|Intro And Specifications|
When most home and workstation users think of NAS (Network Attached Storage), they think of big, bulky rackmount servers packed to the brim with terabytes of hard drive space (and terabyte-style price tags to match). NAS became a buzzword in the late 90's, during the dot-com explosion, where the product was targeted at companies who were just integrating web functionality into their businesses, and needed data storage where multiple people could access single file sets.
Typical NAS servers ranged in the multi-thousand dollar price range when they were first introduced, and most companies found that building cheap PC's with commodity components and inexpensive hard drives was a much more viable solution than a dedicated NAS server. While NAS servers still exist in their original form (and have greatly improved over the years), NAS is not nearly the force it once was in the market. However, NAS is finding a new market, that being the home.
Most homes today have at least one PC, and connecting them together to share files and internet connectivity has urged the wireless network products forward. However, sometimes you want to access files over a network, but don't want to run over and turn that other PC on. It would be nice if you could just access the hard drive directly over the network, without the hassle of the PC. In very simplistic terms, this is what NAS is. With users integrating music and movie storage systems for their homes, NAS turns out to be the perfect product.
Plextor, well known for their optical writers, is starting to expand their product line as of late with video editing and conversion systems, and as of this month, NAS devices. We're going to look at one of Plextor's new NAS drives, sold under the (not extremely memorable) PX-EH25L-NA name. Plextor is looking to bring NAS devices to the masses at tolerable price points. Let's see how they do.
While the side panel may appear to be aluminum alloy, the unit is fully plastic, although it certainly maintains a solid feeling. The unit has rubber feet on multiple sides, allowing it to be placed both horizontally and vertically. However, Plextor states in the manual that horizontal operation of the drive can "damage the unit" - and that the unit should sit vertically at all times. Interesting.
The front of the unit is equipped with two LEDs, one red, one green. The green LED stays constant whenever the unit is powered up and indicates that the unit is active and functioning. The red LED only illuminates when the NAS device is being read from, or the LED will blink if there are network or device issues. The rear of the unit is equipped with a few items which need explaining as well. First off, as basic power power and a hardware power on/off button. The unit is powered by a "power brick" AC adapter which connects to the back of the drive. The "brick" is somewhat clunky, but can easily be tucked away if need be. Below the on/off button there is a small pinhole which can be used to reset the device in case of emergency.
The unit is equipped with two USB 2.0 ports, which may seem a bit odd. Why would one need USB 2.0 ports if the drive is being accessed via Ethernet? Well, it's actually quite ingenious! The USB 2.0 ports can serve two purposes. First off, it can be used to link a USB printer to systems over the network. Instead of plugging a printer into one PC in the household, you can plug it into the NAS device, which allows anyone with access to the NAS device to print over the network. Secondly, the USB 2.0 ports can be used to add additional storage. For example, if you fill up the 250/400 GB space which the Plextor drive offers, you could plug in another USB based hard drive and it would extend the storage capabilities of the NAS device.
Lastly, there is a standard RJ-45 / network jack on the right side of the unit. The drive supports standard 10/100 network speeds, and can be connected directly to a hub/switch or to a user's PC LAN port. If you'll notice, to the left of the LAN port, there is a small switch, which allows you to toggle the device between "switched" and "direct connect" modes. If you connect the unit directly to a network, it's highly advised that you have DHCP enabled, as it makes the initial steps of setting up the unit far easier (trust us, we know this from experience).
Plextor ships their NAS devices with a pretty slick RJ-45 network cable, which looks at first glance to be a roll of black electrical tape. This thin plastic cable is actually a standard RJ-45 cable, but is flatter compared to the vast majority of network cables on the market. These ultra-thin cables are great for routing under carpets and routing cable through areas which they typically wouldn't go to.
|Setup & Interface|
Once the user has power and is connected to a network, a flip of the power switch turns this beast on. Initially, you can notice the whir of a hard drive spinning up. The acoustic signature of the Plextor NAS unit spinning up is similar to that of a 7,200 RPM hard drive spinning up. Not surprising, given the internal components used in this device. The drive takes about 20-30 seconds to initially boot up. If not accessed, the drive will spin down and go into sleep mode to conserve power and create less heat. However, when it receives a network request, this means the drive must spin back up, which means that initial data requests can take a few seconds longer than expected.
In theory, the NAS device should be able to detect any DHCP enabled network, grab an IP address, and become immediately accessible to anyone on the network. If your network is not DHCP enabled, this makes setup of the device significantly more difficult. If you don't have DHCP, you must plug into the unit directly from your PC, change your network settings to match the same network subnet, log-in, change the device to your network settings, and re-setup your network. Even though our network is DHCP enabled, our Plextor NAS device was not able to obtain IP's from it, despite the fact that every other network enabled device has no issue with this.
Plextor includes a Quick Start guide, on paper, which guides you through the basics of setting the drive up. The Quick Start guide is fairly easy to understand and gives a good overview of the device. However, if you need more advice on setting up the device, you'll have to turn to the setup CD. The setup CD documentation, in reality, is a bunch of poorly constructed html pages which must be viewed through a browser. Spelling errors, poor navigation and (we kid you not) heavy use of the <blink> tag make browsing the "advanced" documentation a downright excruciating experience.
