Over the last 18 months, NAS specialist ASUSTOR (apologies for the capitals) has been steadily filling out its range of devices following the launch of its debut 6 Series (see our review here). First came the budget 2 Series, designed predominately for home users and powered by Intel’s 1.2 GHz Atom chip. That device came pre-installed with the popular media center application XBMC and heralded the arrival of ASUSTOR’s first major update to its ADM operating system.
Then, in the Summer, the company announced the launch of the 3 Series, the subject of today’s review. As you’d expect from its demarcation, the AS-30X series sits between the entry-level 2 series and higher-end 6 series in terms of specification (all models look eerily similar, so you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart visually). Also based around the Intel Atom processor, the 3 Series’ CPU runs at 1.6 GHz (which compares with 1.2 GHz on the 2 Series and 2.13 GHz on the 6 Series) supported by 1GB DDR3 RAM.
The ASUSTOR 3 Series, including the 4-bay AS-304T device we’re testing today (a 2 bay option is also available) provides a balanced specification that provides sufficient power for family media streaming and sharing on top of the common file sharing and backup tasks we expect from a modern NAS. In terms of connectivity, you’ll find both USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 connections supported – both with two ports available – for connecting USB hard drives, printers and other peripherals. Gigabit Ethernet is a given nowadays, with just the single port required for home use – there’s no option for business-class network failover or teaming on this device.
But it’s the on-board HDMI 1.4a port that is the most interesting aspect of the ASUSTOR AS-304T – and indeed this class of NAS devices emerging from the company and it’s competitors. The modern NAS is climbing out of the “backup and file serving” closet with a new hybrid role in the TV or AV cabinet. Part NAS, part Home Theatre PC – devices such as the AS-304T provide greater flexibility to families seeking powerful media streaming capabilities. Sure, you can keep your NAS in the closet and stream media to the big screen via on on-board DLNA application or standalone media streaming device. Or, if you have the space, why can’t the NAS be the media streamer – directly attached you your TV (or AV receiver).
That’s the emerging use case ASUSTOR and others (notably Intel who are providing the HDMI-enabled storage platform for the lion’s share of these devices) are seeking to convince you to adopt – and it’s the one we’ll be testing out today.
What’s in the Box?
Open up the box, and you’ll find:
- the AS-304T NAS Server
- Installation CD
- Power Cord
- Ethernet Cable
- Flat Head Screws x 16 for 3.5″ Hard Drives
- Flat Head Screws x 16 for 2.5″ Hard Drives
Whilst this is perfectly adequate to get you up and running in standard NAS configuration, I would have liked to have seen ASUSTOR reinforce the inclusion of the HDMI connection by throwing in a HDMI cable in the package. The company also offers an optional remote control for the device (according to their website, although our review had a unit included) and again, I’d like to see this included for free in the pack – neither would add significantly to the device’s build cost.
ASUSTOR developed a great industrial design with their debut device and they’ve faithfully stuck to the same formula on both the 2 and 3 series. There’s very little to distinguish the 3 series from the more expensive 6 series range, other than the loss of the front LCD display panel – which isn’t too painful an omission.
The front panel may be plastic but still feels solid with a premium feel – the four drive bay caddies again are plastic fronted and lack key locks, but again are robust and slide into the bays with ease. A single USB 3.0 port is positioned on the bottom left of the device which allows convenient access for your peripherals – that’s additionally important for a device that may be sitting in an AV cabinet where the rear is not so accessible. Completing the front panel features is a one touch backup button that pulls data from a USB drive connected to the front port.
The rear of the device is basic, as you’d expect, with power, two USB 2.0 ports and the second USB 3.0 port joining the Gigabit Ethernet port. Aesthetically, like the rest of the ASUSTOR range, the AS-304T looks fantastic and you’ll have no complaints on build quality – this is hardware that comes from the ASUS stable and the quality shines through.
The one criticism you could level at the AS-304T, given it’s positioning as a hybrid NAS/Streaming device is its form factor – a large-ish cube shape (185.5(H) x 170(W) x 230(D) mm) may work fine in a cupboard or even on the desktop but it’s not designed for an AV cabinet and you may struggle to find a slot for it next to the AV Receiver and Blu-ray. Going forward, if NAS vendors are serious about positioning their devices as AV components (and I’d argue there’s room for that) then I’d love to see a stacked 2 x 2 bay configuration in a slimmer chassis that could fit into a regular AV cabinet. It’s something I’ve been recommending to home server vendors for many years – maybe one day….
The good news for AV users though is that all of the AS-304T’s panel lights can be switched off, so there’ll be no distractions when watching your movies.