Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Linksys NSLU2 Network Storage Link Review


In my previous post, I did a review of a network storage product by D-Link, which turned out to be not only slow, but generally defective. I still, however, need some network storage, so I have since returned the DSM-600 and have come home from CompUSA with Linksys’s NSLU2.

I. A Slightly Different Concept

The NSLU2 is much smaller than the DSM-600 because it is a different type of product. Unlike the DSM-600, the NSLU2 is not a hard drive enclosure—thus there is no space inside of the machine to put a hard drive in. Instead, the NSLU2 simply has two USB 2.0 ports and a single network port. Thus, you take your existing external hard drives and plug them into the back of the NSLU2 and then connect it to your router.

The NSLU2 also has no wireless antenna and, therefore, cannot serve as an access point or a range extender.

II. File Systems

I mentioned in a comment on my previous post that a significant drawback of the DSM-G600 was that it forced you to format any hard drive you connected to it and then use a Linux file system! Unlike an NTFS and FAT32 file system that Windows supports, a Linux EXT2 file system is UNREADABLE if not connected directly to your network storage unit.

So what does this mean?

First, this means that if you already have a few hard drives full of media you want to share, then you’re screwed because you need to erase all the data on the hard drive before you can “share” it. This sounds even dumber when you consider the fact that no one will want to purchase one of these products UNLESS they already have a ton of media that they would like to share. Is anybody out there saying, “Hmm. I have absolutely no music and movies or documents I need to share in my home network, so how about I invest in home network storage now?” What makes it even more infuriating is the way that companies market these products, saying that they allow you to “Share music, video, or data files” but neglect to mention that you’ll need to get all of those after you’re forced to format your hard drives.

Second, this also means that if you ever need to physically move your hard drive (let’s say you’re going on a trip and want to bring it home for the holidays), you’re going to need to not only lug around the entire network enclosure, but you’ll need a router wherever you go to hook the damn thing up. Moreover, you’ll need to bring the setup disks with you because the home network you add it to is completely unconfigured.

Third, if you ever decide to ditch the network storage box and still want your media on your hard drives, a Windows PC will NOT be able to read those hard drives anymore because EXT2 isn’t natively read on PCs. There is a way to recover the files using a Linux Reader utility, but this is very slow going (it can take days).

As you can see, the use of Linux file systems is a serious drawback of NAS (Network Attached Storage) today. The worst part is that the manufacturers do not list that they use EXT2 ANYWHERE on the outside of the box, and in some cases don’t even mention it in their product manuals. During setup of the DSM-G600, for example, it simply tells you that it is reformatting the hard drive without any warning, so quite a few people have probably lost all of their data thinking that it was going to be shared, not erased.

How stupid are the engineers who came up with these products? How near-sighted do you have to be to let something like this get through to the retail shelves?

Well, with all of these problems with file systems, I was quite delighted to see on the box of the NSLU2 the following message: “Supports Windows NTFS and FAT32 File Systems!” That would actually solve a lot of my problems.

III. Installation

I brought the NSLU2 home and plugged it in. The setup process was a little clunky and counter intuitive, and it was virtually impossible to figure out how to actually see the hard drives on my computer. I started out by plugging in the first hard drive I wanted to share. This was an NTFS drive. And because none of the product packaging says it will or will not erase my data, I did not put much data on the hard drive just to test it out.

Error message: “Unsupported File System.” I thought NTFS was supported, you know, based on the front of the packaging that says NTFS is supported. Apparently not. I plugged in another hard drive I had, this one with a FAT32 file system. Same error message. I plugged them into either port and nothing happened.

Oh and by the way, every time I unplugged a hard drive, I had to reboot the entire NSLU2 and go through the setup process again. I found this out in the fine print of the product manual which says, “The NSLU2 is not hot swappable.” That’s odd isn’t it? Every time I want to share something on a new drive on the network, I need to reboot the entire machine? That sounds counter to what Linksys advertised on their product packaging: “You can even plug a USB flash disk into the Network Storage Link, for a convenient way of accessing your portable data files.” Two things about this marketing strategy. First, is anyone really going to come home with a USB flash drive and then plug it into their home network if they need to reboot the entire machine and disrupt access to the other hard drive as well? NO. Second, who the hell is walking around with a USB flash drive that has a EXT2 file system on it?? No one, that’s who.

