by Hugh Barros
10/26/2011 | 12:04 PM
A well-known maker of network equipment and storage devices, Buffalo Technology offers external HDDs with USB 2.0 and 3.0 interfaces as well as network attached storage products for home and corporate users.
This review will be concerned with the LinkStation Pro Duo NAS which has two disk bays and comes with preinstalled HDDs in two configurations: 2x1 TB (that’s the model we’ve got for our tests) and 2x2 TB. The SOHO-oriented LinkStation series also includes NASes for one and four 3.5-inch HDDs and a special LinkStation Mini for two 2.5-inch HDDs.
Buffalo’s NASes fall into two groups depending on their performance. The high-performance variety has the word Pro in the product names, like the model we are going to test today.
Buffalo focuses on retail market, so its products have eye-catching packaging. The red-and-green box is surely attractive. You can view the product's photos, features, specs and usage scenarios on the sides of the box.
Besides the NAS itself, the box contains an external 12V/4A power adapter with cables for different wall outlets, a white LAN cable (of the modern flat variety), a CD with software, a user manual, and a warranty card.
There are several NAS-related utilities, a backup tool and electronic versions of the user manual on the CD. The basic utilities for setting up and managing the NAS are also available in Mac OS versions. Updates for the firmware and utilities can be found on the manufacturer’s website. You need to specify your product's model name and series number to download some of the files.
We will describe the system tools provided with the NAS later on. As for the backup tool NovaBACKUP, it is not bound to the LinkStation and can actually work with any network folders. It can be used to copy, restore and sync folders and offers a lot of setup options including an operation schedule, file filters, write verification, etc.
The TurboCopy and TurboPC tools are not described in detail by the manufacturer, so we can only tell you that the former sets Windows up in such a way as to improve copying speed whereas the latter creates an additional hard disk buffer in system memory. We don't think they are going to be very helpful in modern OSes, though.
At 20 x 12.5 x 8.5 centimeters, the LinkStation Pro Duo is rather small for a dual-disk NAS. The panels of the case are made of dark, almost black, matte plastic. In the right part of the front panel there’s a glossy translucent decorative detail that is used for three system indicators: Power, Function and Info/Error. The indicators are not very bright. Unfortunately, the activity of the HDDs is not indicated. A part of the front panel has to be removed in order to access the disk bays.
The NAS’s single USB port can be found on the back panel, next to the fan grid, LAN port and power connector. The Power button is designed in an unusual way as a 3-way switch with Off, On and Auto positions. A multipurpose button labeled Function can also be seen here. There are two inconspicuous LEDs next to the LAN and power connectors, indicating network activity and voltage, respectively.
The NAS is ventilated by a fan located at its back. There are vent grids in the top of the front panel and in the sides of the case.
Installing or replacing HDDs seems to be easy. You just take off the front panel, lift the lock with one hand and pull the ring with another. However, you may find this difficult to perform at first attempt. It’s good that you don’t have to use any frames and screwdrivers, though.
Like many other peripheral devices, today’s NASes have a minimum of chips due to the general trend towards integration and miniaturization. The PCB of the LinkStation Pro Duo carries an ARM processor Marvell 88F6282 clocked at 1.6 GHz. The amount of system memory is 256 megabytes. A 512KB flash memory chip is used for the OS.
The NAS’s I/O capabilities, namely two SATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet and one USB port, are all serviced by the processor.
The PCB is compact at only 10x10 centimeters. There is an additional card with HDD connectors. They are fastened to the metallic chassis wrapped into the external plastic.
The NAS is cooled by a 50mm fan. While it’s rather hard to dismantle the whole NAS, it is very easy to clean its fan. You just pull out the plastic locks accessible from the outside and reach the fan. The NAS’s processor lacks a heatsink.
Our sample of the NAS is equipped with Samsung HD103SI disks. The NAS manufacturer doesn't limit your choice of HDDs, but it's not very easy to replace the default ones.
