So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Buffalo MiniStation Air Wi-Fi hard drive
Buffalo's 500GB wireless hard drive is great for streaming content to mobile devices, but battery life could be better
- Reliable Wi-Fi performance
- Simple app
- Battery life a little short
- Lacks DLNA support
Buffalo's MiniStation Air is a simple-to-use Wi-Fi hard drive that suitable for use with Android and iOS devices. Its battery life is a little short and its price could be more competitive, but it's a good solution for distributing files to mobile devices.
Price$ 289.00 (AUD)
The Buffalo MiniStation Air (HDW-P500U3) is a portable hard drive with a 500GB capacity, USB 3.0, built-in wireless capabilities, and a battery. It can be used to distribute videos, music and photos to your mobile devices, both Android and iOS. Because it's wireless and runs on batteries, you can use the MiniStation Air while outdoors or travelling, not just at home. It works by way of an app (called MiniStation) and it turned out to be a solid little unit during our tests. Battery life isn't great though.
Connecting to the hard drive
Before setting up the MiniStation Air, you should make sure your mobile device has Buffalo's MiniStation app installed. This app is required to see the drive's contents and settings. Once you have the app, the next step is to connect to the MiniStation Air's wireless network. This means disconnecting from your standard wireless access point and connecting to the Wi-Fi network created by the Buffalo hard drive — the SSID is simply 'MiniStation' with numbers appended to it. The drive is secured by default, but the key is printed on the bottom. It's a long combination of letters and numbers that could be a pain to enter on some mobile devices — it can be changed through the app's settings once you're connected.
The way the MiniStation works is by forming a direct connection between your mobile devices and the hard drive itself. A consequence of this is that you can't use the Internet when you're connected to the drive, unless you also configure Internet access through the MiniStation app. This can be done through the app's Settings menu by clicking on Internet. This will show you a list of the access points in your area. We found that it didn't pick up our wireless network easily, due to it having a reportedly low strength (other devices picked it up stronger from the same distance) and there was no way to re-scan the area without exiting and re-entering the Internet menu.
Once a connection to your your regular Wi-Fi network has been made through the app, you will essentially be connected to two networks: the hard drive's own network, and your regular Wi-Fi network via a pass-through. Using this pass-through configuration, you will be able to access contents on the drive without losing Internet connectivity. The downside of this is that browsing the Web can be slow, as it was during our tests, especially when trying to view YouTube videos, for example. When connected to your regular Wi-Fi network, other computers on that network will be able to see the MiniStation and log in to it (using the default admin/admin login).
Using the app to access files
The MiniStation app was reliable during our tests, and we found it to be quite intuitive. It's a file browser that allows you to easily see any content on the MiniStation Air hard drive, and you can run any file off it that your phone supports. We had no problems playing back all the different types of files in our test collection (Xvid-encoded AVIs, H.264-encoded MP4s and x.264-encoded MKVs) although we used a third-party video player (MX Video) rather than the built-in Android player.
It was very easy to browse content on the hard drive, and we found the app to be quick and easy to navigate thanks to the big and clear icons across the top. It doesn't sort the content it finds on the drive like the Seagate Wireless Plus does, which means you can't just head to a video, music or photos folder to find specific content. Instead, you have to browse to the folders where you know your content is stored. For this reason, it helps to store all your content in a clear folder structure.
In addition to streaming video and accessing other files from the hard drive, you can also use the hard drive as a storage point for photos or any other files that you want to back up from your phone. The app is a little tricky to use for this task: you'll need to click on the Phone icon first, to set that as the file location, and then you'll have click on the File icon. This will allow you to see all the files on your phone, and you'll be given the option to place a checkmark next to all the files that you want to upload to the hard drive. It's a little simpler than Seagate's implementation of the same task, and we feel that it works a little better as far as file selection and ease of uploading are concerned.
Wireless connectivity was reliable during our tests. Video streams never dropped out and the drive's reach was about 20m in our test environment. Video stopped playing when we ventured too far away. When transferring files from a computer to the MiniStation via a wireless connection from a couple of metres away, the drive achieved an average transfer rate of just under 3 megabytes per second. This is the same as the wireless performance of the Seagate Wireless Plus, both in terms of distance and speed.
To test the battery life, we ran the same test on the MiniStation Air that we ran on the Seagate Wireless Plus — we streamed video files simultaneously to two Android devices, a Samsung Galaxy Note II and an LG Optimus G, over a close proximity. The battery lasted 3hr 35min, which is not as good as the 4hr 14min that the Seagate recorded in the same test. Furthermore, the LG phone started giving us pop-up warnings that the MiniStation's battery was low only 1hr 30min into the test. It continuously gave us this message despite us dismissing it. The Samsung phone gave us the same low battery message 20min after the LG and it also didn't display it with as much regularity as the LG.
There is no way to check on the battery life within the app, which we think needs to be addressed in an update, but the power status LED on the drive itself turns red when the battery level drops to a low level. When we received the low battery messages, the light was still green.
Physically, the drive has a USB 3.0 connection and a separate USB-based power connection. We wish Buffalo supplied a wall charger with it, as charging this hard drive from a computer's USB port takes a couple of hours. Like the Seagate, you can continue to use the Buffalo's wireless connection while it's charging, but the Wi-Fi will switch off when you plug in the USB 3.0 cable to connect it to a computer. The device can also be charged whlie it's connected via the data port.
The Buffalo MiniStation Air performed all its tasks very well. Its app is intuitive for the most part (even though it could still use a couple of tweaks) and its wireless performance was solid throughout our testing period. We're only a little disappointed by the lack of DLNA and a short battery life when compared against the Seagate Wireless Plus that we also reviewed recently. It's also quite expensive compared to that drive; the Buffalo costs $289, and with a formatted capacity of 465GB, it works out to be about 62 cents per gigabyte. The 1TB Seagate drive was 26 cents at the time of its review.
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