I have a love-hate relationship with NAS boxes. Part of me adores them. They offer a form redundancy for your data, can perform many functions such as FTP, photo and media servers, Bit-Torrent clients and many more, without the need for a PC. And they’re also smaller than a shoebox. The mere fact they’re designed to carry out a set number of tasks – far fewer than a Windows PC – means they’re very streamlined and usually easy and simple to use.[break]
Click to enlarge - NAS boxes are constantly enlarging their feature sets to the point they're now basically mini-PCs
However, I also prefer to use a small, low-power PC for a majority of the tasks a NAS box offers. It’s more flexible, can offer support for video and music streaming services such as Netflix or Spotify, and for multitasking, even an old Core 2 CPU such as an E5300, which I currently have in a mini-ITX system under my TV, is happy to deal with backups, various download clients, 1080p streaming and playback, All at the same time, while remaining whisper-quiet.
Click to enlarge - Windows offers the best flexibility but even the best media centre-like UI's can't do everything and often need hours or days of research, trial and error.
However, a PC still isn’t a perfect companion for a ‘dumb’ TV. Using BBC iPlayer, Netflix or other streaming services that are slickly integrated into media streamers such as the WDTV Live, is fiddly and clunky in comparison. The array of Windows Media Centre add-ons go some way to solving this, but none are as simple and easy to use as a media streamer, and of course, few, if any, have the flexibility or power to carry out the basic features a NAS offers. Likewise, a media streamer is good for just that – streaming media. It can’t backup your files, offer anything by way of FTP or Bit-Torrent servers, and it can’t run cloud services or play games.
Click to enlarge - Media streamers are the best option for watching movies on your PC, but they all have limitations
It’s a conundrum that’s infuriated all of us at bit-tech – there’s no one device that can sit under your TV and do everything. However, Thecus’ N2800 we looked at last week opened a door on an interesting idea. In fact it’s not even an idea, more a fact that if a company with a talent for building a small multi-capable devices puts its mind to it, it can create something that is tailored for these needs. Why then can’t companies like Thecus and Synology and Western Digital create a device that most people want?
For a majority of us, it needs to be able to connect to the Internet, and also straight to our TVs. It needs to be compatible with the usual video and music streaming services. Its UI must be clear and easy enough to use from a simple remote while you’re sitting in a chair on the other side of the room, but also able to set up various servers and configure backups from local PCs. I want to be able to install at least two hard disks in it, and it needs a smattering of USB ports and flash card slots. Its media player needs to support all popular music and video formats, and the ability to use Steam to play basic games would also be useful. It also needs a Blu-ray drive and the ability to connect to home theatre sound systems.
I know that’s a lot to ask, but it’s only one paragraph. It addresses all the shortcomings of HTPCs, NAS boxes and media streamers, which are still, after all this time, trying to be too much like each other, and not like the devices we all actually need.
As much as I wanted it to work, Windows Media Centre just hasn't been properly supported, but at the moment I'm soldiering on with a combined wireless keyboard and touchpad which is sufficient to navigate through Netflix, iPlayer and Spotify on my TV, while also offering full command of the Windows 7 PC it's connected to for dealing with the likes of downloads, backups. However, when I use things like XMBC, or a decent media streamer, I'm immediately reminded just how much easier things could be.
I'd be interested to know what set-ups you have in your lounge for dealing with this barrage of tasks, and if you too are pining after this 'perfect box'...