If you're looking to add shared storage to your home or small-office network, there's no easier way to do it than with Western Digital's Essential NetCenter networked hard drive. Currently available in 120GB, 250GB, and 320GB capacities, the NetCenter suits a variety of storage needs. Installation and administration is a breeze. Those unfamiliar with configuring network storage can rely on the bundled EasyLink software to automatically map the NetCenter to a Windows drive letter and access the drive's HTML configuration and management utility. More-advanced users can simply type the drive's IP address (usually assigned by your router with DHCP and found in your router's own HTML management utility) into their browser to administrate and map it using Windows' Map Network Drive from the Tools menu in My Network. Anyone concerned about data security should look into a RAID array, such as the Buffalo TeraStation or the LaCie Biggest F800. At first glance, the terabyte RAID arrays are obviously more expensive, but in a gigabyte-per-dollar breakdown, they're actually comparable to the NetCenter.
The Western Digital Essential NetCenter looks much like Western Digital's other external drives, with grooved, bluish-gray side panels and a silver band around the edges. The only button is the small power/standby button on the front of the unit. The back houses a 10/100 Ethernet port, as well as two USB 2.0 ports for attaching printers or expanding the NetCenter with more USB storage. That actually brings us to our only real gripe concerning the NetCenter: it lacks Gigabit Ethernet, which is starting to appear in home routers and allows for faster data transfer. We'd also like to see direct USB access, though the competition also lacks this feature--largely because Windows machines and Macs wouldn't natively understand the network file systems employed. Look for improved bridge chips that will allow this feature in the next generation of consumer NAS boxes to hit the market.
Western Digital ships the Essential NetCenter with an AC adapter, a detachable power cord, a Cat-5 Ethernet cable, and a small stand that allows you to orient the drive vertically on its narrow side. The software CD contains the aforementioned EasyLink software and PDFs of both the quick-install guide (a printed version is also inside the box) and the user guide, which is available only on the CD. Both docs are easy to follow and understand.
Not surprisingly, the Western Digital Essential NetCenter's performance was about half that of the much pricier Iomega NAS 200d (essentially a prosumer device), but it was faster writing our 400MB folder of files and 1.9GB image file than Buffalo Technology's TeraStation. It was a hair slower in reading than the TeraStation, but not significantly so.
Western Digital covers the Essential NetCenter network hard drive with a one-year warranty, which is standard for the industry. Considering the reduced reliability of external drives vs. internal units, due to rough handling and less reliable heat dissipation, one year strikes us as too short. Always back up your NAS boxes regularly to DVD or tape. Toll-free telephone support is available, but only for basic installation issues (not software) within 30 days of purchase. After that, telephone support is $14.95 a pop, unless you buy one year of phone support at that price--and why wouldn't you for the same price? Ameliorating that little piece of bad news is Western Digital's excellent online support. The copious and easy-to-browse FAQs and e-mail support will more than likely solve any issues.