Little is the new big. There was the Mac Mini, the iPod Mini and even the Mini Cooper. And small still looms large with the LinkStation Mini, from Buffalo Technology. The LS Mini is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) device essentially an external hard drive that plugs into your network.
The drive's most remarkable feature is its apparent paradox: small on the outside, big on the inside. The Mini really is, well, mini it's about the size of a small paperback and weighs in at just over one pound. Yet, it packs one terabyte of storage capacity. Its street price is just slightly north of $600.
What a Difference an Inch Makes
Squeezing so much capacity into such a small space isn't quite magic. The LinkStation uses 2.5-inch laptop-size hard drives rather than the 3.5-inch drives typically found in NAS units. There are actually two 500GB hard drives, paired in a RAID array.
You can configure the unit in either RAID 0 or RAID 1 configurations. RAID 0, or "striping," divides data across both drives for maximum performance. If either drive fails, though, all data will be lost. In RAID 1, or "mirroring," data is duplicated to both drives on every write. You will only have 500GB total capacity in RAID 1 mode, but you'll be protected in case one drive failures.
|The Buffalo LinkStation Mini NAS packs one RAID-configured terabyte of data into a palm-sized package.|
For those of us who usually skip the manual when setting up new hardware, the LinkStation Mini vindicates us. The unit is very simple to get going. It includes a power plug and a nifty flat-profile Ethernet cable. Plug one end into a network switch and the other into a power outlet; flip the power on, and you're good to go.
You can connect the Mini's single USB 2.0 port to another external hard disk or to a USB printer you wish to share it over the network. You cannot use the USB port to connect the Mini directly to a PC.
Because the Mini's 2.5-inch hard drives run slower than 3.5 inch drives, they also produce less heat. With no need for a cooling fan, the Mini relies only on passive vents, which results in nearly silent running except for the quiet clicking of the drives themselves.
The unit takes about 30 seconds to boot up. By default, the Mini will try to automatically acquire an IP address through DHCP. Assuming it succeeds, it will be available on your network and visible through browsing available file shares.
Although Buffalo thoughtfully pre-loads the electronic manual and supporting software installer for both Windows and Mac on the LinkStation itself, you can use most of the unit's features without installing anything at all. Because it communicates through the network, it doesn't need any drives. Buffalo's software does enable some specific convenienceslike "auto" power mode that turns the drive on and off with the PC. Complete administration and management is available through a Web browser pointed at the Mini's local network address (or name).
Share and Share Alike
The primary appeal of a NAS ‑ compared to a direct-connect external hard disk ‑ is networked file-sharing. Because the NAS is really a small computer wrapped around a hard drive (or in the Mini's case, a RAID pair of drives), it can share files over a variety of protocols.
Most people will communicate with the Mini on a TCP/IP network, but those who own older Macs can optionally enable AppleTalk. Sharing files using Windows File Sharing (known as either Samba or Server Message Block SMB on Unix and Linux) is on by default, and you can also enable FTP access for any shared folder.
The Mini is also touted as a "media server," which means that you can share specified folders using DLNA ‑ a streaming media protocol. For example, if you load a folder of MP3 files and enable media server sharing, DLNA-aware clients like iTunes and Windows Media Player 11 will automatically see the shared media, including tags like artist and title.
DLNA-supporting hardware is increasingly available, including Buffalo's own LinkTheater and Sony's PlayStation 3. You can allow or deny DLNA access to specific network clients, which are listed in the Mini's media server configuration screen.
You can also access files on the Mini from anywhere via the Web if you choose to enable Web access. Using Buffalo's included software, you can register the Mini on the Web and log into it remotely. A Web-based navigation interface lets you browse folders and view or download files. Support for UPnP lets the Mini "see through" your firewall, or you can choose to manually configure port forwarding.