|At a Glance|
|Product||Thecus Stream Box (M3800)|
|Summary||Three-bay BYOD NAS supporting direct media playback via HDMI, component and S/PDIF output.|
• Supports SMB,AFP and NFS
• 1080p output
• Few audio and video formats supported
• Bland user interface
I have a rather large multimedia collection that I typically store down in the basement where I can stream it upstairs to my entertainment center. But even on a wired network, I occasionally see a bit of a video glitch or stutter when the network becomes saturated. And sometimes having the storage down in the basement is not as convenient as having it nearby when I need to do maintenance. My point is that when dealing with digital multimedia playback, sometimes instead of streaming your data across the network, it's worth considering combining your storage and your playback unit.
This is the approach taken by Thecus' M3800 Stream Box. The M3800 combines a three-bay RAID 5 BYOD NAS with a built-in media card that can handle A/V playback up to 1080p. It also, of course, functions as a traditional media-enabled NAS and can stream to media players if that's what you prefer. Thecus' products have typically turned in great NAS performance. So we'll see if they handle media playback as well.
Physically, the M3800 is an attractive product roughly the size of a two-slice toaster. SATA drive access is through a easily-removable front faceplate. The drives themselves slide in via trays that are secured with thumb-screws. Figure 1, from the M3800 manual, shows the back panel with all connectors labeled.
Figure 1: Back Panel
You can see the expansion card in Figure 1 that provides the video and audio outputs. Essentially, the M3800 is a variation of the now-discontinued N3200 with a a beefed-up CPU, i.e. an N3200 Pro, and media output card. For A/V use, the M3800 provides a nice set of connections allowing both high-def and standard-def usage. And for expansion capabilities, you can add an external USB or eSATA drive along with a several types of USB peripherals: printers, wireless adaptors and USB webcams.
If you want to try a wireless adaptor, head over to the Thecus support site for compatible models, and while you're there also look for compatible USB web cams. There is also a USB port on the front panel, which is designed for temporary connections and copying data to the internal drive. Also on the front panel, you'll find a couple of rocker-switches, a number of status LEDs, and most prominently, a two-line LCD panel.
When I first powered up the NAS, the geek in me really appreciated the cycling display of info on the LCD display. But for a media-center product intended to set in a media or living room, it became distracting after awhile. Fortunately, the display can be turned off by holding down the Cancel button on the front panel. But you'll have to do this each time you power up.
An unusual feature for a "home" NAS is the dual gigabit Ethernet ports found on the back panel. One's labeled LAN and the other, WAN. But the routing functions that Thecus builds into many of its NASes are limited, at best. The dual-ports also don't support link aggregation or redundant fail-over. But they can be used to connect to two different LANs.
You can also tell from Figure 1 that the fan is a bit on the large side, which allows it to move a lot of air quietly. I found the noise level of the Stream Box to be on the low side, which is a requirement for a NAS that's destined for your entertainment center. As for power draw, I measured 30 W when active and 15 W when idle with three drives.
Thecus provides setup software for both Windows and Mac OS systems. Figure 2 shows the initial setup screen from my Mac after the M3800 was located on my LAN.
Figure 2: Device Initialization
The basic setup was pretty much what you'd expect, with selection of network parameters, initial RAID setup, password setup, etc. Once the product is initially set up, you can then turn to a web-based interface to do further maintenance and configuration. Figure 3 shows the fairly spartan web interface after I logged in as the admin user.
Figure 3: Web Interface
The standard NAS functions on the M3800 are basically the same as on other Thecus NASes such as the N3200 and N5200. So you can read those reviews and I won't rehash the basic capabilities. Instead, I'll touch on some of the more interesting features and dig into the video capabilities that are unique to the M3800.
Briefly, like the other Thecus models, the M3800 supports a number of different file services such as Windows-based SMB/CIFS serving, Apple's AFP protocol and Unix/Linux based NFS serving as well as FTP and HTTP file access.
But the M3800's main difference is its audio and video playback features. Figure 4 shows the TV Setup menu.
Figure 4: TV Setup
Figure 4 shows the M3800 configured for 720p playback through the HDMI interface. I found the warning shown just above the menu interesting. Evidently, using the video output to your TV interferes with the NAS performance of the product. So if you want fast file transfer, make sure the TV interface is turned off.
Once you have the video output configured, you should get the display shown in Figure 5 on your TV.
Figure 5: TV Display
Note that I had to capture these screen-shots using a standard-resolution capture device, so the quality is lower than what you would get when using an HD display.
I couldn't find any configuration menus that let me specify where the system would look for media files. But I assume that the files come from the pre-defined Picture, Music and Movie folders. Unlike the HP Media Smart and Linksys Media Hub, the M3800 doesn't come with any media gathering / importing utility. You'll need to get your files over to the M3800 old-school style, i.e. manually.
