It's rare when a network storage drive offers more than just storage. True, some models come with remote access features and automatic backup, but the Linksys Media Hub ($279) is more than just a network drive. This device has a built-in media player that works like iTunes; it plays photo slideshows right in your browser; and can automatically scan and organize media files from a USB drive or memory card. With a built-in LCD status screen, Gigabit Ethernet support, room for an extra SATA drive, and one of the best approaches to Web access we've seen, the Media Hub is well worth the investment.
Design and Setup
At 7.8 x 6.6 x 4.4 inches, the Media Hub is about the size of a toaster. It's smaller and lighter than network drives from Seagate and Buffalo Technology, and the new black and gray design matches the style of Linksys routers and media streaming gear. Front-access ports allow for memory cards such as SecureDigital and CompactFlash, and the accompanying front and rear USB ports make this unit easy to access and use.
A handy 1.8-inch LCD (176 x 220 pixels) is also on the front of the unit; a circular D-pad below is used to navigate through the menus, which lets you back up locally networked systems to the drive, change the settings, turn the device off, or check the status of the drive. Selecting the last option lets you see how much of the drive is being used, how much space is being occupied by music, photos, video, and other file types, and the amount of network traffic. The drive-use screens are colorful pie charts, making it easy to see at a glance how the Media Hub is being used.
Setting up the Media Hub is easy. You just plug in the power cord, connect an Ethernet cable to your router, and in about 20 seconds, you're done. Installing the software on your PC for the Media Hub is fairly simple, too; it guides you through just a few settings.
After installation, you can type the word "mediahub" in your browser to access the media player. The Web-based interface functions just like iTunes, but the dark blue with white-lettering interface looks a bit more modern. Along the top of the window in the Home screen are oversized icons for Music, Photos, Videos, and File Browser. Below are three columns showing the most recent music, photos, and videos, with thumbnails for each.
When you mouse over a song, you're presented with options to add the song to a playlist, play the song in an external application, or play it with the Media Hub's Flash-based player. To the left of the three columns are two windows showing how much of the Media Hub is filled, and whether or not a USB or memory card is plugged into the system.
Clicking on one of the icons along the top leads you to screens with content sorted alphabetically. In Music, you can also sort content by album, artist, or song. Photo albums can be sorted by name or date. You can also view albums as a slideshow, and set the amount of time--as well as transitions--between individual photos.
All told, copying and syncing a vast collection of music (about 14,000 files), photos (7,000), and MPEG-4 files (about 12 high-def videos at roughly 2GB each) was time-consuming (about 8 hours). But there is a plus side: During this process, the Web software creates thumbnails for video and photos, adds album artwork, and organizes the media for you into folders, which are immediately accessible. No one has to drag-and-drop anything into iTunes or a photo organizer like ACDSee Pro or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. For example, we had copied over a folder called "California Shots" that contained about 300 JPEG images, and the Media Hub automatically created a thumbnail for that folder and grouped the images. Likewise, it was really cool to see a thumbnail of the movie Firewall in the Video section, generated automatically for anyone who uses the drive.
The media importer--which saves time by letting you know which files will work on the Media Hub--is Mac and PC friendly. The device supports just about any format you can think of: 16 audio formats (M4A, M4B, MP4, MP3, 3GP, WAV, OGG, FLAC, AAC, AC3, MPA, MP1, AIF, ASF, WMA, LPCM), 6 photo formats (BMP, GIF, PNG, TIF, TIFF, JPEG), and 19 video formats (MP1, MP2, MPG, SPTS, MP4, AVI, VOB, DivX, 3GP, VDR, MPE, DVR-MS, Xvid, M1V, M4V, MOV, MPV, MKV, WMV).
Built into the Media Hub's app are Flash-based music and video players; while the Media Hub itself supports a wide variety of file formats, you must make sure that the appropriate codecs are also installed on your computer in order for your videos to play. With DLNA and UPnP support, you can set up direct access with other software like Windows Media Player. iTunes found the Media Hub automatically, and we were able to play audio using Apple's program without any problems; unfortunately, you can't play videos using iTunes.
The File Browser lets you view all the files on the Media Hub as you would using Windows Explorer. A left-hand window displays folders on the drive, and the right-hand window shows the files in the folder selected. You can copy, delete, and move folders and files the same as you would on your computer, and the Media Hub also gives you the option of uploading and downloading files to your PC.
For remote access, Linksys uses a relay system where you can access the drive using the CiscoMediaHub.com site. Setup was a breeze--you just name your device and enable remote access. Then, when you visit the site, you type the name of the hub. The interface for remote access works and looks just like the one at home. You can set up remote access for guests, and set permissions for files and folders.
Thanks to the Gigabit Ethernet port and fast hard drive in the Media Hub, streaming quality was excellent. With the Media Hub connected to an 802.11n router, we streamed a high-def MPEG-4 movie (Australia) to a notebook with 802.11n Wi-Fi; the film played smoothly, without any stuttering. You can even stream three HD movies for three users at the same time, without the usual stuttering. In one test, we copied the same movie into three different folders, and streamed it to three different laptops at the same time; all three streams worked without any stuttering. Our only gripe is that the media browser runs fairly slow: just loading the movie Firewall--which uses the built-in QuickTime player--took about five minutes.
The Media Hub supports DLNA 1.5 and UPnP (technologies that let networked devices share content with each other), so once the drive is configured, you can see it and access files from a PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Linksys media streaming gear (such as the new Linksys by Cisco DMC-350 Conductor Digital Music Center), or your laptop. We streamed the movie Domino over a Wi-Fi network to a PlayStation 3 with no problems.
The Media Hub is not meant as a performance appliance. In several transfer tests, it took about twice as long to copy files as a home-built server. For example, to copy 13 MP3 files from the band Mountain Meadows took 15 seconds on the Media Hub, but only 5 seconds to a Windows Home Server. Although you likely won't have problems streaming files, we wouldn't recommend using the Media Hub as an FTP server. You also can't search files by file type or create auto-playlists (say, for the 15 most-played tracks). In addition, when the Media Hub is syncing media files, the LCD status screen does not provide any clues about how long it will take before syncing is complete.
With the Media Hub, Linksys provides several cool extras. We liked the simple way you can update the firmware; you just click an option in the web interface or on the LCD and the Media Hub finds the new update and loads it. The device includes NTI Shadow backup software, along with a handy file importer that worked flawlessly on both a Mac and a PC, archiving about 1GB of Word docs in only 30 seconds. The software also lets you set up recurring and incremental backups. Unfortunately, the software is only compatible with Windows machines, and the Media Hub doesn't currently work with Apple's Time Machine.
Configurations, Warranty, and Support
Cisco offers four different configurations of the Media Hub. In addition to the model we reviewed, there's the NMH300 ($199), which lacks the NMH405's LCD panel, navigation pad, and memory card slots. Plus, users must provide their own hard drive. The NMH305 ($249) is similarly configured, but comes with one 500GB SATA hard drive. The NMH410 ($349) also has an LCD display, but has a single 1TB drive. Since all models come with two hard drive bays, users can add their own drives as they see fit. You simply press a button on the top of the device to release the panel, slide out the plastic mounting bracket, and insert a hard drive into the bracket. Then you reinstall the bracket into the Media Hub.
In the past, network-attached storage has not rarely been considered consumer-friendly. The $279 Linksys by Cisco NMH405 Media Hub, which acts more like a Web-based version of iTunes, will help change that perception. This smart network drive is simple to use, serves up media to any connected user, and supports a wealth of file formats. We'd prefer faster disk transfer speeds, but it's hard to complain when all of your media is always a click away.
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