Linksys Media Hub Review and Hands On

• March 16, 2009

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Linksys has always been known as a company that produces adapters, switches, routers, and even Media Center extenders.  To enhance their current line up of networking products and carve out a spot in the entertainment space, they have recently released a new series called Media Hubs.  These products are designed to “serve” digital content around the home.  How does this unit stack up?  How does it compare to WHS?  Lets take a look.

Review Unit:  Linksys by Cisco Media Hub NMH405
I think it is also interesting to note their shift in branding to now use “Linksys by Cisco” name.

Media Hub features & highlights:

  • two-drive SATA unit with optional RAID 1 support
  • LCD display for status and monitoring
  • Support for 3 simultaneous HD streams
  • “intelligent” media aggregation and consolidation
  • simple browser interface for media playback and overview
  • web portal for easy access to media from remote
  • on-demand or automatic backup of network PCs
  • 2 USB ports, SD MS and CF card slots, gigabit Ethernet
  • compact size – 7.8 x 4.3 x 6.6
  • priced listed at $349 on Amazon

What’s In the Box?

Here are a few pictures of the unit and what came in the box.  The packaging and content was solid and well laid out.

IMG_3143 IMG_3147

Product Tour

Front Back IMG_4603

The unit is very compact and tightly constructed.  The top and front of the unit is glossy black and may prove to be fingerprint magnets but looks nice none the less.  The flat black sides and back are set off a bit by the silver trim and navigation button on the front.

On the front of the unit you will find an 1.75” x 1.25” color LCD display, 4-way navigation pad with an “OK” button in the center, and a power button.  SD/MS, Compact Flash, and a USB 2.0 port are also located here for easy access.

The back of the unit sports a power input, gigabit Ethernet port, and an additional USB 2.0 port.  The fan was quiet and did not become noticeable at any point during my review time.  It is interesting to note that the unit requires a remote power brick with a power output of 12 VDC @ 5 Amps.  This is done to keep size and heat considerations within the Media Hub to a minimum.  At about 4.5” x 2.5” x1.25” the brick is small and nondescript, but these tend to add up in a “tech” home.  (On a side note – I often find these external power units to be uber mass produced, very generic in nature, and can vary greatly in consistency and quality.  If you are ever faced with a device that uses one of these and it is not working properly or just plain behaving badly, these are the first things to check.  Just grab a multi-meter and check for the appropriate output voltage.)

The last picture shows the push button top cover removed revealing the drive bays.  My unit came preloaded with one Western Digital (WD5000AVVS) 500GB GreenPower drive.  The drive is loaded into a plastic tray that can easily be slid in and out.  Linksys also makes a NMH410 that comes with the same feature set and a 1TB drive priced at $429, and an entry model NMH305 with a 500GB drive but no LCD display priced at $299.

All in all, a nice little unit that is compact and quiet enough to go into any environment including a living room.  The bright LCD and front buttons may be the the only drawback here as inquiring “little” minds will surly find them appealing.

Setup

Before power up or connecting the unit you are prompted with the obligatory “Run CD First” sticker that covers the ports on the back.  Setup is pretty strait forward and took about 20 minutes.  Below are some screen shots of the process.

By the way – when you first run the CD a flash demo comes up that came through loud and clear, my family thought I was watching a concert DVD.  The multimedia goodness will eventually stop and bring you to the setup wizard after about 2 minutes.  And yes, I actually watched the whole thing…

First in the process comes the hardware setup.  For this step the wizard walks you through all the connections, power up, discovery, picking a “friendly” name, and setting an administrative password.

1_Setup 2_Searching 3_PleaseWait 4_Password 5_Configure

Next comes the software setup that includes a media import tool, and NTI’s backup software.  The import tool will automatically search for music, photos and videos across your network computers and copy them into the Media Hub.  You can customize the search options to scan specific folders or entire drives.  NTI’s backup software will only work with XP or Vista machines.  To be clear, the Media Hubs are compatible with Mac computers with the exception of the backup software.

You would need to run the supplied software on any additional computer you want connected to the Linksys Media Hub.

