ASUS 802.11g 54 Mbps WLAN Hard Drive Box Review

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Tim Higgins

Introduction

ASUS 802.11g 54 Mbps WLAN Hard Drive Box

ASUS 802.11g 54 Mbps WLAN Hard Drive Box (WL-HDD 2.5)
Summary Compact 2.5 inch drive enclosure that provides Ethernet and 802.11g wireless NAS features. Functions as AP or wireless client. Includes DHCP and FTP servers
Update None
Pros • Compact and portable

• Both Ethernet and wireless network connection

• Good wireless performance

• WDS-based bridging / repeating
Cons • User interface needs work, especially NAS features

• Slow write, slower read performance

• Can’t shut off radio

• 2.5 inch drives limit capacity, raise cost

Consumer-priced NAS devices are springing up like dandelions in spring and manufacturers are busy trying to differentiate their products before the eventual commoditization sets in. ASUS has once again taken a slightly different path than its better-known networking competitors with its WL-HDD 2.5.

Instead of a diskless Samba-based box like Linksys’ NSLU2, or a NAS like Buffalo’s Linkstation, the WL-HDD is more like Buffalo’s Kuro Box, but without the hackability, with a built-in 802.11g access point and in a much smaller box (Figure 1).

Smaller than a soon-to-be-obsolete VHS tape

Figure 1: Smaller than a soon-to-be-obsolete VHS tape

(click image to enlarge)

The WL-HDD is about the most flexible NAS product that I’ve come across in its connectivity options, both wired and wireless. In a nutshell, about the only thing it doesn’t do is share an Internet connection. But otherwise it can connect to an existing non-WDS wireless network, bridge or extend (repeat) a WDS-based one, or form the core of a new WLAN.

It’s also perfectly happy not having a drive installed, and being used just as an AP, although that sort of defeats one of its main selling points. On the flip side, you can also use it as just an Ethernet-based NAS. But since you can’t shut off the radio, I recommend you remove the antenna, enable hiding the SSID and set the Wireless Access control to Accept with no entries.

ASUS has also thrown in a few other twists that I’ll get to shortly, and the result is quite unique among a growing field of NAS devices.

Basic Features & Internal Exam” />

Basic Features & Internal Exam

Figure 2 (stolen from the WL-HDD User Manual) shows the connector complement, which includes a power connector, USB 1.1 and Ethernet 10/100 ports and activity indicators. Note that there’s also a shutdown / reset-to-factory defaults button, that I’ll get to shortly. Note also that the power adapter is 100-240V, but could use a more snugly-fitting power connector.

ASUS WL-HDD Ports and indicators

Figure 2: Ports and indicators

(click image to enlarge)

The WL-HDD supports FAT, FAT32, NTFS (read-only), EXT2, and EXT3 formatted drives. So if for some reason you need (perhaps for file recovery) or want to move a naked 2.5 inch drive between the WL-HDD and another system, you can. As a matter of fact, the Hitachi drive that ASUS sent with the WL-HDD looked like it was set up for a Windows notebook, but I could read and write files just fine. Note however that the built-in partitioning and disk check utilities support only the EXT2 format.

It’s also important to understand that the USB connector doesn’t allow the WL-HDD to function as an external USB drive. Instead, it provides a handy way to automatically copy the contents of a USB Flash memory key to the drive by simply plugging in the key. ASUS’ User Manual says the Auto-Copy function will also work for other types of Flash cards (CF, SD, MMC) by connecting an appropriate Flash card reader into the USB port.

Figure 3 shows a view of the bottom of the WL-HDD’s circuit board, where most of the components are. Unlike ASUS’ pocket-sized WL-330 [reviewed here] and WL-330g [reviewed here] APs, which are based on Marvell Libertas chipsets, the WL-HDD is more like the WL-300g full-sized AP.

It’s based on Broadcom’s BCM4702 Wireless Network Processor and with an AirForce-based 11g radio. A Promise PDC20265R ATA controller handles the hard drive control duties, Realtek RTL8201CP provides the 10/100 Ethernet port, with 16MBytes of RAM and 4MBytes of Flash rounding out the design.

