Convergence happens often in the world of technology, where one product category is subsumed by another – remember those phones that only made voice calls? Or the dedicated mp3 player that didn’t even have an internet connection? Me neither. Network Attached Storage however has generally remained as just that – a big box with some hard drives inside, plugged into a network. Asustor bucks that trend with a range of prosumer-grade NAS devices that also serve as a media center, plugging straight into the HDMI port of your TV. Does this provide a capable media center and eliminate the need for two separate devices, or does end up doing a substandard job of both functions? Read on to find out – and win your own Asustor AS7004T NAS, complete with 2 x 1TB drives so you can get started right away.
The AS7004T 4-bay model retails at $1100 (or £800 in the UK) – so it sits firmly at the premium end of the consumer market, but it is fact the smallest of the 7-series, aimed at small businesses and serious home users. But given it’s impressive specs and multitude of features, the price may be justified. The closest competitor with HDMI output and 4 drive bays is the QNAP TS-470 Pro, a smidgen more expensive at around $1250 for otherwise the same features.
Design and Unboxing
Save for a brief period of madness in the early 2000s when Apple decided to bring absurdly bright colours to the home computer – and then switched to a equally horrid white plastic design – computing and home cinema equipment is generally black and silver, for good reason. Unlike the nasty white plastic of my existing NAS (Synology Diskstation 413j review), the Asustor fits nicely alongside other devices with it’s matt black hard plastic shell and array of blue and green LEDs. Hardcore home cinema enthusiasts will probably complain about the LEDs, but then hardcore cinema enthusiasts probably don’t need a NAS drive to store ripped movies and downloads.
Considering it’s a NAS device, the AS7004T actually looks rather nice. It’s blocky, but not intimidating, and wouldn’t look out of place on your shelf. You’re not going to put it next to your Macbook Air, and it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste, as Jackson was quite turned off when he examined an earlier 2-bay model last year.
What’s in the box?
- 4-bay AS7004T NAS
- IEC power cable (needs no separate power brick)
- 2 x Ethernet cables
- Remote control (but no batteries)
- Quick start instructions on CD
- 3.5Ghz Intel i3 dual-core CPU
- 2 GB RAM (with one slot free for upgrading)
- 4 drive bays
- 18.5cm high x 17cm wide x 23cm deep
- 2 x Gigabit Ethernet ports
- 2 x USB2
- 2 x USB3
- 2 X eSATA
- Optical audio out
- Kensington lock
Notice that there are two Ethernet ports, for link aggregation and faster simultaneous network throughput. If you have a device that’s choking on bandwidth at the moment, the AS7004T is a worthy upgrade.
Considering the unit’s media output capabilities, the omission of an HDMI cable is a little odd – not I have any shortage of them or that it’s essential to the functionality, but the same could be said of a second Ethernet cable.
There’s also a helpful LCD panel on the front of the device, which reads out IP addresses, error messages and notifications etc. On the rear is a large variable speed fan, barely audible most of the time.
Pressing on the bottom of the drives bay opens them easily; if you find it’s too easy, use a flathead screwdriver to turn the lock for each bay after installation, and prevent accidentally opening the bays while in use. 4 screws later, and you slot the bays back in.
The quickstart guides comes on CD, but a helpful weblink is also provided where you can walk through the process online. This includes a Windows or OSX download of a Control Center application, though after turning on the device I found I could access the web interface immediately anyway with the IP address listed on the LCD panel. Upon first accessing the web manager, a firmware update was downloaded.
The Control Center download appears to be for convenience only, replicating the functions of the web application in a desktop app – it’s not essential at all. Setup was plug and play, at least in my experience.
After digging around, it appeared that everything was configured as I’d expect by default, in a RAID1 configuration (mirroring of data to every drive). I should also note that unlike Synology, there is no “hybrid RAID” mode, in which different size disks can be installed as and when needed – you’ll need to add drives of the same size, generally speaking. You may also want to switch to RAID5 after more drives, to take advantage of more space rather than increased redundancy (What is RAID storage?).
Thanks to the helpful LCD panel on the front of device – along with an up/down, enter and back button – a number of functions can be accessed directly from the device itself. These include status information such as temperatures, one touch backup, and manual network configurations. In daily use, I barely touched it, but it’s a neat feature to have and easier to decipher than a series of random LED flashes.
There’s also no need to worry about the bright blue screen if this is in your entertainment system – it turns off when not in use and re-activates when a button is pressed.
With one interface connected, network performance varied between 100-140MB/s, or about 8-10 seconds for 1GB transfer. Transfer speeds are however difficult to test empirically without an isolated network so take that as anecdotal. For full performance testing, I’d point you in the direction of NikkTech.com.
Elsewhere on the system, things feel snappy throughout – menus and configurations load quickly, media apps are responsive, and at no point are you left waiting. Undoubtedly, the generous 2GB of RAM contributes greatly to this.
