A sale at the Future Shop (a large Canadian electronics retailer, now a subsidiary of Best Buy) caught my eye recently – the Comstar 500GB USB External Hard Drive With RJ-45 Network Connection sale priced at only $119.99 CDN.
The device appealed to me not only for its bountiful storage capacity at a price that's lower than an internal 500GB harddrive alone generally goes for, but also for the promised direct network connectivity, theoretically allowing file sharing to multiple PCs without the need for a server.
I had been having late night guilt pangs about the 130W+ pseudo file server running around the clock for the odd time that a file needs to be accessed from one of the laptops or PCs, so this unit at first glance seemed like a perfect, inexpensive solution. Web searches yielded no information at all about this unit, though, with all internet roads leading back to the Future Shop.
Alas, 500GB for $119.99…not much to lose there so I went ahead and ordered.
A few days later it arrived in the mail (literally in the mail, delivered by Canada Post).
Opening the box revealed the following contents:
- A ~9′ long power supply
- A driver disc (which includes a disclaimer that it is not necessary in Windows 2000 and up when the drive is used in USB mode
- An ~3' USB cable
- An ~3' Ethernet cable
- A drive enclosure with drive inside
Close inspection made it readily apparent that Comstar had strategically placed their own branding stickers, skewed and haphazardly, atop the original branding of the enclosure.
Thus far, still quite happy getting a 500GB unit for so little.
So I hooked it up to a speedy client-device with a USB 2.0 connection.
Powering it up, my trusty Kill-A-Watt showed it consuming 9W in idle mode, up to 11W under heavy access. Reasonable power consumption levels, given that the hard disk alone accounts for the bulk of the consumption. Noise was low and barely perceptible.
Windows XP and Vista clients immediately saw it as a connected hard drive, recognizing 500,014,133,248 bytes of free space on the NTFS formatted volume.
Without boring you with benchmarks from Iozone and SiSoftware’s Sandra, I can say that the device as delivered gives very impressive performance via USB, with a sustained throughput of 30MB/second (solid across the span of the disk). While the built-in drive on the test PC, which I measured to gauge relative performance, gave a higher initial throughput, it actually fell behind later in the test.
During the testing, I identified that the drive in this particular model was the Seagate Barracude 7200.10 500GB.
Next to test the network attached storage functionality…only to discover that this isn’t really a NAS unit, but instead is more of an ethernet attached SAN (read more about NAS, SAN, and iSCSI).
It doesn’t make itself available via any standard protocol (CIFS/SMB, FTP), instead using a proprietary oddball of a protocol called LX/NDAS. Ximeta heralds this technology, touting several benefits (device spanning into virtual drives, less overhead, etc), however it has some significant downsides.
- You have to install a driver on each and every client PC that will use it, presuming that a driver is available for the client you want to access it from.
- The non-routable protocol used is not necessarily friendly with the rest of your network. In trials I can say that it managed to fubar my wireless (on a Dlink DIR-615) successive times.
- The driver itself is not the pinnacle of ease of use or stability. With the latest release version driver I encountered machine lockups and other oddities (mounted drives that weren't mounted, for instance).
Using the NDAS driver over a wired 100Mbps network, with one switch between the client and the unit, performance dropped to a consistent 8MB/second (versus 30MB/second via USB. Not entirely unexpected given that 100Mbps ethernet has a maximum realistic transfer rate of ~10MB/second after excluding overhead).
The network functionality allows for rudimentary sharing of file access among select operating system versions, but overall the purported benefits don’t justify the protocol.
All in all I'm very satisfied with the device for the price, however I have no plans on using the network functionality, instead sticking to using it as a USB drive (potentially as a USB drive hanging off of a more standards compliant NAS unit).
While I don't think it's worth the supposed original price of $250, it is a steal at $119.99 (though only if you're willing to stomach the loss if the device goes south. Being an unknown vendor basically sticking a hard drive and an enclosure together with some of their stickers to cover the branding, it seems dubious that there's any long term support backing you up if it fails during the 1 year paper warranty).
- Fast when connected to USB 2.0, with a solid hard drive inside.
- Inexpensive at this price.
- Quiet, with low power consumption.
- Unknown, potentially fly-by-night vendor that only seems to sell to the Future Shop with shoddily re-labelled OEM hardware.
- NDAS is of suspect usefulness — if you want a NAS, get something different.