Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ review

The ReadyNAS NV+ is vastly more complicated than it appears. It takes a lot of effort to get it working. Even if you get it working, it's often so slow that it seems like it isn't working. And if you let it work, it will do things that you probably didn't expect. Troubleshooting it is like whacking a piñata only to find that it's filled with onions and having to unpeel them only to find more goddamn onions. It will make you feel stupid for buying it.

Otherwise, highly recommended. Read on.

I'm about to throw out a piece of shit computer thing.

Wait. What?

I should back up.

Memory Lane

The other day I mentioned the disturbing extent to which I liked a remote control. Permit me to quote myself:

One of my most favorite household gadgets is my Logitech Harmony One remote control. It’s the Leslie Knope of universal remotes – dedicated, hard-working, eager to please, loves Adam Scott. It makes any home theater setup idiot-proof: you push the button that says "Watch TV" or "Watch DVD" and the remote automatically powers everything up with the right settings in the right sequence. Perfect. Easy. It even feels nice in my hand. I recommend it to all my friends. It’s so obviously better than other remote controls that I wouldn’t want to use anything else.

She has a name. I call her Vera.

Yeah, so I like the thing.

Accordingly I was a touch shaken when I read Farhad Manjoo’s review that ripped it apart.

That’s unfair: Manjoo called it “almost pretty good”. But “almost pretty good” sounds caustic when someone’s talking about a beloved gadget or, well, anything. Imagine if I said that your mother was “almost not a total bag of rotting yogurt”. You'd be pissed.

But Manjoo was disappointed in the whole enterprise of universal remotes. In a follow-up article on Slate he explains his problem and digs deeper:

[The Harmony One] Sounds great, right? It was, except when it didn't work. The problem was that the Harmony One didn't really "know" what was going on with my home theater system. It was merely guessing. If the DVD player had already been turned on, hitting "Watch DVD" would actually turn it off. Why did this happen? Why couldn't the remote, the DVD player, and the TV tell each other to all get into the correct mode? […] Why are home theater components so much dumber than computers?

Put another way, Manjoo hates the game, not the player. Unlike many gadget reviews that just compare the relative merits of very similar products, he’s asking a bigger question: perhaps you have a gizmo that is the standout among its peers, but the entire product category itself is deeply flawed – is that gizmo still worth recommending?

It’s with that perspective that I bring up the Netgear ReadyNAS NV+ and revise my opening sentence:

I’m about to throw out an almost-not-a-total-bag-of-rotting-yogurt piece of shit computer thing.

First, let’s back up even more.

The Genesis

About a year and a half ago, I started lusting after a solid state hard drive (SSD, for short). SSDs have no moving parts and are gone-to-plaid fast; your computer will go from a cold start to your desktop in seconds and applications open instantly. You dont’t wait for your computer any more. It's really something. Total nerdvana.

The downside: they're small and expensive. As of this writing, a 60 gigabyte SSD will run you about $100 while you can get 1,000 gigabytes of space in a standard needle-scratching hard drive for the same, uh, scratch.

Because reasonably-priced SSDs aren't big enough hold my entire music, video, and photo collections, I needed two hard drives: an SSD in my MacBook for the operating system, and then a bigger, cheaper, traditional drive for everything else. Best case outcome: all your stuff is portable, and your computer is disposable. But having to haul around an extra drive all the time ruins the portability of a laptop. You can wedge a second drive into a MacBook, but that’s a warranty killer.

So my next thought was, “Wouldn't it be nice if my files were all available over the wireless network?” Like, I could access them from any computer in the house? Like “the cloud” but, umm, here. “The fog”?

That, I figured, would be freedom.

The World Is Yours

This is when I learned about a class of gizmos called Network-Attached Storage (NAS): you buy a special metal box, throw in a a big hard drive, plug it into your network, and – voilà! – you've got a gigantic amount of storage space available to all the computers in your house. Sweet. And with so-called RAID models you can install multiple hard drives for even more storage space or instant backups. Sign me up!

