I plan to switch to an Intel X25-M G2 SSD drive shortly as the main storage on my system. I intend to keep just essential files on the SSD and all my ‘media’ elsewhere. Of course there are external drives but I don’t like the idea of all my digital eggs being in one digital basket. With a single disk to store everything on, if the disk fails I’d be a tad unhappy…

Which lead me to a NAS (network attached storage) drive. More specifically the Netgear ReadyNAS Duo. I’d considered other devices from Western Digital, Qnap, Iomega, Synology and Thecus but the Netgear ticked this most boxes.

Top of my ‘must haves’ were support for Apple’s Time Machine, remote access to the data on the drives and RAID support (whereby the data on one drive is automatically copied to the other so if a single disk fails, the data is still safe, theoretically).

If you’re not familiar with NAS drives the concept is simple. It’s a hard drive that sits on your network. As it isn’t attached locally (by USB for example) you can stick it wherever you want. If you have power socket in your loft and a Powerline adapter it can live happily up there! Furthermore, any other machines on your network can see it and use it simultaneously.

As NAS drives have matured they now enjoy an ever-increasing amount of extra functionality. For example, the Netgear ReadyNAS Duo includes:

  • A Bit-torrent client – add files through the web interface and it automatically downloads them, leaving you able to turn your PC/Mac off.
  • Photo sharing – lets you easily share photos across computers (Mac users note – not iPhoto compatible)
  • Automatic backup – you can specify ‘watch’ folders. When a file changes in the folder the ReadyNAS will automatically back it up.
  • Time Machine support – as mentioned, as primarily a Mac user, Time Machine support was essential. Note: be sure to set the storage on the Time Machine page high enough – I initially left it at default 230GB and it wasn’t enough. I restored the device to factory settings to get around the problem.
  • Printer sharing – attach a standard USB printer by the USB port and you can share that printer with any machine on the network
  • Auto power on/off – set the NAS to turn on and off at set times during the day
  • FTP/HTTP access – upload/download direct to the device

The unit itself is tiny. Form factor wise, it can happily sit on a desk next to your other bits and pieces. Whilst not a triumph of industrial design it’s not so ugly you need to hide it away.

You can buy the unit with or without drives. Netgear have a promotion running until the end of September 2009 to claim a free 500GB drive. I took advantage of the offer and the free 3.5″ 500GB drive arrived two days later.

Switching drives in and out is absolutely fool-proof. Four screws secure the drive to the caddy and it just clicks into place. You don’t need to format the drive first, the ReadyNAS does all that for you. As soon as the disk is in, it starts mirroring the data from the existing drive to the new one. As mentioned, once the device is powered up, you really could stick it anywhere you like as you’ll seldom need to touch it.

Setup and administration of the NAS, like almost all NAS devices these days, is done through a web browser interface (‘Frontview’ in ReadyNAS speak). There is a wizard that takes you through setting the ReadyNAS up but some of the options are a tad overwhelming initially. I found myself resetting the device to factory defaults a couple of times and starting from scratch. However, that too is simple enough and more patient users probably won’t encounter the same issues.

Support from Netgear is particularly good. Plus there’s a great user community for the ReadyNAS products. You can get all your answers to common (and uncommon) problems over at www.readynas.com/forum.

Conversely, I was put off the Thecus T0204 as I sent questions about the device to their support teams and left messages on their forums and got no response. Not something that instils you with confidence.

So, the ReadyNAS Duo’s perfect then? Not quite…

For me the Achilles heel of the ReadyNAS Duo is the noise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like a turbine, but considering the unit is designed for the home, it needs more work.

It uses a standard 60mm case fan (25mm depth) so it’s easy enough to swap the stock fan out. Two screws secure the side panel and another 4 screws allow the fan to be removed. Obviously there are warranty implications with this but as long as the replacement fan has a comparable cooling effect (you can check the temperature of your hard disks from the ReadyNAS ‘Frontview’ browser) there shouldn’t be any problems. I’ve tried both the Fractal Designs Silent Series 60mm and the AcoustiFan DustPROOF 60mm. Both are better than the stock fan but still not perfect. If pushed I’d say the AcoustiFan was the slightly quieter of the two. However, users looking for a silent NAS device should perhaps take a look at the Thecus N0204. That model is allegedly silent but for me lacks the essential Time Machine support (it could however be added with a future firmware upgrade or perhaps NAS support for Time Machine will be addressed in Apple Snow Leopard) and you take your chances with their flakey support staff. I opted to suffer the noise of the ReadyNAS Duo in exchange for working Time Machine support.

In conclusion, the Netgear ReadyNAS Duo is a great piece of kit. In comparison to other dual drive NAS devices, it’s probably the cheapest, plus there’s the current free 500GB drive offer. If Netgear could revise the design to create a fanless model I’d have no reservations. As it stands, if noise is a primary issue, try and get some feedback on other devices before deciding which model to opt for.