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NAS Reviews

Introduction

Updated 7/9/2014: Corrections and updates
{mospagebreak toctitle= Introduction, Setup, Features: File Explorer; Settings}

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 Landing page

In the past month, we have reviewed two new ASUSTOR NAS product lines. To recap briefly, we concluded the ASUSTOR 2-series was somewhat underpowered by its Intel CE5310 Atom CPUs. However, for the ASUSTOR 3-series, we concluded that ASUSTOR "got it right" by moving up to the more powerful Intel CE5335. The bottom line was that both series, regardless of the processor class, represented good values.

In both of those reviews, we covered features and performance, but promised a more in-depth look at the updated operating system, ADM 2.1. This article will touch briefly on setup and will focus on the look, feel and features of the operating system that powers all of ASUSTOR's NASes.

Setup

Each ASUSTOR NAS is shipped with a CD that contains an installation program as well as documentation. Relying on a CD for installation isn't wise with the trend away from computers that have those drives. For the AS-204TE that I used for this review, the CD contained out-of-date documentation for the older ADM 2.0 firmware. An updated user guide that covers the additional features of ADM 2.1 can be downloaded from ASUSTOR here.

The CD-based Quick Installation Guide, referenced in a printed insert in the box, does a good job of walking you through the installation of your hard disks into the disk trays as well as cabling the NAS to your network and power.

The setup utility will discover any unconfigured ASUSTOR NAS on your network and walk you through the installation process. A simple one-click setup makes it easy to complete the initial installation. During the process, you'll be prompted to create an ASUSTOR account if you don't already have one. You'll need this account in order to download apps from the App Center.

After installation. the ASUSTOR Control Center lets you reconfigure a few top level settings such as device name, admin password, time/date settings and network settings. You can also map a drive using this utility as well as link directly to browser-based admin page. Note that by default, ASUSTOR NASes use port 8000. So to connect to your NAS, you'll need to use the following URL format: http://ip_address:8000. You can also access the NAS more securely using https://ip_address:8001, but you'll get an SSL certificate error and will need to add an exception in your browser.

The gallery below walks you through the basic setup.

Features

ASUSTOR says its research found that 80% of NAS functions are the same among all brands, but only 20% of those functions are used by most users. So it has adopted an "app-based" design, where the core "20%" functions are loaded by default and the rest of the functions come in optional apps. By moving the less-commonly-used functions out of the core firmware, ASUSTOR's asserts that system resources are freed up and performance improved for the majority of users.

If you compare the screenshot of the landing page above with the one from Tim's review of the AS-604T which was loaded with ADM 2.0, to the opening image above with the new ADM 2.1, you'll note that the screens look virtually identical. However, some of the apps themselves have changed.

ASUSTOR provides a live online demo of the UI, so rather than exhaustively commenting on all of the features, I'll highlight several of the installed applications as well as some that I installed from "App Central" and tested. For another look at the UPnP Media Server, Plex Media Server, Download Center and Boxee, check Scott DeLeeuw's "Can An ASUSTOR NAS Replace Your HTPC?".

File Explorer

One of the apps to receive a refresh is the File Explorer app. The screenshots below show some of the new features. The new features of File Explorer include the ability to access files, folders and mapped drives on "My Computer" and File drag and drop between files and folders. finally thumbnails for photos. To test drag and drop, I grabbed a folder named "WallPaper" from My Computer's mapped drive "W" to the \public\media\photo directory on the NAS. The entire folder and sub folder, as expected, were copied from the mapped drive on another NAS to the ASUSTOR NAS.

The other new feature of File Explorer is thumbnails (small, medium and large) for image files. Thumbnails are generated the first time you open a directory and change from the detail view and select small, medium or large icons. The screenshot below shows medium sized thumbnails. Note in the directory tree that all drives on my computer, including mapped network drives appear in File Explorer.

