As we amass digital content, it becomes more of a problem storing, sharing and protecting that content. The Media Hub from Cisco, under the acquired Linksys banner, aims to do just that.
The Media Hub comes in various versions, we tested the NMH405, which features a 500GB hard drive and an LCD on the front of the box. The box itself measures 198 x 111 x 168mm and is constructed from black plastic with some silver/grey detailing around the edges for interest. It's an inoffensive looking box, but thanks to a couple of interesting features, you probably won't be hiding it away in a cupboard.
On the front you'll find a small LCD display. At first glance it serves little purpose, but some may find it useful for keeping track of stats for the device if that's your fetish. We liked that you could update the firmware without a PC, as this is an oft over-looked and tedious task. Here you can send it off to update itself with a couple of button presses.
The display also lends support to the card readers (SD/MS/MD/MMC/xD/CF) and USB. Insert a card and it will offer to copy the content to the drive - again a simple process that doesn’t need a PC, placing the drive contents straight on to your network in one easy step. It isn't 100% reliable however and failed to recognise our microSD adapters, and sometimes needed a couple on inserts to detect some USB drives.
Around the back you'll find an Ethernet port to connect into your network, as well as a further USB slot and a Kensington lock slot for security. The top of the box is removable, giving you access to the drive inside. There is space to slot in another drive to expand up to 1TB of storage internally, as well as being able to expand your storage with external USB devices. Once a USB or storage card is attached, you can navigate to that device through the Media Hub browser.
Setup is easy on your PC or Mac, simply install the software provided on the CD (Mac users currently have to download the disc ISO, but can then install direct from that). This software provides you with several things. The first is a Media Importer, which handles the setup-and-ignore movement to files to the Media Hub for PC or Mac; the second piece of software is NTI Shadow for PC users, a backup utility.
Backup is one aspect of the Media Hub that means you can simply backup your PCs using Shadow. There is even a launcher from within the browser window to execute the backup (as long as your computer is on). The idea here is that Shadow will look after your "documents", whilst the "media" is handled by Media Importer and destined for sharing.
The Media Importer automatically finds and copies all your media files to the Media Hub and is customisable so if there are files you don't want to share, such as work (or private) images, then you can avoid those. As it is, you might want to keep a close eye on this, as we found all sorts of junk we didn't know we had, and it will import stuff like pre-roll videos from BBC iPlayer, which you really don't want cluttering it up.
Media Importer will monitor your media and copy it across automatically for you, and can be setup on any PCs or Macs in your home network using the Media Hub, so it is convenient for multiple PC users, especially for compiling the likes of "the wife's camera" and "my camera" photos.
Once your Media Hub contains media it can be accessed by computers on the network, so provides a convenient central location for family photos, video and music. It will also serve out content to UPnP and DNLA devices and our PlayStation 3 and Philips NP2900 network music player found it quickly, giving access to our media for playback. Unlike some media servers, there are no connections for directly linking to your TV here, so you'll need something else to facilitate that process, either a console, media bridge, or one of the latest mountable nettop PCs.
Access to the drive on your PC is through a Media Browser window, which pulls up a simple user interface broken down into different media types, so music, photos, videos. There is also a file browser, although this can be a little slow to use, slower than a standard Windows Explorer window, but more logically arranged by media type.
The idea is that you use the browser to "consume" your media and we found that it works well enough once you get used to the quirks. Yes, you could navigate through Windows Explorer and find the files, but the thumbnail view provided is very easy and provides playback through the same browser, pulling in various plugins to make this happen, so it does, on occasion, take a little while to get playing. The Browser also gives you the option to launch in an external application (whatever the default for that file type is on your computer).
With music you can set-up playlists, with some background cache action taking place, so if you are disconnected your music doesn’t instantly stop. The music is organised by artist, album or song, and you can easily scroll through, or jump alphabetically to the music you want. It is only as good as the data against your music however, so if you have no information, or it is wrong, you'll just be browsing a mess.
The Media Hub can be enabled as an iTunes Server, so you can play back music through iTunes from your network. You can also save things locally from the browser, so if one person wants, say, family photos on a netbook for their travels, then this is easy to do.
However, we were at times left waiting for the Media Browser to catch up with what we were doing, waiting for a 7MB video to start playing in the Browser doesn't really impress, with better performance from avoiding the suggested offering.
We also found that occasionally content would be missing from the browser, as the Media Hub rescanned and repopulated itself. Perhaps it was fate then that the Media Browser on the Mac never worked and to be honest, we never missed it, except for being unable to tweak the settings.
File support is generally good, with Cisco's listing reading out as: audio M4A, M4B, MP4, 3GP, WAV, OGG, FLAC, AAC, MP2, AC3, MPA, MP1, AIF, ASF; photo PNG, TIF, TIFF, BMP, GIF; video MP1, MPG, SPTS, MP4, AVI, VOB, DivX, 3GP, VDR, MPE, DVR-MS, Xvid, M1V, M4V, MOV, MPV. It also supports the M3U, M3U8, PLS and WPL playlist formats. Protected files will not play, however, and in reality, you can dump anything on the hub you like, if you have the facility to playback on your PC as the above list only applies to the Media Browser.
Remote access is possible, once set-up, although you'll have to pay for this once you roll out of the free initial period, as is often the case with such offerings.
The Linksys by Cisco Media Hub is something of a mixed offering. The external display and the included software point this "media drive" towards those who want something low maintenance that does the work for you. For some though, the Media Browser experience won't be up to expectations and will be surpassed by a Windows Explorer or Finder window.
Without a TV connection, the Media Hub loses some appeal, as browsing your media on your home TV will still require a bridge of some sort.
With that in mind, the price is also a little on the high side, and you have to decide whether that LCD screen is something you'll actually use (ditto the card readers), or whether you'd rather have a drive hidden out of the way.