by Hugh Barros
11/09/2010 | 12:00 AM
Being a leading manufacturer of computer components, ASUS offers a very wide range of products from smartphones and graphics cards to servers and routers. It is no wonder that the company rolls out a new class of products under its brand now.
Today we are going to have a look at a home network attached storage device called ASUS TS mini. It is interesting for its hardware platform, which is x86, as well as for operating system. It's the first time we ever deal with Windows Home Server. These two factors promise high performance and versatility but there is an opinion that Linux-based solutions run better on low-end hardware platforms. So, we’ve got a few questions we are going to answer today: how good Windows Home Server is, what performance and functions it offers, and how good the ASUS TS mini is as a home NAS. As a matter of fact, the new device from ASUS can be viewed not only as a NAS but as a full-featured home server.
The TS mini comes in a rather large box measuring 35x31x17 centimeters. The packaging is robust enough and has a carry handle but its design is too uninformative. There is but a sticker with the model's part number on the box, so it is hard to tell at a glance what this thing actually is and can do. The manufacturer seems to regard this product just as a regular computer.
Besides the server, the box contains an external power adapter (19 V, 4.74 A) with cable, a LAN cable, a quick installation leaflet, a full user manual, and discs with software.
One disc contains an OS image for recovery purposes and another has client software to install various services on client PCs. The third disc has a bootable image to fully restore a PC using backup data stored on the TS mini.
The TS mini looks not unlike modern nettops but it couldn't be made too small with its two 3.5-inch HDD bays. Its dimensions are 9.2 x 20.2 x 24.3 centimeters (WxDxH) and it is meant to stand upright so that its ventilation system took the cool air from below and drove it through the hard disks, past the chipset and CPU heatsinks and out through the two 50x15mm fans at the top. You can try to lay it down, but you have to devise new feet and make sure the temperature is normal then.
The external surfaces are all made from plastic. The sides are all black and glossy while the top panel is silvery and has a vent grid. The bottom panel is a fine metallic mesh. The rubber feet keep the TS mini steady on any surface.
This server has but only one button which turns it on. You can find it on the top panel. At the bottom of the front panel you can see two-color LEDs that report the status of the server, two HDDs, and LAN.
External devices, power and LAN are all connected at the back. The back panel offers six USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA connectors, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and a power connector. There is also a hidden Reset button here.
Interestingly, the TS mini even has a VGA port but it's hidden behind the I/O shield. It must have been implemented to comply with Microsoft's Windows Home Server requirements.
We like the exterior design of the TS mini, yet its glossy surfaces may prove to be rather unpractical. Its dimensions are also larger than those of dual-disk ARM/PPC-based models. That’s because the TS mini has to have large heatsinks on the chipset and CPU.
The TS mini server is based on the Atom platform including an N280 processor, a 945+ICH7 chipset, and 1 gigabyte of DDR2 SDRAM. The memory is installed as a SO-DIMM, so you can increase its amount if necessary. There is an extra chip for eSATA ports, Marvell 88SE6121. The network interface is based on a PCIe chip from Realtek.
Interestingly, the TS mini can be transformed into a regular computer if necessary as there is a VGA port of the chipset-integrated graphics core at its back panel below a plastic sticker. This computer would only lack an audio controller, but you can connect an external sound card via USB.
The system is cooled by two fans with automatic speed adjustment. The CPU and chipset are equipped with rather large aluminum heatsinks. The TS mini is not very quiet and can hardly suit a bedroom.
The exterior plastic panels conceal a robust metallic chassis. To replace or add a hard disk you have to take off one of the black panels, undo three screws and extract the HDD bay.
The single inconveniency is that you have to use a flat rather than cross-point screwdriver. HDDs are secured in their bays by means of a lock and thumbscrews.
The TS mini comes with a preinstalled HDD (our sample had a Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 with a capacity of 500 gigabytes) and ready to work out of the box. For the sake of comparison with NASes we had tested earlier and to see how Windows Home Server could be installed on a new disk, we replaced the default HDD with our Western Digital Caviar Black WD5001AAL.