But note that there could be some confusion here. Like the Thecus N3200, the M3800 also has the ability to serve media via the UPnP AV protocol. So when you're setting up the Media Manager (Figure 6), you're specifying the directories to serve to a media player on your network, not the directories to set up for playback on your TV.
Figure 6: Media Manager settings
The M3800's video playback formats are very limited with support only for WMV9, WMVHD and AVI containers. Audio formats are limited to only WMA and PCM. The widest format support is for images and includes GIF, JPG, BMP, and PNG. Note that there is neither MP3 nor AAC support. So you won't be playing back any of those unrestricted music files from the iTunes or Amazon music stores.
There is also no MPEG support of any kind specified. Nor are DivX, XviD, MOV or QT video either. But I was successful in playing back a VOB file, which contains MPEG2 video. In short, everything is really geared toward Microsoft formats. And of course, like most other media devices, nothing restricted with DRM is supported.
So the summary of all this is that if you want to use the M3800 to play back media on your TV, your collection should contain Microsoft containers and codecs. Mine isn't, but I did dig up some files for testing to see how it would do.
Can this box really play a 1080p video? Yep, it can. I downloaded a demo trailer from Microsoft and it played back without a hitch. Very nice. But after I tried a few more files, I came back to the HD file and the second time around, I only got audio. I had to reboot the M3800 in order for it to come back to normal. This was repeatable and seemed to be related to a WMV file that the M3800 was unable to play. Each time I tried and failed to play this file, the video subsystem would get into a bad state.
Fast-forward operation of an AVI file worked very smoothly. But when I tried reverse, it didn't seem to work at all. Instead it worked like a slow-motion button even though the back-arrow symbol was echoed on the screen. So video "trick mode" capabilities, even with the supported formats, was spotty.
The supported audio and image files played back fine. But the user interface is very plain and mostly consisted of browsing the directory hierarchy looking for files. There was no sorting by metadata such as artist, genre, etc. In general, the menu interaction is very basic and has a no-frills look (Figure 7). You're not going to impress friends and neighbors with this interface.
Figure 7: Playback Interaction
Thumbnails do get generated (Figure 8) when browsing still images, so that spruced things up a bit.
Figure 8: Photo Menu
When you select a photo, a basic slideshow of all the pictures in the directory starts. There was no configuration for transitions between pictures, how long a picture would remain on screen or for music playback during the slideshow.
For general setup, there were only a few options (Figure 9). From this menu there's a handful of configuration items such as video output type, volume, music random-play, etc.
Figure 9: AV Configuration
As I played with the box, I found the included IR remote a bit awkward and sluggish to use. Even with a new battery, I often had to struggle to get my remote commands recognized. Note also that there is no screensaver. So if you have a TV that is susceptible to burn-in, be careful.
The M3800 is designed to sit in your entertainment center for playback. But with the blinking disk and network LEDs, the bright blue power LED, and the constantly cycling status LCD display, it's all quite distracting when trying to watch a movie. As mentioned, earlier, you can turn the off LCD display. But you'll be doing this each time you power on and you can't douse the LEDs. In general, the A/V playback capability felt pretty much like a bolt-on to an existing product rather than a designed from the ground-up capability.
I also gave the M3800 a going-over as a media server. If you're an iTunes user, the M3800 can use the daap protocol to feed music to iTunes on your computer. I transferred some files to the Music directory on the M3800 and they transparently showed up under a M3800 server shown in iTunes. Note that this will also work for iTunes DRM-restricted files because iTunes does the final decryption; the server is not involved.
The M3800 also runs a UPnP AV server that will send music, video and pictures to networked media players. I tried this out with a new UPnP player that I installed on my iPod and it worked fine. Once again, the user interface (Figure 10) was nothing to brag about, but that's mostly a function of the player rather than the server.
Figure 10: UPnP Player on the iPod Touch
It was fun, though, to utilize the M3800 UPnP server to wirelessly stream full-length, high-quality MPEG4 movies to my iPod.
We put the M3800 through our test process, configured with three Thecus-provided Seagate ST380815AS Barracuda 7200RPM 80 GB drives and running firmware version 1.00.02. Tests were run with 100 Mbps, 1000 Mbps and 1000 Mbps with 4k jumbo LAN connections and with the three drives configured in RAID 0 and 5.
There are a ton of different tests you can run by using our interactive charts. But I picked out a few to get you started. Figure 11 shows RAID 0 and 5 read performance with gigabit and gigabit + 4k jumbo LAN connections.
Performance starts dropping off after the 64 MB file size, then levels off from 256 MB file sizes on up. Enabling 4k jumbo frames actually seems to reduce performance, for the most part. Performance averaged over the 32 MB to 4 GB file sizes comes in at 61.5, 59.6, 56.9 and 56.0 MB/s for RAID 0 read, 4k jumbo read, RAID 5 read and 4k jumbo RAID 5 read respectively.