After many attempts, we were able to get the device to show up. When working properly, you can simply search for the Plextor device (labeled PX-EH by default) in Windows, and it will pop like up, as seen below. The drive already has a Windows share loaded by default, labeled "Disk". Data can be read from or written onto this volume just like any other Windows share. The easiest route to take though is to simply map a Windows drive letter to this network share for ease of use in the future.
Once the drive is visible, you can also access it through a web browser by hitting its IP address. This brings up the "basic" Plextor interface menu, which allows you to tweak network settings, change the name of the device, and manage any USB device connected to the unit.
One of the submenus is labeled "HDD Info", which continently states information on the 250 GB internal hard drive on the unit. Without even opening the device, you can see that Plextor is using Hitachi's Deskstar T7K250 Ultra ATA/133 hard drive for this unit, which is a 7,200 RPM disk with 8 MB of cache. The drive chips with a peak capacity of 245 GB, but only 233 GB are actually usable - meaning Plextor's integrated NAS software takes up roughly 12GB of disk space on the drive.
Some of the more interesting features of the PX-EH are hidden away in the "expert mode" menu. In this menu, you can enable some more advanced features, like the PX-EH's embedded FTP and NTP (time) server services. You can also enable support for Apple networks, and setup auto-backup functions from another PC or to a secondary network attached device. The built-in server functions are useful, although it would have been nice if Plextor went one step further and integrated an HTTP server. This would likely introduce a barrel-full of compatibility issues, however, so perhaps it's best that Plextor kept to the fairly simple server functions.
Plextor claims that the PX-EH25 can support speeds up to 94.5 Mbps, which looks quite fast upon first glimpse for a storage device. Keep in mind though, Plextor is using Mbps, not MBps, which is commonly used to gauge speed of hard drives. 94.5 Mbps translates to 11.8 MB/s, which isn't quite as impressive. In contrast, most modern 7,200 RPM Serial ATA hard drives can push 30-40 MB/s, so the network interface does act as a bottleneck. One can only wonder if Plextor used Gigabit connectivity in this system, if this could have equated to better overall transfer rates.
We tested the drive out by comparing it to a standard USB 2.0 enabled 7,200 RPM backup disk, along with our own file server, which connects via Gigabit Ethernet, which itself also uses 7,200 RPM storage. We copied the same exact 1 GB file over to the three devices from a central PC, and here are the speeds which we achieved.
Disk Bench File Copy Tests
Copying the 1 GB file over to a USB 2.0 based backup storage was the quickest at about 28 MB/s, whereas copying that same 1 GB file to a Gigabit connected network device rated slightly slower at about 27 MB/s. The Plextor PX-EH25 device, however, scored rather poorly at 7.3 MB/s, or roughly 58 MBps. This was a direct connect via CAT-5, so no other network traffic was involved with this test. Those scores aren't particularly great, and we're left wondering if a faster network interface could have helped transfer rates. There are many other NAS devices using Gigabit connectivity nowadays, and given how inexpensive Gigabit components are in today's market, it's somewhat puzzling why this device is still 10/100 based.
Benchmarks aside, the drive should still be plenty fast for any kind of basic home storage and for home theater usage. The drive is still quick enough so that we did not notice any lag time when coping dozens of RAW digital camera photos to and from the drive, and we were able to stream HD content from the drive without any slowdowns. We were even able to stream HD content from the drive to multiple sources as well, which is nice for home theater setups. Say, for instance, if two people want to stream movies or music from a single source - the unit is still plenty speedy for this. For basic office documents, the PX-EH should work great.
Given Plextor's continued higher level of quality in their optical writer lineup compared to other major manufacturers who have entered their market, we're a bit surprised when we say Plextor's first entry into the NAS market isn't quite as stellar. However, their PX-EH 250 GB drive certainly is a solid product, and does exactly what it sets out to do. The drive provides inexpensive, reliable storage over a network which is fast enough for both home and business use.
On the positive side, we like the aesthetics of the drive, and we also like that Plextor has managed to keep the drive near silent during operation. The build quality of the unit is far better than the majority of low-cost NAS devices on the market. We're also fond of Plextor's implementation of USB, where you can link up printers and additional USB storage to the PX-EH if needed, allowing it to become the central network storage and printing point for a house or for an office.
On the negative side, we had some difficulties with getting the drive to connect to a simple DHCP network, and Plextor's documentation for fixing issues doesn't seem to be very helpful. At it's worst, the documentation can be frustrating. We're also disheartened by the mediocre performance we saw when coping over large files, as the unit's 100 MBit network interface may often be a bottleneck, in a land where Gigabit networks are becoming more and more mainstream. Unfortunately, this is very much the case for many competing NAS products on the market as well. Maxtor and others also only offer 10/100 speeds but there are offerings from others like Buffalo and Linksys that do support Gig-E in the same $300 price range that we find the new PX-EH.
Nevertheless, given that this is Plextor's first NAS product, we'll give them the benefit of the doubt. As of now, the PX-EH is unlikely to stand out in a crowded field, as it doesn't boast any major features over the competition. If they clean up their documentation and web interface to be up to par with the Plextor name and upgrade their interface to Gigabit speeds, we think that their product line could really be able to make a name for itself over time.