A quick look at Western Digital's latest My Book NAS

Network storage for the mainstream
— 7:00 AM on June 24, 2009

Being the "computer guy" among friends and family, I'm often called upon to recover files lost, inadvertently deleted, or swept away by hardware failures. Each time I ask if there's a backup, and I'm usually greeted by a blank stare or sheepish foot shuffling. No, of course there isn't a backup. That's why I'm there.

Unless they've already suffered a catastrophic data loss or were lectured about the possibility, most folks simply don't think to back up their files. I suppose I had the benefit of early exposure to the relative volatility of data. Back in high school, my computer studies teacher used to randomly shut off entire banks of computers to drill home the point that we should always be saving our work to disk. I've religiously, and perhaps obsessively, backed up my files ever since. First, it was with removable media: floppies, CDs, and Zip disks. Then I graduated to a dedicated file server powered by my old Pentium II desktop with a whopping 20GB of storage capacity. The server was nothing special, but every night, it automatically ran a batch file that made copies of all my school, work, and personal files over the network. Being attached to the makeshift network in my dorm, the server was also a great way to share files with roommates.

That old file server lasted for years longer than expected. It was eventually replaced with my old Pentium III desktop, which added a mirrored RAID 1 array for extra protection. My server's storage capacity expanded as well, not just to accommodate more backup fodder, but to house my growing collection of multimedia content.

Today my file server is a relatively modern system running a Pentium E2160 alongside two terabytes of parity-protected RAID 5 storage. In addition to housing multiple backups of my personal and work files, it also hosts my MP3 library, archived BeyondTV recordings, countless digital photos, and all the files I need to keep the Benchmarking Sweatshop humming along. I couldn't live without it.

Building a file server makes sense for PC enthusiasts who have older hardware lying around, but it's hardly a practical solution for the average Joe. Pre-built file servers aren't exactly economical solutions, either. HP's MediaSmart home servers, for example, start at around $400 with just 500GB of capacity.

Fortunately, network-attached storage solutions can be had for much less than the average file server. These devices aren't as flexible as full-blown PCs, but they handle the basics: network sharing, backups, and even remote access.

The latest example of the home NAS is Western Digital's My Book World Edition II. Measuring 6.7" tall, 3.9" wide, and 6.3" deep, the My Book is considerably smaller than the mid-tower server I have stuffed in the laundry room closet. Heck, it's smaller than most Mini-ITX enclosures, which should make it easy to tuck out of the way, even in a small studio apartment or dorm room.

Encased in glossy white plastic, the My Book is clearly influenced by the styling of old-school Apple designs. That's not necessarily a bad thing, although I would have preferred a riff off Cupertino's more industrial brushed aluminum designs. At least the white finish doesn't show fingerprints and smudges like glossy black coatings.

The ghostly theme spreads to the drive's strip of face-mounted white LEDs. Thankfully, the lights emit a soft glow rather than a piercing beam. When the drive isn't in use, the lights slowly fade in and out, like a slow-motion digital heartbeat.

Around the back of the My Book we find a power button, Gigabit Ethernet plug, USB connector, and power jack. Although this NAS is designed to be attached to a network, the USB port can be used to connect the device to a PC, as well. Users can also expand the My Book's capacity by hooking up a USB storage device.

Western Digital doesn't ship the My Book with a USB cable, but an Ethernet cord is included in the box alongside a two-pronged wall wart power adapter. When idling, the My Book's power draw drops as low as 4.3W. That jumps to 11-13W when it's connected to a host PC—still considerably less than the draw of even the simplest of Atom-based nettops. The fanless design is quiet, too, with the unit virtually inaudible unless you're a few inches away.

A top panel swings open to provide easy access to the device's dual 3.5" Caviar Green hard drives. Our 2TB My Book was equipped with two terabyte WD10EAVS models with 8MB of cache each. By default, the drives are arranged in a mirrored RAID 1 array, yielding 1TB of protected capacity. RAID 1 makes a lot of sense as the stock config, but users who prefer capacity over redundancy can switch the drive to a striped RAID 0 array or a JBOD config. Western Digital also makes a 4TB My Book with a pair of 2TB Caviar Greens.

The My Book's underlying hardware may be of interest to enthusiasts, but the software interface and overall ease of use are far more importantto the average consumer at which this little NAS is targeted. I'm a little too savvy to be the best judge of such things, so I had my girlfriend—an average computer user who is easily frustrated by cryptic interfaces—set up the drive as I watched.

The My Book takes about three minutes to initialize for the first time, with the LEDs clearly indicating when the process is complete. WD's Discovery software neatly handles drive mapping for the My Book's default public and download shares. Those who wish to tweak the drive's setup can also dip into a web-based configuration panel that yields control over shares, users, RAID levels, and things like iTunes integration. These multiple management options proved a little daunting for our test subject, who otherwise found the setup wizard easy to use. Fortunately, few will need to alter the drive's default config.

While watching the configuration process, I noticed that the WD software, and particularly the web interface, isn't particularly responsive. I expect things to be snappy, and although my girlfriend didn't describe the interfaces as sluggish, she did click on a few buttons twice when her initial input didn't trigger instantaneous results.

Next, I had our tester set up WD's backup software. The installation process went smoothly, although the app's desire to automatically back up the entire contents of the host PC caused a brief moment of confusion. Creating a new backup job proved easy, with our subject commenting on how well the wizard stepped her through the process. She was particularly impressed with the app's SmartPicks suggestions, which make it easy to tag things like Office documents, multimedia files, Internet Explorer favorites, and the contents of the My Documents folder for backup without extensive browsing through multiple folders.

The WD Anywhere Backup utility sits in the system tray and consumes less than 10MB of memory. Backups run continuously rather than on a schedule, which should keep things up to date. It's also possible to define how many iterations of each file a given backup job keeps around.

It only took our test subject a few minutes to set up a basic backup job, which bodes well for the My Book's usability. Restoring from a backup is just as easy, whether you're selecting individual files, entire folders, or revisiting the SmartPicks suggestions. The backup app's interface suffers from the same slight sluggishness as the configuration menus, though.

Those who wish to access the contents of their My Book remotely can do so with just a web browser through MioNet. WD includes basic MioNet drive access with the My Book for free, but you'll have to shell out for the "premium" service if you want other perks.

Western Digital's suggested retail price for the 2TB My Book is $400, which is about $200 more than the combined street price of the drives within. The 4TB model will run around $700, or about $220 more than a couple of 2TB Caviar Greens. I look at those price tags and can't help but picture more robust Atom-based solutions that I could build for roughly the same cost or potentially even less. But those alternatives wouldn't be as small as the My Book, they'd consume more power, and they wouldn't be as easy for my parents, girlfriend, or other folks to use, let alone put together on their own.

PC enthusiasts looking for gobs of network-attached storage are probably better off rolling their own server or seeking out solutions with more efficient (at least in terms of storage capacity) RAID 5 support. However, anyone else looking for a simple home storage solution with built-in backup capabilities should have the latest My Book at the top of their list.

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Tags: Storage