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 File Explorer

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 File Explorer

Notes:

  • For these advanced features to work, you must have Java installed.
  • The File Explorer in ADM 2.1 has an expired certificate, so you'll have to lower your JAVA security threshold and accept the security warnings when the application runs. I contacted ASUSTOR tech support. They responded promptly and said that they were aware of the problem. The certificate issue will be fixed with the upcoming release of ADM 2.2, which was in beta while I was writing this review and was released just before posting.
  • The first time you view a directory with images and set your view options to display thumbnails, it takes a fair amount of time to generate thumbnails. For example, a directory with 48 images took the ASUSTOR File Explorer 125 seconds to generate all the thumbnails. The second time you visit a directory, the thumbnails appear quickly.
  • It takes File Explorer some amount of time to enumerate "My Computer". My computer, with four mapped drives, took about 58 seconds to appear after I acknowledged the Java security warning.

Settings

Settings is the menu where you configure many but not all of the features of the ASUSTOR NAS. Settings related to the installed disks and RAID levels are shown in the Storage Manger application. Information and configuration options for externally attached USB devices such as disks, printers, a Wi-Fi Adapter, UPS and Bluetooth can be found in the External Devices application. Services, including Samba, AFP, NFS, FTP Web DAV, Web Server, MySQL Server, Terminal (ssh) and Rsync are all enabled/disabled and configured through the services application.

The screenshot below shows the settings menu and layout. Each of the main menus opens up sub menus, most of which have additional configuration tabs. I choose this screenshot to show the remote access settings.

ASUSTOR ADM2.1 Settings Application

ASUSTOR ADM2.1 Settings Application

To set up remote access, first you choose a cloud ID in the Cloud Connect tab. All of the hard work is done in the background to set up name resolution to your public IP address. To connect to your ASUSTOR device once configured, you merely point your iOS or Android app to your cloud ID, or point your browser to cloudname.myssustor.com. The EZ-Router tab will automatically add port forwarding to your router if you have UPnP enabled on your router. For testing, I enabled UPnP and confirmed through my router's UPnP port mapping table that only ports 8000 and 8001 were opened for TCP traffic.

The good news is that Cloud Connect worked and was easy to configure. The bad news is that it relies on opening router ports. This means it won't work if you have cascaded NATs, such as an ISP-provided modem / router that can't be configured as a bridge. Our "gold standard" for remote access remains hosted portal-based methods that work without requiring router ports to be opened.


App Central

App Central is where you download, install and update ASUSTOR applications. App centers are pretty common in NASes today. The ASUSTOR App Central menu is broken down into Installed and Browse sections. The Installed section shows your currently installed applications, allows you to update them or manually install an ".apk" file from a third party source. The Browse section lets you browse all apps, ASUSTOR Apps (supported and/or written by ASUSTOR), Top Apps, Latest Apps, Categories and apps currently in Beta. According to my count, there are currently 125 applications in App Central.

While many NASes ship with Media servers and iTunes servers installed, you have to install those programs from App Central. I installed both of those servers as well as some other multimedia applications to see how well the ASUSTOR worked in conjunction with both remote applications for mobile devices as well as a HTPC connected via HDMI to my TV.

iTunes Server

There's really not much to set up on the iTunes server. If you copied your music library to the default \Music directory, the server will automatically scan and build its library. I had copied my library to \public\media\music, so had to add that folder to the scan list. After building its library, the iTunes server was visible on my network and I was able to play music from the ASUSTOR NAS through iTunes as expected.

Unlike some iTunes servers I've seen on other NAS devices, the ASUSTOR iTunes server never dropped off line over the course of five days. This iTunes server can also be paired with Apple's remote app for iPod, iPhone or iPad. This enables play on AirPlay compatible devices.

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 iTunes Server - Advanced

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 iTunes Server - Advanced

UPnP Media Server

There are two media server apps under the ASUSTOR Apps section of App Central. I installed UPnP Media Server 2. As with the iTunes server, I had to add a directory path to my photos and music files. I also added in a path to force the server to scan photos, videos and music on a USB memory stick that I plugged into the front port on the server. The screenshot below shows that you can rename the server, add paths to media content and force it to "Scan Now".

I tested the media server using my WD MyTV Live DLNA media streamer . I use that device because it supports an extensive list of file formats. All the photos, music and videos I tried, both stored on the NAS as well as the content on the USB memory stick, played as expected. There are options on the advanced screen that let you choose the UPnP client language a well as a box to disable transcoding.