ASUS WL-HDD Board bottom

Figure 3: Board bottom view

(click image to enlarge)

Initial Setup

Since the WL-HDD comes without a 2.5 inch drive, you’ll need to get one and install it yourself. ASUS was kind enough to save me the hassle of finding a drive and supplied the Hitachi HTS548080M9AT00 Travelstar 80G 5400RPM drive you see in Figures 4 and 5.

ASUS has made the drive installation very easy, even eliminating the need to remove screws to open the case as described in the User Manual. All you do is pull the rear panel that is attached to the board out of the case, carefully line up the drive and WL-HDD connectors, seat the drive, then slide the case back over the board until it closes with a nice, reassuring click.

ASUS WLHDD - Board top before drive install

Figure 4: Board top before drive install

(click image to enlarge)

You can see in Figure 4 that ASUS has provided noise-isolation pads for the drive to sit on and plenty of room for you to ease the drive into place. The trickiest part of the install was making sure that I had the connectors lined up properly. Figure 5 shows the board with drive nestled into place and ready to be slipped back into the case.

ASUS WL-HDD: Drive installed

Figure 5: Drive installed

(click image to enlarge)

With the drive install out of the way, it’s time to power it up. There’s no power switch – you just plug in the power wart. You can shut it down via the shutdown / reset-to-factory defaults button, which takes some getting used to due to unclear instructions regarding its use in the PDF User Manual. You can also shut the WL-HDD via the web interface, but this also is a little quirky for reasons I’ll get to shortly. Note that power-up after shut down must be done by unplugging the power adapter and plugging it back in. This whole sequence is not intuitive and I hope ASUS rethinks it in future firmware.

The WL-HDD’s defaults do their best to get you connected to an existing network. The Ethernet interface is set to look for a DHCP server to grab an IP address from and, failing that, defaults to a static IP of 192.168.1.220. The wireless side is similarly set to AP client mode and tries to find an AP to associate with. If it doesn’t find one, it switches over to AP mode with an SSID of WL-HDD.

While the WL-HDD’s automatic network connection methods are nice, at some point you’ll need to connect to the web interface to complete your setup, which means determining the IP address the box ended up with. If you have a Windows machine handy you can run the utility that ASUS supplies, which lets you scan for drives and connect to do some simple configuration. Alternatively, if you have a UPnP-aware flavor of Windows (that’s properly configured) you may see the drive’s UPnP icon pop up in the System Tray and access it that way. Alternatively, you can look for its UPnP icon (named ASUS Wireless Harddisk Drive) in My Network Places.

At any rate, once you get the correct IP address in your browser’s URL box, the next kink you may encounter comes if your browser blocks pop-ups and you have firmware earlier than 1.1.2 8. The earlier ASUS firmware relied on popping up a small window from which you could select the main activities that you wanted to perform (Figure 6)

ASUS WL-HDD: Main navigation pop-up window

Figure 6: Main navigation pop-up window

Clicking on any of these links spawns yet another browser window where the real work is done – making a total of three browser windows just to get down to business. Given the growing number of pop-up blocking browsers and browser tools, ASUS re-thought this approach and in the 1.1.2.8 firmware changed the behavior to not rely on the first pop-up window. This is a much-better approach, but since the only place that the software Shutdown button appears is on that now blocked window, ASUS still has some interface tweaking to do.

As with other ASUS wireless products, the interface is generally responsive, but saving changes takes some getting used to. The Save button on each page doesn’t really put your changes into effect – you need to click the Finish button for that. Once you click Finish, applying changes requires a 30 second-or-so reboot, but at least the browser automatically refreshes when the WL-HDD is back up. ASUS has improved the interface so that it now prompts you to click Finish after certain functions, but I’d still rather see making changes not require such a long wait.

Wireless Features

Wireless configuration features are similar to those on the WL-300g except, again, the WL-HDD doesn’t have any routing features. Figure 7 shows the Wireless Interface screen where most setup – including WEP and WPA-PSK security – is performed. As you can see from the links in Figure 7, WDS-bridging, MAC address control and Client mode get their own screens.

