Big Hard Drives Take Center Stage
In today's flood of multimedia, a terabyte of storage no longer seems unfathomably large. Nor is it as costly as you might think: We tested eight units ranging in price from $800 to over $1300, including two models from Buffalo Technology, and one each from Anthology Solutions, Infrant Technologies, Iomega, LaCie, Maxtor, and WiebeTech. Each drive offers up to 1TB of total storage,depending on configuration.
From the eight we tested, we picked Best Buys in two categories: direct-attached storage (DAS), which is suitable for a single user with big storage needs; and network-attached storage (NAS)--ideal for multiple-user setups. In the NAS category, the winner was Infrant Technologies' ReadyNAS NV ($1199), a speedy performer packed with a slew of features. Of the DAS models, the one we liked best was Maxtor's well-rounded OneTouch III Turbo ($825).
If you want something to augment a single PC, direct-attached storage is your best bet. You attach a DAS hard drive via USB 2.0, FireWire, or external SATA (eSATA)--and it's at least three times as fast as the speediest gigabit-ethernet-attached NAS units.
NAS boxes are only as fast as their networks, but they do have enough PC-like smarts (including a processor and an operating system) to store and serve files to anyone on the network, at any time. Since they're always accessible on the network, they make perfect multimedia jukeboxes for the home; if they are Universal Plug and Play or Digital Living Network Alliance-compliant, they can link to consumer electronics devices (for more on DLNA, click here.
With every drive we tested, we found setup easy and straightforward. The biggest differences in setup involved the connection interface and the drive configuration options (for features like RAID settings, folder sharing, and access permissions).
All of the NAS units we tested, and all but one of the DAS boxes (the $799 LaCie d2 Big Disk is the exception) are user-accessible; as a result, you can swap out drives (and in some cases, upgrade capacity) as needed. Some models make this task simple: Buffalo's TeraStation Pro, Infrant's ReadyNAS NV, Iomega's XL Desktop, and WiebeTech's SilverSATA II all use a chassis design that makes swapping out drives a simple matter of sliding the drives in and out of a modular bay. But Anthology Solutions' Yellow Machine PT-400T, Buffalo's TeraStation Home Server, LaCie's d2 Big Disk, and Maxtor's OneTouch III Turbo require considerable work with a screwdriver before you can remove a drive.
In order to achieve 1TB of capacity, each of the units we tested combines their multiple drives into a single logical volume that Windows XP recognized as a unitary 1TB drive. Seven of the eight boxes that we tested used RAID to accomplish this task, while LaCie's d2 Big Disk used a technology called disk spanning for the same purpose.
With these external models, RAID is more about how you are safeguarding your data than it is about the drive's performance. Both Iomega's XL Desktop and Maxtor's OneTouch III Turbo defaulted to RAID 0 (which stripes data across both drives). But unlike the Maxtor, the Iomega is not user-configurable, which means you can't opt instead for the data redundancy that RAID 1 provides (mirroring, where the same data is written to both drives and total available capacity is halved). WiebeTech's SilverSATA II ships by default in a RAID 1 setting (with a usable capacity of 500GB); you can change this setting easily, though, via the unit's front status panel.
Among the NAS boxes, the two Buffalo TeraStations and the Anthology Yellow Machine (which fell short of the chart) defaulted to RAID 5, (which stripes data across all four drives with parity but reserves a quarter of the total capacity for fault tolerance, in this case yielding a storage capacity of 750GB). If one of the drives fails, you can keep working and the unit will rebuild the array once you've replaced the failed drive.
In addition, the Buffalo devices support disk spanning and RAID 1. The Yellow Machine offers RAID 0, RAID 1, and RAID 1+0 (which works by striping data across two pairs of mirrored drive).
Infrant's speedy ReadyNAS NV uses the company's exclusive X-RAID (eXpandable-RAID) technology, which, as with RAID 5, uses parity to recover from losing a drive. This technology also lets you add drives without having to first back up, rebuild the array, and then restore the data. Unfortunately, this default configuration leaves you with only 660GB of usable storage.
The NAS boxes delivered a host of useful extras. For example, the Buffalo TeraStation Home Server and the Infrant ReadyNAS NV can act as printer servers for two USB printers. All of the NAS boxes are securely accessible via the Web, a convenience if you need your files while on the road. The Anthology Solutions unit has an integrated eight-port router.