According to the official specs, the NAS consumes about 26 watts when working, 7 watts in idle mode and less than 1 watt in standby mode.
Starting the NAS up was made as easy as possible. The preinstalled HDDs are already formatted and configured as RAID0. They have the firmware installed and even contain a couple of predefined shared folders. So, you only have to connect the cables and move the switch into the On position. Then, you enter \\LS-WVLxyz into Windows Explorer where “xyz” are the last three characters of the MAC address you can read from the sticker on the bottom of the NAS. After that you can see an “info” folder with software for the NAS as well as a “share” folder with unrestricted access.
If you enter the same host name into your web-browser’s address bar, you will see the device’s web-interface. The first page has a link to a catalogue of NAS-related documents (user manual, HDD replacement instructions, descriptions of software tools and how to set up internet and mobile access).
Again, you need to have the device’s address for that. If that’s too complex to you, you can launch the installation tool NasNavi2 from the included CD. Taking about 8 megabytes on your hard disk, it can instantly find the NAS on your network, creating a link to it on your desktop, and perform some basic setting up. Some of its setup choices are far from obvious, though. For example, it assigned a static IP address from an unknown subnet for our LinkStation instead of using a dynamic one from the router. This may have been corrected in the newer versions of the utility.
NasNavi2 can also report the current status of the HDDs, connect external disks, set up the NAS’s IP address, and access its web interface.
The NAS’s web-interface is available in several languages and accessible via both HTTP and HTTPS. It is designed in a user-friendly way. Links to the main groups of settings are at the top of the window with a second-level menu below them. On the left there is an informational block with the NAS's name, firmware version, IP address, workgroup and HDD status.
The web-interface pages are generated dynamically and rather slowly, but that’s hardly a problem since you don’t have to change the settings often.
We tested our Buffalo LinkStation Pro Duo with firmware 1.54 (this version adds support for Time Machine in Mac OS X).
This is the first NAS product from Buffalo Technology we’ve ever tested in our labs, so we are going to describe its firmware features in detail. It’s interesting to see if there are any original functions here.
The LinkStation seems to be a regular mainstream NAS which doesn’t offer too much functionality, but let's take a closer look at it.
As we’ve said above, the LinkStation series comes with preinstalled HDDs configured as RAID0. GPT partitioning is used, so there should be no problems upgrading to 3-terabyte HDDs. About 7 gigabytes of total storage are allotted for system files. The disk volume with user data uses the XFS file system.
The array type can be changed to RAID1 if necessary. You can also get rid of RAID altogether and use the two HDDs independently. The LinkStation Pro Duo doesn’t support hot swapping. You can only replace the HDDs when the NAS is turned off. Migration from any of the two HDDs to a RAID1 array can be performed without losing your data. The sync speed is about 200 GB/hour in that case. The NAS remains accessible via the network during migration but at a lower speed.
The NAS can be set up to shut down automatically if the RAID fails. Disk volumes can be tested for errors on a regular basis, but all of the NAS's services are turned off during the test.
If you want to replace the default HDDs with others, the LinkStation Pro Duo allows doing that by changing them one by one. Data is backed up and restored during that process. Theoretically, it should be possible to copy the OS and data to a new HDD via a PC, yet this NAS doesn’t allow installing its firmware on clean HDDs via network.
The network settings are standard for this class of devices: name, workgroup, IP address (with DHCP support), MTU (up to 9 KB). The NAS can be integrated into a domain or active directory for user and access rights management.
For home applications you can enter users and groups right on the NAS. There are no unusual settings here. You can only assign disk quotas to user accounts. A guest account is available.
The LinkStation Pro Duo allows creating any number of shared folders. The access rights can be read-only, read and write or selected individually for specific users and groups. A network recycle bin is supported for deleted files (CIFS protocol only). You can also create a recycle bin on your USB disk if the latter uses an EXT3 or XFS file system.
The LinkStation Pro Duo can be accessed via CIFS, FTP/SFTP or AFP. CIFS works always while the other two protocols can be disabled. Thanks to Unicode support there are no problems with non-Latin filenames.
