There’s certainly no shortage of choices for external direct attached storage (DAS) for consumers but all generally have a couple of things in common as they only offer USB or FireWire interfaces or, in the case of products such as Maxtor’s OneTouch III, a combination of both. The diminutive N2050 from Thecus stands out from the crowd as it augments its pair of USB 2.0 interfaces with an eSATA (external SATA) port making it one of the first to market with this connection option. Even better is the fact that the N2050 is shipped in kit form and comes with a PCI eSATA controller card and one metre cable.
eSATA is a comparatively new storage standard which is designed to take SATA ‘out of the box’. The big selling point is its speed as it supports transfer rates of nearly 3Gb/sec which is up to six times faster than USB 2.0. The main difference is the external interface as it’s a shielded version and doesn’t have the ‘L’ shaped key common to the standard SATA plug. We have seen products with this interface before such as Freecom’s FSG-3 offered a single port but this is a NAS appliance and is designed to accept external eSATA hard disk enclosures. Freecom advised us that it planned to launch stackable eSATA external drives early in 2006 but as yet these haven’t materialised. LaCie made a move into this arena only recently as its new Two Big drive comes with an eSATA interface and a choice of PCI-X or PCI Express controller cards.
Build quality of the N2050 isn’t overly inspiring as the case is only plastic but a nice design means it will look good on the desk. As with the Thecus YES Box N2100 the N2050 is shipped empty, leaving you to decide what SATA drives you fancy.
Installation is easy enough. The lid is held in place with a couple of screws and underneath you’ll find a disk cage which sits on top of the controller board and is released and lifted out after undoing four screws. There are no cables or wires to worry about as the cage has a single interface connector at the rear, which plugs directly into the board. For testing we opted for a pair of 250GB Western Digital WD2500JS SATA/3Gb/sec hard disks, which we had no problems with.
The appliance supports either a RAID-0 stripe or a RAID-1 mirror and you choose one by flicking a switch on the back of the unit prior to power up. No software monitoring utilities are available to check the unit’s status so you have to rely on the status LEDs to tell you what’s happening. We loaded the eSATA card into a Supermicro 3.2GHz Pentium D PC running Windows XP SP2 where it was identified on start-up as a Silicon Image Sil 3512 SATA controller. Note that not only is this a 32-bit PCI card but it also only supports SATA/150 so it’ll be impossible to get the best out of the eSATA interface. We asked Thecus why it shipped this and it advised us that it was only provided to allow older systems to use the appliance. It expects the majority of users to have motherboards with embedded eSATA interfaces. There’s little to be gained by opting for the kit without the card as it only costs around £7.