ASUS WL-HDD Wireless Interface setup

Figure 7: Wireless Interface setup

(click image to enlarge)

Security options include Open System and Shared Key, Shared Key, and, WPA-PSK. Encryption levels are 64 and 128bit WEP and both standard TKIP and optional AES encryption are supported for WPA-PSK. Note tht neither WPA “Enterprise” (RADIUS) nor 802.1x authentication is supported.

ASUS’s bridging setup page is essentially the same as that on the WL-330g. I’ve included the WL-330g’s screen below for your reference and just click on over to that review if you want more details on Bridging / Repeating features.

ASUS WL-300g - Wireless Bridge setup

Figure 8: Wireless Bridge setup

(click image to enlarge)

The Access Control List feature (MAC address filtering) is also the same as the WL-330g’s with both Accept and Deny modes, but also lacking a pick list of associated clients or allowing a pre-made list to be loaded in order to ease setup. Monitoring features are the same too, with only a list of MAC address of associated clients.

The Advanced wireless screen lets you tweak Fragmentation and RTS Threshold and DTIM and Beacon Period values. It also lets you enable Frame Bursting, which is disabled by default.

ASUS WL-HDD Wireless Client setup

Figure 9: Wireless Client setup

(click image to enlarge)

Finally, Figure 9 shows the Wireless Client controls for getting the WL-HDD to associate to a non-WDS AP or wireless router. I was disappointed to not find a list of in-range APs to pick from, but ASUS says they’re considering adding this in future firmware.

Wireless Tests

NOTE!Testing Notes:

– All tests were run with the defaults of 54g-Auto mode and 11b protection disabled
– Frame bursting (Broadcom’s Xpress technology) was not enabled

– All tests were run with a Linksys WPC54G CardBus client

– Information on how we test can be found here

Wireless performance was in line with other Broadcom-based products I’ve tested, with uplink speed (Figure 10) dropping off significantly once a few walls get between the WL-HDD and test client. The best-case uplink (STA to AP) speed of 21 Mbps could probably be tweaked upward a bit by enabling Frame Bursting, which is disabled by default, and futzing with the 54g Mode settings.

ASUS WL-HDD: Four location uplink throughput

Figure 10: Four location uplink throughput

(click image to enlarge)

Figure 11 shows downlink speed and tells a slightly different story. Although the best-case Location 1 speed is lower than for uplink, the speeds in other locations are better than their uplink counterparts.

ASUS WL-HDD: Four location downlink throughput

Figure 11: Four location downlink throughput

(click image to enlarge)

I checked Location 1 uplink performance in three security modes with the following results:

Mode
Throughput (Mbps)
% change
No security
21.3
Baseline
128bit WEP
21.5
+1
WPA-PSK / TKIP
22.0
+3
WPA-PSK / AES
21.3
0

Since I consider any difference below 5% within the margin of error of my measurements, I’m happy to report that you should experience no throughput hit when using either WEP or WPA-PSK.

NAS Features

Wireless is nice, but without its NAS features, the WL-HDD is just another multi-mode access point! Unfortunately, the NAS features are pretty basic, and like the wireless features, can use a hefty dose of User Interface improvement.

After initial drive installation, you’ll need to visit the Disk Tool page (Figure 12) to partition the drive (EXT2 format only). This utility gets the job done, but isn’t particularly helpful, since it neither shows you any existing partitions, nor calculates remaining available unpartitioned space when you enter partition sizes. At least once you click the Apply button, it does report partitioning progress.

ASUS WL-HDD: Disk Tool (Partitioning)

Figure 12: Disk Tool (Partitioning)

(click image to enlarge)

Once you’re partitioned, your next step should be to set up users via the User List (Figure 13) at the bottom of the Shared Nodes page. Its use is pretty self-explanatory but note that User passwords are stored in the clear and you can’t edit defined users. Note that the WL-HDD comes with a Guest user (which doesn’t show in the User List) which is similar to WinXPs and is used to allow anyone to access a share. So if that’s all you want, you don’t really have to define any users.

