They look like hard drives, but they act unlike any hard drives you've ever seen.
In the industry, they're referred to as Network Attached Storage (NAS) units. But I'd call them Digital Media Control Centers.
They're hard drives that plug into your network router to push music, video and photos to the computers in your home or office. They also can back up your data, stream music from your iTunes program and make the data available remotely.
These drives cost twice as much as those that can't be shared across the network. But you get a lot of value from their ability to back up, store and share your ever-growing collection of photos, music and video files.
We looked at drives from Western Digital wdc, Iomega and Seagate stx that appeal to different audiences: premium, budget and small business.
New, improved edition
We began with Western Digital's My Book World Edition II, released a few weeks ago, which attempts to right a major wrong that WD made with its first networked drive in 2007.
Gone now is the copy-protection on files that you own. On World Edition I, Western Digital tried to make nice with Hollywood and record labels by disabling access to certain types of media files, including the ever-popular MP3, AVI, WMV and QuickTime.
"We don't filter anymore," says Scott Rader, Western Digital's director of product marketing. "It's not our job to manage and police content."
Western Digital has software on the network drive that makes it possible to access your hard drive remotely and send links to friends so they can check out a photo or video file.
I looked at WD's $699 model with 4 terabytes of storage. It's actually two drives with 2 TB apiece, and the data are copied onto both drives. That way, if one fails, you've got a backup. (WD says replacement drives are easy to swap out and insert.)
WD also sells a 2-TB World Edition II networked drive for $399.
Be aware that Western Digital still sells its restricted World Edition I drives at $229 for 1 TB and $399 for 2 TB. Neither Iomega nor Seagate's networked drives come with restrictions.
Rader says the new edition is designed so consumers can set up drives with a few clicks, even over a network.
But it took us longer than that; the instructions left a lot to be desired.
How's this, instead?
"Your new drive has an ethernet cable and a power cable. Don't look for a USB cable, because there's no need for it. Unlike every other external hard drive you've ever used, you will not plug this drive into your computer. It's on the network, so everyone in your home can access it.
"To get started, power up the drive and use the ethernet cable to plug it into a slot on your router.
"Then install the software program on the enclosed disc. Windows will assign a network letter to the drive: Z or Y. On Macs, it will automatically show up as an external drive."
Once you've followed those instructions, you add media to the three shared folders already on the drive — music, video and photos. (You can create your own folder, as well.)
At my home, we have three other computers on the network. After the software was installed, we easily added and accessed files from each.
Those of us with Apple's iTunes music software got an added bonus. The songs in the drive's "shared music" folder also showed up in our iTunes programs, even though the songs hadn't physically been placed into iTunes.
I don't have a TV with Wi-Fi reception or an ethernet port, so I was out of luck watching my videos and pictures on the TV via the hard drive. But the manufacturers say it's possible to view Wi-Fi-capable media on your TV, including digital photo frames and gaming consoles such as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2.
Price differences come up
Iomega's networked drives have a single drive, not two, and are much cheaper than WD or Seagate's. Iomega charges $159.99 for 500 gigabytes and $209.99 for 1 TB.
But the company charges for online access to the data: It's $10 a year, although the first year is free. Neither WD nor Seagate does this.
Seagate's BlackArmor NAS 220 ($399.99 for 2 TB; $699.99 for 4 TB) is aimed at small businesses, letting up to 20 computers access the drive. It has a host of security and automatic backup features, as well.
Otherwise, all the units work similarly, with auto backup plans, multiple user capability and remote access.
You get a lot for your money. But at $699 for Seagate and WD's networked drives, I'm not ready to spring for all those goodies until the price comes way down.
Iomega's $159.99 and $209.99 networked drives are the best bargain of the category now and the ones I'd reach for to add to my drive collection.