IV. Tech Support

I got through to Linksys’ tech support line, which didn’t require a long wait, but did force me to talk to technicians who had strong Canadian and Indian accents, which are virtually impenetrable, even by my standards. I finally got someone I could understand and he says, “The NSLU2 CAN support NTFS and FAT32 file systems, but not outside of the box. You’ll need to update your firmware in order to do this.” So I’m thinking that this is complete bullshit that it says it does support it, but actually doesn’t, but the other part of me thinks, ‘Hey it’s a quick download, so why not?’

I download the firmware and try to install it and get an error message. It turns out you need a hard drive attached to the NSLU2 while upgrading the firmware, and guess what, that hard drive won’t be recognized until your FORMAT the hard drive and erase all of your data. Thus, in order to have support for NTFS and FAT32 file systems, Linksys forces you to ERASE those file systems first. What a complete debacle.

So I decided I would just format one of my harddrives and then reformat it back to NTFS later on. I look at the release notes of the firmware and it says, “Port 2 only supports NTFS/FAT32. Port 1 supports EXT2 only.” What the hell? That seems quite arbitrary.

After the firmware upgrade, the machine would only recognize the Linux formatted disk, but not disks from any other file system. After an hour I figured out that the release notes were simply wrong because they mixed up the port numbers. Port 1 only supports NTFS/FAT32 and Port 2 is the one with EXT2 only. How can you manage to foul that up, too, Linksys?

V. Using it . . . sort of

Even assuming that I am willing to forgive Linksys for blatant and predator false advertising, and even assuming I am willing to use a machine that I need to reboot every time I swap out a hard drive, and even assuming that I am willing to format one of my hard drives using a Linux file system—I still wouldn’t be happy with this product.

First off, it is damn near impossible to keep this thing connected to your computer. The hard drives show up as network drives, but they keep cutting in and out. The performance is lackluster (2MB-3MB/second, which is atrocious for a wired home network).

Then I discovered something else. Lets say I have some music on network hard drive 1 and I am listening to it on my computer. I would be streaming a small amount of data from that drive. It turns out that if anybody on the network accesses either network hard drive 1 or 2 for any reason, all connections to the hard drive cut out for a few seconds.

What is the purpose of SHARING your media with MULTIPLE users on a home network when that same machine can only access one hard drive at a time and CUTS OFF all other users in doing so?

The answer: No purpose at all.

VI. Conclusion

Linksys’s NSLU2 is quite possibly one of the most horrific products I have ever purchased. It is false advertised, buggy, slow, and a general piece of shit (that’s an industry term). Needless to say I returned the NSLU2 to CompUsa immediately for a full refund.

1.5 out of 10. Stay away!

4 comments:

Jeff said...

I apreciate your review for the linksys storage device. I really liked the idea when i first noticed it on the 'net. THEN I read a review, but very brief and mentioned that it only allowed for Linux files, and if you wanted to take a hard drive you could not realy plug it in to a computer and access it. Have you found ANY other device that acualy works?
I would love to find a network storage device which i could jsut plug into my router, and hopefuly even access from a remote computer through the internet. I can't believe in 2006 this is actualy a problem.
Any suggestions? am I dreaming too big LOL

thanks for you reviews... stumbled across your site with a search

Jeff in Canada..
(loved your mention of the tech support guys with the "stong canadian and indian Accents" haha

A.H. Rajani said...

Jeff,

Although it won't solve the problem of the file systems, I'm writing up a review of the Netgear SC101, which I bought recently. It will be posted here over the weekend.

Anonymous said...

This device in not really for the newbie, they don't appreciate NAS anyway. If you are not a bit technical - STAY AWAY. If you are - THIS IS HEAVEN, it does FAT and NTFS storage, plus a hundred other things. And if you get one of the newer ones, it has a faster CPU as well.

Other than the fact that the manual could be more comprehensive, this is a very good product (if the manual was longer no one would read it, even you did not read the very short one that came with it).

If you buy a "SLUG" read up on it first. It is extremely powerful.
Yes, you will need to flash it with a new version, but, it is a simple process IF YOU READ UP ON IT.
No, you DO NOT need to have drives attached to flash this unit. In fact, it works better if you don't.

If you have a question about this unit, search online, the hacker community for this device is HUGE.

And boy are you picky, lol ... complaining about a Canadian Accent? Other than the few french ones, they have one of the most generic accents you can find.

Anonymous said...

>>... if you ever decide to ditch the network storage box and still want your media on your hard drives, a Windows PC will NOT be able to read those hard drives anymore because EXT2 isn’t natively read on PCs. There is a way to recover the files using a Linux Reader utility, but this is very slow going (it can take days).

Hey, did you ever heard of ext2fs native drivers for windows?
see http://www.fs-driver.org/
=)

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