- Review Price: £99.00
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.
One problem we found with the N2100 that also applies to the N2050, is cooling. The appliance has a small fan at the rear but with no vents in the casing there is no way to create an air flow and without any monitoring utilities you can’t tell just how hot the drives are getting are getting. We did find with the N2100 that a pair of Maxtor DiamondMax drives were holding at around 50ºC whilst the two WD2500JS drives we also used here settled at a more comfortable 42ºC.
To test the N2050 we created a RAID-0 stripe which took the appliance a matter of minutes to create. The drive then appeared to the Windows Disk Management tool as a single 500GB drive ready for partitioning and formatting. Starting with an eSATA connection we saw the open-source Iometer utility report a modest 73MB/sec throughput. This equates to 584Mb/sec – much faster than USB 2.0 but only a fifth of the quoted top speed for eSATA. For real world results over the eSATA link we copied a 690MB video file to the appliance which took a mere ten seconds for an average write rate of 522Mb/sec. Copying the file back to the PC also only took ten seconds. With the drive connected from its USB 2 port we saw the same striped array return a much lower raw read throughput of 33MB/sec – less than half that of the eSATA port in the supplied card.
With both eSATA and USB 2.0 ports, the N2050 provides the best of both worlds for direct attached storage and although the chassis is a little flimsy offering it empty does make it more versatile. However, if you want the best performance over eSATA you will need a motherboard with an embedded 3Gb/sec port or a suitable controller card.
Once the array has been built the logical drive must be accessed and configured from Disk Management interface.
The kit comes with a basic SATA/150 PCI card and the appliance appears as a SCSI model when connected via its eSATA port.
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