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1Media Server

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1Media Server

SoundsGood

SoundsGood is ASUSTOR's Web music player. This app is also required if you want to remotely access music on your NAS via ASUSTOR's AiMusic app on your Android or iOS devices. You can play music stored on the NAS using a browser or you can play music through speakers connected the ASUSTOR NAS via HDMI, USB or the audio jack.

As shown in the screenshot below, you can view your music by artist, album, folder or recently played songs. You can't, however, view content by genre or view a listing of all tracks. The filter feature lets you search your library for keywords. You can create your own playlists and populate them by dragging selections to the right hand window. I tested music playback via HDMI using speakers attached to my TV and the music played as expected.

ASUSTOR ADM2.1 SoundsGood

ASUSTOR ADM2.1 SoundsGood

VPN Server

One of the other new features of ADM 2.1 is the VPN server. Previously, ASUSTOR NASes had a built-in VPN client that allowed the device to connect to a VPN server. This new app, available in App Central, turns your NAS into a VPN server. There's built-in support for PPTP as well as OpenVPN. The current user guide has been updated with a warning that you can't use the VPN server and VPN client at the same time. While there's not any documentation that comes with the VPN server download, ASUSTOR has published an article on Using Your NAS as a VPN Server.


ASUSTOR Portal

The ASUSTOR portal is a launchpad interface that appears on your HDTV when you connect it to an ASUSTOR NAS with an HDMI cable. Compared to what you might find on a Smart TV interface, the ASUSTOR portal is sparsely populated with entries only for YouTube, Chrome, ADM and XBMC.

The YouTube icon is a link that launched from within Chrome. Similarly, ADM a link to the NAS management console and also launches Chrome. The installed version of Chrome is 31.0.1650.63. From within the management console, you can configure the appearance of the portal, set the screen saver, configure the information displayed and set the default app to run at startup.

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 Portal Management (from web UI)

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 Portal Management (from web UI)

The screenshot below shows the ASUSTOR Portal displayed on the HDTV screen in my office. To make navigating on the TV screen easier, you can plug a mouse and keyboard into two of the NAS USB ports. In addition, ASUSTOR has Android and iOS apps (AiRemote) that let you use the touch screen on your mobile device to navigate on the TV screen.

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 Portal (on HDTV screen)

ASUSTOR ADM 2.1 Portal (on HDTV screen)

It's not likely that you'd be satisfied with the Chrome/YouTube experience as a way to stream internet content. I tried to stream videos from YouTube and found them very jerky with what appeared to be a very low frame rate. Streaming content from www.comedycenral.com yielded somewhat better results, but the video was not smooth. Next, I tried to launch a movie on NetFlix. Netflix intercepted my request and pointed me to watching system compatibility page. Chrome appears to be supported only on Chromebook or Chromebox running Chrome OS 29 or higher. I was able to stream video on Hulu, but again, the picture was jerky - particularly with scene changes when there were big differences between the scenes.

The content blocking I found isn't unique to the ASUSTOR; you'll encounter it when trying to access the same sources with other Linux-based devices. But the poor quality of the content that I could access was disappointing, particularly since the Intel Atom CE series processors are specially designed for media processing. Given the flawless playback of local content via XBMC that I describe below, the problem is likely due to the reliance on Chrome.

Some readers have questioned my internet connection speed in past reviews. It's plenty fast, thank you, due to a recent upgrade, as shown in the Speedtest.net result below run immediately after running the tests above.

Speedtest.net test results for my internet connection

Speedtest.net test results for my Internet connection

XBMC

As you'll find on Synology and QNAP NASes, XBMC is the "go to" media center application. ASUSTOR, too, also uses XBMC. The version installed on the AS-204TE is the May 30. 2014 build of XBMC 12.3. You launch XBMC from the ASUS Portal. The screenshot below shows the landing page. On this page, you have menus for Weather, Pictures, Videos, Music, Programs and System.

ASUSTOR ADM2.1 XBMC landing page

ASUSTOR ADM2.1 XBMC landing page

For each media type, you can define one or more sources for your content. The sources include ASUSTOR Shared folder, NFS, UPnP devices, USB devices attached to the ASUSTOR, Windows network (SMB) and Zeroconf Browser. A screenshot in the gallery below shows the configuration screen that is common to all three media types.

