Hardware: Troubleshooting Stuttering Streamed Video, Part 2

Welcome to "Stream Wars: The Stutter Strikes Back." I’ve devoted two blog posts this week to the problem of poor streaming media performance because I know how important smooth-looking video and great-sounding audio are to the networked couch potato. Streaming issues divide into two categories: Those that can be attributed to hardware, covered in Part 1, and those that are due to software, which I’ll cover here.

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Choosing the Right RAID Level for Your NAS Box

In the world of computer storage, RAID is the gift that keeps on giving. We’ve already looked at a RAID arrays in general and, more importantly, how a network-attached storage device that uses this method for combining hard drives can be an invaluable part of your network. But as for the specifics of what RAID can do, that’s dictated by the type of storage array you select.

RAID configurations are called levels. New ones seem to appear all the time, so how’s a computer enthusiast to choose? Allow me to help. Here’s a list of the RAID levels available on D-Link’s top-of-the-line DNS-343-4TB ShareCenter network storage system (all but RAID-5 are also available on the DNS-320 and DNS-325):

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Why your NAS box needs RAID

You’ve just purchased a shiny new NAS box and you’ve gone for the big kahuna: The D-Link ShareCenter DNS-343-4TB, which comes equipped with four 1TB hard drives. That ought to be enough to handle all of your multimedia storage needs. You connect it to your PC and expectantly look for four network drives to appear in the Windows Explorer window. Instead, the device’s full storage capacity appears as a single drive within the Network section of Windows Explorer. What happened?

Don’t worry. You’re looking at a RAID, or redundant array of independent disks. And thanks to the power of RAID, you can tap into all 4TB of storage at once.

The difference between an ordinary drive and a RAID array is like the difference between moving into a new apartment all by yourself and enlisting a bunch of burly buddies to help. Splitting a workload normally delegated to one drive (you) among a number of hard drives (you plus your friends) lets you access data (move boxes and furniture) a lot faster.

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The Ultimate Storage Solution

A NAS box, shorthand for network-attached storage device, is as important to a home media-streaming setup as a video card is to gaming. Sure, a PC will run games without a video card, just as it will stream files to other connected devices around your networked home without a NAS. But any gamer worth his or her Wiimote knows that integrated graphics aren't the ticket to awesome visuals — nor is an onboard hard disk the ideal device for sharing movies, pictures, and music across a network. For that, NAS is the ultimate solution.

First, what is NAS device? Simple. It's an external hard disk (or disk array) that has its own network address. That is, it's not attached to another device on the net — it is another device on the net, and every other networked device can read from it and write to it. In addition, NAS boxes generally come preloaded with software that does useful things like media streaming or automated backup. Switching to NAS for storage and media streaming accomplishes three main goals: capacity, configuration, and comfort.

Let's start with capacity. Depending on your desktop system, you might not have room to add an internal hard drive. Or you might not feel comfortable doing so. A NAS box can come prefilled with hard drives of varying capacity, and you can purchase one to fit your anticipated storage needs. If you need a quick solution, go for a dual-bay device — tap into the best of either speed or automated drive replication. If you want a repository for every file you have, how about a four-bay, preconfigured RAID array like the D-Link DNS-343-4TB? And if you already have some spare hard drives laying around, a number of NAS devices (like D-link's ShareCenter products) make it easy to drop a hard drive on a tray and slide it into place — no cables to manage and no screws to fiddle with.

Configuration-wise, a NAS box comes ready, willing, and able to handle all sorts of network-based functions. Want to set up an iTunes share for NAS-based music? Easy: Click a box on the device's configuration screen. Need a way to stream video files to an Xbox or a PlayStation 3 console in the family room? Click the box that enables your device's DLNA server. Want to back up the entire contents of a USB storage device? With many NAS devices, all have to do is connect the USB drive and wander off to pour yourself a drink.

Desktop PCs and Windows are designed for a variety of uses. NAS boxes care about just one thing: making your files readily accessible to any device or user on your network — and I didn't even cover how easy it is to set that up!

Finally, comfort: I became a huge proponent of NAS boxes as soon as I realized that without one, I'd have to walk from my living room to my bedroom every time I wanted to stream a file from my desktop PC to my television. And if I wanted to catch a bit of shut-eye while my roommates watched a streamed movie, I'd have no choice but to leave my computer on and just deal with the wasted power and bothersome fan noise. With NAS, I have instant access to all my media from the living room. It's super-quiet, power efficient (unlike my desktop PC), and I can even schedule the exact times I want it to turn on and off throughout the day.

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Speed Test: The Myth of Gigabit Ethernet

The basics of networking connections are relatively easy to grasp. As I’ve said, the speeds of gigabit Ethernet beat fast Ethernet and Wi-Fi, but wireless-N connections top wireless-G and fast Ethernet, and fast Ethernet outpaces wireless-G.

But knowing which standards are theoretically faster than the others doesn’t mean that you’ll fully reap the benefits. Stepping up to a snazzy new wireless-N router doesn’t guarantee that your transfer speeds from connected PC to connected PC will suddenly jump tenfold. There’s maximum throughput and there’s reality. Here’s why the two are different:

First off, all devices within a network have to support the standard your network uses. And figuring out the difference between a gigabit port and a fast Ethernet port on a desktop or laptop, for example, isn’t something you can do by sight. The same goes for wireless connectivity: If you’re using a wireless-G laptop to connect to a wireless-N router (or, for that matter, pulling down files from a wireless-G-connected laptop using a gigabit-connected desktop), guess what? Your speeds will be constrained to the slowest connection in the chain.

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