Updated 1/29/2013: Clarified support availability
It seems like every NAS maker is beefing up their multimedia playback features, lately. It makes sense, since the move to Intel Atom-based products has added both the compute power and HDMI ports that are enablers for HD video playback. Since Atom-based NASes cost more, why not entice consumers with the prospect of using a NAS for home entertainment as well?
NASes have long had UPnP / DLNA servers that can serve music, video and still images to DLNA-enabled players. This method doesn't require that the NAS and display device be directly connected. With DLNA, the connection between server and player is made via your network. So players can not only be TVs, but also computers, smartphones and tablets.
The other way to go is via direct HDMI connection between media source, in this case a NAS, and display device, in most cases your big ol' flatscreen TV. In this case, the NAS is performing the duties of both media source / server and player / renderer. This puts much more compute load on a NAS, especially for HD video content.
Back in November, I looked at Thecus' Local Display Module to see if a Thecus NAS could replace a HTPC.The Local Display Module relies on a third-party supported XBMC module to play content directly from the NAS to HDMI-connected TV. I found Thecus' "solution" was a step in the right direction, but had too many problems to be considered for serious use.
Armed with my testing criteria, today I'm looking at the recently-reviewed ASUSTOR AS-604T, which offers a similar promise of serving double-duty as a home media playback device. The ASUSTOR has more media playback options, namely:
- a built-in uPnP server
- Plex Media Server
The first two use DLNA to make connection between the NAS and TV, while Boxee renders content directly.
I initially also looked at the ZenPhoto and CopperMine Gallery apps, but found they were more for use as picture galleries for a website and not really for viewing photos on your TV. Although not a media renderer itself, I also looked at ASUSTOR's Download Center app, which is intended to automatically gather material for viewing.
To set the stage, we need to define what my current HTPC is and how we use it. We use an old TiVO Series 2 with a motor swap. About the only thing left of the TiVO is the case, so don't let that throw you. It has an ASRock H67M-ITX motherboard, 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, a Sapphire Technology AMD Radeon HD 7750 video card and an i7-2600k quadcore processor running on Windows 7 64-bit. It's built to boogie.
We use our HTPC for a vast variety of tasks and my goal was to have it be as non-HTPC-like as possible. My wife and kids would not be too tolerant of using a keyboard to navigate through all sorts of different programs for the simple task of watching TV or movies. More importantly, I knew it would be a support nightmare for me if that was the solution I gave them!
The biggest thing we use our HTPC for is the real-time transcoding (converting) of internet content through the PlayOn media server. We use PlayOn mainly for Hulu, but we can watch other channels. PlayOn is controlled through the DLNA functions of the Samsung TV and we simply use our TV remote for control.
We also stream videos via DLNA to our TV via Mezzmo. Vdeos are stored on our Vortexbox where they get ripped automatically. Since it's DLNA, we also use our TV remote for control here. The family also listens to music from the media server via the TV through DLNA, using the TV remote to make selections.
We had a run at using Boxee and XBMC with an Android remote, but found the TV's DLNA functions with the TV remote to work much better. For us, DLNA has been very problem-free and makes viewing for non-techies very easy. It also just lets us use the TV remote vs. having yet another (and more complicated) remote to deal with.
The final functions that we occasionally use our HTPC for are watching Vimeo and bringing up music videos on YouTube via the HTPC's browser. Our kids also play Need for Speed Shift with it. These tasks all use the HTPC as a PC via HDMI to the TV. So they don't get used very often.
Fan noise, or lack of it, is crucial when watching TV. So I use the ASRock tuning utility to set fan speed very low until temps get rather high, at which point the jet engine-sounding fans kick on and cool it down. With the beefy processor and powerful video card, it hardly ever gets hot enough to kick the fans on, even when transcoding (converting video) in real time.
Comparing a dual-core Atom-based NAS to this beefy HTPC may not seem fair. But since NAS makers are trying to position their products as HTPC replacements, we're here to test their claims.
The first thing that's helpful to know are which apps are supported by the NAS maker and which rely on the third-party app developers for support. If you're going to rely on a feature to work, it's good to know where your complaints and support requests need to go when you run into trouble.
ASUSTOR makes this very obvious. Anything in its App Central listing that has ASUSTOR in the third line is supported by ASUSTOR. The screenshot below showing an app search for "asustor" came up with nine results. But the search erroneously included the DVBLink TV Server app, which is not supported by ASUSTOR. The ASUSTOR-supported apps are currently Boxee, Download Center, Dropbox, iTunes Server, phpMyAdmin, RALUS, Surveillance Center and UPnP Media Server.
Apps supported by ASUSTOR (except DVBLINK TV Server)
The Tests: UPnP Media Server
Feature: UPnP Media Server
Tested: DLNA streaming of videos and music to our TV and other DLNA clients via the network
The first item I thought I would test was the built-in UPnP Media Server. I copied some wmv, mp4, mkv, mpg, mp3 and jpg files local to the NAS. I then sat down in front of our trusty Samsung TV that we have used to play every media format known to man and pulled up the UPnP Media Server via the Samsung TV remote. I was surprised to find that no formats would play on our Samsung—a first for me.
I contacted ASUSTOR and was asked for the model of our TV. In response, I was pointed to Samsung's violation of RFC2396 on new TVs. Our TV is several years old, so I wasn't sure that was the case. Nonetheless, ASUSTOR asked me to test it on some other DLNA clients to be sure.
Wanting to be thorough, I powered on the Seagate FreeAgent Theater Tim had sent me to test TVersity awhile back. The FreeAgent Theater played the videos and music with no troubles, so perhaps it was my TV that was the issue. I just found it strange since the TV has been so user-friendly with every format in the past.
The image below shows the meager, yet adequate controls of the UPnP Media Server. You probably see there is a Transcoding tab, where I enabled both selections for Audio and Images. I couldn't find any information on what Transcoding exactly did. My guess was that it would do real-time transcoding when a media player client couldn't accept the original format. For our TV at least, that didn't work. But, then again, it wasn't doing video transcoding. At this point, no NAS transcodes video; there simply isn't enough CPU power to do it with the processors used in consumer and even "prosumer" NASes. Atom CPU's don't cut it.