Aspire easyStore H340 by AcerProduct Web site
Cool Yule Rating: 4 stars
The easyStore H340 is a compact, powerful network-attached storage (NAS) box that runs Windows Home Server. The easyStore is roughly an 8-inch cube, with a sleek back covering and those eerie blue lights. It features Intel's Atom chip, 2GB of memory, five USB ports, and comes with 1TB of storage.
The idea is that you can load content from multiple PCs to this one box, which then allows family members to share pictures, videos, documents, etc. My home network is wireless, so I connected the easyStore to my wireless router via Ethernet cable. I don't have a "main computer" that's connected to the router, so I turned on my laptop, loaded the install disc and got started. The first task is to install Windows Home Server, which seemed to take forever. Luckily, there was a halfway interesting football game on television. Once Windows Home Server is installed, you can backup your files to the easyStore – again, a process that lasted way longer than it should have, although I was going over wireless between my laptop and the router.
You can also set up user accounts and enable remote access. Once this is done, you've accomplished a couple of things. First, your files are backed up and safe, in case something bad happens to your laptop. You can also set easyStore to do automatic backups, which is great for people who forget to do manual backups (and that's just about everybody). The second thing you've accomplished is that your stuff is now on a shared network drive. I didn't load Windows Home Server on additional computers, but it was pretty clear that once you did this, and backed up your hard drives to the NAS box, you could access music, videos, etc., via Windows Home Server's relatively user friendly interface.
The questions you need to ask yourself before plunking down $US400 are:
1: Is the hard drive on my PC filling up, or is it likely to ever fill up? For me, the answer is probably 'no.' For my daughter, a freelance photographer who does everything digitally, the answer is definitely 'yes.' The easyStore comes with 1TB of storage, plus three open bays if you need to add storage. So, the simple requirement for extra storage is one reason to get the easyStore, and the need for safe backup is another.2: Would you go through the trouble of going onto a "main" computer, access a second device, in order to watch video, listen to music or view photos? After all, there are lots of other ways to share data – e-mail, thumb drives, CDs, DVDs, etc. There's even: "Hey, come over here and look at this."3. This won't help you share photos with grandma in Florida, unless she has Windows Home Server and wants to go through all the hassle (not to mention the passwords) required to log into your NAS box over the Internet.4. Finally, this is a Windows-only solution, so my photog daughter, who uses a Mac, is out of luck.
Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
Price: About $US100 (storage drives sold separately)
The more I try other NAS boxes and large centralized storage boxes, the more I appreciate how easy it is to install and use the Seagate DockStar. I reviewed this in early October, and it's still a favorite product. The tiny docking station connects to your home router via Ethernet cable, with the ability to attach a Seagate FreeAgent Go portable hard drive into the top. Voila! Instant NAS. Extra USB ports on the DockStar let you attach additional USB hard drives (not just Seagate drives), giving you even more storage potential.
Software from Pogoplug then lets you access the DockStar from any PC on your home network, or even from across the Internet. The Pogoplug site and service is also very cool -- in addition to providing access to the DockStar, the service lets you share files and folders with others. For example, if you have a bunch of photos that you want to show to Mom, you can just create a folder on the DockStar drive, enable sharing and then invite Mom via e-mail to let her see the pictures. Advanced features let you set up folders for a Twitter, Facebook or RSS feed, among others.
Two additional software downloads are available from Pogoplug that make the DockStar even more valuable. First, there's PC client software that lets you mount the drive on your PC a lot easier than the standard Windows method. This gives you easy access to drag-and-drop files to and from the drive (a lot easier than doing it through the Pogoplug Web application). Second, Pogoplug offers a very handy iPhone/iPod Touch application, providing mobile access to files stored on the DockStar. The iPhone app lets you stream music files to the mobile device, as well as view and download photos. Furthermore, you can upload photos from the iPhone to the DockStar, making this an easy way to get photos off the iPhone and into your central network.
While the hardware installation and activation was easy, it would have been nicer to have the software (the Pogoplug client software and the iPhone app) bundled along with the device (instead of downloads available on the Web site). It would also be easier to transfer files to the portable hard drive directly via USB from all your computers first, rather than doing transfers after you've connected it to the DockStar. I'd also like to see a multiple file upload available for the Pogoplug Web application.
Clickfree C2 Portable Backup, by Storage Appliance Corp. (Product Web site)
Cool Yule rating: 5 stars
Price: $US140 (250GB); US190 (500GB)
The Clickfree series of products are among the easiest and best ways to quickly backup and protect files stored on your PC. If you know how to plug in a USB cable, you know how to back up your system. The latest version, the C2, adds a convenient docking station and embedded USB cable (if you don't want to use the docking base). Features include 256-bit hardware-based encryption, scheduling backups (if you don't like the automatic backup), and the ability to share photos on Facebook or Myspace directly from the Clickfree Viewer application. Capacities on the hard drive are 250G or 500GB, which can be used to back up multiple systems.
This can also be used to transfer files from one system another, should you be getting a new PC for the holidays, say something that has Windows 7 on it.
Digital Foci Photo Safe II Portable Digital Photo Storage (Product Web site)
Cool Yule rating: 2.5 stars
Price: $US150 (for 160GB); $US200 (for 250GB)
This is more of a specific gift idea for the hardcore photographer on your list, or someone who stores lots of information on smaller memory cards. The main purpose of the device is to let you copy files from those cards (SD, MMC, xD, MemoryStick, MemoryStick Pro, mini SD and MS Duo) onto a 160GB hard drive. Users can also copy files from the storage drive onto a CompactFlash card, and you can delete files from those memory cards as well.
Copying can be done with one-button push, and the files get copied over in their original filename and formats. Digital Foci says it can copy 1GB of files in about 3.5 minutes. The device runs off a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, which can be replaced. It's not the easiest device to use and it's not the sexiest device you'll use, but photographers who fill up their memory cards quickly can transfer the photos to the device and free up space for more photos.
Tuff-Clip, by Verbatim (Product Web site)
Cool Yule rating: 4 stars
Price: $US35 (for 8GB); $US20 (for 4GB)
Clearly, those of us who use USB drives for data transfer tend to abuse them, throwing them in the bottom of a laptop bag or placing them on a key ring which could end up anywhere. If one of these types of people are on your gift list, check out the Tuff-Clip from Verbatim, a ruggedized USB flash drive (capacities of 4G or 8GB available) that includes a clip that can hook onto backpacks, a belt loop or even a key ring. In addition to the storage capacity, a password security utility lets you secure the data somewhat.
This makes a great stocking stuffer – when was the last time you could get 4GB of storage for $US20?