WD My Cloud 2TB review

Putting storage in ‘the cloud’ back under users’ control is Western Digital’s aim. And not just the few gigabyte that usual suspects like Dropbox offer – we’re talking terabytes.

The WD My Cloud is – shush – just another name for a NAS drive at home that hopes to provide simple remote access of your data, from any internet connection. The real breakthrough may come if the storage giant can honour that simple word ‘simple’, as the vast majority of users neither know nor want to know the intricacies of network and NAS setup.

Western Digital has been in the home-NAS game for a few years now. It started with the WD My Book World, a one- or two-bay network-attached storage box prestuffed with (naturally) Western Digital hard disks. This gave way to the My Book Live, spruced up with a faster processor to make it snappier in use. With its latest offering, Western Digital is working to make the device and service even more user-friendly for non-technical users. The book has been dropped from the name, in favour of the tediously trendy ‘cloud’ label.

Despite the heavy marketing campaign that promotes this new technological proposition (we’ve even seen ads on trains and Tubes) the WD My Cloud is little different to the previous My Book Live in essential operation. It’s a single-drive data storage device, 2 TB in capacity which should be ample for most people’s photo and document collection, wrapped up in a simple white plastic case that can sit on a shelf anywhere in the house.

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Taking a low-power WD Green hard disk inside, it runs relatively cool and quiet. The perforated case allows plenty of natural airflow so there’s no need for additional cooling fans as you’d find on larger units. On the back are just three connectors: ethernet port to plug into your router, USB 3.0 port as an option to plug in another storage drive, and DC power inlet to power it from the supplied mains adaptor.

Once plugged in, the WD My Cloud Setup.app for OS X walks you through initial admin-user registration. This is made about as easy as is possible, with none of the usual routine of setting up account names, privileges and passwords; you can dig a little into this later if you fancy though. You can also readily find the device on your network anytime by looking for Bonjour devices from Safari. Then log in to the machine without even being asked for a password.

You oversee the settings of the My Cloud from the usual web-browser interface, although perhaps it’s unkind to compare it to the typical NAS interface – this is a beautiful, well-planned graphical layout in friendly charcoal with light grey typography, one that we think balances the need for simplicity in order not to scare normal users, with the essential controls that more adventurous users like to twiddle.

The unit is set to automatically update with new firmware when it becomes available, taking another chore away from the user who wants a fit-and-forget solution.

WD still assumes you have a certain familiarity with Microsoft-style networking jargon though, with instructions like ‘double-click the name of a particular share to view the folder…’. At least the accompanying FAQ below provides an answer to the question ‘What is a share?’.

As another sign of WD’s alignment with the Windows world, the My Cloud’s default time server is set as the Microsoft NTP service. In fact, it’s actually impossible to not have Redmond set your My Cloud’s internal clock.

Other settings include functions to engage SSH, FTP access, and network Workgroup for Windows businesses (all otherwise off by default).

A DLNA Media Server and iTunes Server software are installed, both already running by default. And Time Machine compatibility is included of course, with a slider control that let’s you select how much capacity of the My Cloud you’d like to dedicate to automatic Mac backups. Notifications can be set up to email you news of any critical messages or other warnings.

WD My Cloud: put to the test

To live up to its name and marketing, the most important thing about the WD My Cloud is its accessbility from outside your home network. The owner who sets up the unit will already be given cloudy access; other users can be easily added.

First you create a new user from the Users tab in the web-browser interface, providing a name and password of your choice. This needs to be authorised by WD for some reason, so those credentials are sent for registration with WD’s servers. The new user receives an email, where they’re then asked to make up another password.

Then in order to login to your My Cloud you must use the original password you gave to the device, not the new password you’ve just been asked to create. This is more confusing than it needs to be, and is guaranteed to cause confusion.