When you put your HDD into the TS mini, the next step is to install the OS. This is a two-step process actually. First you switch the server into recovery mode by pressing the Power and Reset buttons and then you run the installation wizard from the included disc on your PC.
In a little while you get a ready-to-work server with a new hard disk. The process took us about half an hour. The same wizard can be used to reset the TS mini to its default settings or restore its OS in case of a failure.
Now, you need to install the Windows Home Server Connector utility on your PC. We used its version downloadable from the ASUS website (TS mini connector software V2.0). You can also install it directly from the TS mini by accessing the latter via your browser. The installation requires a live Internet connection since part of the software is downloaded automatically from the Internet. You will be asked one question during the process: whether you want your LAN clients to be automatically turned on for backing up their data.
If a new Windows Home Server is found on the LAN, its setup wizard starts up. It will ask you a few simple questions like server name, admin password (you need a strong one with 7 or more symbols including numerals and letters in both upper and lower cases) and update mode (if you choose automatic mode, the server will install updates immediately).
To set up more server parameters you launch Windows Home Server Console using the admin password.
In this review we will only discuss the basic features of Windows Home Server available in the ASUS TS mini because this software from Microsoft features nearly infinite expandability. Particularly, ASUS added a couple of its own modules into the console.
This section is going to be rather brief because we won’t dwell on features typical of ordinary computers.
When setting the server up we didn’t find the options to change its name or adjust its network parameters, which was somewhat odd for a network device. You could do all that via a remote desktop connection but having such settings in the standard console would be better.
The TS mini has a Gigabit Ethernet port but supports only one file access protocol, SMB. That's not much compared to other NASes, but quite enough for users of Microsoft OSes. The server doesn't operate with disk volumes or RAID arrays that may be familiar to you by other NASes. The default hard disk is partitioned into a system volume and a data volume. When a new disk is added, it can be used to expand the server’s storage space or store a backup copy of the server. It is only the OS that knows which exactly disk contains user data.
External HDDs can also be added to the server's storage space by formatting them via the console. It's good that you don't have to bother about choosing the right usage mode for your disks and that every operation is transparent for the user – you can even easily merge different-capacity disks into a single storage space. The downside is that the system disk cannot be turned off as it stores the OS. The other disks can be turned off and the server will transfer data from them to the remaining disks (checking out beforehand if this operation is possible considering their capacities).
If you want to use a second disk for backup copies, you don’t have to format it. When you select the appropriate status, the TS mini will show up in the management console so that you could copy its folders to the external disk. To restore your data, you can choose between copying missing files or rewriting everything.
As usual, the access control is based on user names and passwords. The guest account is off by default while passwords are required to be complex. You can change these defaults if you want to. Each new user is given a personal home folder and assigned rights to other folders (no access, read only, read & write). User groups and domains are not supported, but this can hardly matter for home applications. When deleting a user, you can remove all of his personal data or transfer the access rights to another user.
After formatting, standard network folders are created on the disk volume: Public for ordinary files, Music, Photos and Videos for multimedia data, Software for software distributions (including WHS Connector), and MySyncFolder for ASUS’ online storage platform we will discuss below. To offer some fault tolerance, folders may have the option of data duplication so that the OS saved two copies of files on different disks. This option can be turned on or off whenever you want (if there is enough of free disk space for that).
The TS mini has six USB 2.0 and two eSATA ports and you can connect the same peripherals to them as to a regular computer's ports. You only have to make allowances for the limited management options available in the standard console. In fact, the only thing you can do with an external disk is to add it to the server's storage (flash drives cannot be used for that purpose) as described above.
Thus, if you just want to use a printer or set an UPS up, you have to use a remote desktop connection which is less convenient than the default setup tool. Or you will have to look for and install specialized software modules.
ASUS simplified the management of external storage devices somewhat and added the ASUS Xtor Manager module into the TS mini. We’ll describe it below.
We will use this section of our review to describe the Settings menu available in the server management console. The General tab is where you can set up the internal clock, choose your region and OS update mode.