ASUS WL-HDD: User setup

Figure 13: User setup

(click image to enlarge)

With User setup done, you’ll move on to setting up shares (Shared Nodes) via the top half of the Shared Nodes page (Figure 14). This portion also contains some other NAS-oriented settings. The Network Neighborhood mode defaults to the not-so-secure setting of sharing all disk partitions to everyone with read and write privileges. It also lets you disable sharing entirely or use the permissions set in the Shared Nodes List entries.

You set the Windows workgroup via the Work Group (default is mygroup), but note that there are no Appleshare enables or controls since the WL-HDD supports only SMB / CIFS via TCP/IP. This lack of Appleshare support would only be a problem with older Mac OSes, since Mac OS X works with the WL-HDD just fine.

ASUS WL-HDD Share setup

Figure 14: Share setup

(click image to enlarge)

NAS Features, Continued

The last setting in this group is for FTP. FTP support is very basic and is enabled by default, again, a poor security choice, especially since only anonymous FTP is supported with both read and write privileges. Fortunately, you can disable FTP access via the FTP Mode control, with the other choices being Login to first partition (default) or Login to first matched shared node, which isn’t described in the User Manual and I didn’t bother asking ASUS to explain. The last control you get is the Maximum Login User, which sets the FTP user limit to a default of 6.

Setting up shares is relatively easy. You first choose a partition from the drop-down selection box, and then modify the entry that’s automatically made in the Path box, adding sub-folders if desired. But I found that after a save and restart, although the nested folders that I defined in the path name had been created, the share name I defined didn’t appear when I browsed to the WLHDD.

ASUS WL-HDD: Access rights

Figure 15: Access rights

(click image to enlarge)

When you create a share you can enable read-only privileges for all users (Shared checkbox) and also add all-user write privs (Write checkbox). If you want to do anything else, you first select the share in the share list and click the Edit button to bring up the Access Rights screen (Figure 15). As you can see from the screenshot, you can set simple privileges for only six different users (plus the special Guest user) for each share. This probably won’t be a problem for most of the WL-HDD’s target users, however.

ASUS WL-HDD: Status & Log

Figure 16: Status & Log

(click image to enlarge)

The last NAS-related screen you’ll eventually want to visit is the Status page (Figure 16) in the Status & Log section. This is because it’s the only place that you can see how the drive is really partitioned and also where you launch the File System Check utility. The good news is that once you launch it, the utility keeps you informed of what it’s doing. But the bad is that you can neither stop it once it starts, nor control which partitions it checks, or how many passes it does for each partition.

Even though the WL-HDD has a built-in real-time clock, you can’t schedule a periodic running of the File System Check or putting the drive to sleep and waking it up.

Missing entirely are any backup features, which I think should be included in any NAS device. If ASUS is looking for backup feature ideas, duplicating the Linksys NSLU2’s features would be a good start.

NAS Performance

As I have with other NAS products, I used IOzone to check out the WL-HDD’s file system performance. (The full testing setup and methodology are described on this page.) All checkout was done using the Hitachi HTS548080M9AT00 Travelstar 80G 5400RPM drive that ASUS supplied for the review. This 5400RPM drive has an ATA-6 interface and 8MB cache and you can hit the Hitachi product page for other drive specs.

NOTE!NOTES:

• All testing was done using the WL-HDD Ethernet interface.

• The flat zero value spots at the left front and right rear of the plots are zero value areas due to the IOzone test parameters that I set and not due to performance problems

• Keep in mind that the maximum raw data rate for 100Mbps Ethernet is 12500 kBytes/sec

• If you want a closer look at the test data or generate your own plots, download the Excel test result file here.

Figure 17 shows a 3D surface plot of the WL-HDD’s write performance using file sizes from 64 kBytes to 1 GBytes and record sizes from 4 kBytes to 16 MBytes. Note that the plot is oriented so that larger file sizes are closer to the front.

