Western Digital My Net N900 Central £165
3rd Sep 2012 | 13:42
A home-friendly dual-band media-serving master from Western Digital
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We're all coming around to the idea of a digital home and despite the complexities of networking and network applications, manufacturers like Western Digital are marketing entire ranges of network-ready media systems.
The WD My Net N900 Central is the flagship model of its new My Net range that brings FasTrack networking, ease-of-use and a fleet of features to your home network.
We've also reviewed the closest sibling to this model, the WD My Net N900, that forgoes the internal hard drive but features three additional Gigabit ports and an extra USB port. This wave of network-aware, media-serving devices isn't bringing us a great deal that's new.
There are several devices like the WD My Book Live Duo, the Iomega TV with Boxee and D-Link ShareCenter that have been around for a while. But all are good examples of how traditional storage and networking companies are expanding into new areas.
Arguably Western Digital is doing a better job than most and this latest push brings their networking technology right up-to-date.
At its heart is a dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n router with a 3x3 antenna that is capable of delivering 450mbps connections in both bands, assuming your laptop is kitted out with the same.
The other prime feature is that this unit comes packing an internal 1TB hard drive that can be used to store anything from media to files, which can be shared via numerous means around your internal network or externally over the internet to mobile devices and other computers.
It's a comprehensive bit of consumer networking kit and it's designed to sit on top of an existing broadband modem.
Despite all of this technology it remains as small as a standard router with all the antennas remaining internal. Installation can be done via a Windows install disc or it's just as easy to handle it via the web-based interface.
If you've not picked up on it yet, we're impressed by the sheer quantity of features in the WD My Net N900 Central; that's despite it measuring 244x170x32mm and being a standard-sized router.
Around the back are four Gigabit LAN ports plus an additional WAN port for cable-modem work. A final USB 2.0 port is there to expand storage via an external drive or add a network-shared printer or scanner.
As is the trend there are no external antenna on this sleek unit and the front status LEDs are a toned-down blue affair and barely noticeable, which is probably the right approach for home units.
A hard power-button makes it easy to power off the device when needed and the final physical element is a WPS button, if you use this easy-connect system.
Under the hood is a dual-band (2.4GHz and 5GHz) 802.11n router with a 3x3 antenna array, which is capable of delivering 450mbps connections in both bands at the same time.
Both bands can have their own SSID assigned, plus separate passwords using WPA1 or 2 encryption, personal or enterprise and on a mix of 20MHz or 40MHz multiplexed streams.
Additional MAC filtering can be applied and Firewall rules, while basic parental controls can impose time limits and basic hand-listed HTTP filtering.
This sort of splintered support without clear definition can be confusing, so it's great to see Western Digital making it clear across its range what is supported and at what speeds.
This top-end model comes with a built-in 1TB drive that enables media sharing and general NAS support on your local network.
For local media sharing it has a basic DLNA server and provides iTunes network sharing. It's also capable of serving files and streaming media over the internet via FTP and direct to mobile devices via its WD 2go app.
Full IPv6 is implemented and a guest wireless zone can be set up that restricts local network access but with no other controls.
Everything can be configured via the same web interface that's split into basic and advanced sections to offer clear guidance and warnings, along the top bar.
Installation went smoothly and by the numbers, the web interface is fast, attractive and illustrates what the user should be connecting to what, with obvious diagrams showing if there was success or not.
The system is designed to hook off an existing ADSL/cable router; if you're doing that then everything should work fine, and if not then you're going to run into headaches with the external media sharing.
When testing wireless devices we put them through a number of set real-life environments to emulate how the devices could be used in homes and offices.
The first is a standard same-room test, the second places a solid brick wall between the router a room away and the last is a line-of-sight 25m distance test to see how the router copes with that.
For this WD My Net N900 Central we ran upstream and downstream speed tests at both the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands.
The new 450mbps rating requires three antenna on the receiving laptop, and despite Intel Wi-Fi Link AGN adaptors supporting this few laptops offer the three antennas.
Limited to 300mbps connections the WD My Net N900 Central puts in an above-average but solid performance; more so at its 5GHz range, managing 17.2MB/s in the same room, and rising to a good 17.9/MB/s one room away.
But it performed far less well at 25m, dropping to 3.4MB/s. At 2.4GHz performance was, if anything, sub-mediocre in the same room at 8.8MB/s, but a room away reached a more acceptable 13.8MB/s.
Switching to 450mbps unleashed the router at 5GHz in a same-room scenario with class-leading 27.6MB/s downloads and upload pushed to a staggering 36MB/s.
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At one room away these remained very strong with 23MB/s downstream and 31.5MB/s upstream. Though distance performance remained average at around 4.7MB/s downstream.
As we've seen with other routers NAS drive performance is slow, lacklustrely plodding along at around 10MB/s via wireless and 20MB/s via LAN.
This hinders its use for storing gigabyte-sized files, especially when you consider Gigabit connections should hit 125MB/s.
While a DLNA server is included there are no transcoding features, which isn't unexpected but this does mean to be of any use your target device has to directly support the files stored on the internal drive.
We remain fans of the WD 2go app that makes it easy to access files on most mobile devices with the use of a four-digit PIN.
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Without doubt, Western Digital has done an excellent job with the WD My Net N900 Central.
Anyone adding this to, or building a network around it can be sure of getting an up-to-date chunk of networking kit.
Even with the advent of 802.11ac this dual-band, 3x3 antenna device is going to provide long-lasting high-speed network access.
The same goes for the four Gigabit LAN ports and expansion via the USB port.
Of course we shouldn't forget that it comes with an entire 1TB of storage built in, and almost every network sharing protocol you could want to access it, both internally and externally.
Clearly Western Digital is aiming its new My Net range at the home and so ease-of-use has been a high priority.
We can happily say it succeeded here with the WD My Net N900 Central providing a visual and clear approach to setting up and checking your installation.
The web interface is certainly pretty without compromising features, with Admin features and logging being comprehensive enough.
The sheer range of features is also impressive whether we're talking about the mobile access or the comprehensive dual-band offerings.
Once up and running the device, even with a hard drive inside, is quiet enough to have in a living room, while the blue status lights are sympathetically designed so as not to give a dark bedroom a disco-light effect.
At 5GHz and 450mbps performance is amongst the best we've seen in same-room and middle distance tests.
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It's not exclusive to Western Digital but NAS access speeds are slow to the point of almost being unusable for larger files, both across LAN and WLAN, but more so via WLAN.
We imagine this is a inherent issue with the hardware controllers but really is that an excuse?
We found the 2.4GHz downstream speeds to be average at best, even at 450mbps.
At distance the router does struggle and even at 450mbps we've seen 300mbps routers such as the Netgear DGND 3700 come very close to it for speed and benefit, by support from the far-wider range of available 2x2 laptops.
In a way the full nature of its feature-set is the downfall of the WD My Net N900 Central.
Including the 1TB HDD significantly bumps the price of this device, doubling it over that of the hard-drive free WD My Net N900 that, with its expanded Gigabit LAN ports, could be a better choice for many people.
While the 450mbps technology means you're not guaranteed to reap the rewards of your outlay, but if you can you'll be very, very happy.