Review: QNAP NAS meets XBMC media center

QNAP's TS-669L can store all your content and play it directly to your TV, though HD playback could be smoother

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If you think this is a lot of services for a relatively little box to handle, you'd be right, though with a dual-core Intel Atom 2.13GHz CPU and 1GB of RAM (expandable to 3GB), the TS-669L has the horsepower to handle more than you might think. It also boasts dual gigabit Ethernet interfaces, the option to use a USB wireless interface, two eSATA ports, two USB 3 ports, and four USB 2 ports. Suffice it to say, this box is very well equipped.

Nevertheless, the basic operation of the TS-669L is simple: Plug it in, and run a discovery tool to locate the device on the local network. You can then specify network configuration settings, create a new storage volume, and begin adding shares and users to the system. This is all done very easily and quickly through the Web UI, and much of the configuration is wizard-based, further simplifying the installation.

Media playback
Now we get to the novel aspect of the TS-669L: the media player. On the back of the TS-669L is an HDMI port that plugs into your TV. At boot, this displays normal boot information and initially ends up at a Linux login prompt. However, once you've enabled the media services, the system boots to an application selection screen that allows you to choose from XBMC, YouTube, the Chrome Web browser, and the management UI. These selections are handled by the included remote control.

XBMC is one of the best media center applications available from any vendor, and it's completely open source. It's an amazingly slick and responsive interface for cataloging and playing back media of all types, and even displaying customized data feeds in tickers, weather reports, and the like. You can have it automatically catalog all your music and video into a library that will allow searching by a variety of elements, from genre to artist to actor to director and so forth. It also has the capability of playing back a wide variety of video formats.

If you're not familiar with XBMC, you should check out Frankly, it's the best solution QNAP could have implemented to gain the media center capability.

The downside to the media center capability is the somewhat anemic chip set used to drive the video playback. Lacking the playback capabilities present in something like Nvidia's Ion 2 chip set, the TS-669L struggles with high-definition video on occasion. I noticed artifacts on several high-def files at times, but these were not showstoppers, more like occasional ripples in the display. Adjusting some of the XBMC parameters reduced this effect somewhat, but it's still present in some formats. If there is an improvement to make to the media center feature, better playback is it.

The YouTube and the Chrome Web browser apps are interesting, but not nearly as useful. The browser on a TV is as clunky as you might imagine. Even if you connect a keyboard and mouse, it's still challenging to read text and navigate websites from your couch through this interface.

The TS-669L also offers DLNA and UPnP support that can stream content to compatible display devices on the local network.

One aspect of the TS-669L that's worth noting is the quiet operation. Seeing as it's designed to be used in a home media environment, this is an important consideration, as loud fans or disk noise can be problematic. There are power-saving options that stop the disks, and the fan is relatively quiet. If the unit is going to be hidden away in a media rack, you'll want to ensure it gets good airflow to prevent heat problems.

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