Many modern NASes have HDMI ports. But up until this point, they have provided only console access. Earlier this year, Thecus released its Local Display module. This add-in enables HDMI-equipped Thecus NASes, which include the N2800, N4800 and N5550, to output video to a connected display. The Local Display module is meant to open the door to using a Thecus NAS as an HTPC, possibly consolidating two machines into one.
The Local Display Module itself simply provides access to a (Linux) Firefox browser and a console terminal session. Third party (unsupported by Thecus) modules can also be installed to add more features to Local Display.
The goal of this article is to answer the question, "Can a Thecus NAS replace an HTPC?" Come along and see if you reach the same conclusion as I did.
I used a Thecus N5550 [reviewed] for this project. The N5550 is a relatively new NAS, positioned near the bottom of Thecus' top-end Enterprise-Tower line. It is pretty powerful as current NASes go, with a dual-core Intel D2550 Atom CPU and 2 GB of DDR3 RAM. While it's certainly not as powerful as an i3 or i5 PC, it's not a Marvell-based low-end NAS either.
The Local Display video tutorial shows basic steps of plugging in an HDMI cable, USB mouse and keyboard and booting up into the Local Display module screen that includes an XBMC icon. But it's not that easy. To get to the screen in the tutorial, you need first to ensure you are at firmware v2.03.02 or higher (I was on firmware 2.03.06.atom). Then you need to install the Local Display module from the Thecus download page (here's the link for the version for the N5550). Note that the Local Display module link was not listed under the NAS admin's Application Server menu.
To emulate exactly what Thecus' video shows, you then need to download and install the third party XBMC module (version 1.00.02.3[11.0.0]_atom) from the Thecus forum. XBMC comes in two options in the forum. One is a standalone XBMC install that is loaded in addition to the Local Display module. The other is a package that includes both.
There are subtle differences between the two versions, including some python paths. For testing purposes, I used the standalone Thecus-official Local Display module and the standalone third-party unsupported XBMC module from the forum.
Installation was pretty easy once I actually figured out what files were needed and where they were. I had to just download the files, upload them to the N5550 and enable the installed modules. Figure 1 below shows the modules installed and enabled.
Figure 1: Local Display and XBMC modules installed
If you follow the instructions above, the initial display of the Local Display module will show icons for a Firefox browser, terminal session and the XBMC module as shown in Figure 2 below. The Firefox browser is a fully-functioning, Linux-based, Flash-enabled browser that allows you to browse the internet directly on your TV, as you would on your computer. Clicking on the terminal session icon opens a root-access SSH console window.
We often use our HTPC to watch YouTube and other videos, so I decided to test this with some common browsing options. Windowed YouTube worked very well. Fullscreen YouTube was acceptable for internet video, although there was occasional choppiness.
I then moved up to testing some HD content on Vudu and Vimeo. With HD Vimeo content, the browser seemed to struggle a bit. Framedrop seemed to happen often, making the video choppy. It was still watchable, but definitely not smooth.
When I tried Vudu I was presented with a message, "Video playback is not supported on this device. Playback is only supported on PCs / Macs and on VUDU-enabled devices". So no Vudu for me!
I cancelled my Netflix streaming account when Netflix split its DVD and streaming service, so I ran another test over at http://www.hd-trailers.net. HD-Trailers.net is a good place to test as it has several resolution options (1080p, 720p and 480p). With the first test at 1080p, video playback was consistent with my test on Vimeo, i.e. very slow and very choppy. 720p was a little better, but definitely still choppy. 480p was the best playback and experienced only occasional video tearing. Disappointing, to say the least.
I ran all of these same tests against our quad-core i7 HTPC to ensure the problems were not bandwidth related. The i7, as you would expect, handled the content much better, although even it had occasional problems playing fullscreen 1080p content perfectly smoothly.
So the Local Display module, in and of itself, is a great start. But if you have a more powerful HTPC, you won't be turning it in for a Thecus NAS just yet.