Why virtualise your NAS environment?
ASUSTOR AS-304T 4-bay NAS enclosure
This 4-bay NAS unit adds great consumer appeal by doubling as a media centre.
- Standalone media centre functionality
- Wide range of functions and apps
- Good read/write performance
- Single Ethernet port
- Difficult folder management for admins
A few smart additions turn what would otherwise be a regular 4-bay NAS into a great home-theatre PC, helping justify its cost and reduce your living-room tech clutter.
Price$ 568.00 (AUD)
The ASUSTOR AS-304T is outwardly ‘just another 4-bay SOHO NAS’. The sort of thing you would pop in the back room of an office too small to have a server room, or use to store your movie collection at home. However, the addition of an HDMI output and USB keyboard/mouse support allow the AS-304T to function as a standalone media centre – helping justify the cost of a NAS device to consumers, by removing the need for a media centre PC or ‘Smart TV’.
The 304T has a metal frame with a sheet-metal body, apart from the plastic front panel. Like the majority of four-bay and larger NAS units, the 304T encases each drive in a removable caddy, rather than forcing you to take apart the NAS to insert or remove drives. The latter is common with smaller two-bay units, where swapping drives is an even less common occurrence.
Each lightweight metal-and-plastic caddy pops out via a plastic lever on the front, and drives can be hot-swapped while the unit is running. Whether or not this will result in data loss and/or break the universe depends on your RAID configuration. To avoid accidental removal, the levers have a two-step system – you have to press a button to make the lever handle pop out, then pull on the thus-revealed handle to slide out the drive caddy.
Unlike some ‘screwless’ or ‘toolless’ designs, each drive must be screwed into its caddy, just as you would mount it in a desktop PC case. Screws are included with the unit.
It’s possible to successfully mount each drive with one or two screws (out of laziness), but it requires four screws per drive for proper, reliable mounting. It may present a minute’s delay when hot-swapping drives, but I cannot think of any circumstance in which that would actually present a problem in either a home or SOHO setup. That doesn’t mean I don’t prefer toolless drive caddies, it’s hardly something I’d score the 304T down for leaving out.
Instead of an external power adapter, the AS-304T has an internal power supply (as a desktop PC would), with a 240V IEC socket on the back. That’s the same power socket any desktop PC has, so you can easily acquire a longer or shorter cable if that helps with your cable-management.
The internal power supply is great in both home and small-office setups, as it helps to avoid cable-clutter. It also means the power supply is cooled by the large fan in the NAS box, rather than constantly getting warm behind some filing cabinet or TV stand, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. That doesn’t automatically guarantee greater reliability, but it does seem like a smart design decision.
Also on the back of the unit are a 3.5mm headphone socket and HDMI port – we’ll get to those later – plus two USB 2.0 ports, a single USB 3.0 port, and a single Gigabit Ethernet port.
A second USB 3.0 port is located on the front for quick access (e.g. temporarily plugging in a flash drive or external hard drive to copy files to or from the NAS).
The USB 3.0 ports are great for connecting external storage, as they allow for much higher transfer rates than the previous-generation USB 2.0. Most flash drives and many external hard drives still use the older standard, but I’d highly recommend purchasing USB 3.0-capable devices if you plan to do regular on-site backups, or shift large quantities of data on and off the NAS via external drive.
The only disappointment in connectivity terms is the single Ethernet port. Many four-bay NAS units in this price range offer two individual gigabit ports, allowing a theoretical maximum speed of 2Gbit/sec. If connected to an appropriate office or high-performance home router, this can be very useful when several PCs and other devices are simultaneously streaming data to and from the NAS. It’s possible to saturate a Gigabit connection fairly easily, particularly with the high read/write speeds given by some RAID arrangements.
This is likely a deliberate decision, given the 304T’s consumer focus and the fact that dual-Ethernet is traditionally a very ‘business’ feature. That doesn’t make it useless to consumers, however, and I’d rather have seen it there so I could encourage people to make use of it.
I received the AS-304T without drives. For testing, I added a pair of Western Digital Red 4TB hard drives – the new WD40EFRX model, released in September this year. This left two of the four drive bays unoccupied.
