Review: QNAP NAS meets XBMC media center

QNAP's TS-669L can store all your content and play it directly to your TV, though HD playback could be smoother

It's not often that you run across a device that is not only certified for VMware virtualization use, but can also play back HD content through an HDMI port to a television. QNAP's TS-669L can do exactly that -- and more.

QNAP has a history of building small, capable NAS appliances for home and small-office use. Built on a Linux base and housing anywhere from two to eight disks, these devices make it easy to reliably store large amounts of data for smaller workloads. While they do not have enterprise-level redundancy, they are stable little systems that can house immense capacities thanks to 4TB disks. The six-drive TS-669L ($780 to $850 street price without disks) is no exception, as it's built along the same lines as QNAP's other cabinet NAS offerings.

[ Review: QNAP rack-mount NAS makes the business grade. | Get the latest practical info and news with Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog and InfoWorld's Data Center newsletter. ]

The difference is the HDMI port and the XBMC media center app, which bring the TS-669L into a completely different field: the all-in-one home data and media solution. Though I tested the TS-669L, it should be noted that HDMI and XBMC are also offered in QNAP's two-drive TS-269L and eight-drive TS-869L models.

Business NAS, home NASThe TS-669L runs the same management and media software as its brethren. It offers a plethora of network file-sharing services, from traditional SMB, NFS, and AFP file serving to more esoteric services like FTP, HTTP, and rsync. It can link up to LDAP and Microsoft Active Directory domains for authentication and authorization, or it can manage security through local user accounts. It also offers SNMP support for monitoring and traps, and the management interface has a single button to download the appropriate MIBs to manage the device, which couldn't be simpler.

You can also use the TS-669L as an iSCSI target, encrypt the file systems, configure NAS-to-NAS or rsync-based backups, or back up to the cloud via built-in support for Amazon S3, ElephantDrive, and Symform. There are also options for RTRR (Real-Time Remote Replication).

A boatload of applications and services are included, from MySQL to RADIUS, syslog, antivirus, and VPN services using OpenVPN. The TS-669L can serve TFTP and LDAP. These are services that are unlikely to be utilized in a home environment unless you're an ubergeek, but they cover a wide range of potential uses.

The TS-669L offers several useful tools for home or business, such as a Web file manager; a photo and video management app; a music management app; a download app that supports BitTorrent, FTP, and HTTP downloads; and software for surveillance cameras, so you can use cheaper network-connected home and office cameras that record video directly to the device. For Mac backups, there is support for Apple Time Machine. For Windows backups, QNAP includes its own NetBak Replicator 4 software.

All the management and media apps are available through the Web interface on the local network. In addition, QNAP allows for anywhere access via the QNAP MyCloudNAS cloud service, which maintains a connection to your NAS and serves as a proxy to your applications and content. As a result, when outside your local network, you can still access all your data, as well as manage the device, even through firewalls and NAT. This is all fully configurable, and it's secured using your local account settings.

If you think this is a lot of services for a relatively little box to handle, you'd be right, though with a dual-core Intel Atom 2.13GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM (expandable to 3GB), the TS-669L has the horsepower to handle more than you might think. It also boasts dual gigabit Ethernet interfaces, the option to use a USB wireless interface, two eSATA ports, two USB 3 ports, and four USB 2 ports. Suffice it to say, this box is very well equipped.

Nevertheless, the basic operation of the TS-669L is simple: Plug it in, and run a discovery tool to locate the device on the local network. You can then specify network configuration settings, create a new storage volume, and begin adding shares and users to the system. This is all done very easily and quickly through the Web UI, and much of the configuration is wizard-based, further simplifying the installation.

Media playbackNow we get to the novel aspect of the TS-669L: the media player. On the back of the TS-669L is an HDMI port that plugs into your TV. At boot, this displays normal boot information and initially ends up at a Linux login prompt. However, once you've enabled the media services, the system boots to an application selection screen that allows you to choose from XBMC, YouTube, the Chrome Web browser, and the management UI. These selections are handled by the included remote control.

XBMC is one of the best media center applications available from any vendor, and it's completely open source. It's an amazingly slick and responsive interface for cataloging and playing back media of all types, and even displaying customized data feeds in tickers, weather reports, and the like. You can have it automatically catalog all your music and video into a library that will allow searching by a variety of elements, from genre to artist to actor to director and so forth. It also has the capability of playing back a wide variety of video formats.

If you're not familiar with XBMC, you should check out xbmc.org. Frankly, it's the best solution QNAP could have implemented to gain the media center capability.

The downside to the media center capability is the somewhat anemic chip set used to drive the video playback. Lacking the playback capabilities present in something like Nvidia's Ion 2 chip set, the TS-669L struggles with high-definition video on occasion. I noticed artifacts on several high-def files at times, but these were not showstoppers, more like occasional ripples in the display. Adjusting some of the XBMC parameters reduced this effect somewhat, but it's still present in some formats. If there is an improvement to make to the media center feature, better playback is it.

The YouTube and the Chrome Web browser apps are interesting, but not nearly as useful. The browser on a TV is as clunky as you might imagine. Even if you connect a keyboard and mouse, it's still challenging to read text and navigate websites from your couch through this interface.

The TS-669L also offers DLNA and UPnP support that can stream content to compatible display devices on the local network.

One aspect of the TS-669L that's worth noting is the quiet operation. Seeing as it's designed to be used in a home media environment, this is an important consideration, as loud fans or disk noise can be problematic. There are power-saving options that stop the disks, and the fan is relatively quiet. If the unit is going to be hidden away in a media rack, you'll want to ensure it gets good airflow to prevent heat problems.

Remote control optionsThe TS-669L includes a handheld remote control to handle media center duties, and the only problem I encountered was the lack of page-up and page-down buttons. However, there are also smartphone-based remotes and applications that can be used to smooth out the media center process.

In fact, the Qremote smartphone app (iOS) is amazingly handy, offering a way to control the NAS through your wireless network. From the phone app, you can access all the functions present on the traditional remote, but you can also use the touchscreen as a remote mouse, which makes navigating certain apps much easier. In addition, there's a keyboard on the app, so text entry becomes simple. Overall, this is a slick and very useful app.

There's also a Qmanager app (iOS, Android) that allows for management of the device itself. It too is a very attractive and usable application, displaying CPU and RAM usage meters and quick access to further resource monitors for disk, bandwidth, process, and connected user information. You can also check backup status, view logs, and access the download station.

The TS-669L is a very capable NAS and a good media center solution, with the exception of the video artifacts in some high-definition video files. That is the only reason the Performance score is not higher.

For the home user, the QNAP TS-669L offers a ton of usability in a compact and attractive package. For the business user, it offers a wide variety of services in a single box. However you choose to use the TS-669L, it will likely be a positive experience.

This story, "Review: QNAP NAS meets XBMC media center," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read Paul Venezia's The Deep End blog at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Review: QNAP NAS meets XBMC media center" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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