Is this the Best Do-It-Yourself Value in High-Speed Storage?
How much memory is enough? When it comes to storing digital photos, videos, art, and documents, the answer keeps expanding like the universe. Twenty years ago I thought my Apple IIfx’s twenty-Megabyte hard drive would last forever–but rapid advances in digital imaging technology (like high res photos, HD videos, and giant music libraries) have created a voracious appetite for digital storage. Now I routinely fill 16 and 32GB cards with 1000X more data than that ancient hard drive could hold, and more significantly–several of my 2-TB backup drives are nearly full despite containing 100,000-times more storage space!
Fortunately, the price for digital storage has fallen in the opposite direction of capacity, and most 4-TB hard drives cost less than my original 20MB drive. Data transfer speed is also light-years ahead, thanks to Gigabit Ethernet, USB 3, Firewire 800, and even Thunderbolt. As a result, affordable Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices are gaining in popularity in the home and office. These are a more elegant solution than changing out your computer’s hard drive every time it fills up, and can be used to backup a wide variety of digital devices. Those with DLNA features can also be used to serve up your favorite digital movies, slide shows, and music archives through networked media centers, Blueray players, HDTVs, and even PlayStations.
Buffalo Technology, Inc., was one of the first companies to offer NAS drives for the small office and home office (SOHO), as well as models with DLNA compatibility. I’ve had several Buffalo drives in the past, and was leaning towards one of its higher-capacity NAS TeraStation devices to replace a full 1TB model in my studio. But it was the LinkStation 421DE (@$120 street price) that caught my eye instead. For starters, this more affordable model is a 2-bay, customizable storage unit that doesn’t ship with memory, but can accept most high capacity drives, allowing it to be scaled up to 8GB using two 4TB drives. Once drives are installed, the 421DE boasts a number of top features, including DLNA and Media Server functionality, the ability to access files on it from a smartphone or the internet, a super-fast USB 3 port (on front), and data speeds up to 80MB/sec between it and other devices located on gigabit Ethernet network. This last claim, if true, would enable me to move photo, video, and music files between my computers and my existing NAS drives at nearly twice the speed of my existing NAS drives—without doing a thing to update my current gigibit Ethernet cables, routers, and switches.
In addition to cost savings, I purchased the 421DE as part of a plan to migrate my data archives to progressively higher capacity hard drives with minimum fuss. When this drive starts to fill up, I plan to purchase another, more current model, and load it with two 6 or 8GB drives. Next, I’ll backup all the data from this first 6GB 421DE onto the second higher-capacity NAS drive, and turn it into an 8GB NAS drive for the home.
Up and Running–Fast and Quiet!
To test out the 421DE’s performance, I installed two 3-TB Seagate Barracuda drives ($110 each) to fill those bays, bringing the total cost for my 6GB LinkStation to $340, a savings of $60 over a pre-configured 6GB LinkStation Duo with similar features.
The first thing I noticed after turning it on was how quiet the fan was compared to other NAS drives I’ve owned. Next, I installed and ran Buffalo’s NAS Navigator 2 software and tried to locate the LinkStation 421DE on my network. It didn’t show up at first, but then I realized I had missed a step in the setup process. Ten minutes later the 421DE showed up in NAS Navigator, allowing me to view the current memory usage and network IDs, plus access the advanced settings and control panel. Buffalo’s experience with NAS drives is obvious when you reach the Control Panel, which is easy to navigate and packed with explanations and guides. It lets you quickly customize folder permissions, select individual folders to be streamed to DLNA devices or accessed remotely, and password protect others.
Through the interface, the LinkStation 421DE can be set as an iTunes Server, letting networked computers and media servers play songs located on the LinkStation instead of storing them locally. The WebAccess feature can also be turned on if you need access to files from remote computers and mobile devices. In addition, the LinkStation can be used as a print sharer, and synced to a UPS power supply so it can safely shut down during a power failure. Finally, folders on specific USB 3 external hard drives and memory devices can be backed up automatically, a great time saver that bypasses your computer altogether.
However, if you want to save time, this unit’s network speed will blow you away! According to Buffalo, the 421DE contains a powerful processor that optimizes data communications between it and the routers, switches, and other devices on a gigabit network, enabling much higher transfer speeds compared to normal external drives. To find out if claims for up to 80MB/sec were realistic, I moved a 1GB-sized movie file back and forth between several desktop computers and the LinkStation 421DE, (and did the same to and older 1TB TeraStation, and a more recent 4TB WD ShareSpace NAS drive). Tests were performed on both my home and my studio networks, which contained an assortment of gigabit routers and gigibit switches, as well Cat 5 cables that pre-dated gigabit.
SPEED RESULTS: Awesome!
After repeated uploads and downloads, the two older NAS drives averaged upload rates of only 8-10MB/sec (I used to think that was fast!). On the other hand, downloads were noticeably faster, averaging 25-30MB/sec. Not bad, considering that’s roughly the speed of an extremely fast memory card and card reader.
However, the new LinkStation 421DE left them both in the dust, averaging uploads of 40 MB/sec, and downloads of 76MB/sec! It also woke from its low power sleep mode faster, was much quieter while reading and writing, and responded faster to DLNA devices on the network. Hard to believe that the inclusion of a special processor can increase network speed for a low-cost device such as this, but nearly all commercial-grade NAS systems have built in processors for the same reason. I still haven’t figured out how to automatically backup folders on a USB 3 drive I have (not enough info in manual), and when I have the time I’ll activate my registration on Buffalo’s cloud site so I can access my LinkStation from remote locations or send file links to clients. To those ends, one area that could be improved with this device is its instruction manual. Plus, I would like more advanced RAID options (it only features RAID 0 and RAID 1) so I could hot swap drives if one fails. Otherwise, for its overall feature set, incredible speed, and extremely affordable starting point, the LinkStation 421DE earns a 4 star overall rating.