Having a four-bay NAS does not mean you have to start with four drives – for many users it may be logical to start with two, and leave the other two bays open for future expansion.
Drive installation was simple – pop out a caddy, sit the drive in it, add for screws and pop the caddy back in. Repeat for each drive, and you’re done. Once I had my two drives loaded, I connected the 304T up to our lab’s Gigabit Ethernet router, hit the power switch, and that was the physical part done.
There is software included on disc, but I skipped that and went straight for the 304T’s browser-based management page. ASUSTOR’s setup wizard is glossy and straightforward.
The first step is getting the drives formatted and loading on the AS-304T’s operating system – if it can reach the internet via the router you’ve plugged it in to, you can select ‘ASUSTOR Live update’ and it’ll automatically download the correct OS for you. If you’re stuck without an internet connection, or don’t want to expose the 304T to the internet until you’ve completed setup and got it locked down, you can manually download the latest OS from ASUSTOR’s website and upload it to the NAS via the setup wizard.
After the OS is installed, you have two options: ‘1-click setup’ or ‘Custom Setup’. The former configures everything for you, based on the drives you have installed. It’s a good way to get started very quickly, if you just want to use the 304T as a home-theatre PC and media dump, for instance. As I wanted to test out everything I could, I went for the custom setup option, where you specify your own RAID mode and just about everything else. RAID 0, 1, 5, 6, 10 and JBOD are supported.
I chose RAID 1 (mirror), for its read performance and data redundancy. There are smarter options available if you have more than two drives installed, but RAID 1 is always a safe choice for a two-disc setup. Its read performance (better than that of a single drive) is good for HD media streaming applications, where you’re reading data a lot faster and more often than you’re writing it.
Once the setup wizard is complete, you end up in a web-based desktop interface, similar to those used by competing NAS brands Synology and QNAP. From there you can configure users, quotas, groups and shared folders, manage the installed disks, and install or configure apps from ASUSTOR’s ‘App Central’.
The only area I found lacking in the setup and management area was low-level folder management. You can see all of the shared folders you create, but I couldn’t find any way to get ‘root access’ and see everything that was stored on the drives. This meant that, as an admin user, I couldn’t see the home directories of other users – not just the contents, but I couldn’t even see that those home directories existed. That’s great for security between users, certainly, but does make storage usage hard to manage in a small-office situation.
I put the AS-304T through a range of real-world tests and synthetic benchmarks to gauge its performance. Note that your choice of drives is the final determining factor of read and write speed, so your results may vary. Your selected RAID mode is also a major influence. Again, I tested with a pair of WD Red 4TB drives, designed specifically for use in 2-4 bay NAS units. My drives were configured as RAID 1 (mirror).
When streaming 1080p HD video to two PCs simultaneously, I experienced no lag in playback, and no significant delay at the start for buffering. I was able to navigate the AS-304T’s browser-based interface, change app settings and copy files around, without impacting media playback.
In file-copy tests, the 304T averaged 62MBytes/sec read, and 88MBytes/sec write, with large file transfers. That dropped to around half the read speed, and just over half the write speed, with collections of 1MB files, and down to 190KB/sec read and 120KB/sec write with 1KB files. Full results below.
|Files copied||Size per file||Read speed (MBytes/sec)||Write speed (MBytes/sec)|
|Read speed (KBytes/sec)||Write speed (KBytes/sec)|
The large-file read and write performance are good, given our two-drive setup and the known performance of those drives. We maxed out at 95MBytes/sec writes, which tied up a bit below 800MBit (80%) of our gigabit-wide connection to the router. It’s easy to see how with a four-drive setup, and multiple PCs connected to the NAS, it’s pretty easy to max out the capacity of a single Ethernet port.
AppsASUSTOR makes a wide range of in-house and third-party apps available through its ‘App Central’ app store. I use the term ‘store’ because you’ll get what I mean, but it’s a bit of a misnomer – all of the downloadable apps are free.
