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The Tests: Plex Media Server

Feature: Plex Media Server
Tested: DLNA network streaming of videos and music to our TV, app streaming of content to an iPad, and browser streaming to PCs. Content is both local to the network and obtained via the internet.

The next app I tried was the Plex Media Server, which is not supported by ASUSTOR. Plex is a DLNA solution that we could run with the TV remote. App Central showed the Plex version was 0.9.7.7.339- 5ecb53. This version seemed to have some hanging problems, something I confirmed in the Plex forums.

I contacted ASUSTOR and mentioned 0.9.7.10.382 was the current version for download on the Plex site. ASUSTOR mentioned they have a publishing system for developers to automatically update App Central. However, it looked like Plex hadn't done that recently. ASUSTOR said they would notify Plex. But in the meantime, I could install the update through the App Central Other Sources feature.

The update seemed to fix my hanging problems and I got to work configuring Plex. Having messed around with PlayOn, Mezzmo, TVersity and a bunch of others, I hadn't really seen Plex before. I liked it. Plex,as a sidenote, is the best solution I've seen so far for playing network media on things like the iPad via their $4.99 paid app. The image below shows my configuration of Plex Media Server.

Plex Media Server as set up for testing
Plex Media Server as set up for testing

I also configured several of the channels for internet video to see if it could replace PlayOn. Plex sort of fell short here. While Plex had a Hulu channel, I found it wasn't as easy to navigate as PlayOn's. We often watch The Biggest Loser through PlayOn and we use our TV remote to hit PlayON, go to Hulu, to TV Shows, B, Biggest Loser. Plex had Hulu, TV, and then some categories. I never did find The Biggest Loser on Plex, I couldn't figure out how to differentiate Hulu on Plex by Network or TV Show.

On the Internet video that I watched, I noticed that it did not look as clear as I expected. So I loaded Plex onto my home HTPC described above to check video playback there and it looked about the same. So what I was seeing was either a limitation of the source feed or Plex itself, but not a limitation of the ASUSTOR.

One thing I liked about Plex was that multiple Plex servers on the same network were automatically combined into one media screen within Plex. I could install Plex on our Synology DS111 for music, on our media server for HD video and on the ASUSTOR for everything else. All content shows up on the main screen seamlessly like it was one server. While that was nice, I eventually found I could just catalog everything on one server and forget about running multiple instances. My network bandwidth and storage hardware were robust enough to do that. But it's nice to have the option in cases were that isn't true.

The Tests: Download Center

Feature: Download Center
Tested: Torrent downloads to replace PC software

Really liking Plex and finding it to work well, I moved on to Download Center. Download Center is a nice alternative to running torrent software on a PC. I found it very intuitive and easy to use. Besides searching for torrents you can also seed torrents, limit bandwidth and connections and do everything that you essentially could with torrent software on the PC, without leaving the PC on.

Downloaded content can be automatically available in Boxee and/or Plex since destination folders can be changed. The Download Center also allows you to add tasks for Smart Download and the task can include torrent files, torrent URLs, HTTP/FTP, Thunder (Xunlei), FlashGet and QQDL.

As I messed with Download Center, I found myself wishing ASUSTOR had better documentation on their apps. There is no help screen within the apps and only tidbits of information on the ASUSTOR site. For instance, I wanted to know if I could set up an automatic download of new content with Download Center. The aforementioned Smart Download makes it seem like you can and you might be able to, but I can't definitely say yes you can.

Main Screen of the Download Center
Main Screen of the Download Center

The wording within the NAS was, "With Smart Download you can automatically have a task for torrents placed in the watch folder". That sounds like it, but then again it doesn't, and I didn't know what the Watch folder was or where it was. To be honest I don't know know exactly what that means and there is nothing to explain it further.

The Tests: Boxee

Feature: Boxee
Tested: Direct playback via HDMI from the ASUSTOR to our Samsung TV of local and networked media. Content is both local to the network and obtained via the internet.

The last app I looked at was Boxee. ASUSTOR's version in App Central was .9.27.3. For those that were familiar with Boxee, you may remember 1.50.x was the last version available before it was pulled by D-Link.

