The Best-Laid Schemes of Tech Journalists Often Go Awry
By Daniel A. Begun
My apologies to Robert Burns for butchering a line from his poem, To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough, but the line really does convey quite well the unexpected frustrations I frequently encounter as a reviewer of technology products. All too often, when I get a brand-new product in to test and review, the product doesn't quite behave as expected. I suppose that this is par for the course when you are constantly working with brand-new products that often utilize cutting-edge technologies; but even after doing this for almost 20 years (and you thought my profile picture was in black and white? No, after doing this for so long, I really am that ashen-faced and my hair really is that gray), I still manage to get surprised whenever a newly-minted tech product misbehaves. And don't even get me started about the times that a company sends me a product for a review, only to discover--after the review is already tested and written--that either the specs don't match the actual shipping product or a company rep suddenly confesses, "oops, looks like we accidentally sent you an engineering sample." I'll save that tirade for another blog post. But I digress...
My latest little tragedy started a few months ago and it has three acts. (Tragedy... Acts... Get it? Oh, never mind.) It all started last December, when I first heard about this cool-sounding product, the Addonics NAS Adapter This little device essentially turns any USB-based storage device into a networked drive, or it can turn virtually any USB printer into a networked printer. It's a rather simple device with an Ethernet jack on one end, a USB port on the other, and built-in Network-Attached Storage firmware--at the time it was only $55, but it has subsequently come down in price to $49. That's a great price for easily setting up a NAS device by making use of an existing USB hard drive.
So I requested one from Addonics, got it in, and started playing with it. It's relatively easy to set up and can be used with Windows, Mac, or Linux systems. I'm not going to go into too much detail in terms of what the device is capable of, but some of the highlights are a DHCP server, Samba Server support up to 64 concurrent clients, FTP server support up to 8 concurrent clients, and UPnP AV Server for XBOX 360. For such a little device (2.75x1.25x0.94-inches, 1.6-ounces) and so relatively inexpensive, it can do a lot. The user-level access-management capabilities are on the light side, but for simple NAS needs it should be able to get the job done... When it works right, that is.
I started to run into problems right away. During some of my file transfer tests, my Vista testbed system would hang. The only way to regain access to the PC was to force a system hard reset. I would also get the occasional, random, write error when writing to the drive. What made this even more frustrating was that it was not reproducible--the same file(s) that previously crapped out after 30 seconds of copying could copy cover over completely the next time or crap out after 90 seconds. That was on my Windows Vista testbed. My Mac testbed fared even worse. On my Mac there were some file types, such as MP3 files, that would just not copy over in batches--they generated a collection of baffling error messages. They would copy over just fine as single files, but not as part of a group of files.
While the Addonics NAS Adapter can act as an iTunes server, I quickly encountered a problem where once a certain number of music files were residing on the attached drive, the iTunes server would crap out whenever you tried to access it from iTunes. As to exactly how many files would send the device into the deep end is hard to say, but I can report that it happened with easily less than 1GB worth of music files. Once the iTunes server got too full and you tried to access it in iTunes, the Addonics NAS Adapter itself would hang and I then had to perform a hard reset of the device. There was also an issue where I couldn't disable the FTP server, but at least this was a known issue and was already scheduled to be fixed in a subsequent firmware update.
I tried all of this using two different Vista systems, two different Macs, a bunch of different files, and even two different USB hard drives attached to the Addonics NAS Adapter; but I kept running into these same problems. This is the same methodology that I had already successfully used for a number of other NAS reviews, so the methodology had already been proven sound.
I contacted the vendor and after a bit of back and forth, we decided the best approach would be for them to send me a second unit. This would hopefully tell us if the problems were limited to just the particular unit I had or represented bigger issues with the product's very design.
It turns out, the answer was both. The replacement unit did not exhibit the Vista-based file transfer issues I encountered with the first unit--no system hangs and no write errors. However, the Mac file transfer problems were still present, as was the iTunes Server issue. And oddly, even though both devices had the same firmware, I found that write times with the replacement unit were noticeably slower.
At this point I was at a crossroads. Do I proceed with the review and slam the product? Do I just kill the review and move on? As the vendor promised a firmware update in the near future, I ultimately decided to move the product to the back of my review queue and then revisit it again in a few weeks (which turned into months--it was a long queue!), once the firmware update was available.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I picked up the Addonics NAS Adapter again, this time with a new firmware version (actually, the firmware version I tested with marked the second update since I originally tested it). I started with the second/replacement unit, since it proved more stable in the previous go-around. First the good news: The ability to disable the FTP server was now working, as was the iTunes server. The bad news is that the adapter was very slow and it still didn't play nice with Macs. I then switched back to the original unit with the newer firmware and ran my tests again. The original unit now behaved almost identically to the replacement unit--the only difference I saw was that the original unit was just a hair faster on some of the tests. Below is a performance chart that compares the performance of the Addonics NAS Adapter to a number of other NAS devices, as well as against a USB hard drive that was connected directly to the testbed PC for comparison (this was the same drive I also used for testing the Addonics NAS Adapter device). As the bars represent time, the shorter a bar is, the quicker/better the device performs. While the Addonics NAS Adapter does give the Maxtor Shared Storage NAS device a run for the money, keep in mind that the Maxtor Shared Storage is a product that is already several years old.
In addition to being slow with file transfers, the iTunes Server was excruciatingly slow to access via iTunes. With 103 songs in the library (representing 7.7 hours worth of music and 453.9MB in total size), it took iTunes 13 seconds to access the library. That wasn't too bad, but 103 songs is not much of a collection. With 305 songs in the library (20.1 hours, 1.27GB), it took 96 seconds to access the library. Not great, but I could live with that. Only, my library is larger than that--much larger. My next test was with 1,024 songs (2.7 days, 4.51GB). It took iTunes over 58 minutes to access the library. My complete music library has over 6,100 songs in it--imagine how long it would take iTunes to access the whole library if I copied it over to a drive connected to the Addonics NAS Adapter and tried to use it as an iTunes library? Note that I can usually connect to my iTunes library, stored on my primary system or other NAS devices in only a few mere seconds.
After all this, I decided that it didn't make sense to do a full product review of the Addonics NAS Adapter. I would instead write up my experiences with the device as a first-person narrative in blog form (which is what you are reading now). If I did review the Addonics NAS Adapter, what would I say? That's a tough call, because after all the time I spent wrestling with it, it would probably be difficult for me to remain objective. I suppose I would say that it's still a decent choice for Windows users who want a simple, inexpensive NAS option that can put an old USB hard drive back to use--as long as you don't mind slow transfer rates and don't plan on using it as an iTunes server. Was that objective? I'm not sure.
Interestingly, not long after the Addonics NAS Adapter came out, a similar device was announced from a competitor. The device is called the Pogoplug, and it has actually been getting a fair bit of buzz recently. In fact, there is even a free iPhone app for remotely accessing media stored on a Pogoplug over the Internet. We're still waiting for our evaluation unit, and hope to do a full review of it when we finally get it. Hopefully we'll fare better than we did with the Addonics NAS Adapter, but as Robert Burns wrote, the best-laid schemes of mice and men often go awry...