The Linksys NMH405 Media Hub is a back-to-basics "media-aggregation" server that is perfect for beginners but it does have its hiccups.
Here's the scenario: you have a couple of computers in the house, plus a console, and want to network them together: so you buy a router. And while you've found the PlayStation is able to now play MP3s from the PC, the computer also needs to stay on all the time. Plus there might be something on the other PC you want to watch but can't remember how to find it. Surely there must be some way of keeping all your media in the one place without needing to leave a power-hogging PC on all the time? Oh, yes there is.
The idea behind the Linksys Media Hub is that it connects to your network and acts as a central point for all your media files — it knows where to look on your PCs when you rip a new CD, for example, and will load that onto the device as well. But like a job applicant, you're only any good if you can present yourself well under pressure. And this is where the Linksys by Cisco falls hard.
The Linksys Media Hub NMH405 is an attractive unit with a piano-black finish, but you've got to ask yourself: is this necessary with this type of device? We like to keep our network storage where we keep Cousin Jasper — under the stairs.
Of course, with the integrated LCD and media card reader, Cisco-nee-Linksys don't want you to hide this unit away, and the NAS is one of the first that's actually suited to desktop usage. It's also relatively quiet — the drive included is a Linksys-stickered "green-power" 500GB drive and doesn't make too much noise, so it won't disturb you while you're sitting at the desk. However, the small cooling fan might — it makes as much noise as our own desktop PC.
Installing new drives into the Media Hub was one of the easiest we've seen — the lid comes off with a press of a button, and you can simply slide the new drive in. It will then automatically set it up in a mirrored mode for extra security, but you can change that later.
The Linksys Media Hub NMH405 is positioning itself in a unique position as a "media aggregation device" and as a result its features are media-centric and not pitched at the usual NAS customer. Its main feature is the Linksys Media Importer which does all of the "media aggregation". It loads onto each PC in your network, and you simply indicate via the easy-to-follow wizard which folders to monitor. The device will then automatically backup any files that appear there. While the device ostensibly supports OS X it doesn't enable automatic backup through Apple Time Machine.
Tapping into the LCD-on-everything market that routers have recently dipped into, the NMH405 features a 1.8-inch LCD for navigating the on-board menus. Options on the device include: "Backup", which activates NTI Shadow backup software included on your connected PCs; "Status" for a readout of stats, such as space available; and "Settings". Below the display, and the associated four-way rocker buttons, are the memory card slots. These support CompactFlash, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, SD, xD-PictureCard and MMC. At the very bottom you get a USB port, in addition to one on the back, which can be used for attaching external storage, but can't be used to enable print servers, unfortunately.
As a media device the Media Hub supports DLNA 1.5 and the older UPnP standard, plus the gigabit Ethernet connection is able to support up to three HD streams at once. While there is also an iTunes server, sadly it's missing one of the other niceties available on other units: automated BitTorrent downloads. External access to the storage is also permitted once you sign up for a free account with Linksys, and your user name forms part of the web address. Unlike Western Digital's solution it's also free — the only downside is you have to use the Linksys browser (see below). This is one of the best solutions we've seen for "anywhere-anytime" access of your data. The interface will also let you access all of the media servers on your network — PCs etc — through the interface, so you don't necessarily have to move all of the content to the NAS.
We're going to start our review by picking apart what will constitute most people's interactions with the device: Linksys' proprietary file browser. While the Linksys Media Importer will pull some content from your PCs for you, there are times when you'll want to do it manually. We're not big fans of bespoke interfaces here at CNET Towers — especially when Windows comes with a drag-and-drop interface built in — and when faced with Linksys' Flash-based web browser we baulked a little. Well, quite a lot, actually. While the Windows interface isn't great, most people know how to use it. So why Cisco went to the trouble of writing a new file browser from scratch doesn't initially make sense — especially when it doesn't work.
Firstly, we found it was broken in Firefox — none of the text would display — which left us to try to guess the purpose of each of the icons on the browser. While we found this could be fixed we doubt our second point can be: the interface doesn't support drag and drop. You can't drag a file from your desktop onto the browser (and therefore onto the drive). Instead, to add a file you need to press the "upload to Media Hub" button then browse using the interface and then click Upload. Laborious. This would be fine if you could move files around with abandon, but there is unfortunately a limit to the files you can load through this interface. The maximum is 1GB, and as most HD movie files are more than this it renders a "media hub" almost useless. Also, the browser loses track of file sizes after 2GB — our 8GB file was designated simply as "greater than 2GB".
While you'll still need to use the browser if you access the drive externally, we found that the latest firmware (3.18.2) enabled Windows to see the drive so we didn't need to use the horrible browser to move files around again — we used Windows instead. But in an ironic twist, the Firefox problems also disappeared, so if you have a sense of masochism about you then you can still use Linksys' version.
Once we had the Media Hub as we liked, we were able to easily see the media servers on connected PCs, and stream MP3 albums onto our PS3. While some UPnP servers — such as Windows Media Player — will only play albums in alphabetical order, the Linksys was able to keep the correct track order intact.
Speed was good for a device of this type, and using a 1GB file as our test we were able to find that the Media Hub had a read speed of 16.94MBps, and 12.02MBps when writing back to the job. This was with the default 500GB drive in place. Of course, speeds will vary depending on whether you add a second drive or not. Striping two drives should bring some speed improvements, but of course you lose the security that mirroring brings. Thankfully the Linksys interface easily allows you to switch between RAID 1 and RAID 0 for this purpose and warns you if your data will be lost.
Could this be the start of a new era of media devices? ... we think not. While this is designed to be a "set-and-forget" system for the beginner we feel that some people would take one look at Linksys' interface and throw themselves into traffic. Even so, it's still one of the easiest devices to set-up, and the Media Importer is a great feature — we found ourselves pining for it when we set up a new ReadyNAS Duo. At AU$699 it's a little too expensive, but we've seen it for around AU$450 online, and for this it's very tempting. A good little unit if you can look past its faults.