With the file sizes of our pictures and videos growing at such a fast rate, storage solutions that were fine a few years ago are suddenly feeling pretty cramped. While it's true that you can store all of this stuff "in the cloud," there's security and privacy concerns with doing so, convincing many to prefer hosting their own data on their own hardware.
Companies like Thecus, QNAP, and Synology are leaders in the market when it comes to home storage solutions. We've reviewed many of them in the past, including the Thecus N5550, so were excited to take a look at their latest offering, the Thecus N7710-G. Aside from increasing the drive bays to seven, the N7710-G adds a 10-gig network card to increase the speed in which you can access your files. Does it work as expected? Let's find out!
The Thecus N7710-G has quite a bit of horsepower under the hood. In addition to the Intel Pentium G850 dual-core CPU, it also has 4GB of DDR3 ECC memory, and two Intel 82574L Gigabit Ethernet ports, as well as HDMI and VGA outputs. The front of the box has two USB 2.0 ports, while the back has four 2.0 ports and two 3.0 ports.
However the star of the show is the additional 10 Gigabit Ethernet card. Sitting at the top of the machine without any labeling, it accepts a standard Ethernet cable (no fibre here!), and promises to increase network throughput by up to 10x. Of course this is pretty much useless unless you have a 10GbE switch in your environment. Lucky for us, Thecus provided a compatible PCIe card in order to conduct the review
In addition to the good specs, the N7710-G also has room for seven hot-swap drives. This gives you the flexibility of running RAID-6 and still have a lot of usable space left.
Not surprisingly, the box is extremely large and heavy, but it's clear that Thecus worked on the aesthetics quite a bit. Instead of a basic rectangular monochrome box, the metal case has a brushed aluminum look that curves around to the left side of the device. The status lights are behind a clear glass oval window, while the drives sit behind a hinged door that is opened by pressing the upper left of the door. Although the door itself is not lockable, each individual drive bay is.
The N7710-G also has a convenient LCD display on the front that is used to convey information about the devices status as well as do some basic configuration. There are four buttons below it that allow you to navigate menus without needing to use a computer, although this is much clunkier than just using the a web browser to configure it. Aside from initial setup, you probably won't use this feature much, but it's nice to have.
On paper, the N7710-G looks really good, but how does it stack up in the real world? In a perfect world, you'd simply plug in the drives, connect the network and power, then press the "on" button. Sadly, reality is rarely that straight forward.
The first minor hurdle is the fact that the drive bays are not tool-less. While most hardware vendors are replacing screws with various clips, Thecus takes us back to 1995 with metal sleds and screws to bolt your drives down with. It's not that big of a deal, since once you finish the install you will rarely ever touch them again, but it's a minor annoyance.
The next hurdle was that after booting the system, it refused to get an IP address through my DHCP server. Again, this is something that won't impact you once you get the device up and running, but it could be non-trivial for a novice.
In order to get the N7710-G on the network, I had two options: Connect the box directly to my PC and access it via the default network configuration; or use the LCD screen and buttons on the front of the box to manually set the IP address. Both ways work, but I found setting the IP address using the LCD screen to be the quicker solution, especially since once it's done, there's no re-cabling necessary.
Network configuration was touched upon in the hardware section above. It's nice that the device allows configuration from the LCD screen and although a little clunky to figure out, once you get the hang of it, the display is a nice way to get information about the box if you set it up in a headless configuration.
Setting up volumes on the N7710-G is also pretty straight forward and is done in the exact same manner as the N5550 I reviewed last year. Unfortunately, that also means all of the negatives also hold true, namely that the interface is extremely technical. The example I used previously holds true, in that the description of RAID-6 is confusing, even to someone with a technology background.
RAID 6: Extend RAID 5 by adding an additional parity block; thus it uses block-level striping with two parity blocks distributed across all member disks.