Media apps include a UPnP (DLNA) media server, browser-based photo gallery, iTunes server (so you can centralise your iTunes library between PCs in the home), and a download manager that lets you set up Torrent, HTTP or FTP downloads which the NAS will quietly suck down from the internet without your PC having to be left on overnight.
Business-friendly apps available include open-source content management systems Drupal and Joomla, blogging platform WordPress, bulletin-board server PHPbb, the ubiquitous MediaWiki, popular source code management software Git, and many other packages along the same lines.
Downloading and updating apps is smartphone-easy – to get started, just select something from the store and click ‘install’. Ease (or difficulty) of setup depends entirely on the app itself, and seems to vary greatly from app-to-app.
One thing I found very useful (and easy to configure) was the Dropbox app, which adds automatic Dropbox synchronisation on a per-user basis. What? Well, each user on the NAS who you’ve given permission to use the Dropbox app can log into the AS-304T’s web interface, and link their own Dropbox account to their user account on the NAS.
Content will be automatically synchronised between your personal Dropbox folder on the NAS, and Dropbox itself. This is great if you have multiple PCs in the home, as it gives you a fast, ‘local’ copy of your Dropbox account without having to install and configure Dropbox on each PC.
That means you can be working on some large project (say, a 150MB Photoshop file) on your laptop, decide to switch to your desktop, and just open the file up on the NAS. If you were using Dropbox, with an ADSL2 connection, you’d have to wait while the file was uploaded to Dropbox from the laptop, then downloaded to the desktop, before you could start work. This way, you open it from the NAS, which handles the synchronisation with Dropbox in the background. Magic!
On a larger scale, the AS-304T supports cloud backup of its entire contents (or any subset thereof) to Amazon S3, which is good for businesses and backup-conscious home users.
XMBC Media Center
One of the AS-304T’s coolest features, and the one which most differentiates it from the competition, is its ability to function as a standalone media centre.
It’s fantastically easy – install the XMBC Media Center app (one of the most popular media centre packages out there), connect the 304T to your television via its HDMI port, and [at least in my case it was necessary to] restart the NAS. Boom, you’ve got a full-featured media centre on that TV now. You can control it via the downloadable ‘AiRemote’ app for iOS and Android, or use the USB 2.0 ports on the back of the NAS to connect up a keyboard and mouse. As long as they connect via a USB adapter and don’t need special drivers, wireless peripherals work just fine.
XMBC lets you play media stored on the NAS, but also has its own app catalogue including everything from simple news and weather displays to online video players for services such as YouTube.
One minor annoyance is that there’s no separate audio output – XMBC will not use the 304T’s headphone socket, which can be used by some music player apps. This means you can’t use an HDMI-connected computer monitor unless it has speakers or an audio output of its own, and you definitely can’t use a DVI-only monitor via an HDMI-to-DVI cable. (DVI does not carry an audio signal.) Given that I have a couple of very nice 23-inch monitors sitting around that would have made great mini-TVs, that was a bit of a let-down.
Being able to connect a TV, keyboard and mouse directly to the AS-304T means it doubles as a home-theatre PC – something that really helps to justify its cost to home users in search of a NAS device to store a large movie or music collection.
ASUSTOR’s AS-304T is solidly built, simple enough to configure, performs well, and offers a strong catalogue of apps to add advanced functionality. That’s all great, and enough to justify its cost in a business context.
What really makes it special, however, is the way it can act as a home theatre PC without any additional hardware and just one freely downloadable app. Not just any app, but the popular and very well-supported XMBC Media Center.
In a business setting, I’d really like to have seen a second Ethernet port. However, in a home, one of the most obvious reasons you might want a four-bay NAS box is to store a vast movie or music collection. Making that NAS double as a full-featured playback device you can plug straight into your TV? Brilliant.
The ASUSTOR AS-304T (enclosure only, no disks) has an RRP of AU$568 in Australia, and NZ$1115 in New Zealand. We’re unsure as to why the New Zealand price is so much higher than the exchange rate would dictate. The lowest price we could find in NZ at the time of writing was $806.
While the makes they AS-304T slightly harder to recommend in New Zealand, our conclusions still hold true at that price point, based on the prices of competing devices and its dual-use functionality.
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