Priced at around $600 without any storage (or $900 with 4TB), the ReadyNAS Ultra 4 is expensive compared with other high-end NAS servers. However, it's well worth the investment for those who need a robust and secure NAS sever for their backup, file-sharing, and media-streaming needs.
The server offers an excellent backup feature that doesn't require software installation on the workstations. The front-accessible drive bays and the flexible X-RAID2 configuration make replacing/upgrading the server's internal storage a nonissue. The Ultra 4 is also great where it matters the most: performance.
It's far from perfect, however, for being rather unfriendly to novice users and lacking other handy features such as PC-less download or the support for IP cameras. For this reason, home users who want something slightly cheaper with more features might also want to check out the Synology DS410.
Design and setup
The ReadyNAS Ultra 4 is compact for a four-bay NAS server. On the front it has a large door that opens to reveal the hard-drive trays, which can be pulled out easily without using any tools. Once a hard drive is installed, a tray can be firmly locked into its place via a latch. Below the drive bays' door, there's a small LCD that shows the IP address of the NAS server and the current status of the internal hard drive. On top of the drive bays are a USB port and a Backup button that quickly copy content of a USB drive to the server's internal storage.
On the back, the server offers two Gigabit Ethernet ports and another two USB ports. The network ports can be used at the same time for failsafe and load-balancing purposes; they won't work together to increase the ceiling throughput speed. The USB ports are to host external storage devices or printers. The ReadyNAS Ultra 4 has the least number of ports we've seen in a high-end NAS server. Others tend to offer four or more USB ports and a few eSATA ports.
The Ultra 4 comes with a setup booklet that walks you through a few simple steps to set the server with the network. One of the steps involves installing the Netgear ReadyNAS RAIDar software utility that helps detect the NAS in the network, browse its share folders, and launch its Web interface for further customizing the server's features. Following the instruction, it was really easy for us to get the server up and running.
The server can handle four SATA hard drives up to 2TB each, making the total storage up to 8TB. However, you won't be able to have this amount of storage with it; by default, the server sets up its internal hard drives using Netgear's X-RAID2 configuration. This is a proprietary RAID setup that allows you to dynamically expand the volume without having to back up or restore the existing content. With X-RAID2, data integrity takes precedence.
For example, when the server has only two hard drives, they will be set up in a RAID 1-like configuration (also called "mirror," where only half of the total capacity is available) to guard it against single-hard-drive failure. Now if you add another hard drive, the volume will be dynamically expanded and will change to a RAID 5-like setup, which is balanced between data integrity and the most amount of storage space. And you can keep doing that until the bays are all occupied. At most, when all four bays are occupied with 2TB hard drives, you'll get 6TB of storage out of the server; the other 2TB is used for redundancy overhead.
The best thing about X-RAID2 is the fact that you can change/add/remove hard drives at any time, even when the server is running, without worrying about damaging the RAID setup. It's especially convenient when you want to increase the server's storage capacity, by swapping out its existing hard drives with larger ones. As long as only one hard drive is being removed or changed at a time, the system will take care of rearranging the data. This process, which is transparent to the users, can take hours, however, depending on how large the hard drives involved in the process are. You can keep track of this process either via the front LCD or the server's Web interface. You can also use hard drives of different capacities with X-RAID2 as long as the replacement hard drive has the same capacity or larger than the one that's replaced.
In our testing this worked very well and this is probably why Netgear doesn't make it easy for you to change the ReadyNAS Ultra 4's RAID configuration. In other words, you can't manually set up its hard drives into RAID 5 or any other standard RAID configurations using the Web interface, and we don't know if there are other ways. Though this might upset those who want to have more control over their storage, we don't see why anybody would want to use any other RAID configurations other than what the Ultra 4 has to offer.
The Ultra 4's Web interface, which is well-organized and responsive, allows you to access and manage all of its features. The server, however, is clearly geared toward business users. The wording of its Web interface and the way features are designed to be managed, though affective, are unfriendly to home/novice users.
Take, for example, assigning user access privileges to a share folder; here you are presented with a long input field where you have to manually type in usernames that you want to grant certain types of access (read only, full access, or no access). This is a cumbersome process that is prone to errors. With other NAS servers, this can be done just via a few mouse clicks with existing user accounts being listed for you to pick from. Other features of the Ultra 4 are also managed in this similarly nonintuitive way.
The Ultra 4 has standard media-streaming features, as is the case with many high-end NAS servers. You can stream digital content to any UPnP- and DLNA-compliant network media players, as well as iTunes.
We were impressed with the backup feature of the Ultra 4, where it can by itself pull the data from a network device to make backups stored on its internal storage. For example, if you want to back up a folder on a network computer, you just need to share that folder. From within the Ultra 4's Web interface, you set the backup feature to have access to that share folder and then make a backup schedule. From then on, a copy of that folder's content will be made and kept updated to a share folder of your choosing on the NAS server. This method of backing up is much better than using software installed on the computer, as it doesn't significantly affect the computer's performance when a backup is in progress.
Other than that you can also set the Ultra 4 to automatically back up important data onto Netgear's enterprise ReadyNAS Vault cloud service that costs $199 per year for the first 50GB and $150 per year for any subsequent 50GB.
The Ultra 4 supports Apple's Time Machine; all you need to do is turn this feature on via the Web interface. Any Mac running OS 10.5 or later will automatically find the ReadyNAS as a Time Machine backup destination.
The Ultra 4 supports both PC and Mac platforms really well; you don't need any additional software installed on any computer to access it. On Windows computers, you can browse for it using a network browser, such as Windows Explorer. On Macs, the NAS server will be automatically detected and listed in the Finder.
Though it doesn't support handy features such as PC-less downloading or IP cameras, the Ultra 4 can have more features added via its add-ins. Netgear bundles a few add-ins with the server, including the ReadyNAS Remote, which allows users to access the NAS remotely over the Internet. Unlike other remote access solutions, the ReadyNAS Remote requires a piece of software installed on the remote computer. This application then creates a VPN-like connection to the Ultra 4 server and allows remote users to access its share folder as though they were in the same local network with the server. We tried this feature out, and though it worked as intended, it's only good for business users because its setup process was rather involved.
The ReadyNAS Ultra 4 worked best where it's most important: throughput performance. We tested the NAS with the X-RAID 2 setup, and it consistently scored the highest in both the write and read tests.
In the write test, the Ultra 4 registered 443.7Mbps, noticeably faster than the Synology DS410's 429.4Mbps. Note that the Synology was tested with RAID 0, which is optimized for performance. In read, the Ultra 4 again beat the Synology 875.2Mbps to 867Mbps.
This excellent performance makes the Ultra 4 a perfect fit for environments where heavy data sharing and media streaming between multiple clients are required. Note that these speeds are faster even than those of some USB 3.0 external hard drives.
The Ultra 4 is relatively quiet, even during a heavy load. In a room with no ambient sound, you'll notice the humming of its large ventilation fan on the back.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Though the throughput performance was great, we noticed that the server took a long time to add a new hard drive to its X-RAID2 setup. For example it took about 10 hours to finishing adding a 1TB hard drive to a setup of existing two hard drives. This was probably because it has to rearrange the RAID from RAID 1-like format into that of RAID 5. The good news is you can remove the new hard drive at any time if you want to change your mind during the process. Also, other users can still access the NAS server's storage during the time a new hard drive is being processed.
Service and support
Netgear backs the ReadyNAS Ultra 4 with a rather generous three-year warranty. The company's Web site offers lots of support information, including troubleshooting, a knowledge base, firmware, a support forum, and manual downloads.