockStar subscription, the iPhone Pogoplug app will still be able to access the DockStar over your local network, but it will no longer be able to connect to the DockStar remotely.

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File Sharing


There are a number of ways that you can share files with other users. No matter how you choose to share files, however, the one thing you will need to do is select the folder you want to share and then choose either the Share action button or select "Turn on sharing for folder '[folder name]'" in the Sharing window. You can share entire drives or folders, but you cannot share individual files.

 

 The varied Pogoplug Sharing options.


In the Sharing window, you add the e-mail addresses of those users you want to share a drive or folder with, add an optional message, and then click the Invite button. Those users will receive an e-mail alerting them that you have shared a folder with them, with a link that takes them directly to the Pogoplug Web interface that displays the folder's contents. The recipient does not need to be a DockStar owner or even have a Pogoplug account in order to view these files. The user has the option of creating a free Pogoplug account, after which this shared folder will appear in the "Files shared with me" section of the Web interface. If the recipient sets up a free Pogoplug account, then the user could also download and install the Pogoplug application on their computer and access the shared folder as a locally-mapped drive. If a recipient sets up a free Pogoplug account, then s/he can also install the Pogoplug iPhone app and access these files from the iPhones as well.

 

 Because of a bug, The Pogoplug
iPhone app doesn't show
shared files.

However, it was while we were testing the iPhone app as an invited recipient (a non-DockStar owner) that we discovered a bug with the iPhone app. The "Files shared with me" link shows the disks and folders that are shared with you, but if you select any of these disks or folders, all you see on the next screen is the message "Load more files... Showing 25 of many"; but it doesn't actually list any files. We next used the iPhone app as a DockStar owner and tried the "Files I share" link and ran into the same problem. A little digging online discovered that we weren't the only ones with this problem. We queried Seagate about this and found out that this is actually a known bug, and one that affects Pogoplug users as well, not just DockStar users:

"This does appear to be a bug with the PogoPlug iPhone app. This bug is actively being worked on and a fix should be available in the near future... this capability will be updated on the PogoPlug iPhone App shortly."

After you have sent out an e-mail invitation, that user's email address appears in the Sharing window under the "People this drive is shared with" section. For each user who you share a folder with, you can set their access as "View/Download" (which is the default setting) or "Full access." If you grant a user "Full access," that user must setup a free Pogoplug account in order to upload, rename, or delete files. You can also choose the "Let people know when this folder changes" option, which will send an e-mail out to any user you invited, whenever the contents of the folder changes. Note that users who you share folders with are not allowed to then share those folders with other users--only the original owner of a folder can share it with additional users.

 

 Viewing a folder of photos as an invited guest.


Another way you can share a drive or folder is to select the "Enable Public Viewing" option. This option creates a publically-available URL that takes you to a simplified version of the Pogoplug Web interface for that folder. As no invitation is needed to access this URL, anyone who knows this URL or stumbles across it will have view and download access to the entire contents of the folder. You can also publish an RSS feed for the shared folder--which could be an easy way to view photos on an Internet-enabled digital photo frame.

 

 Sharing a folder with your Facebook friends.


The last way you can share the content of drives or folders is via social networking. The Sharing window allows you to also send updates to Twitter, Facebook, or MySpace (assuming, of course, that you have accounts on these sites). If you choose one of these options for a folder, then that folder is automatically enabled for pubic viewing and an update appears on your profile page on the respective social networking site(s), stating that the shared folder is available for viewing, with a link to the Public Viewing version of the Pogoplug site for that folder. Some users might use this as way to share photos with their family and friends.

If you do choose to use the DockStar to share content with other users, a few caveats needs to be mentioned. First and foremost is that you need to be careful what you share. You obviously don't want give other users access to highly personal or embarrassing information; so make sure you know what is on the drives, folders, and subfolders that you open up for sharing. Also, it would be ill advised to share content that you don't own the rights to, such as commercial music or movies.

The other thing you need to be mindful of is that when you share content via the DockStar, whenever a user connects to a shared folder, that user is utilizing your upstream bandwidth. If you have lots of users accessing your DockStar who are downloading content and streaming media, and your ISP limits how much bandwidth you can use (for instance, Comcast's 250GB per month limit is an aggregate of your downstream and upstream bandwidth), you could potentially chew through your ISP's monthly allotment pretty quickly. Also, if you generate lots of traffic coming into your DockStar, your ISP might flag you as a business customer and demand that you switch to a commercial account. So share wisely.

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Performance


In order to test the functionality of the DockStar, we placed it on a Gigabit-Ethernet network and accessed it from a variety of Windows, Mac, and Linux desktops and laptops. We connected to it via both wired and wireless connections, as well as remotely over the Internet. We connected a variety of USB hard drives and USB flash drives to the DockStar--with the drives formatted with a number of different file systems.

