Simple and useful storage, but sometimes very limited. (December 26th, 2007)
Product Manufacturer: LaCie (HipServ software by Axentra)
Price: $199 (500GB)
- Good build quality and performance.
- Straightforward iTunes and UPnP serving.
- No software needed past a certain stage.
- Simple, effective web interface and backup software.
- Airport, HFS add-on drives, and iTunes-friendly format support all lacking.
- Cannot use USB for anything but backing up network storage.
- Web streaming hit-and-miss in playing back files, though downloads work.
Despite the added complexity of networking, LaCie's Ethernet Disk mini for most users will be only slightly more complex to setup than a directly connected drive. Like most of the company's drives, the disk can either lay on its side or with a vertical stand: the latter is easy to fit quickly. The build quality is a level above some other external drives and seems at least partially made of metal -- a feature that adds the side-benefit of passively cooling the drive alongside the usual fans. Several feet away, the drive was never noisy and was only warm to the touch after heavy use.
For the Axentra HipServ software, setup is also relatively straightforward. Both Mac OS X and Windows have a simple walkthrough process that takes most of the mystery out of the setup process. I had the drive working as intended on the first try and was never lost. It will even set its own time through the Internet if necessary.
That said, there are certain limitations. The initial software install process is slow: each stage-by-stage click typically results in a significant (though tolerable) pause, which could test the patience of some users. Many might also be put off by the suggestion of having to set a static IP address and port forwarding for remote access, though thankfully the software includes guides for setting up most common network routers, including Apple's Airport Express and Extreme.
In practice, fine-tuning the network settings was unnecessary: the default settings were enough to browse, download, and (when available) stream content through the web client without hassles on an Airport Extreme, regardless of the browser or the OS.
testing: pure data use
Once the drive is setup on the network, its use is fairly straightforward. A HipServe Agent icon will usually show either in the Dock (for Mac OS X) or the system tray (for Windows) that lets you quickly mount the Ethernet Disk mini as a network drive, start the DesktopMirror backup utility, or browse to the drive on the web. HipServ on this level works about as well as could be hoped for and should be especially handy for notebook owners who often find themselves accessing files from home.
HipServ's web interface is also very simple: anyone familiar with browsing folders in a hierarchical view on their own computer will know how to browse the drive from the Internet. The remote site is not always quick -- it depends largely on the Internet connection -- but it never feels slow. Switching sharing on or off with specific users or groups is often a single-click affair.
However, for local use, LaCie's drive has a thinly-veiled secret: The storage can often be picked up as a standard network drive and with some operating systems, such as Mac OS X Leopard, can be picked up right away. HipServ makes the process simpler but is unnecessary (beyond the initial setup) for those who just intend to use the mini as raw storage.
File transfers are quick. The disk is attached through gigabit Ethernet and will run as quickly as the drive allows if the connection itself is strong. This does require a wired connection, however. Even an ideal 802.11n Wi-Fi connection rarely breaks 100 megabits per second, which could extend a multi-gigabyte transfer from minutes to hours.
testing: media center features
Unlike some network drives, LaCie's drive acts as a generic media center; once installed, any information put on the right drives is either viewable for all users on the local network (the Family Library), individual users (My Library), or favorites outside of the house (through the web).
For some purposes, this works perfectly. The mini acts as an iTunes server out of the box: put music in the Family Library's music folder and it automatically appears as a local network library that streams music or videos without a fuss.
Importantly, the storage also works as a generic Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) media server: any device that can recognize UPnP storage can see the 500GB of space and stream music, photos, or videos. This includes not just dedicated media streaming devices but even consoles: both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will find it through their source lists.
This poses a problem for owners of Apple's Airport routers and some older or more generic routers. Without UPnP support, the storage remains inaccessible. This is more Apple's fault than Axentra's or LaCie's, but it locks out a signifcant number of users from taking advantage of the drive. I had to switch to a Linksys router to get it to work; it works well, but ideally would find a more direct way to serve as a drive without requiring the router's own support.
Flaws are also evident with streaming over the web. I could download any file to play it locally, but the built-in media server is only capable of live web streaming MP3 or WMA music as well as MPEG, QuickTime, and WMV: AAC, H.264, and MPEG-4 are locked out, partly defeating the benefit of the feature for users heavily invested in Apple's iTunes (even if they use unprotected content). Streaming was also unreliable and sometimes would not properly load supported formats due to the connection. Consider web streaming a side benefit rather than a core feature.
backup features and USB expansion
DesktopMirror is included with the system and is simple, but limited: it can schedule regular backups and lets users add their own folders, but does not let users drill down to backing up individual files or excluding others. It also tends to work slowly and is best used for overnight or incremental backups.
The external USB port is also mixed in its usefulness and is centered around Axentra's MySafe feature. Essentially a backup for backups, the feature can duplicate some or all of the files on the Ethernet Disk mini and provides a valuable crutch. However, the port only accepts drives formatted with the NTFS file system; HFS drives simply do not work, again locking out users who depend heavily on Apple's ecosystem.
Also, the USB port is simply useless for any other task: LaCie warns users that the connection cannot be used for raw storage or for connecting the drive directly to a computer. For a drive which is otherwise fairly universal, these limitations seem arbitrary and hurt the mini's value compared to the USB ports on newer routers or some other (if usually more expensive) external network drives.
For its stated goal, the Ethernet Disk mini is capable. Getting the drive running and using its core features are both simple and easy, making it an easy choice for those who just need easily accessible network storage. It should also be a realistic option for very connected homes: the ability to access an unguarded iTunes collection or a whole movie library (LaCie estimates 500 full-length features) on one's Xbox without much effort could be enough to persuade some to buy the drive all on its own.
However, Axentra and the normally Mac-centric LaCie both need to improve support for Apple devices if they expect to cater to both it and Windows at the same level. Some of the niceties of the drive are only exposed using Microsoft-derived technologies like NTFS drives and UPnP, leaving at least some Airport and Mac users out in the cold.
Moreover, the drive is reasonably priced compared to most network storage but is also superfluous. LaCie offers a separate, standard edition whose USB port works for connecting the drive to a local computer; why does the company need to enable separate functionality for what amounts to the same physical connection? The problem is superficial for some, but drives users unfairly towards making a hard choice about whether they need a backup of their network storage or a quick fix when the network itself is broken. I would consider either of the network drives in most setups, but the choice should not feel as forced as it is today.