My initial experience with Boxee on the ASUSTOR was not so encouraging. I could hardly get anything to work. However, ASUSTOR released version .9.28.0165 and that seemed to clear up a lot of my problems, although internet movies still seemed to be hit or miss, especially Vimeo. I was elated to see The Real Thing show up under the featured videos on Boxee on the ASUSTOR, however it wouldn't play. An email to ASUSTOR let me know it was a "buffering issue" and that if I came out of the video and back in it would play. I followed ASUSTOR's instructions, but never did get it to work.YouTube, however, played great.

I also tried some local HD video through Boxee. The videos were bit-by-bit MKV Blu-ray rips done by our Vortexbox. Both were 20+ GB in size, copied local to the ASUSTOR. Super Troopers did not play, however Sherlock Holmes did. Quality was pretty good, but I saw some tearing and frame loss from time to time.

It seems like a tall order to ask of an Atom NAS to have it play bit-ripped Blu-ray videos. Playback was certainly tolerable for all but the most discerning of critics. I'm not sure why Super Troopers refused to play. Boxee played perfectly with our MKV bit-copied SD video (around 6 GB), even when played over the network. The Boxee Home screen is shown in the image below.

Boxee Home Screen
Boxee Home Screen

Boxee also has a browser. But every time I tried it, the screen went black, I had garbled content or Boxee restarted. The browser is said to support both Flash and HTML5, so it would have been a nice thing to test. If you've had the Boxee Browser working on the ASUSTOR please let us know in the Forums.

Aesthetics

I criticized the Thecus N5550 used as an HTPC for a few reasons. It had a bright LCD screen that couldn't be shut off. It also, though no fault of its own, attracted our one-year-old like a bear to a beehive. She loved pulling out the drives, that I didn't lock, and pushing all the buttons.

The ASUSTOR had none of those problems. It also has an LCD screen, but it only is on during boot or if buttons are pushed. That's a big win as an HTPC. The image below shows the ASUSTOR on top of our subwoofer.

The ASUSTOR on top of our subwoofer
The ASUSTOR on top of our subwoofer

Our one-year-old never gave the ASUSTOR a second look. This was probably a good thing because the drives cannot be locked like they can on the Thecus. Overall, the ASUSTOR AS-604T looks much less flashy and is a bit smaller than the Thecus N5550 and could much more easily work as an HTPC, at least aesthetically.

Closing Thoughts

I'm still not sold on using a NAS as an HTPC, probably because I like HTPCs to be essentially invisible and I like separation of duties. The concept of big storage and media rendering does make some sense, however, and I am slowly warming up to the proposition. But both Thecus and ASUSTOR have miles to go before either of their NAS-as-media-center concepts is usable by most consumers.

For ASUSTOR specifically, the solution is too fragile right now. Given my role as a reviewer, I had a direct channel to ASUSTOR for support. As noted in the AS-604-T review, normal ASUSTOR buyers have only an online Forum to turn to when they have questions and problems.

During the review period, I experienced three ADM updates (that's the ASUSTOR OS), a Boxee update and a Plex update that I had to download and install manually from Plex (after being advised to do so by ASUSTOR). Before those updates, I had quite a few problems and things worked a lot better after the updates. But some things still did not work, like Vimeo video through Boxee, the Boxee browser and UPnP to our TV.

Right now, an ASUSTOR customer can't get the same level of support that I did, because there isn't even a U.S. phone number they can call or a support email address posted on ASUSTOR's site. And without the support I got, an ASUSTOR customer would still be cursing at the NAS, trying in vain to get its media apps to work.

Updated 1/29/2013:

ASUSTOR felt that we unfairly described its support availability in the comments above. They say they typically respond to support form posts "within 24 hours" and "even on weekends" and can provide support via remote access. I did not verify these claims and they are not stated anywhere on the ASUSTOR website.

The biggest thing ASUSTOR has going for it, is that it is directly supporting some of its core HTPC apps. Without that direct support, consumers are left to fend for themselves, foraging for tips and solutions in Forums and Wikis.

In the end, ASUSTOR provides more and, in some cases, better media playback options than Thecus. But I wouldn't trade our quadcore i7 with a dedicated graphics card for this NAS-as-HTPC anytime soon.

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