Move Over Drobo
During my long running quest for the perfect storage product I've looked at just about everything on the market. I've even considered some preposterous DIY solutions that would never make it to any market. I've tried internal disk solutions with RAID and without. I've always found internal disk very limiting and often dependent on less than great software RAID. I've tried standard LaCie USB external drives that used Maxtor hard drives on the inside. I've pieced together an external case and internal drive and connected it via FireWire 800. Recently I permanently moved all my music to a network disk attached to the Airport Extreme USB port. Then came the Thecus 5200B Pro. I knew this was the unit for me since the day I read about it. The 5200B Pro has so many options you couldn't possibly use them all and it holds up to 5 TB of disk. The configuration of the unit is as difficult as you make it. If you want a basic setup there are instructions that will probably get you through it. If you really want to take advantage of all the 5200B Pro has to offer you'll need to know what you are doing.
If you are looking for a very techie review of this product with performance charts and graphs you'll need to look elsewhere. Most Computer Audiophile readers want to know how this storage solution fits in with their music server system. In the most basic sense the 5200 is an external disk that connects over a network as a NAS disk. Audiophiles will also be interested in the multiple RAID configurations, power management, USB Copy function, iSCSI support, operating system interoperability, expansion possibilities, UPnP capability, and wonderful web based GUI.
The Thecus 5200B Pro is arguably the best music storage solution available. The 5200 has five drive slots that can currently hold 1 TB each. No doubt this will increase as the next generation of larger hard drives is released. There is no need to fill each slot up in the beginning. The 5200 only requires one disk to get going. I don't recommend this approach, but it does work. A midlevel approach is to add three drives to the unit, thus enabling you to take advantage of the built in RAID 5 capability. Personally I couldn't resist going whole-hog by throwing five 1 TB drives into the 5200. As a side note, I've made it a mission of mine to fill the 5 TBs with nothing but great music. Talk about having fun! The 5200B Pro has two gigabit network connections which can be bound together, used for failover, or kept separate. For this review I only connected one of the GigE connections to my Airport Extreme via Cat 6 cabling. The 5200 comes preset with an IP address already assigned to the internal network cards. If you network IP addressing scheme begins with 192.168.1.x then you won't have to set the IP manually. I changed the IP address from the LCD panel on the front of the unit. The interface on the physical unit is not very intuitive, but I must admit I hadn't cracked open the instructions before setting everything up. Doesn't everyone just read the quick start guide on the box?
With the basics taken care of I fired up the 5200. I instantly noticed the one drawback of the 5200. It is pretty loud. Audiophiles would never want the 5200 placed in their listening room. Don't even think about trying it yourself to see if you can live with it. The unit is too loud for a quiet environment! That said, there is no reason you need the unit in your listening area because it is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) unit. Since my Airport Extreme router is nowhere near my listening room I had no chance of hearing the 5200 in my listening room. If your router is within earshot of your listening area you can always get an Airport Express and connect it to the 5200, allowing it to be placed anywhere within reach of your wireless network.
Once the 5200 was connected to my network I opened Safari and went to the IP address of the unit. The great GUI pops right up asking for the username and password. The Thecus GUI is really nice. It doesn't have complicated menus with links buried ten levels deep. Best of all the GUI doesn't timeout and ask you to re-login every five minutes. Now that I was in, I needed to setup the disk so I could start storing music. The 5200 supports many types of RAID as well as JBOD (just a bunch of disk). I highly recommend RAID 5 because you maximize your useable disk and can sustain a single drive failure without losing any data. There are many more options in the data storage world for protecting data, but I think RAID 5 is a great balance and great choice for audiophiles. Using the GUI I setup RAID 5 without any problems. The Thecus 5200B Pro has an Intel Celeron processor built-in that really accelerates drive formatting. Like I said earlier this is not your typical disk storage unit. Audiophiles will also be like the ability to add disk and expand the RAID set if they didn't fill up all the drive bays in the beginning. If you did fill up all the drive bays and still need to expand you're also in luck. The 5200 has an eSata port on the back that allows further expansion.
