NETGEAR STORA Review: It’s Good*

StoraDeviceThe distribution of my digital stuff mirrors my office. Everything has a place, but nothing is organised. There’s three  hard drives of varying vintages in the PC, a couple of thumbdrives, some DVDs, and 2 (or maybe 3, I can never remember), external hard drives somewhere.

I could, in an emergency — theoretically at least — pick up one of those hard drives and leave the house with most of my digital memories intact. In reality I’d lose a shitload of stuff.

NAS?

So apparently I need a NAS. Network Attached Storage. It’s about as interesting as it sounds: a big hard drive permanently connected to one’s network. The idea of a NAS is that you plug it in to a network connection (via an extra WiFi dongle if you have no cables), and it becomes accessible to any computers on the network. You use the NAS as your single point of storage: share music and videos, and back up your documents automatically to this magic box.

There’s a bunch of NAS devices (NASes?) on the market, but NETGEAR promises that their STORA is one of the more simple options. It comes loaded with a single 1 Terabyte hard drive, and room for another. It’s a chunky device, about as big as half a breadbox — or 175.25 x 150 x 146 of your earth millimetres. It has a power and network plug in the back. Plug A into Socket B, and it works as promised:
[quote]Experts need not apply. This system is designed for first-time users who don’t want to learn server administration as a hobby. Plug in the system, run the CD – that’s it. Now you can share data between home computers, automatically back them up, share photos over the web and access your content from other network devices. Even upload items to Facebook![/quote]
Yes, it worked as promised. I was immediately able to store files on the STORA, and access them from different devices. I fiddled a bit and eventually set up Windows 7 backup to automatically back up PCs to the STORA, and I was able to play with the web interface to see my files too. The web interface is slick, allowing you to view images and play back some video formats right in the browser.

But wait, there’s more!*

The surprise came when I pointed my iPhone at the STORA’s web address and was confronted with this:

stora

On review, you’ll see those nasty little asterisks in a lot of places in the STORA literature. At the end of this page there’s one next to a paragraph that says:
[quote]*A free 30 day trial of Premium Services is included; thereafter an annual charge of $19.99 is applicable. Premium Services include: support for Flickr, Cooliris, RSS feeds, unlimited user accounts, enhanced remote access including web-enabled phones and future premium feature upgrades.[/quote]
This is, frankly, bullshit. I’m cool with online or “borrowed” services offering price-differentiated features, but when I fork over $419 for a vaguely intelligent hard disk, I don’t expect to be extorted for another $19 per year to be able to use it fully. It’s hard not to see this as utterly cynical: hook in the users who just want basic access, then ping them for a fee if they ever want to do something interesting with their device. Would you buy a DVD player if some features required a regular payment to use? What gives NETGEAR?

Is it any good?

I give it a qualified yes. If you want a simple, relatively cheap way to store all your digital guff, the STORA is good*

*For a limited definition of “good”. Buyer beware.

Arduino Hacking for Fun and … Fun

Arduino DuemilanoveThere’s something special about the tangible nature of electronics. Moreso perhaps for geeks and nerds who tend to work with the intangible: maths, software, science. Taking those incorporeal concepts and turning them into physical phenomena – flashing lights, moving servos – unlocks something deep in the geek psyche. Perhaps the toolmaking caveman, repressed by years behind the keyboard?

A few years ago, if you wanted to dabble in such physical indulgences, you generally needed to learn the dark arts of direct EEPROM programming. It’s not impossible, but you tend to be working at a very low level: directly reading and writing from registers.

More recently, the Arduino project has taken a particular class of microcontroller, and wrapped it in a complete, easy to use physical package. Beyond the physical platform, the Arduino project also provides a C-like high-level language, and a handy integrated development environment that will compile and upload your code to the physical hardware.

What this means is that if you know what an if statement does, and you can read a resistor code, then you can make a physical electronic object based on an Arduino. It really is that easy. Within about 30 minutes, using the Arduino board along with a creative kit from local Auckland distributor Mindkits, I had a basic passive infrared alarm set up. Using the included hookup wires and breadboard means no soldering required for a temporary test setup.

If you have a teenager showing an interest in software development, or perhaps you’re looking to learn yourself, then I’d suggest programming physical hardware is a great way to learn. Having the visceral feedback from lights and sounds in response to your code is an excellent confirmation that you’re doing it right. Or wrong! If you don’t know where to start, or you just want a leg-up, Mindkits are running a course in Auckland soon that will get you up and running with Arduino hardware programming in the space of a single weekend.

When you get tired of basic tinkering, the capabilities of an Arduino board are limited only by one’s imagination. Among some of the cool things that people have built based on Arduino include:

And you’re not limited to the chunky form factor of the Arduino prototyping board either. The Lillypad for example sticks the same processor into an attractive circular package, and you can use conductive thread to stitch your hardware into your clothing.

Get hacking! Grab an Arduino Starter Kit from Mindkits today!