The Backup page is for setting up the built-in data backup system for client PCs. You can specify the time period for the system to work in (from midnight to 6 a.m. by default) and the number of copies to keep (the factory default is three last daily copies, three weekly copies and three monthly copies).
The next menu tab allows you to change the admin password and set the required user password complexity (it will be enforced whenever a new user is created or a user password is changed).
We will talk about Windows Media Center integration below. The TS mini can make media files from shared folders publicly available. You can use the menu to enable this for existing folders with photos, music and video.
The server allows you to access files and settings via your browser for remote management. The administrator must turn this option on and the server will check out whether this feature is available and will set your router up if it supports UPnP. You can also specify the domain name here using Microsoft’s service (you must have a LiveID).
New features can be added by installing ready-made software packages. Our TS mini came with ASUS WebStorage WHS Connector and ASUS Xtor Manager. There are only two things you can do with packages: to install and to uninstall.
The last page of the main menu gives you some information about the server like the OS version, device name, CPU model, RAM amount, and versions of software modules.
The default menu can be extended by add-in packages that get a dedicated page in it (like ASUS WebStorage, for example).
One of the most demanded features of this home server is its ability to automatically back up data from home computers – not only files, but also full OS images so that you could restore your PCs back to life in no time at all. This feature requires that you install a client (it’s the same WHS Connector) on each PC, create a new user in WHS and set up the server part of it.
Particularly, the administrator can specify what disk volumes or folders to back up, filter out folders that shouldn’t be copied (e.g. folders with temporary files). The time period of this operation and the number of stored copies is specified in the system settings for all the clients simultaneously (you can remove old copies manually). To restore your files you can use the console or, if the system doesn’t boot up, the bootable CD. As there can be multiple copies, you first have to choose the necessary one. This opens up an Explorer window with files and folders as they were at the moment of being backed up. You just choose the required file or folder and write them to your computer’s hard disk.
It must be noted that the TS mini uses a special backup copy format and only allows accessing backups remotely via the management console.
Now that the data security issue is resolved, the next question is how to access your data remotely. This feature is implemented in a handy way in Windows Home Server – we’ve written above how to turn it on. The only thing left to do is to allow access for specific users.
Then, such users will be able to use his web-browser to download or upload files and create/delete folders. Copying and moving are not supported.
That’s not all, though. If a PC on your home LAN supports remote connection, you can use Windows Home Server and your browser to access the PC’s desktop. This works with Windows XP and Vista, but not with Windows 7 as yet. By the way, the TS mini can also be accessed via a remote desktop connection.
Microsoft’s network media services are supported, too. Files you want to stream must be stored in the folders Music, Photos and Videos in the following formats: jpg, bmp, png, tif, gif, mp3, wma, m4a, wav, avi, mp4, m4v, mpeg, and wmv. Sorting by folder is not available in WMP so you can only sort by date and rating (for photos) or tag (for all types of files).
Unfortunately, not all modern network players can see this kind of media server. You will only have no problems with Windows-based PCs and Xbox 360.
As for Windows Media Center integration, you can install a small plugin on a client PC which will add files from the WHS system into the PC’s media center and allow recording TV programs via network into the server’s folder. The media center’s menu will have a brief version of the WHS console.
ASUS offers the online data storage system ASUS WebStorage to its customers. Depending on the specific product, the user will be able to use it for a certain period of time. For example, the TS mini provides access to a 500GB storage for a year, so you can have a copy of all your data stored on the Web.
You can later purchase more time and storage space if you want to. Besides storing data, the WebStorage service offers a number of extra features like synchronization, Web-based data access (from mobile devices, for example), version control, antivirus protection, data encryption, multimedia support, shared access, etc.
Its integration with the TS mini means that you can choose folders whose copies are automatically created on the WebStorage. You can also enable/disable synchronization with MySyncFolder.
As we’ve mentioned above, the default server configuration doesn’t offer any tools to work with external storage devices, so the Xtor Manager module is most useful. It performs multiple functions. First, it is a file manager for moving files and folders between the internal and external disks and for deleting files/folders.
Second, it can make copies of files from external devices to the server. And third, it can synchronize external folders with the server’s shared folders. All of this works in manual mode. You can also use this manager to safely shut down external devices.