When Jackson first looked at the hybrid NAS/Media center from Asustor last year, he was disappointed by the amount of setup required to get HDMI working. The good news is: that’s all been fixed. Simply plug it in, and restart. I’d already installed Kodi, but there’s also a management app (actually just a link to the web interface), Chrome, and YouTube installed by default.
Although I’m generally of the opinion that nothing should be as complex as to require a manual, it is of note and admirable that Asustor provides such an in-depth series of documentation for learning more about the different features of your NAS, in the form of an Asustor online college.
Software might not have factored into your decision of which NAS to buy a few years ago, but today it probably should. With the AS7004T, we’re dealing with a fully functional media center PC too, so a wide range of media software is obviously essentially.
The management interface – called ADM, which Asustor’s customized linux – is easy to navigate and responsive. It’s obvious where each setting can be found, and I had no issues with it at all. It’s leagues above the atrocious Thecus NAS I tested.
The selection of apps available in the store was as expected – mostly they appeared to be web apps designed to run on an intranet or open to the public: CMSes, wikis, and the like.
One thing to note: you can’t download any new software until you’ve registered an account. This is free, though some users with privacy concerns may be dismayed by this requirement. There’s also a manual install option, though I had trouble finding any third parties that offered packages – unlike Synology, which has a huge community behind it.
This is the name given to the interface you’ll see when plugged in through HDMI, the sole purpose of which is to let you load further media apps. By default, you’ll find:
- ADM (a web link to the management interface)
- Chrome browser
- YouTube TV (the official TV interface version of YouTube)
- XBMC (or the latest Kodi, though you’ll need to uninstall the former and grab the latter from the beta section of the app store).
- Surveillance Center, a recording suite for your IP cams.
From the web app, you can configure a few different backgrounds and a list of favourites. It also claims to support 4K/2160p video output, but without a 4K TV I can’t actually confirm that – and it’s not clear if the support is limited to the ASUSTOR Portal app, or whether it extends to YouTube and other third party integrations.
An IR-based remote is included for simple interactions, you may prefer to use the AiRemote app (for Android and iOS). Both offer a responsive experience, but AiRemote adds some useful shortcuts and the ability to use an emulated keyboard or mouse. Alternatively, you can plug a real keyboard or mouse straight into the USB ports.
You’ll also find the ability to restart, shutdown, and sleep from the Portal interface – however, Wake-On-LAN requires the use of the special management application, which seemed like more bother than it’s worth.
One thing that frustrated me is that it’s not clear from the web store which apps are destined for the server side, and which would be available on the Portal HDMI output – a store category just for Portal apps would be much appreciated.
XMBC / Kodi
Asustor NAS devices are the first on the market to support Kodi – the latest iteration of XBMC. Far from being hidden away in an office, the Asustor NAS devices can sit front and center in your living room. It’s responsive, and your favourite plugins should work too – that’s all I’m going to say about Kodi, as I can’t stand it personally.
Plex Media Server
I’ve never seen a Plex server run this happily, even on my iMac. I can usually go and make a coffee while it sits there and does it’s thing – downloading metadata and covers – on the AS7004T it completed a test run of identifying and grabbing data for 4 new movies in under 10 seconds.
Unfortunately, only the server component is available – not the Plex Media Center player app. This is a deal breaker for me – the Asustor is a blazingly fast media server, but if it’s designed to replace a media center then it needs the client side of things too. Sure, you can browse the contents of your server over the standard Plex uPNP connection – or even the local files through Kodi – but I want the Plex interface, and it’s more than capable of running it.
Another complementary app from Asustor, which is at first glance a little like Plex or Kodi for remotely viewing your media. However, it plays movies through a web based interface and requires VLC be installed withthe web plugin enabled. LooksGood has another trick up it’s sleeve – it acts as a HD PVR/DVR when you plug in a compatible TV dongle. I don’t have one to test unfortunately; and to be honest, I can’t see the benefit of using LooksGood compared to Plex when it comes to basic media viewing – Plex doesn’t need a plugin or any third party software in the client’s browser. Kodi also has PVR features, which I imagine are more comprehensive too.
Should You Buy the AS7004T?
If there’s one thing I regret about my Synology NAS, it’s that I was too cheap to buy with a full x86-based processor inside – opting for the cheaper ARM chipset means it lacks the horsepower needed for Plex to transcode media to mobile clients. As a high-powered, reliable and smart NAS, I give top marks to the AS7004T and it’s selection of media servers.
As a replacement media center? Is this convergence – or just a gimmick? I’m not sure. The omission of the Plex client despite the inclusion of the Plex server is puzzling. It seems a lot of effort has put into making a reliable XMBC/Kodi experience, and that certainly shows. In the end, it’s not quite a perfect media center – but it’s good enough for 90% of users and absolutely great if you’re an XBMC fan.
However, you should also consider whether you even need HDMI output – especially given the proliferation of cheap Android TV boxes (like the Probox EX2) that could do much the same. You’ll find cheaper, less powerful, less featured-packed 4-bay NAS devices elsewhere, but ultimately you’ll get what you pay for.
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