The 5200B Pro works perfect with Microsoft Windows PCs or Mac OS X machines. I used my MacBook Pro throughout this review and had no issues whatsoever. Mounting the newly created drive can be done two ways. Both have pros and cons that audiophiles will want to consider. The most familiar option is to mount the drive using AFP (Apple File Protocol). This is the same way Apple Airdisks mount. My instructions in a previous article here on CA are just as prudent using the Thecus 5200B Pro. Simply use the Connect To Server option from the Go menu in OS X and enter afp://192.168.1.100 and the Thecus drive will mount on your desktop. After doing this I had one multi-terabyte drive waiting to be filled up. The major drawback to this type of drive mounting is the need to remount the drive after every login. This can be remedied with my script that runs at login however. A huge benefit of a regular IP mounted drive like this is the ability to share the disk space with many computers at the same time. You and your wife can each have libraries on the 5200 and access them at the same time without issue. The other connection option is through iSCSI. Most audiophiles have no idea what this is and probably don't care. Good, because I have no desire to explain it here and it won't change the sound of the music either. To use iSCSI on OS X I downloaded GlobalSAN iSCSI initiator. This is a small program that runs to connect a Mac to the disk. Windows now has this capability built-in. Once mounted the disk is displayed in the OS X Disk Utility just like your local disk. The disk can be formatted however you choose. One very nice thing about the iSCSI option is that the drive mounts at login automatically every time. My large problem with this method is that only one user can access the disk at a time and an iSCSI target can't be expanded within the Thecus GUI. A minor limitation with iSCSI is that you have to allocate at least 1% of your disk space to the RAID set leaving only 99% to the iSCSI target. In reality the same is probably true using RAID and afp, but it isn't as glaring when you view the disk configuration within the Thecus GUI. So, my suggestion here is to use a RAID 5 disk array and connect via afp.
For the heck of it I did some file copy tests in three different configurations. I copied the complete Bad Company 10 from 6 album in each configuration. Here are the times in minutes and seconds.
3:15 - 5200B Pro connected via iSCSI
3:19 - 5200B Pro connected via IP NAS
3:43 - Standard hard drive connected via Airport Extreme USB port
Other Notable Functions
Since spinning hard drives are the only practical option these days we must always consider the MTBF. Mean Time Between Failure is measured in hours that a drive is spinning. Fortunately the 5200B Pro has a solution to minimize the hours spent spinning when the drives aren't in use. Through Disk Power Management you can set the disks to sleep after a specified period of time. This is pretty common in most external devices except the 5200 allows you to set the interval. An even cooler feature is the system Power Management. You can set the 5200 to power down and power up whenever you want it to. During the review I set the unit to power up when I usually wake up in the morning and then power down after I go to bed. Under normal conditions this saves eight hours per day in electricity and system usage. I hate to be the master of the obvious but this could potentially give you a 33% longer lifespan on the unit.
Another great feature on the 5200B Pro is called USB copy. audiophiles with music on an existing USB drive will really love this feature. Forget copying your music over the network to even connecting both devices to your laptop via USB. The 5200 has a USB port on the front that automatically copies the contents of a connected drive to a USBCopy folder. To steal a phrase from the infamous Ron Popeil, set it and forget it. There is no need to babysit a huge network copy. Connect your USB drive and walk away. All the contents will soon be on your new 5200 drive.
The last cool feature I'll discuss here is called UPnP or Universal Plug and Play. This is pretty simple to understand. Many canned music servers like the new Olive units can use a UPnP drive to play music. If the internal Olive drive isn't large enough for your collection you can connect it via the wireless network to the Thecus 5200B Pro and play all the music as if the drive was connect. All of this is possible without a computer once the 5200 is configured for the first time.
I have no doubt that the Thecus 5200B Pro IP Storage Server is the best audiophile music storage solution available today. The unit is available from NewEgg for about $750 without any disks. This allows you to purchase or use whatever disks you want. When compared to the Drobo with the Droboshare the price is only $50 more. The performance and options on the 5200 are so far beyond what the Drobo is capable of that the two are not in the same league. The Drobo is easier to use for people without any technical skills. However the 5200B Pro is a far better product and can be configured to work without too much skill needed. A little effort up front will go a long way in the long run. Also remember to leave the unit out of your listening room as it is quite noisy. Fortunately it is made to be placed anywhere. With five drive bays, room to expand, and even the capability to change RAID types on the fly the Thecus 5200B Pro is the only way to go.