If you have disks from a previous Thecus NAS device, the good news is that you can easily just plug the drives into the N7710-G and the system will automatically detect them. I ended up using the same disks that I used in the N5550 review and was surprised to see a filesystem already available. After digging around, I realized it had the same test data as I used in the previous review, so it's nice to see that you can migrate to new hardware easily.
Along the same lines, configuring network services also has the same interface, and while good for technical folks, it's going to be intimidating for people who just want a box they plug into the network and expect to have work.
Thecus also needs to work on fixing the grammar in their interface if they want to start seriously competing with the established brands like QNAP and Synology. For example, when turning on the SSH service, you're greeted with a message that starts with:
If there is garbage file name appear during winscp transfer...
I understand the meaning, but instances like this are littered throughout the entire interface and just highlights that the company hasn't invested in quality translators.
Thecus has some cool features available with the system, including disk encryption to prevent someone from stealing a drive and being able to read the data. In addition, they have a feature called NAS Stacking that allows you to chain multiple Thecus NAS devices together. I'm not sure how useful that is for the home market, but it could be invaluable for the SMB market.
So far, from the hardware setup and configuration, this review has been fairly similar to the N5550. Since the N5550 was a performance beast, will the N7710-G follow in its footsteps? For those who are impatient, the answer is a resounding yes.
The first thing I looked at was the performance using one of the two regular Gitabit Ethernet ports on the N7710-G. Also, although the device supports up to seven drives, in order to maintain performance parity with the other devices I've reviewed, I chose to use only four disks. In previous tests, the performance differences by adding an extra drive or two are within 3%, so these tests give a good foundation.
I used Robocopy, a tool that's built into Windows 7, and created a RAM disk using OSFMount in order to remove my own PC's disk I/O from the equation. Using this methodology to copy a single multi-gigabyte file showed great results: 105 MB/sec while writing to the N7710-G, and a 109 MB/sec while reading from the device. These speeds are roughly in line with the QNAP TS-451, and slightly faster than the Synology DS414. It's worth noting that these speeds are pretty close to saturating a Gigabit Ethernet link as well.
Performance of a single large file is always greater than that of multiple smaller files, so the next test was to take roughly 360 MP3 files of varying sizes totally roughly three gigabytes of space and copying those. The N7710-G really shined in this test: Copying files to the NAS resulted in the best performance we've seen to date, roughly 10% faster than the Thecus N5550, while copying the files from the NAS to the RAM disk resulted in a tie with the N5550. As shown on the graph, both results are faster than the most recent Synology and QNAP we reviewed.
Despite how great the performance is running on a Gigabit Ethernet connection, the thing that separates the N7710-G from other devices is the built-in 10GB card, so how does that stack up to regular Gigabit Ethernet? In a word: Amazing.
Unfortunately, most people don't have this type of infrastructure in their home, although some small-to-medium sized offices might. I'm in the same boat, so Thecus was nice enough to provide the C10GTR, a tiny PCIe card that can also be installed in several Thecus NAS devices and is also the same card that's installed in the N7710-G. I installed the card in the PCIe slot right above my video card, downloaded and installed the drivers, connected an Ethernet cable directly between the card and the N7710-G, and continued my testing.
The results here were great. Running the exact same tests as above, I was averaging 140MB/second copying small files to the NAS, and 172MB/second copying them from the NAS. With a single large file, results were even better: 155MB/second copying a large file to the N7710-G, and a staggering 235MB/second copying a single large file off of the N7710-G. With an array of SSD drives, this performance would probably be even higher.
To put this into real-world terms, I was able to copy a 3.4Gb file in only 14 seconds. This speed made me consider upgrading to a 10G switch in my house.
If you enable the encryption feature on your RAID 5 volume, performance takes a serious hit. While I was expecting the performance to drop, I was a little surprised by just how much. Running through the same tests as above, using the 10 Gigabit Ethernet connection, performance writing to the N7710-G dropped to 43 MB/second regardless of whether I was copying a single large file or hundreds of smaller files. This shows that the CPU is the limiting factor here. When copying files from the NAS, performance was a bit better - 91 MB/sec for a large file, and 80 MB/sec for small files - but was still far below what the raw throughput could be. Based on this, I wouldn't recommend using the N7710-G's encryption functionality unless it's really needed.