User access rights are specified for all the protocols at once. The LinkStation Pro Duo supports UPnP and Bonjour for finding network resources and services automatically.
The LinkStation Pro Duo’s expandability options are limited to one USB port which doesn’t even support USB hubs. So, you can connect but one device to it. It can be an external storage device, an UPS or a printer.
The NAS can work with only one partition of external disks, formatted in FAT32, EXT2/3, XFS, HFS+ or NTFS. The latter two file systems are supported in read-only mode. The connected disk will be identified in the system as “usbdisk1”. The administrator can change access rights for it. The rest of the NAS resources become unavailable during the mounting of an external disk.
The NAS’s Function button can be used to quickly copy data from an external disk to a predefined folder on the NAS. When pressed for a long time, the button turns the connected external disk off safely.
The list of compatible UPSes is short and limited to products from APC and Omron. You may want to check out the list before purchasing an UPS for this NAS. If you've got multiple NASes on your network, you can set them up to share a single UPS.
You can also connect a printer to the NAS’s USB port. There are some limitations to this feature: you can’t view the printer's status and you can only use the printing module of an all-in-one.
The NAS’s printing functionality can be somewhat enhanced by using the Network-USB Server service we will discuss later on.
The LinkStation Pro Duo lacks a special status page but its basic information can always be viewed in the left column. There is no way to check out the temperature or the SMART data of the HDDs. There is no event log, even. That’s not good, especially as the NAS is actually able to report HDD or fan-related problems by sending email notifications (you need to enter SMTP settings and a list of recipient addresses for that).
The integrated clock can be updated via the Internet. The NAS can automatically check for and install firmware updates. You can do this with an external program, too. There is no opportunity to save/restore the NAS's settings but you can reset them in two ways: with or without deleting user data. You can reset the NAS without deleting data by keeping the Function button pressed while starting the NAS up. You can prevent the admin password from being reset during these procedures.
The power management options differ from what we've seen with other NASes. There is Auto mode you can enable with the switch on the case of the NAS. When in this mode, the NAS will be automatically turning on and off depending on the availability of active PCs with NAS Navigator2 on the LAN. The NAS’s HDDs cannot be turned off but you can schedule the NAS’s operation using three on/off timers for each day of the week with 15-minute precision.
The admin can reboot the NAS but not shut it down from the web-interface. WoL is not supported by this model.
You can use your LinkStation Pro Duo to host websites. The web server supports php and MySQL. You can change the server’s port and load your own php.ini file. Website content is placed into a system folder or its subfolder.
Data protection can be ensured by means of the integrated backup tool. It allows entering up to eight backup tasks, each with an operation schedule, a list of original and destination folders, and a few additional options. You can choose any shared folder to back up. The destination folder can be either on the same or any other Buffalo NAS on the same network. You can also use USB disks formatted in EXT2/3 or XFS (FAT32 has file size limitations whereas NTFS is not supported for writing).
The latest firmware adds support for Time Machine. You just specify a NAS folder and a folder on your Apple computer to enable backups.
Like most other home NASes, this model offers several media servers. The DLNA server can be updated separately from the main firmware. It doesn’t offer too many settings. You can only choose a folder with media files, indexing period, and whether to load data from USB disks automatically. The server can index the following formats: JPEG, BMP, PNG, MP3, AAC, WAV, WMA, AVI, MPEG, MP4, MKV, WMV, M2TS, TS. MP3 tags must be in Unicode for correct indexing. Users can be prohibited from accessing this service by the admin.
The second media server is iTunes. It allows choosing a folder for indexing audio recordings in MP3 and AAC formats.
The third server is Squeezebox for Logitech players. Besides MP3 and WMA, it supports lossless formats including FLAC. You can choose such settings as data folder and server port and even access the server's full-featured web-interface.