More troubling though was when, posing as a new user, we were then directed to Oracle’s website in order to install Java on our MacBook. We didn’t pursue this route any further – Java on your computer is an unmitigated security threat, a virus magnet even for Mac users, and one we would not advise anyone to install. Especially not a non-technical user who won’t know how to keep maintaining Java with ineffectual security patches.

Thankfully it’s possible to avoid the Java nonsense, providing you only want to access the WD My Cloud with an iPad or iPhone.

The free My Cloud apps for both devices are quite slick, letting you easily browse folders of JPEGs stored on the My Cloud, for instance. We uploaded some .rtf text files, and while they were openable the text was not readable on an iPhone 5 as the right side of the paragraph was sliced off. On an iPad Air there was no such problem.

Curiously, while the My Cloud app could open .pdf, .rtf, .doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx and even Apple .pages files, it didn’t recognise .numbers spreadsheets.

Other unrecognised files elicited a cartoon graphic of a man scratching his head; for Apple spreadsheets though we were confronted with the composite files inside the .numbers file container.

To enable network discovery beyond your local network, the My Cloud should open ports on your router through UPnP, although we noted in the admin interface that this may not have worked on our home network (currently using an Apple Time Capsule, 6th-generation). To facilitate connections through firewalls and closed ports, the My Cloud tries to use WD’s servers in the USA for a form of dynamic DNS; a relay connection in WD’s description.

For the security-minded, we note that while WD insists your data itself is not going via its servers, the networking handshake protocols will. This would make data intercept straightforward for US government agencies now known to siphon all US-routed user traffic.

Our attempts to just view the NAS drive contents on iPhone were not entirely successful. We could not get through our office firewall with the My Cloud sited in the lab, so we tried with the unit at home. On occasions our iPhone couldn’t even find the My Cloud now based at home behind the Apple router with UPnP engaged. We tried resetting the device link, which involved requesting a code from the admin interface, a 12-digit number that you tap into the iPhone to authorise a new connection. This did not work either so we gave up in frustration.

The following day we reset the entire WD My Cloud back completely to factory settings, and were then able to link both iPad and iPhone to connect over cellular rather than a local network.

Data transfer performance over the local network was somewhat slow. Measured over a gigabit ethernet network, it could hit maximum read speeds of around 75 MB/s but write speeds of just 25 MB/s. Its predecessor, the My Book Live, had around the same read speeds, but was twice as fast in the equally important writing stakes. You’d notice the slowness when you go to copy large files around the network – a Blu-ray film will take around 20 minutes to copy, rather than the 3 or 4 minutes on a gigabit-stretching NAS drive.

Connecting from the outside world though, the WD My Cloud’s speed will be ample to serve up snapshots and music to your iPad, especially as the real bottleneck with be your home broadband connection. While British ADSL users might see up to 20 Mb/s download speed, the upload speed is unlikely to exceed 1 Mb/s.

If you have a fibre-based connection and are lucky enough to get 10 Mb/s upload speed, that 1.25 MByte/s data throughput won’t be in issue either.

Local network connections are made using AFP, even with Macs running the latest OS X 10.9 Mavericks which has deprecated AFP in favour of Microsoft’s SMB2 network protocol by default; it’s likely the need for compatibility with Time Machine and previous versions of OS X is mandating Apple’s legacy network protocol.

OUR VERDICT

To make a home hardware-based personal cloud, the device and software must be incredibly easy to setup and use, and be essential bullet-proof in reliabilty and operation. With the My Cloud, WD has made that setup reasonably straightforward even if the need for separate device and WD server accounts is asking for trouble. Demanding Java for a remote Mac access is also ill-advised for the product’s audience. We found remote-access reliability could be improved, as WAN-side connections from an iPhone and iPad took some resetting and patience to finally make work – just the kind of roadblock that will see the unit switched off or returned to the shop by regular buyers. But the core principle behind the personal cloud is very sound and deserves careful investigation by anyone who wants a central always-on repository for all their media and data.

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