Excited at the possibilities, I bought the ReadyNAS NV+ model, which holds four hard drives, and a handful of drives to fill it up.

I had read good things from smart people about the ReadyNAS brand. The reviews were overflowing with accolades about its “flexibility” and “ease of use” (we will revisit those terms later on). Confidence was high.

Represent

Before I continue, I need to fess up to not understanding something crucial: A RAID NAS box is not just a metal box that holds a bunch of hard drives. It's an entire computer.

This has many serious implications. The most important of which is that this is another computer, so you have to set everything up. And I do mean everything.

ReadyNAS front screen after startup. It says 'Welcome to the ReadyNAS world
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Not pictured: “Of Pain”

One Love

Getting the ReadyNAS started is pretty easy. You need some screws to secure the hard drives, but the individual bays slide right out and don’t require any other hardware. With some drives in there, you just plug in the power and network cords and turn it on.

The ReadyNAS has an interface for controlling everything through your web browser. You have to know the IP address of the NAS, but a little utility you install on your computer called RAIDar will automatically detect the ReadyNAS and send you to the admin interface.

Screen capture of the RAIDar utility
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Click "Setup" to enter the admin interface. Get used to doing that.
Screen capture of the ReadyNAS admin interface
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Accessible from a browser, as long as you know the IP address and remember "/admin/"

Once you're in the admin interface, you'll go through a little wizard to set up the basics. And that’s where it stops being simple.

Life’s A Bitch

You can't simply access all of the space on your hard drives. Noooo, that'd be too easy. You create what's called in NAS-speak a “share”, or a portion of the drives that's available to the network. You'd think that'd be as easy as making a new folder – because that's what it is, kind of, deep down! – but you'd be wrong.

First you have to create and name a share. Easy enough.

Screen capture of the list of shares in the ReadyNAS admin panel
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Couldn’t help myself

Next, for every share you have to turn on file protocols. These are the various technical ways that other computers can talk to the NAS and access the shares. They are labeled with nonsense jargon terms like AFP (which really means "for Macs") and CIFS ("for Windows"). The browser-based wizard for the ReadyNAS does a decent enough job explaining them, but it still requires a lot of thought. Oh! – and passwords! Write them down! If you forget an important one, kiss your files goodbye. A full factory reset will get you back in, but your files will be gone.

Then, finally, the shares will appear on your computer. Assuming you set it up right your computer will see the share and treat it like something resembling a regular hard drive. Hallelujah!

My desktop with the 'illmatic' NAS share
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The NAS share is the one with the people holding hands. Presumably to cheer you up.

That wasn’t so bad. Let's throw some files on there, shall we?

Dear Born, you'll be out soon, stay strong

I immediately discovered that the ReadyNAS (also, probably, a home network in general) does not come configured in a way that makes it easy or sensible to access the NAS from a computer on Wi-fi. It's sloooooooow.

In instructional writing one cliché when something is going to take a few minutes is to tell the reader to “go grab a cup of coffee”. This is more like, "go grab a cup of coffee but also grab some whiskey since you're about to need it." Finder’s "Copying files" dialog was telling me it would take multiple days to move a hundred or so gigabytes of files, an operation that would take 3 minutes tops with a plugged-in hard drive. It’s stupid slow.

And, worse, any little network hiccup will ruin – not interrupt partway, but totally negate – any transfer in progress. Do you trust your network to stay up flawlessly for days at a time?

Even if you do get files on there, get used to Finder or Explorer hanging on you for several minutes while the NAS reads a folder with a lot of files. You can’t do a whole lot else with your computer while Finder hangs. Well, you can reach for that whiskey.

Are there ways to speed things up? You betcha! There’s an FAQ with some ideas, and the forum has lots of contradictory and anecdotal advice. Just hop into some configuration windows and sometimes a goddamn Linux command line on the ReadyNAS, my router, and my computer to adjust context-free values for network settings with nonsense names like “jumbo frames”, TCP, ACK, and MTU. Easy, right?