Unfortunately, the OS’s integrated monitoring tools are not very informative. Therefore ASUS added its ASUS System Web-Based Management module which allows monitoring the system’s health (like fan speeds, CPU temperature, disk status and memory usage), checking out the status of the services, loaded drivers and running programs. It offers a brief version of the device manager and a system log, too.
Besides monitoring in the console window, this module can send statistical data and notifications via email.
Windows Home Server has an integrated manager of add-in modules that help implement new features in the server. We've mentioned ASUS' utilities above, for example. You can also check out this page for a list of all available utilities: UPS, backup, defragmentation, antivirus protection, file download, power management and many other kinds of tools. Such a module can integrate its setup page into the console interface so that you could use the same interface to access all system functions.
We can particularly mention the Download Manager tool that can download files via HTTP and FTP (also from file-sharing services) and FTP Manager that can be used to easily set up the integrated IIS in FTP server mode.
If you are not satisfied with the console and add-ons, you can use a remote desktop connection and do nearly anything you want with the system. You may only be limited by your desire to keep the original software up and running (we mean the management console, the backup system, etc) rather than by some features of the server.
The last method you can resort to, if you haven't preferred to buy a nettop in the first place, is to install some other OS. You can do this easily using a USB flash drive with an OS distribution. The hardware is perfectly standard and most modern OSes won't have any problems with it.
We used our traditional tools for benchmarking: Intel NASPT 1.7.0 and Western Digital Caviar Black WD5001AAL disks. The single deviation from our standard method was that we didn’t turn on Jumbo Frames on the server. We couldn’t find this setting in the management console and tried to enable it via a remote desktop connection, which itself is not very easy for an ordinary user. Besides, turning Jumbo Frames on in this way provoked a tremendous performance hit at writing, so this problem needs further checking out.
We had two test modes: an ordinary network folder and a network folder for which the option of copying data to the second disk was turned on.
Now we are going to answer the questions we asked in the Introduction. What about Windows Home Server? Based on Windows Server 2003, this operating system doesn't differ from its ancestor much. The only formal difference is that it comes with a set of remote management utilities. An ordinary user won't ever need anything other than Windows Home Server Console and will never actually face the OS. The only downside is that this OS + console pair offers but limited functionality such as creating a folder, adding a user, assigning access rights. Such a solution is inferior from nearly every aspect to modern Linux-based NASes as it only offers SMB as a file access protocol, doesn't support network printers and UPSes, has no file download system, lacks a browser-based file manager or an all-format media player. No RAID (even though this feature is not important for home applications), no iSCSI, no video surveillance. It doesn't allow doing much with external storage devices and makes you use a special console for setting it up.
Some of these downsides can be solved by installing add-in modules or by using a remote desktop connection to install ordinary Windows software, but that’s rather tricky.
On the other hand, this server is good enough for working on a Windows-based network. Its most interesting feature is the built-in system for backing up data from client PCs. The abovementioned ordinary NASes can't do that by default (you have to install third-party software like that from Acronis). Another interesting feature is the remote access to files and PCs on the LAN. You may also find the access to ASUS’ online storage system useful.
Thus, we think that Windows Home Server performs in a different class than the NASes we reviewed before. It's like with Apple products that work perfectly with each other but may have compatibility issues with other platforms.
In terms of performance, this server doesn’t impress with its peak data-transfer speed of 40-70 MBps considering that it runs on an x86 architecture. This speed should be enough for most applications, but competing Linux-based solutions are generally faster.
Being a high-quality and problem-free product, the TS mini proves ASUS’ leading position among hardware makers. It may be interesting for beginner users who need an out-of-the-box solution for data backups including full copies of LAN computers’ disks. Enthusiasts and professionals may also be interested as they get a compact x86 system with a standard Windows OS to implement nearly any home server scenario they may think of.
The TS mini will come at about $300 for a configuration with one 500GB disk and 1 GB of system memory and at about $450 for a configuration with two 1TB disks and a 2GB memory module. We guess that’s quite appealing compared to other x86-based solutions available on the market.