Friday, 15 February 2013

Netgear WNDR4500 - Review

Netgear makes the excellent WNDR4500, one of the best wi-fi cable routers you can get. Building on that solid platform, it has now released the WNDR4700 'Centria', which aims to weld NAS box functionality to its router legacy. Opening the packaging for the first time, I was struck by exactly how big this device is. It looks like it might have eaten many smaller routers to get this big. 

 There's a reason why it's so large, because it can internally accept a 3.5" desktop SATA drive, which is then available as part of its network attached storage functionality. To test, I located an unused SATA disk, placed it inside the Centria as per the Netgear instructions, and powered it up. That's where the fun started, because attaching it to my internet network didn't actually allow me to administer the machine.

 Connecting by wi-fi did, so I ended up configuring it using a Kindle Fire, oddly enough. What soon became apparent was that the Centria doesn't like to be one of many, but the kingpin, and it can get upset if it's not the single portal to the internet and master of DHCP. I eventually sorted this out, and most users who were replacing an existing cable router with this one wouldn't encounter this problem.

 Having established a network connection to the device, I was able to copy files over to the drive I'd installed, which in this case was a 4TB WD drive. It's worth noting that the documentation for Centria doesn't include this in its compatibility list, but it seemed to work fine in there initially. However, the Centria knowledge base admits that 3TB drive capacity is truncated at 2TB, so putting one any bigger than that in here is potentially pointless. 

 As Western Digital launched its first 3TB drive over two years ago, I respectfully suggest that Netgear needs to pull its finger out on supporting bigger disks. On the other side of that coin, the Centria does support multiple file systems if the drive is pre-formated, including NTFS, FAT16, FAT32, Ext2, Ext3, Ext4, HFS+ and HFS+ Journal. So if you own a 3TB drive or bigger, then formatting it externally using a file system that can handle bigger than 2TB volumes would seem the logical answer.

 LAN performance was a more than adequate 40MB/s on writing, and I was able to maintain a number of media streams to other devices without overloading the system. My overall impression of performance rated the Centria as quick, though not blindingly so, hinting that it has sufficient computing performance to achieve what it was built to do. If you need more space than the single internal drive allows, then two external USB 3.0 ports are provided, which could be useful in securing the contents of the internal storage locally, among other uses such as printer sharing.

 There's also an SD card slot and a button marked Can Netgear deliver the NAS box and router combination to rule them all? 'Backup', which automatically copies the contents to the internal drive. However, the real selling point of this system is the interconnectivity, through DLNA and other protocols. For Mac users, this hardware is Time Machine compatible, and for the Windows fraternity something similar is offered through ReadySHARE Vault. This extends into ReadySHARE Cloud functionality, which allows you access to your data from remote locations or while using smartphone/ tablet devices. I can't be critical in terms of what the Centria does, because it mostly works well, but what concerns me is how it compares with dedicated devices that aren't trying to be a hybrid.

 One obvious flaw in the design is the lack of 802.11ac support, which Netgear iself has exploited in its R6300 router. If the Centria had that, perhaps I'd be more enthusiastic, but it doesn't. I'm also less convinced by the robustness of the internal drive slot, which has a very flimsy outer door. Netgear seems to be hoping you'll only use this once, and therefore not break it, but it's a prime candidate to be broken. There's also insufficient ventilation, I'd suggest, because after a couple of hours testing, when I came to remove the drive it was quite hot to handle. Given that this is a 24/ seven powered device, that's concerning, as it could impact on the life of the drive.

 What I'm drawn to conclude is that while the Centria is an interesting combination, it's not as good a router or NAS box as dedicated units, including those made by Netgear itself. For those who want a drive pre-installed, Netgear also sells the WNDR4720, which has a 2TB disk and costs around £70 more than the drive-less version.Netgear site

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