Figuring out what those mean will only get you so far. All these network settings affect each other, and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. Change one setting and big files will transfer faster, but lots of little files will be much slower. Modify another setting to compensate and [sad trombone] you're back to where you started. Change a different one to speed up your local network and your general web browsing will be slower.

In trying to find the right balance, you can tinker with these settings for days. I know; I did. You can get sucked in, and it’ll drive you mad.

FREAK OUT

All this to get the performance to a level that is somewhere above “abysmal”. This was not my idea of quality time.

The hard drives in a NAS box are not directly readable by your other computers

(I made it this far, but there aren't appropriate Nas song titles or lyrics for some of these headings. Pity).

The hard drives in the NAS use a UNIX file system, which your average Mac or PC can’t understand. What the NAS does is to read the drives and act as an interpreter for the Macs or PCs in your house.

This interpretation between file systems will cause you nothing but woe. Problems can will come up when moving files from one file system to another, and, although your computers and the NAS box are doing their best, I suppose, these problems are not handled gracefully.

The NAS can't understand some file metadata

The ReadyNAS does not accept files that have OS X Spotlight comments or tags. It just rejects them. Doesn't want them. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

(Note: As a sanity check, I tested this again as I was writing this, and it appears to not be a problem with OS X Lion, whereas it definitely was with Snow Leopard. Strange. Maybe this one was Apple’s fault? Boo! I hate everyone right now!)

I grant that probably not many people use Spotlight comments or tag files with Adobe Bridge or Leap, but I do, so a large portion of my pictures and documents couldn't be stored on the ReadyNAS.

This was the digital equivalent of a kick in the nuts.

Goddamn iTunes

With documents and photos ruled out, I focused on moving my media library to the NAS, which by itself would clear up plenty of space on my laptop. For some reason probably related to the amount of money I had spent on the ReadyNAS, I thought this was still worth a shot.

I manage all my media with iTunes, so I was already on thin ice; even under the best circumstances, moving your iTunes library around is not easy. (Have I not scared you off? This guide discusses the many issues and is probably the best resource available if you must do it.)

And if you’re moving your media to a different file system, as I was? Get ready for pain.

In your music collection, you will find a rather thorough collection of all the things that make a file system give up and weep: foreign characters (Beyoncé), folders with the same names but different capitalizations (Drive-By Truckers vs Drive-by Truckers), punctuation that shouldn’t be in filenames… it’s all there. Because different computer systems handle those issues in different ways, even when these things are OK on your Mac, they’ll suddenly be not-OK on the ReadyNAS filesystem. Something will go wrong.

I tried transferring my music to the NAS at least a dozen times, and all but one time the result was the same: corrupted files, a corrupted iTunes library, or both.

Not including time spent recovering my files from backups, every attempted transfer took over 5 hours because, remember, it's sloooooooow. When Jay-Z accused Nas of having a “one hot album every 10 year average”, I didn't know he was also criticizing the state of network storage.

The scariest dialog in the world

The one time that I was extra careful, preemptively cleaned up hundreds of problematic files and folders, and almost had everything working, I found out what happens when you start up iTunes but forget to mount the NAS share with your media. You'll randomly get one of the following:

  1. iTunes will start without drama, then automatically mount your network share for you when you try to play something. When this happens, it’s actually quite nice.
  2. iTunes will start without drama, but tell you that it can't find your files when you try to play something. Quit. Mount the NAS share. Try again. Could be worse.
  3. iTunes will start with drama with a Checking iTunes library dialog while it frantically tries and fails to find every file in your library. This can take an hour or two (sloooooooow!). Eventually, the dialog will go away, your library will be all right, and you will have bitten off all of your nails. Why were you biting your nails? Because maybe you were going to get option 4…
  4. iTunes will start with drama with the dreaded Checking iTunes library dialog. Then it will bring even more drama because it will crash and irretrievably corrupt your library. You had a backup, right? Right??!

I should say that I like iTunes: for all its annoyances and bloat, it usually makes managing your media pretty transparent. But when you start to push it, you find out that its database is a delicate little flower.