ASUS WL-HDD: NAS write performance

Figure 17: WL-HDD NAS Write performance

(click on the image for a larger view)

I ran the test with file sizes up to 1 GByte in order to ensure that the test covered areas where there were no caching effects from my test computer’s 512MB of memory. (Caching is what causes the “mountain” rising out of the plot’s plateau.) You can see in Figure 17 that non-cached write performance kicked in above a 32 MByte file size and at 512 kByte record sizes for all file sizes. Peak performance (aided by caching) of around 50 MBytes/sec occurred with file sizes between 0.5 and 4 MBytes and record sizes 256 kBytes and under.

Read performance (Figure 18) was significantly slower – typically around 2 MBytes/sec – causing me to adjust the vertical plot scale to one-fifth that of Figure 17.

ASUS WL-HDD: NAS read performance

Figure 18: WL-HDD NAS Read performance

(click on the image for a larger view)

NAS Performance, Continued

Finally, Figures 19 and 20 will help put the WL-HDD’s performance in perspective. They show a comparison of Write and Read performance for varying record sizes for 128 MByte file transfers for three devices:

ASUS WL-HDD: Write performance comparison

Figure 19: Write performance comparison

(click on the image for a larger view)

Figure 19 shows that the WL-HDD’s write performance lags far behind both comparison systems by a significant margin.

ASUS WL-HDD: Read performance comparison

Figure 20: Read performance comparison

(click on the image for a larger view)

Read performance (Figure 20) was so dominated by the notebook that I had to switch to a logarithmic scale in order to show the detail for the NSLU2 and WL-HDD. Once again, the WL-HDD turns in the slowest performance.

My conclusion from these results is that ASUS must have figured that most buyers would use the WL-HDD as a wireless-connected NAS – a fair assumption given the product’s focus – where you’d probably never see these performance limitations.

Wrap Up

Although the WL-HDD isn’t the fastest NAS around, it’s one of the more unique products to appear in this fast-growing category. It’s also priced aggressively, especially considering that you get an 802.11g access point as part of the deal. Its main drawback is that it limits you to using 2.5 inch hard drives, which are more expensive (for a given capacity) and slower than their 3.5 inch bretheren.

One other issue that may give you pause is the relatively unsophisticated user interface, especially for the NAS features. But don’t be afraid of having to buy and install the 2.5 inch drive yourself. It’s really a no-brainer that pretty much anyone who knows what a NAS device is should be able to do.

To put pricing in perspective, I hit the shopping search engines (on Dec 10, 2004) to build NAS devices based on the WL-HDD and Linksys NSLU2. I used the Linksys because it’s also a B.Y.O. drive NAS device and is in a similar pricing ballpark. I could have used the Buffalo Technology Kuro Box, but it’s not really intended for the same buyers as the WL-HDD and NSLU2. Plus, at $150, I knew it would price out uncompetitively with the WL-HDD. I used an 80GB configuration vs. the 120GB that’s more prevalent in current consumer NAS devices because I wasn’t able to find any 2.5 inch 120GB drives.

The WL-HDD has the disadvantage of being carried by far fewer retailers than the NSLU2 (but ASUS’ U.S. distribution appears to be improving), so there’s not a wide pricing range (lowest price was $85). But 80GB 2.5 inch drives abound and I was able to put together a WL-HDD-based configuration using a $129 Toshiba MK8025GAS 80GB drive for $214.

But, as expected, the NSLU2 ($73) configuration using a LaCie USB 2.0 80GB drive ($89) priced out significantly lower (25%) at $162. Even adding in a low-priced NETGEAR WG602 AP at $36 still maintained a price advantage at a total of $198.

One other price comparison is to Tritton’s TRI-WHD1120 Wireless NAS – the only other wireless NAS box that I’m aware of as I write this review. (Contrary to what Tritton’s advertising asserts, the TRI-WHD1120 is neither the first nor is the only wireless NAS.) At 120GB the TRI-WHD1120 is larger than our example configurations, but at typical $360 street pricing, it’s also significantly more expensive than both.

But sometimes things aren’t all about price and you’ll have to admit that one self-contained VHS cassette-sized device is much easier to deal with than three separate boxes and all their attendant cables. ASUS has once again taken a commodity networking product and given it a twist to put it in a category of its own. If you’re looking for compact, portable and flexible networked storage, you owe it to yourself to give the WL-HDD 2.5 a shot.

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