6_SetUpPC 7_MapDrive 8_BackupTool 9_ImportTool 10_LearnMore 11_DeviceConfigured

Import Tool & Manager

Here is a glimpse of the Media Importer tool.  The Media Hub stores files copied to it on a share named “media” in a subdirectory named “import”.  Each computer will also have it’s own subdirectory, as well (figure 1).  The “intelligent” tool will watch these folders for media files and copy them to the default photos, videos and music folders.  A user will have to be savvy enough to select all the folders they may have stored media in the event they strayed from the defaults or have multiple log-ins on the same machine.  This service continually monitors the remote PC folders, copying the new files instantly.  The service runs very well, as it never failed to recognize a new file or change to a directory.  The Media Importer Status shows real time files that are being moved (figure 2)

Media Importer

Manage Media Importer

Media Importer

Backup Software

NTI’s software uses jobs to establish backup parameters for computers including files, folder and backup frequency.  The default “job” backs up the documents folder every hour.  This only copies over files and folders not images of drives.  Again this service was pretty snappy and worked reliably for me.   Job Wizard (figure 3) can create custom “jobs” with specific schedules and content  as well (figure 4).
Job Wizard

Living with the Media Hub

The simplest way to access and consume all of your media is by opening Internet Explorer and entering the name of the Media Hub.  This will bring you to the “Media Page Application” (figure 4) that slices and dices your content as you would expect from a high quality media application providing various sorting, searching and view options.  This simple and intuitive interface allows for playback right from here, no need use any other software.   Recently added content is available on the anchor screens.  I would consider it family friendly and not intimidating for new users.  You can even do system administration, disk drives, backup feature and various services from this interface.  It’s important to note that although Firefox will load the page correctly much of it is not functional.

The Media Hub will also stream your content to any DNLA compatible player.  iTunes on a network connected laptop saw the music immediately and played it back without fault.  The Sony XBR in my living room is on the network and has a built in media player that worked perfectly.  Media Center had no problems using the device for storage and playback, as well.

Remote access is simply configured here, as well.  You need to pick a remote access name and go to www.ciscomediahub.com and log in.  This worked very well from the two remote locations I tried.

Browser HomeFile Browser Browser Music Configure TabServices Disk Config

LCD Display

The LCD display provides some nice at-a-glance information.  I suspect it is something that will be played with from the day the unit is unboxed and never used again.  I did power the unit down a couple of times from here.  Below are a couple shots showing the network, storage and drive status.  I am not sure how valuable it is for day-to-day use but it does add some curb appeal.

IMG_4623 IMG_4621 IMG_4622

Summary/Conclusions

Pros:

  • simple and easy setup
  • great, great web user interface
  • automatic pooling of media
  • remote access
  • Raid 1 capability

Cons:

  • limited expandability with one drive bay
  • no Mac backup capability
  • no print serving capability
  • tendency to slow down with large media collections
  • Complex media import folder setup

What we have here is a solid NAS device with an exceptional user interface offering direct playback with some streaming and remote access sprinkled in.  It is not something the hardcore network storage server aficionado may appreciate, but I believe the masses will like this product .  I think it goes a long way toward getting the average person thinking and utilizing centralized storage and backup systems, and that is good thing.

Compared to WHS?

Well, I am not sure this is a really fair comparison because they are truly apples and oranges.  I would recommend anyone reading this, with absolute conviction, to go the WHS route instead if they were comfortable with computers and technology.  WHS has much more to offer in terms of an expandable platform with greater flexibility and extensibility.  The great community and availability of add-in software puts WHS in a class by itself.  It does, however, require some computer savvy and a willingness to get your hands dirty.  That is certainly not for everyone.  If you are not one of those people than the Linksys Media Hub is a fine choice.

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Comments (2)

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  1. jpdodel says:

    Hi Dave. I see HP has a tool to bring in (and monitor) all media from home computers to the WHS. Linksys apparently has that too. Is there something that exists for the rest of us who build our own WHS? Being able to scour computers for new/updated media files and immediately copying them to WHS is a key component for those with a Media Center PC streaming from WHS.

    Thanks.

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