Figure 11: M3800 Read benchmarks
Write results for the same tests show a similar performance profile, with performance leveling off from 256 MB file sizes and larger. Performance averaged over the 32 MB to 4 GB file sizes comes in at 43.8, 58.9, 38.0 and 45.5 MB/s for RAID 0 write, 4k jumbo write, RAID 5 write and 4k jumbo RAID 5 write respectively. This time, enabling jumbo frames does seem to help performance, particularly at the smaller file sizes.
Figure 12: M3800 Write benchmarks
The list of NASes tested with our new test procedure is slowly growing. So I was able to find only a few RAID5-capable products to compare against, namely the Netgear ReadyNAS Pro and Synology DS508. I also threw in the Thecus N3200 for comparison, although it was tested on the old test bed and is now discontinued. Figure 13 shows a RAID 0 write comparison with a Gigabit LAN connection.
The results aren't that surprising, given that the DS508 is more than twice as expensive and the ReadyNAS Pro is more than 3X (although it comes with 1.5 TB of drives). But you can also see that the M3800 has a significant performance advantage over the N3200.
Figure 13: Comparative RAID 0 Write Performance - 1000 Mbps LAN
Figure 14 shows the read comparison, minus the table of values since the scale isn't so compressed. Note that the M3800 actually performs better than the Synology DS508!
Figure 14: Comparative RAID 0 Read Performance - 1000 Mbps LAN
Figure 15 compares RAID 5 write performance. It again outperforms the DS508 via some cache boost at file sizes below 256 MB.
Figure 15: Comparative RAID 5 Write Performance - 1000 Mbps LAN
Figure 16 compares RAID 5 read performance, where the M3800 actually out-performs both the much more expensive ReadyNAS Pro and DS508 at many file sizes. This just shows how important cached behavior is in NAS performance.
Figure 16: Comparative RAID 5 Read Performance - 1000 Mbps LAN
Under the Covers
Figure 17 shows the main board of the M3800. A key difference between the M3800 and discontinued N3200 is the upgrade of the CPU to better handle the A/V decoding and to provide better NAS performance. The CPU is hidden under the heatsink. But it's documented to be an AMD LX800, instead of the N3200's Freescale 8347 @ 400Mhz.
Figure 17: M3800 Main Board
The SATA controller you can see in the image is a Silicon Image SiI3114 - PCI to 4 Port SATA150 and the two gigabit Ethernet ports are from the Intel 82541p1 chips. Both the N3200 and M3800 have only 256 MB of RAM, which is pretty stingy by current NAS standards and considering the high performance processor.
Figure 16 shows the PCI board that provides the M3800's A/V output features.
Figure 16: PCI Board for A/V Support
The main support chip is hidden under a heatsink so I couldn't identify it. But with a little poking around after I gained root access (more shortly), I found a reference to a string "em8xxxfb" which likely refers to a Sigma Designs SMB8630 series chipset.
Like most other NASes, the M3800 runs Linux internally. But to dig a bit deeper, I wanted to see if I could get direct access to the operating system so I could poke around. Typically the way I do this is to look for flaws in the web-based user interface where I can inject my own commands.
While poking around after installing the new firmware and patch I found another but less serious hole. This one requires an administrator's password so a normal user would not be able to exploit it.
Basically, I went to the Notification menu and filled in normal, proper email information. But I then set up an argument-modifying HTTP proxy to intercept the cgi call and change the notification email address to be something like firstname.lastname@example.org. The result was a reboot of the M3800, which shows that the address was passed directly to a command shell. Obviously, the reboot command could have been something more damaging.
As I mentioned, this hole is only available to an administrator, so there's not a whole lot of danger. Apparently, Thecus agrees, since they have rolled the fix into an upcoming firmware release, which has no set release schedule at this point.
So what did I find with my root access? Pretty much what I expected. Apache was being used as the web server and Samba for SMB support. The iTunes server was Firefly and the Linux kernel was version 2.6.23. I also noticed that one of the startup scripts referenced the dropbear ssh daemon. But it was commented out and the deamon itself had been removed from the system.
But since this is a standard x86-based Linux box, with a bit more time, I could have easily added the daemon back in and updated the boot script to get a command line. Since there are a lot of GPL-licensed components on the box, Thecus is required to provide source code. A quick search of their web site does list source for the M3800.
The M3800 has many features and the performance is top-rate. I enjoyed the iTunes and UPnP AV features and appreciated the Linux and Mac support. The web user interface was a bit boring. But that's not a big concern to me since after you set the box up, you won't be using it much.
But what about it as a HD video player? In short, the A/V output features just don't cut it. I expect more polish, support for a lot more formats, better handling of metadata and a flashier interface.
If you have a compatible video library and don't mind spending an extra $150 - $200, you might go for it. Otherwise just get an N3200 Pro and pocket the difference.