Noise and Temperature
The N7710-G is a little noisier than some of the previous NAS devices I've reviewed, due to the fact that it has three fans keeping the device cool. There are two large fans blowing air across the seven drive bays, with one smaller fan keeping the PSU cool. The device itself has several sensors build into it that displays system temperature and fan speeds.
While running the very unscientific sound meter from the SmartTools Android app, I recorded an average volume of 60 dB when holding my phone roughly a foot from the NAS. Surprisingly, this is the same volume that was recorded for the N5550. That said, the noise from the N7710-G was rarely noticeable in my office unless I was specifically paying attention to it.
Since the software on the N7710-G is just an updated version of what I reviewed on the N5550, the entire disk recovery process worked the same way. If you want to read the specifics, I recommend reading the previous review. The short answer is that you simply have to plug the new drive in and the N7710-G rebuilds the RAID array for you, automatically.
If I'm starting to sound like a broken record, it's because I am. The N7710-G has the same limitation when it comes to applications as the N5550 did, namely the application "store" is not integrated into the device's interface like we're used to seeing from Synology and QNAP. Although there are now a couple hundred more applications available now than there were just six months ago, finding and installing them is just as difficult as it was before.
The website has been updated a bit. Whereas before, you'd see a list of applications with the server architecture listed right below, now the site breaks each architecture and version into a separate area on the results page. Unfortunately, it's still confusing when you're presented with a section labeled "THECUSOS 5 64BIT (A)" and another section labeled, "THECUSOS 5 64BIT." With similar software (like Plex) available in both sections, how is a user supposed to know which is the correct one to download, especially when both say they're compatible with the N7710-G?
In addition, it seems that most of the applications available on the store aren't by Thecus, but rather by a user named Stéphane. It's unclear whether this person is an employee of the company, or just a fan of Thecus devices in general, but while home users may not mind installing these apps, an SMB would think twice, preferring the vendor supported version.
The mobile apps were an issue when I looked at the N5550 last summer, and the company hasn't done much to improve that situation yet. While QNAP and Synology have polished apps that support the functionality of their devices, Thecus has only a barebones offering: T-Dashboard and T-OnTheGo. The former lets you manage a few of the services as well as monitor uptime, CPU utilization, and the like from your mobile device, while the latter lets you stream music and video. Both apps work, but are kludgy as identified earlier.
Not a lot has changed since the review of the N5550. Thecus does a great job creating robust hardware that is capable of great performance; unfortunately, they lack the polish and usability of their competitors.
There's no question that 10 Gigabit Ethernet performance is awesome, and I suspect the throughput would be even higher if I added more drives to the enclosure since it would have more spindles to read from. Even at regular Gigabit speeds, the Thecus blows past the competition, as you can tell from the graphs. If you're looking for sleek, sexy sports car performance, the N7710-G should be at the top of your list.
Unfortunately Thecus still needs to invest heavily in software design. The OS might have been acceptable five years ago, but it's quickly losing ground to its competitors. The functionality is great, but finding and configuring it is difficult. In addition, the lack of a robust and streamlined application store, both for the NAS and for mobile devices, is holding the N7710-G back from its full potential.
There's also the matter of price: $1,000 (USD). While I understand the 10 Gigabit Ethernet card alone retails for roughly $200, the additional $800 is a tough pill to swallow, especially considering the entire package is rough around the edges. While not out of line from a hardware perspective (the Synology DS1815, an 8-bay NAS device, costs the same as the N7710-G and lacks 10 Gigabit speed), you could purchase two N5550 devices for less than a single N7710-G, proving the point that an extra couple of drive bays may not be worth the price premium.