Halftime

You’re probably wondering if a device this complicated has any sort of support. You bet there is! The dedicated ReadyNAS site has:

“Wow! There's constant updates, and lots of help if you need it,” I thought.

The technical writer in me approved of their extensive documentation and active forums.

The regular human in me should have been horrified that (what I had thought was) a glorified hard drive would require this much technical support. I mean, there are 178 questions on this FAQ page. That's 177 too many.

For regular humans, the question they want answered is “If I plug it in, will it work?” with the answer “Duh. Yes.”

It Ain’t Hard To Tell

So the ReadyNAS was annoying to set up, drudgery to configure, and nerve-wracking to actually use. In practice I couldn't use it to store my documents, photos, or media files. Even if I could get over the sluggishness, it would only be a matter of time before iTunes would flip out and ruin everything.

I haven’t even bitched about the unit’s built-in fan (loud), getting the network drive to mount automatically when you power up your computer (complicated), the media streaming applications (outdated, sloooooooow), or my attempts to back it up (complicated, sloooooooow).

After two weeks of fighting it at almost every step, I’m ready to, well, you saw the image at the top of the page.

But what about all those reviews that said it was “easy to use”?

WHY MUST I FAIL AT EVERY ATTEMPT AT MASONRY?

About that: It’s got a decent admin interface with step-by-step guides through the basic setup. The RAIDar utility makes it easy to find the ReadyNAS on your network. You can configure it out the wazoo if that’s your thing. It comes built-in with some tools for media sharing and automatic backups. It’s got a pretty active community.

With all that, I’m guessing that the ReadyNAS really is easier to use compared to other NAS boxes. It might even be the best available.

That said, I shudder at how terrible other NAS boxes must be.

Suggestions for the average person

For those who want network storage

You just want a hard drive that’s accessible on the network? Get a router with a USB port. Plug a regular hard drive into it.

Yes, it’s that easy. Even if you need to buy the router, it’s almost definitely cheaper than a “good” NAS box. The geeks at Gizmodo found that this method was faster and easier than a NAS box. Added bonus: your computers should still be able to read the hard drive when you directly plug it in (it won't need to be converted to the Linux file system that a NAS requires).

If you have a spare desktop computer that’s running all the time, you could also plug in an external drive and make it available with file sharing. On a Mac, go to System Preferences > Sharing, check File Sharing and drag the hard drive to the Shared Folders pane. Done.

Screen capture of the OS X File Sharing preference pane
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Other computers will see my "storage" drive now

For those that do not back up their data

You have a problem. You need to fix it now. The only reason I got through this ordeal – especially the frequent iTunes catastrophes – without punching holes in the walls was because I had a lot of backups.

You should have backups. Actually, have several. Start with this system. On a Mac, use SuperDuper instead of the command line. For Windows, follow-up with this article.

For those who think RAID is for them

A person choosing between safety and death but choosing death

RAID is not for you. I’m not the only person that will tell you that. Check the addendum on that backup strategy I just linked to:

RAID is a waste of your goddamned time and money. Is your personal computer a high-availability server with hot-swappable drives? No? Then you don't need RAID. RAID is not a backup solution. Even if you use RAID, you still need backups.

He’s right. RAID introduces complexity that you don’t want. Stay away.

For those who keep up with technology blogs

Stop reading them. They’ll put ideas in your head, ideas that will make you struggle with unintuitive nerd tools for wasted weeks.

A lot of this stuff will just blow up in your face.

Diet coke and Mentos exploding in your face

Go to a museum instead.

Had a spark when you started but now you’re just garbage

If you’re highly tech-savvy, patient, enjoy tinkering with your gadgets, and in the market for network storage (maybe you run a small office?), the ReadyNAS NV+ might be just what you need.

But that doesn't mean it – or any other NAS box – is even remotely appropriate for the average person.

At least I’m staying far away.

It’s on the curb if anyone wants it.

Am I doing it wrong?

Comments? I don’t do open comments. Life is too short.

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