Just when you thought that the term Cloud meant something, along comes the Personal Cloud. This latest spin on the buzzword du jour refers to web-enabled NAS drives, designed to make sharing of data quick and easy. The other plus is that the stored data isn’t being trusted to a third party online.
The concept isn’t new; most NAS devices have some form of remote access that can be enabled. But the key with these products from Western Digital and Buffalo is that you don’t need networking skills to set them up.
Both of the drives that we tested aim to be as simple as possible in this regard. Simply plug the drive into your router, power it up and run some software to enable external access. This access is then possible from a web browser or via iOS/Android apps. You still retain control over exactly what is shared and who can access it, but this is done via much more user friendly ways than configuring a higher end NAS device. Just use the web interface to send an email link to the person you want to share with and they have access to that folder or set of files. You can also set up multiple user accounts so people can log in via the web with differing levels of privileges.
Because these drives are heavily focused on the web rather than local sharing, we have focused upon the ease of use aspect rather than transfer performance. In our testing it became quite clear that the main determining factor upon performance was upload speed on our ADSL connection, rather than any drive-based limitations. Not only does this make us hanker for the NBN but it restricts the usefulness of the media streaming aspects of these drives. It is also important to keep in mind that uploads are included in most data caps, so intensive use of these functions could seriously bite into your monthly internet usage.
Each has its own quirks, and these are worth keeping in mind. The other thing working against them is the spiralling cost of hard drives. While they should be cheap and easy to use, they are currently costly and easy to use. If you do want drives that facilitate easy remote access these two models are great choices, but unfortunately the hard drive pricing situation isn’t going to improve in the near future.
Western Digital My Book Live 2TB
One thing that became crystal clear when setting up WD’s cloud drive was that if the initial software install falls over simplicity rapidly gives way to frustration. As part of the installation process you need to register the drive, which in turn creates the account needed to log into the drive from the web. After a few retries we got it working smoothly, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.
Setup makes the drive accessible via the WD 2go service, itself accessed via the web or App. Just what can be streamed or played then depends upon the device – for example our test mp3 file played through the standard media player on an Android phone. If you go via the WD 2go website you’ll end up mapping drives in Windows via SSL, which sounded good in theory but was frustrating in practice. We suspect this was down to the ADSL upload chokepoint, but the experience should have been more seamless than it was.
Once set up the My Book Live works admirably, even if it does feel quite limited. The free WD 2go smartphone app handles file browsing nicely; however you need to pay $2.99 for WD 2go Pro to enable synching, offline file viewing and advanced sharing functions. It isn’t much, but it does seem a bit much to have to pay for the App after buying the hardware.
This is a good, but not great, product. If all you want to do is some light file sharing and photo viewing then it is more than adequate, but it was outshone by our experience with Buffalo’s CloudStation.
PRICE $300 (at time of writing)
Buffalo Cloudstation 2TB
We were a little perturbed when we opened the CloudStation box to find very little documentation and no software. There were directions to a web address, however, and our concerns were blown away when, 30 seconds later, the drive was set up and ready to access remotely. Buffalo has chosen to use a software package called PogoPlug for its remote access, and this helps immensely.
Not only is the fully functional smartphone App free, but the web interface allows for much more control than WD’s does. You can play music and suitable video directly from the browser, while managing shares and configuring other options. This completely remote means of controlling the device quickly sold us on the combination of Pogoplug and CloudStation.
What we liked was that the device deftly balances simplicity and complexity. If you want to manage it like you would a higher-end NAS, you can, while not losing the ability for novices to plug it in and go. Too often we see products that obfuscate handy features in the pursuit of ease of use, something that Buffalo has managed to avoid.
While we expected a lot from both of these drives, it was Buffalo that delivered on that promise with aplomb. While not as cheap as some other network drives, the extra functionality is worth the bump in price. If you want access to your data from anywhere without handing it over to an online service, then the CloudStation is pretty hard to beat.
PRICE $298 (at time of writing)