Network media streamers are slowly starting to take off--thanks to mainstream products such as the Apple TV and the Sony PS3--but one of the annoying caveats with most streamers is that you need to have your computer on any time you want to access those files. One way around this issue is to use network-attached storage (NAS) for your media, which serves up files to PCs and media streamers on your home network, as well as PCs accessing the files remotely (via the Internet).
Not every NAS can serve up files to media streamers, but that's the LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini - Home Edition's ($200 list) specialty, as it runs both iTunes and uPNP servers. That means you can stick all your music and movies on the LaCie, then listen to your music on your Sonos, or stream videos to your Xbox 360, all without needing to leave your main PC powered up. In our testing, the LaCie largely lived up to its media-centric reputation, serving up media without a hitch on our local network. It's also possible to remotely access files using the LaCie; we didn't have quite as smooth of an experience with that. If you're looking to keep all your media in one place and free up some space on your PC's hard drive--and still have access to it--the LaCie is a good choice. Just be aware that it delivers far better performance on a home network than when accessing it remotely via the Internet.
The LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini is a solidly built external hard drive. The casing is made of thick gray metal--not plastic--and it has a heft to it that at least makes you feel like it's well-made. On the front of the drive is a large, blue power button, which can be used if you need to manually shut down the drive. Around back are the ports, along with some venting for the interior fans. The design, overall, is attractive and should look at home on most people's desks.
While the casing feels heavy-duty, it doesn't do much to dampen the sound of the drive. When it's not in use, the simple humming of the fans isn't that loud, but as soon as you start transferring some files you'll start to hear some loud clickety-clacks. We initially had the drive set up near our home theater, and the drive was considerably louder than the internal hard drives on our TiVo HD. The sound isn't unbearable, but if you're sensitive to noise you'll want to sequester it somewhere out of earshot--or consider another drive.
One of the featured aspects of the Ethernet Disk Mini is the included HipServ software from Axentra. Overall, it's pretty easy to use and offers some nice functionality. By default, there are two main libraries--FamilyLibrary and MyLibrary--so you can set one library to include all the files you want to share with your family and another for your personal files. Another cool feature is the ability to share individual folders and files with friends. Simply check the folder you want to share, click Share, and the Ethernet Disk Mini will send off an e-mail to your buddy with a link that allows him to access the files you selected. To be honest, it's still easier to use a photo-sharing site such as Flickr for family photos, but it's a more attractive option for larger files such as home videos.
An annoying limitation we ran into was trying to download an entire directory of files--for instance, an entire album consisting of multiple MP3 files. The problem is that you can't download an entire directory. Instead, you need to individually select files to download them to a directory you create on your computer. One workaround is that the software allows you to zip an entire directory, then download it, but be forewarned that zipping large files takes a long time (the processor in the LaCie just isn't that fast). Making such a simple activity so difficult seems like a significant oversight of the software.
Using LaCie's Web portal, it's possible to access your files remotely over the Internet as well. Simply log in and you're greeted with essentially the same browser-based interface you enjoy on your local network. This is a pretty nice convenience, but don't expect the same performance you get at home. In our experience, navigating the interface was pretty pokey--so you'll probably end up using this more as a last resort. The same goes for the included backup software, which doesn't offer much in the way of hands-on tweaking. For example, you can't even select individual files and folders to backup.
The LaCie Ethernet Disk Mini Home Edition can also function as an iTunes server, which means you can load the drive with a bunch of music and it will be visible in iTunes. If you're not into iTunes, it can also act as a regular uPNP server, which should make it compatible with even more programs such as Windows Media Player and standalone products like the Xbox 360 and the Sony PlayStation 3. We were able to stream DivX files from the Ethernet Disk Mini to our Xbox 360, but take note that you need to enable "media sharing" on the folders containing the media you want to share.