The Best Media-Friendly Storage Devices

These specialized boxes offer a ton of storage space, and they let you play music and video, and view pictures on your TV.

Iogear Portable Media Server Player GMD2025U120

The Windows-only Iogear Portable Media Player GMD2025U120 is a small, self-contained, non-networkable external 2.5-inch hard drive that you attach to your PC’s USB port, copy media files onto, and then attach to your TV or other display to render them. It lacks an HDMI output, but you can hook it up via component or composite jacks on a TV.

The Iogear played all its supported files types (including MPEG-1, MPEG-2, Xvid, DivX, MP3, WAV, and JPEG) without any glitches. The one on-screen error message we received was when we tried to play a 1080p DivX file whose resolution exceeds the Iogear’s 720p output capability.

Note: For a discussion of media-friendly storage drives, see "Made-for-TV Media Drives."

Iomega ScreenPlay Pro HD

The Iomega ScreenPlay Pro HD is a Windows-only stand-alone, single 1TB hard drive and NAS that you can attach to your TV and play media. However, as much as we liked the ScreenPlay Pro HD’s on-screen interface, we found its remote difficult to use.

The ScreenPlay Pro HD will output full 1080 video via HDMI, component, and composite jacks; audio output options include both analog and digital jacks. And you get composite video and analog audio inputs for recording video directly from a video source (using the one-touch record).

Other than the clunky remote interface, the unit worked very well with the media types it supported, including MP3, JPEG, and DivX. However, it wouldn’t play high-definition .wmv files or H.264 files, as supported by the DMA. The only playback glitch that we noticed was that a 1280 by 544 X-Men DivX trailer we used for testing displayed full-screen with the edges off screen, instead of displaying as letterboxed.

Synology Disk Station DS209+

The Synology Disk Station DS209+ has lots of benefits: Compact, two-bay design; user-accessible drives; speedy performance; and RAID 0, 1, and JBOD configurations (it supports up to 3TB of storage; we tested the 1TB RAID version in a mirrored RAID 1 setup). This unit is available with drives ($700) or without ($490 enclosure-only).

Unfortunately, when we first tested it, it refused to serve high-definition .wmv files (Xvid and others worked fine). After we talked to Synology, the company provided updated firmware (version 2.1-0833, which should be publicly available by the time you read this), curing the problem. From then on, it was smooth sailing, and we could sit back and enjoy this feature-packed NAS box. The unit served up audio and images smoothly, as well as the aforementioned high-definition .wmv.

The DS209+ (as well as HP’s MediaSmart Server and Linksys’s Media Hub) will allow access to music and photos via your network or the Web with its built-in Photo Station 3 and Audio Station apps (the latter supports iTunes streaming as well as Internet radio).

Western Digital My Book World Edition 1TB

The 1TB Western Digital My Book World Edition is a handsomely styled, well-ventilated single-drive NAS box that streamed standard and high-resolution media flawlessly in tests. It also proved easy to configure via browser, with pleasantly presented basic- and advanced-mode browser-based configuration pages.

The My Book includes WD Anywhere Backup for continuous backup, and TwonkyMedia from Packet Video to serve up photos, music, and video. While it streams all media smoothly, we did have one gripe: Western Digital’s implementation of the TwonkyMedia configuration pages seemed tacked on and didn’t render properly in Firefox (some controls were partially obscured).

ZyXel Central Digital Media Library NSA-220 Plus

The Central Digital Media Library NSA-220 Plus proved to be a more than capable media server, dishing out HD video and everything else with nary a glitch. This two-bay device is sold as an enclosure only ($220), but it can pack up to 3TB of storage. For our tests, ZyXel sent us a unit with 320GB of RAID 1 mirrored storage.

You configure the ZyXel using your Web browser. The settings, as with all NAS boxes, may seem a bit technical for less experienced users, but we found the Zyxel actually quite friendly to use.

The NSA-220 Plus is fairly straightforward; like all the boxes in this roundup, it has USB ports for connecting additional hard drives or flash drives, or even a digital camera or printer. A nice touch: The NSA-220 Plus can let you upload content to Web services; for example, after stepping through a bunch of configuration screens, you can set up the NSA-220 Plus to automatically upload photos or videos placed in designated folders to either Flickr or YouTube, respectively.

Linksys by Cisco Media Hub NMH410

The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub NMH410 easily offers the friendliest media-serving Web interface of the NAS boxes we evaluated. It’s the only unit besides Synology’s DS209+ and HP's MediaSmart that lets you play and view media on your PC via the Web-based configuration interface; however, it trumps its rivals with its ability to play video as well as audio files and photos.

The dual-bay Media Hub comes with one drive, and can be configured as either RAID 1 or JBOD. It ships with a single 1TB hard drive inside; you can use the additional bay to install a second drive to the unit. It also has CompactFlash, SD Card, and Memory Stick slots up front, making this model especially enticing to digital photographers in need of network backup.

The Media Hub was also the only unit on which we didn’t experience any problems when streaming high-definition 1080p video across a 10/100 wired ethernet connection. Cisco says the box can handle up to three high-def streams simultaneously. All in all, the Media Hub is one slick media-serving machine--the best of the lot for its media features and ease of use.

HP MediaSmart Server ex487

The HP MediaSmart Server ex487 stands tall, with four drive bays--two that each contain a 750GB drive, and two for user upgrades. The unit is the only one we looked at that uses Microsoft’s feature-packed but sometimes slow Windows Home Server operating system.

The product streamed media smoothly, including the high-definition video clips we threw at it. Unfortunately, when we tried to access several of the media types exposed via the unit’s browser interface, we received expired certificate errors that we had to bypass before viewing anything. Even with this annoyance, the MediaSmart Server ex487 is a well-designed and versatile box. It has an iTunes server and remote access; but you can't use the remote access with a Windows Vista Home or Windows XP Home system. It can work with Macs on your network, but you must do the initial setup on a PC.

Iomega Home Media Network Hard Drive

The slim, well-ventilated Iomega Home Media Network Hard Drive isn’t fancy. But this 1TB drive serves up media with the best of them. As with most NAS boxes, you can configure the unit via a Web browser. In this case, though, the interface is a sterling rendering that strikes the right combination of being easy on the eye and being easy to use.

The embedded EMC LifeLine software incorporates the TwonkyMedia server; the media server performed flawlessly with both the D-Link DMS-520 digital media adapter and iTunes, delivering music, photo, and video streams smoothly and without interruption. One complaint: This NAS had a bad habit of taking its time before showing up on Windows. Remote access is not available in this unit, but will be coming along with DLNA certification in April.

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