Seven of the eight boxes came bundled with what we consider adequate (or better) backup software. Infrant's Genie Network Backup, Anthology Solutions' six-license Retrospect 7.5 Pro, and Maxtor's Retrospect Express HD were the pick of the litter. WiebeTech's ultrafast SilverSATA II ships sans software.
Tortoise or Hare?
The PC World Test Center evaluated each unit's performance based on how ably it copied and read a 3.1GB folder of files, copied a 3.1GB file, and performed a text search and a virus scan on a drive loaded with 14.1GB of data (for the DAS models) or 8.1GB (for the NAS units). Our results played out exactly as the products' connective technologies led us to expect. The DAS boxes delivered two to three times the speed of their NAS counterparts, with eSATA showing a striking advantage over USB 2.0. With one exception--Anthology Solutions' Yellow Machine, which was tested while directly attached to a PC--the NAS models were connected via gigabit ethernet switch.
The eSATA-based WiebeTech SilverSATA II was the fastest direct-attached unit, by a large margin. Maxtor's OneTouch III Turbo, tested using its USB 2.0 interface, took 62 percent longer overall than the SilverSATA II to complete our tests. The USB 2.0 LaCie d2 Big Disk (which missed our chart) took 70 percent more time on average, and the USB 2.0 Iomega XL Desktop was the slowest, taking, overall, 96 percent more time than our WiebeTech front-runner.
When it came to the NAS boxes, drive performance depended to a large extent on the speed of the product's ethernet hardware. Overall, the gigabit Infrant ReadyNAS NV X-RAID easily outdistanced its competitors. Buffalo's pair of entrants--the TeraStation Home Server and TeraStation Pro--took significantly longer (12 and 18 percent, respectively) to complete our tests than the Infrant unit did, and the 10/100-megabit Anthology Solutions Yellow Machine P-400T took a whopping 72 percent more time to finish the tasks.
1TB For Everyone
If you're looking for top-of-the-line performance and price is no object, the direct-attached WiebeTech SilverSATA II is the box for you.
But we gave our Best Buy bouquet to the much cheaper Maxtor OneTouch III Turbo: This model manages a fine balance of price and performance, and throws in useful backup software, too.
Among the NAS models, our Best Buy pick is Infrant's ReadyNAS NV; this unit impressed us with its speed, its breadth of features, its software, and its overall design.
DLNA Beefs Up Home Servers
One conundrum of the computer age is how to get all those multimedia files you grabbed off the Internet onto your TV or stereo. Well, the folks at the Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA) think they have the answer. DLNA is both a consortium of computer and consumer electronics vendors and an interoperability standard that builds in Universal Plug and Play (designed by said consortium) to spur the growth of home multimedia networks. The idea is to combine computer and consumer electronics equipment to create a modern, audiovisual version of the piped, whole-home stereo system that was a small fad in the 1950s. Conceptually, the spec looks promising. And, we're now starting to see the products.
Buffalo's TeraStation Home Server is one of two DLNA-compliant devices we looked at (the other, from Infrant Technologies, was undergoing final certification at press time), so we decided to see how it worked when paired with a streaming media device, DLink's $250 GSM-520 Media Lounge, which actually works with any UPnP-compliant server. On a home theater setup, the Media Lounge plays audio, video, and photos streamed across the network from local PC clients, or a Universal Plug and Play or DLNA server like the Home Server.
The experience? Pretty darn cool. The Home Server's performance when the drive was hardwired to the router was smooth. When the Home Server was connected to the Media Lounge wirelessly, though the performance was mostly smooth, high-definition video playback stuttered frequently, especially in the presence of other traffic. If you want to centralize your multimedia storage, you need a DLNA-compliant or even UpnP-ready NAS box, though we also recommend a gigabit network hardwired to any location where you'll be watching video.
Find The Very Latest Hard Drive Charts.
Click on the links below for the latest hard drive rankings or a comprehensive list of all hard drives we've tested.
- Most current Top Networked-Attached Storage Devices Chart
- Most current Top External Hard Drives Chart
- Most current Top Internal Hard Drives Chart
- All Hard Drives