For each media type, I configured one or more locations and tried playing the associated media files. For video, XBMC played all of the media types I tried including .wmv, .3gp, .avi, .mp4. All media types played properly with no jitter or tearing problems. The .VOB test file played flawlessly.

For music, I had previously loaded my entire iTunes library on the NAS and just added the \public\media\music directory as a music source. The tested files played as expected. The music player is fairly basic. You can play selected songs, add them to a queue, view MP3 ID3 information or add to favorites. While the music plays properly, you don't get the rich library experience showing all song titles, genres, artists and albums.

Similarly for photos, the viewing experience is fairly basic. You can scroll through directories of photos, and thumbnails appear. As with the other media types, right clicking on an image provides you with access to more options. For photos, you can start a slide show at the current photo, delete/rename, add to favorites, change settings or view picture information. The slide show in the gallery below will give you an idea of the features that you'll find in XBMC.


Mobile Apps

Like its competition, ASUSTOR has a suite of remote apps for iOS and Android. The apps perform the same way on both platforms, but there are exceptions based on differences in the mobile device. I'll highlight several of the apps below and include a slide show to give you a look and feel for the apps.

AiData - AiData, similar to QNAP's QFile, is ASUSTOR's remote file manager that lets you browse the files on your NAS and share them with others. You can access the NAS either on your local network or remotely using the ASUSTOR Cloud. Additionally, for some file types, you can play them on your mobile device using the app.

For iOS, the video formats supported are .mov, .m4v and mp4. For .avi files, if its codec is not supported by iOS then it will not play. According to ASUSTOR, they plan to add additional file format support. On Android devices, clicking on a media file takes you to a screen that prompts you to select your media player. Whether or not it plays depends on the installed player.

AiData provides the ability to move, copy, rename, upload/download files and create new folders. You can also select a file and the ASUSTOR NAS will generate a link that you can email to your friends. Several caveats about the link generation:

  • If you generate a link while on your local network, the link will include your private IP address.
  • You can only select one file at a time to generate a link.
  • You can't create a link for an entire directory.

AiData also supports copying files to other cloud services. Supported services include Dropbox, Box.net, Google Drive and FTP. Noticeably missing is support for iCloud or OneDrive. I selected multiple image files and transferred them to a new directory on DropBox.

AiDownload - This app interfaces directly with the Download Center application that runs on the ASUSTOR NAS. You can search and download while on the go and monitor all download tasks.

AiMaster - AiMaster, similar to QNAP's QManager, lets you mange, configure, control and monitor many of the features on your NAS. For the iOS platform, the app is for the iPhone, but runs in the iPad. Three's not an iPad version of AiMaster. The slideshow details most of the features of AiMaster.

AiMusic - Similar to QNAP's QMusic, AiMusic lets you stream or download music from your NAS to your mobile device. The apps supports Genre, Artist, Album, folders, recently played and playlists. In addition, you can select "Random songs" for a fresh music each session. a "Party mode" lets you select a random playlist, random album, random artist or random genre. A search feature lets you easily find artists or tracks - a handy feature since there's not a view that shows all songs.

I was able to play songs both locally and remotely on both iOS and Android platforms. I did note that some songs didn't play when connected remotely. I checked those same songs when connected on a local network and they didn't play either. It turns out that the tracks that wouldn't play were ones that I recently purchased from the iTunes store. Apparently there's a problem with playback of the .m4a file format.

Updated 7/8/2014:

ASUSTOR contacted us and said that have no problems with playback of the .m4a file format and that perhaps what I was seeing was that SoundsGood transcoding hadn't finished.  In fact, they were right.  I only let the "pinwheel" spin for about 45 seconds or so before concluding that there was a problem with the file type.

The problem did, in fact, turn out to be related to transcoding.  Under the SoundsGood settings, I had set transcoding to MP3 format, which uses more resources but also provides an MP3 format likely to be supported by most browsers.  Unfortunately, that translates to significantly more time for transcoding.  