To test the device's performance, we connected a 320GB Seagate FreeAgent Go drive (formatted with with the NTFS file system) to the DockStar's top-mounted USB port--which is designed to work exclusively with the FreeAgent Go drive. 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 DockStar and the 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 DockStar and the m9550f. We conducted these tests by dragging-and-dropping the folders and files in Windows, with the DockStar connected as a mapped drive using the Pogoplug application.

We compared the performance of the DockStar against that of a number of full-featured NAS devices we've looked at recently, including the
Seagate BlackArmor NAS 440, Synology Disk Station DS409+, HP MediaSmart Server LX195, WD My Work World Edition, Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, and Maxtor Central Axis Business Edition.

 

The DockStar's strong suite is its large-file transfer performance--especially when its writing data to a connected drive. On our tests, the DockStar wrote a large-sized file at a very respectable 23.1MBps (194.2Mbps)--which is even a hair faster than what we saw with the SMB-class Seagate BlackArmor NAS 440. In fact, the DockStar's large-file write performance was significantly faster than we've seen from a number of full-features NAS devices, such as the WD My Book World Edition and the Linksys by Cisco Media Hub. The DockStar's large-file read performance of 23.1MBps (193.5Mbps), however, was bested by most of the full-featured NAS devices we've tested. On our small-files transfer test, the DockStar could not write files (5.3MBps, 44.8Mbps) as speedily as any of the full-featured NAS devices; but it's small-files read performance (17.5MBps, 146.9Mbps) put it in the middle of the pack.

While it is not necessarily fair to compare the DockStar to more full-featured NAS devices, it is useful to see how it compares to more expensive options. That said, we also compared the DockStar to other similar USB-drive-based NAS solutions: specifically the
Pogoplug and the Addonics NAS Adapter. We tested the Addonics some time ago and it is possible that more recent firmware updates have improved performance, but it was no longer available to us for re-testing. The Pogoplug, however, was still on hand, so we re-tested it with the latest firmware. We included performance numbers for the Pogoplug from our original testing (using firmware 1.0.0.16) and from our re-testing (using firmware 1.0.0.36) in the charts below. We also wanted to see how the DockStar performed when it was mapped as a network volume instead of as a local drive (using the Pogoplug app)--performance numbers for both scenarios are in the charts below.

 

After we ran our tests, the first thing that jumped out at us was how much of difference we saw in the DockStar's small-files write performance when we switched from mapping it as a local drive to mapping it as a network volume--transfer speeds jumped from 5.3MBps (44.8Mbps) to 17.8MBps (149.5Mbps)--roughly a 3.3x speed increase. The DockStar's other tranfser rates sped up as well, but only by a small margin. However, when mapped as a network volume, the DockStar was the speediest of the USB-drive-based NAS solutions we tested.

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Summary and Conclusion


For anyone who has toyed with the idea of setting up and using a NAS device for the very first time, the DockStar could be a great way to get your feet wet. The device is inexpensive (at the time this article posted, Amazon was selling it for $78.99) and very easy to setup and use. However, if you don't already have a USB drive (or drives) to attach to the DockStar, then purchasing a drive (or drives) to attach to the device would likely negate any savings you get from choosing the DockStar over more-expensive and more full-featured, home-based NAS devices.

The DockStar should also appeal to those users who want to share files with their family and friends, such as photos and home videos. While there are plenty of commercial sites that offer file-sharing features, you'd be hard-pressed to find a site that lets you share any file type you can think of, with virtually unlimited storage capacity, without paying a hefty fee. The downside with this home-based arrangement is that if you have lots of users viewing and downloading content from your shared drives, you could wind up in the bad graces of your ISP.





Performance-wise, more full-featured NAS devices don't really have much to worry about in terms of competition. As far as similar USB drive-based NAS devices go, however, the DockStar leads the pack--but only if you using the Windows File Sharing feature and mount its drives as network volumes. But even using the device with just the Pogoplug app and mounting the drives as local volumes, the DockStar's performance is at least on par with its Pogoplug brethren.

Which brings us to comparing the DockStar to the Pogoplug. Both devices have very similar functionality and features. While the DockStar has three more onboard USB ports than the Pogoplug does, the Pogoplug can also work with multiple drives by using a powered USB hub. One thing the DockStar has that the Pogoplug doesn't is the ability to easily mount connected drives as network volumes via SMB (at least not without a bit of hacking the Pogoplug). What the Pogoplug has that the DockStar doesn't, is a lack of a yearly subscription fee. Pogoplug owners can access their devices remotely and share files for as long as they own their devices, at no additional cost. DockStar owners, however, will have to pony up $29.99 per year, after the first year of ownership, if they want to keep using these features--as these are, perhaps, the most compelling features of the DockStar (other than its ease-of-use), potential DockStar owners need to factor this into their purchasing decision.





  

  

  • Easy to setup and use
  • Easy to access remotely and share content
  • Social networking features
  • Accessible via free iPhone app
  • Doesn't support networking USB printers
  • Doesn't include a built-in iTunes server
  • Shared folder write-access gives too much control to local users
  • Annual subscription required for remote access and file sharing after the first year



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