If you're looking for network-attached storage (NAS) but have been put off by the high price per gigabyte, Netgear's $129 SC101 Storage Central may just be what you're looking for. An unpopulated box (no hard drives) with two easy-access plain ATA drive bays, the SC101 has SAN-like drive-spanning and volume-sharing features. And if you shop carefully for hard drives, the completed drive can be considerably cheaper than the prepopulated competition, such as the Buffalo TeraStation or the Iomega NAS 200d. A quick price check showed 320GB ATA drives going for around $150, so for well under $500 total, you can get 640GB of shared storage space. For features and price per gigabyte, you'll have a hard time beating it.
Setting up the Netgear SC101 Storage Central is easy, though it might be a bit daunting for anyone who doesn't like to open up electronics devices. The first step is to install a hard drive into each of the SC101's two bays; you'll need two if you want RAID mirroring (data stored simultaneously to two drives for redundancy), but you can use just one as well. The front panel of the SC101 has a low-profile latch that is opened with a quarter, sort of like a ceramic piggy bank. Open the latch, remove the front panel, and slide the ATA drives in sideways. You must jumper the drives as Cable Select (CS), attach the power connectors and the short IDE ribbon cables, then latch the unit back up. If you need help, the SC101 ships with an excellent setup sheet and user guide.
After you attach the power cord and run an Ethernet cable to your router, you'll need to install the Storage Central Management Utility software from the included CD on each computer you wish to have access to the SC101. The Netgear SC101 isn't accessed via an IP address like many NAS boxes, but the software is easy to use and guides you nicely through the drive configuration process. However, less technically inclined readers should go over the manual first, and everyone should have a plan for how to divvy up the storage space. The SC101 allows you to divide the storage space, as well as share it among individual users. For example, you can assign part of the SC101's total storage capacity to your upstairs computer for private use, assign another part to the computer in the home office, then share part of it across all of the machines in the house for multimedia use, file transfer, and so on. There's no power switch on the mini-toaster-size unit, so home users might want to hook it up to a power strip or another switchable power source for shutdown during nonaccess hours.
Once you're through assigning volumes, you'll see those parts of the SC101's storage that are visible to each machine as a normal drive letter, not a mapped network drive, as with many Web administrated NAS boxes. The SC101 also has a feature normally found only in storage-area networks (SANs): the ability to create volumes that span multiple SC101s. If you add another SC101 Storage Central unit, you can access them separately or allocate space from both units as if they were a single volume. Alas, though Netgear told us that it's developing Mac and Linux drivers, for now, the SC101 is for Windows XP, 2000, and 2003 Server machines only. For backup for users who don't already have a favorite backup program, Netgear bundles the box with Storage Sync Pro.
Because the Netgear SC101 Storage Central ships without drives and its performance depends heavily on the drives you choose, we're not inclined to make a big deal out of the SC101's lackluster performance in our informal tests. However, with the single Western Digital Caviar WD800 hard drive that Netgear provided for testing, the SC101 was the slowest home NAS box we've seen to date at writing a 400MB folder of mixed file types as well as a 1.9GB single image file to its platters (in nonmirrored mode, using a shared partition). The SC101 was more competitive reading data back to our test bed, besting both Western Digital's NetCenter and Buffalo's TeraStation by small margins with the 400MB folder, though it was still the slowest we've tested with the 1.9GB image file. Still, the SC101's low price and features make it a compelling option in the field of network storage.
The Netgear SC101 Storage Central comes with a one-year warranty. Toll-free phone support is available 24/7, but only for the first 90 days after purchase. The company's Web site has a helpful user forum for presales and post-free-period support problems, as well as firmware upgrades and a PDF version of the user manual. You can also send e-mail to tech support from the Web site.