The Gigabit LinkStation is the newest of the growing family of low-cost network-attached storage (NAS) devices made by Buffalo Technology for the small network or power home user. As its name suggests, it comes with a Gigabit Ethernet interface and either 300GB or 400GB of capacity, but cheaper 10/100 Ethernet models are also available down to 160GB capacity

Although it is aimed at meeting a basic requirement of adding NTFS-based storage directly to a network (rather than by way of a file server or hard drive hanging of a peered PC), Buffalo has done a particularly good job of the fine detail, in what is a well-made box. You get an impressive automated backup utility for both client and LinkStation itself, an integrated print server, and a useful FTP server, all wrapped up in a box that is optimised for file sharing among up to 8 people.

All this is done at a very keen price – the street price for the 300Gb model is under £300 – so this is probably now the default way to add the above capabilities to a small network. Networks doing more than serving or backing up a few files, or which want more advanced management features, need to consider a much pricier NAS system costing some way into four figures.

It is safe to say that the hard disk capacity of future LinkStations will climb as new drives start to come on to the market, but we’d still recommend buying the largest of the drives to be on the safe side. Having said that, one of the joys of network attached storage is that you can simply plug in more of them if that turns out to be necessary, although that will eventually lead to storage sprawl. It is possible to plug in an extra external hard drive to one of the LinkStation’s USB 2.0 ports (the rear one only), although that will involve a format of the new drive.

Setup is a matter of booting the device and configuring it through an elegant web-based admin console. Users, groups and workgroups can be added here, and storage directories set up for both PCs and Macs. Each PC using the LinkStation has to have drives mapped to it manually, and automatic backup clients loaded if that feature is to be used.

The drive features two external USB ports, one for a printer and one, as already noted, to add more static storage. The print server configuration assumes you are adding a Postscript printer, but non-Postscript printers are also supported by choosing from one of a list of Epson emulations.

If other LinkStations are connected to the same network, these can be administered from the same console. In addition to basic admin features such as disk scan and format, and setting at what times the disk should go into sleep mode, we liked the feature that lets an admin shut down a drive remotely. It can only then be turned on using the power button, but the manual implies that the setting of a wake up time (in the sleep function tab) will also cause the unit to power up.

In addition to client backup, the LinkStation itself can be backup up to an attached USB hard drive or to another LinkStation on the network. Files can be moved to and from the LinkStation remotely using the built-in FTP server, which could also function as an informal backup mechanism for small data loads.

The Giagabit LinkStation has unexpected features: it can be used as the storage component of a media server, whereby files are streamed via Ethernet or wirelessly to a TV media server box (Buffalo sells its own for £200), using PCast technology. This might sound like a home user application, but we can see times where it would be equally well suited to a small office that, for instance, wanted to show training videos in a TV room.

It is also possible to use something called “Jumbo frames”, an Ethernet technology based on larger frame sizes (either 4100 or 7814 Bytes) that has been kicking around networking for nigh on a decade now without quite taking off. The advantage of Jumbo frames is that it is claimed to increase data transfer throughput by up to 30 percent. The downside is that all Network interface cards using it have to support the technology and be enabled to use it.

This is a delightful product that does exactly what it claims to do and does it out of the box. Although its main feature is that it offers network attacked storage in a cheap package, the company is to be commended for adding a thoughtful range of extras that work very well and behave in a predictable and stable manner. We didn’t carry out any systematic throughput tests but it functioned briskly when pulling around even real-world data loads. Every small LAN should have one.

OUR VERDICT

Network-attached storage used to be an expensive buy and it often still is. New designs such as the LinkStation are a fraction of the price but are really only for small LANs. Although the LinkStation features Gigabit Ethernet, we'd still recommend working out how far its performance will stretch on your own network if that's likely to be an issue. If it turns out to be an issue then get out the wallet. It's going to be an expensive upgrade after all.