A New Best Friend
If you can stand a high-maintenance relationship, the Buffalo Technology LinkStation is the perfect pal for the digital pack rat.
By Matthew Maier

(Business 2.0) – My hard drive's days were clearly numbered. A rapidly burgeoning 12-gigabyte collection of MP3s had taken most of the free space on my laptop's 18GB drive. And 2GB of photos from a recent trip to Thailand were threatening the rest.

What to do? With three other computers in the house and a wireless network connecting them all, I could, of course, set up one PC as a file server. But constantly moving data from one computer to the next is a drag, and turning a PC into a file server can require disabling some built-in network safeguards. Another option was replacing the laptop's internal hard drive with something bigger. But that involves more screwdriver work than I'm comfortable with.

Instead, I decided to try out Buffalo Technology's new LinkStation Network Storage Center, a $299 external hard drive that connects to your network rather than to a PC. With it, I'd be able to store all my music, videos, pictures, and documents in one place and access those files from anywhere--even remotely. Best of all, I wouldn't have to sacrifice speed or security. Or so the theory went.

After I attached the LinkStation by Ethernet cable to the D-Link Wi-Fi router in my living room and installed a setup utility, the LinkStation became visible on my home network. That part was easy.

But when it came time to actually figure out how to use the thing, I hit a brick wall that LinkStation calls its manual. It's written in a language that purports to be English but might as well be Sanskrit, for all the good it did me. So I fired up the setup utility, which took me to a browser-based configuration tool that proved straightforward to use. It took only about four steps to configure the LinkStation as a file server so I could save and retrieve files from anywhere in my house.

Within minutes, I was uploading some music stored on my Apple iBook to the LinkStation and playing those same MP3s--wirelessly--on an Alienware PC set up in my dining room.

The LinkStation had other tricks too. The configuration tool allowed me to use the machine as a print server: I plugged my Canon Pixma into one of the unit's two USB ports, and in no time a PDF document printed flawlessly from my Windows PC. Printing from my iBook was trickier. For Mac users running anything but the latest version of Mac OS X, drivers for many printers must be downloaded manually, which is time-consuming. (I discovered a timesaving workaround: Download a third-party printer-translation utility such as Gimp-Print.)

But the biggest problem was attempting to use the LinkStation from my office. At home I thought of the LinkStation as a virtual drop box--a place where I could store and retrieve files conveniently, regardless of PC or location. Yet when I tried to save a large file to it from work, I got a "server not found" message. My LinkStation, which I knew was on and connected to the Internet at home, had dropped off the face of the Net.

A Buffalo tech support rep--who, unlike the company's manual writers, speaks perfectly clear English--gave me unhelpful instructions: Configure my Wi-Fi router to forward traffic to my LinkStation. That advice resulted in fruitless hours of router tinkering.

In the end, thanks to some friendly folks on the DSLReports.com forums, a popular site for broadband users, I got remote access up and running. Comcast, my broadband provider, had given me a dynamic IP address. Static IP addresses, while more flexible, can cost $30 a month more, and security experts view them as a potential risk, since they can make your computer easier for hackers to find. The inexpensive workaround was to use a system called dynamic DNS to give my home network the equivalent of a static IP. I signed up for free service at DynDNS.org. Armed with a temporary fixed address, I could now find my LinkStation and get to my home files.

So is the LinkStation worth its $299 price? For users with multiple computers on their home networks and overtaxed hard drives, a device that offers storage at a cost of less than $2 per gigabyte and also acts as a print and file server is well worth the considerable fiddle time you'll have to invest to get the beast fully working. If you want a wireless router as part of the deal, you may want to wait for Buffalo to introduce a promised all-in-one Wi-Fi network hard drive this month. Perhaps by then, Buffalo will have hired someone who can write a manual.