ASUSTOR SoundsGood Transcoding Settings

ASUSTOR SoundsGood Transcoding Settings

I tried playing the same tracks that I had previously tested, but this time, I waited for the tracks to start playing.  I used AiMusic on my local network for testing.  I measured the time it took from clicking on play until the time that the music started to play. Here's what I found:

Format Track # Track Length Music Starts
(Minutes:Seconds) (Minutes:Seconds)
MP3 Track 1 5:14 2:23
MP3 Track 2 4:54 2:23
MP3 Track 3 4:18 2:12
WAV Track 4 5:14 0:12
WAV Track 5 10:56 0:23

So while technically you could transcode to MP3 for improved browser support, practically speaking, you probably wouldn't really want to.  Even the 23 seconds that it took to transcode a 10:56 track to WAV seems like a long time when you're used to typical track to track gaps of only a couple of seconds.

AiRemote - This is a remote control app that lets you control and navigate through content when it's displayed on your TV that is connected to the NAS' HDMI port. On one screen there are navigation keys. On the second screen, there's a track pad that allows you to position the cursor accurately on the TV screen. Screenshots from this app look very similar to QNAP's QRemote.

AiRemote Navigation arrows and trackpad

AiRemote Navigation arrows and trackpad

Transcoding

Transcoding is handled by the UPnP v2 Server app. According to ASUSTOR, transcoding is done automatically for DLNA devices, converting the source audio to .wav format and video to .mpeg on the fly. While this sounds good, reality is different, particularly for mobile devices.

As noted above, the AiData app did not play .wmv, .avi and .3gp files I tried. And the Android version of AiData launched a prompt to select a video player. In both cases, the problem was native format support on the target devices. But isn't what automatic transcoding is supposed to solve?

A new app to be launched in August, LooksGood, will support hardware transcoding for AS-3 Series NASes only. A new AiVideo mobile app will also be released that will work with LooksGood to provide an improved remote streaming experience.

In the Future

ASUSTOR was in beta test for the ADM 2.2 while I was preparing this review and released it after I finished the review. Their website has a press release that highlights the new features. I'll briefly summarize the new features here:

  • Night mode scheduling - This feature can now be scheduled rather than having to manually enable/disable it.
  • Hard disk hibernation indicators
  • Enhanced UPS functionality for AS-6 series NASes.
  • MiniDLNA - a new "Nimble" mulitmedia server app supporting DLNA and UPnP-AV. It claims to be compatible with a wide range of file types and features low CPU usage.
  • Photo Gallery - This app adds photo gallery features to the ASUSTOR NASes that appear to be similar to those found in Synology's Photo Station.
  • Google Drive support
  • New Chrome/FireFox Download Helper will integrate the browsers with the Download Center and Takeasy apps.

Closing Thoughts

Most NASes today provide far more features than most of us will ever use. But having the particular features that each potential buyer might want can make the difference in a sale. That's why NAS makers have turned to installable packages, frequently open-sourced, to expand product features and increase the chance of ticking all of a purchaser's boxes.

I can't judge whether ASUSTOR's basic product differentiation premise—moving less commonly-used functions out of the core firmware and into apps improves performance—really works because there is no althernative ASUSTOR OS to compare it to. But I can compare ADM 2.1's features against those of other NASes.

Compared to QNAP's QTS 4.0, which I reviewed last July, I'd say both are equal for remote file management, music playing and remote access, with the exception that ADM 2.1 doesn't support AirPlay. QNAP is ahead however by offering folder sync (QSync) and AirPlay support (QAirPlay).

Updated 7/9/14

ASUSTOR pointed out that its Takeasy video download app, available from App Central, is similar to QNAP's HappyGet. ASUSTOR also offers download helper plug-ins for Firefox and Chrome.  The screenshot below shows a few YouTube downloads in the Takeasy app.  

ASUSTOR Take Easy Downloads

ASUSTOR Take Easy Downloads

I have not reviewed Synology's DSM 5.0, but it seems to have the lead in multimedia support, both for local and mobile playback. And both QNAP and Synology are ahead on photo playback and management, although ASUSTOR has AiPhoto currently pending approval for Apple's App Store and Google Play.

In the end, ASUSTOR's ADM 2.1 is a modern NAS OS with an attractive tablet and mobile-friendly user interface supporting a range of features that should satisfy the needs of the majority of NAS buyers. And what it doesn't have today, its app-based architecture should be able to support in the future.

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