The NAS can download files via BitTorrent using the uTorrent client we have not yet seen in other NASes. It is one the most popular PC clients of this kind, so we are glad it is now implemented in NASes. There is a password-protected web-interface for accessing it. You can choose individual files from a torrent to download, assign bandwidth priorities and seed any data you like (you can apply rules to seed until a certain rating or time).
There are a lot of mTorrent settings you can change: ports, speed limits, operation schedule, etc. We guess the only difference from the desktop version of the client is that you cannot work with multiple folders. All downloads are stored in a single shared folder. The client is very fast and can make full use of a 100Mbps connection.
The NAS supports browser-based access to its files via the Web Access feature. A folder can be accessed freely or using authorization. Data is encrypted with HTTPS.
The Web Access interface is user-friendly and has special versions for mobile devices. You can do any standard operation with your files here, including downloading and uploading. Buffalo offers an exclusive service similar to dynamic DNS for connecting to the NAS remotely.
The photo hosting Flickr is supported, too. The NAS can automatically sync your Flickr account with a shared folder in either direction. For example, you can publish new photos by simply copying them to the shared folder.
You can also automatically load photos to the NAS from digital cameras with an Eye-Fi card that combines flash memory with a Wi-Fi controller in a standard SD case.
If you’ve got more than one LinkStation NAS in different locations, you can use the Web Access Connect service to sync their data via the internet.
The Network-USB Server feature enhances the NAS's USB capabilities. It consists of a NAS server and a PC client and can be used to connect any USB device. For example, we successfully used external disks with multiple partitions, some Wi-Fi modems and all-in-ones (for printing, scanning and even accessing their integrated card-reader). On the other hand, we couldn’t make our Bluetooth controllers work, so the server software has to support the class of devices you want to use.
When Network-USB Server is in use, the NAS’s USB port is at the disposal of the server and you can’t use it for backup copying or anything else. The client software can be installed on several computers on your LAN to connect USB devices to specific PCs manually.
Buffalo doesn’t encourage enthusiasts to access the NAS’s console. However, there are ways to connect via ssh and install additional software packages (see http://buffalo.nas-central.org/wiki/Main_Page for details).
We tested our Buffalo LinkStation Pro Duo with its default Samsung HD103SI disks as well as with Western Digital Caviar Black WD5001AALS disks using the Intel NASPT 1.7 benchmark. We tried it in each of the three possible configurations: one disk, RAID0 and RAID1 built out of two disks. We enabled Jumbo Frames in the NAS's settings, created a disk volume, a shared folder and a user account and then ran the benchmark.
The first diagram shows the results of the NAS with its default Samsung disks.
So, the peak read and write speeds are 70 and 45 MB/s, respectively. This is lower than what we had with same-class NASes from other brands. On the other hand, the performance is going to be high enough for most home users.
The results are not very different with the WD disks. You can see them in the second diagram:
It is in the DirectoryCopyFromNAS test that we can see the largest gap in the results: the WD disks are twice as fast as the Samsung ones.
We guess the file system for data volumes may be the reason for the poor performance of this NAS compared to its opponents based on the ARM platform. It’s hard to tell why Buffalo preferred XFS to the more popular EXT.
The Buffalo LinkStation Pro Duo is an inexpensive (considering the preinstalled disks) and nice-looking NAS based on the classic ARM platform. Its downsides include the limited expandability options (it's got only one back-panel USB port and doesn’t support USB hubs), the lack of disk activity indicators and the design of the Power switch. The firmware lacks such popular features as event log, temperature and disk status monitoring, RAID migration without data loss, and installation of firmware on clean HDDs. The manufacturer doesn’t provide free access to the firmware, so the rather advanced hardware cannot be utilized fully.
On the other hand, the integrated BitTorrent client is almost perfect and very fast. There is a full selection of media servers, an integrated backup tool, and browser-based file access. Network-USB Server allows using all the features of an all-in-one connected to the NAS.
Taking into consideration the features and functionality of this product, we would recommend it to those users who are looking for an inexpensive network data storage solution that could be easily integrated into a home network used primarily for streaming versatile multimedia data onto compatible players.