Technology

TeraStation: Storage for the Masses (Almost)


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Editor's Rating: star rating

You don't have to be a total geek to set up the Buffalo TeraStation media server, but it helps to have a little tech knowhow

For years, network-attached storage (NAS) devices have been neither used nor understood by the vast majority of consumers. Such devices, which do not need to be connected directly to a personal computer to grab information, are great for backing up important information off all the PCs in your home to a central device. They also make it easy to share photos, music, video, and documents between multiple devices.

But product descriptions for these devices can be intimidating tales of "quick-swap SATA" drives that can be configured in "Raid 0, 1, 5, and 10" to offer redundant backups in case one hard drive fails. And even if some consumers did manage to navigate all the tech-speak and set up an NAS system, there'd still be a series of hoops that would prevent most from using the device to share information across multiple computers.

I've been using NAS devices at home for some time, but when the folks at Buffalo sent me their new TeraStation Live multimedia storage server, I was curious to see whether any strides had been made toward making this type of product less daunting. Notably, Microsoft (MSFT) and others are also making a big push to develop a market for home multimedia servers.

Putting Friends in the Driver's Seat

The TeraStation, costing roughly $700, comes with software that walks you through storing your media on the unit's hard drives and then setting up access by any PC on your home network. I decided to test just how simple the setup would be for an average user by turning it over to a couple I know who are only moderately tech-savvy. Here's the lowdown on their experience:

Looking at the quick setup guide, we weren't impressed with the low-quality paper and thought the illustrations were of poor quality as well. And in another worrisome sign, the instructions referred to the installation CD as the "Configuration GUI." Few consumers know what a graphical user interface is, let alone a GUI. Similarly, when we inserted this CD in a computer, it was unclear whether you should install the software or connect the device first, so the instructions really need a rewrite.

Still, the guide was fairly easy to follow for the initial power-up and connection to our home network. Once you're up and running, the NAS device is easy to locate on the network, and very quickly transferred files to and from the device. A 92-page manual you can download online offers very useful information about management of the hard drives, backup services, and integration with iTunes libraries, among other things.

Putting Stress on the Processor

Like many PCs and hard drives, the TeraStation comes with PC software from a company called Memeo that can automatically back up your information on the device. Installation of this software was pretty straightforward and easy to navigate without looking at the instructions. The problem, though, is that because the software is constantly running in the background, it taxes the processor of your computer significantly. Even though we have fairly new PCs with multiple core processors, Memeo made them run so frustratingly sluggishly that we uninstalled it after about a week.

I took a look at the online user manual and agree that it steps you through many of the things you want to do, though at 92 pages, I suspect few people would want to read every single page.

For those who are more technologically adept, the TeraStation offers another intriguing feature. If you're away from your house, you can access files stored on the TeraStation from a remote computer over the Internet. To do this, you have to be a bit more tech-oriented and capable of opening ports on your router to let information in and out.

Not Just for the Tech Elite

The TeraStation also features user-management controls to decide which users should be granted access to which files and folders. The device, which has an liquid-crystal display screen to let you know what the system is doing and the status of the hard drives, also features a built-in print server that lets any computer on your home network use the same printer. One shortcoming there is that it won't work with non-multifunction printers.

Network-attached storage and media servers may one day hold an important place in many homes. Based on the experience of my friends and my own observations, it looks like Buffalo's TeraStation Live may not be for everybody, but it's also not just for the tech elite.

Edwards is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Silicon Valley bureau.

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