WD PR4100 NAS review

WD's PR4100 4-Bay NAS is a content creator's dream

Powerful and upgradable for pros, yet simple enough for non-techies, the WD PR4100 is a winner.
Powerful and upgradable for pros, yet simple enough for non-techies, the WD PR4100 is a winner.
Powerful and upgradable for pros, yet simple enough for non-techies, the WD PR4100 is a winner.

Highs

  • Easy setup
  • User upgradeable RAM
  • Excellent Plex Media Server Support

Lows

  • Noise (Fan on startup & Drives in use)

In this age of digital media, it’s incredibly important for creative professionals — especially photographers and videographers — to build backup solutions into their workflows. One bad hard drive or power surge can wipe out an entire project, and this is simply not an issue that anyone wants to deal with – especially if it’s a project for a client or campaign.

Online cloud systems can be a great option for those with small or infrequent backup needs, but for anyone doing a lot of work, or needing to transfer large individual files, these offerings can be too slow and unreliable, and they may not address the potential security issues.

What’s the option for creatives who transfer 4K video or RAW photo files? It’s network attached storage, or NAS, an external hard drive/server category that pushes far beyond storage, with features useful for a variety of purposes. Take Western Digital’s PR4100, which is designed specifically for the sort of uses that creatives need: it’s a tool designed to make backing up and managing versions of your data easy, with redundant network connections and power plugs. It’s ideal for those who need an advanced, trustworthy backup solution.

Storage device with a brain

The PR4100 revolves around a quad-core Pentium N3710 processor with 4GB of DDR3L RAM, which is upgradable to 16GB of RAM if you decide that 4GB is insufficient for your needs. This is a huge advantage over other NAS units that do not feature upgradable RAM modules, as it allows for strong performance. RAM is available from any retailer that stocks computer parts; just be sure to buy standard laptop SODIMM units of DDR3L and you’ll be good to go.

The unit comes with three USB 3.0 ports for connecting other drives to the PR4100. For example, you can connect and back up the contents of a portable hard drive, memory card reader, or digital camera simply by pressing a button to initiate the process. It also has dual Ethernet ports and dual power ports (in case one fails). Dual power ports are handier than you’d think: imagine connecting the unit to some sort of a battery backup or UPS to keep it running in the event of a power outage. The PR4100 constantly monitors the power into the unit, and it automatically switches over to the secondary outlet if power to the primary outlet fails or is interrupted (assuming you have something plugged in there, of course). The PR4100 only comes with one power adapter, however, so if you want to use the second port you’ll need to buy another adapter from WD.

We tested the four-bay version, which can accommodate up to four hard drives and up to 32TB of total storage. There is also a dual-bay unit, the PR2100, which supports two drives but is otherwise virtually the same.

The PR4100 can be purchased as a bare unit ($500) that you can populate with your own drives, or you can purchase a unit with four WD Red drives pre-installed (they’re designed specifically for NAS use), up to 32TB. The biggest capacity comes with the biggest pricetag, of course: With 32 terabytes of storage, the NAS sells for $1,650. Installing drives is incredibly easy, of course — it’s literally plug and play — and you get an extra year warranty on the hard drives beyond what you’d get from the store. So unless you already have brand-new drives sitting around, or you have a preference for a certain brand, it makes more sense to buy the pre-populated unit.

The unit has a blue LCD screen above the drive bay doors, which displays information about the status of the drives and the enclosure itself. We found this helpful when we wanted to check on the unit without having to access the web portal.

Performance and use

Setting up the PR4100 is about as easy as it comes. If you purchased a pre-populated unit you simply take the PR4100 out of the box, plug it into the wall with the supplied power adapter, and connect it to your router with the supplied Ethernet cable. Once this is done, it is just a matter of accessing the drive via the WD web browser-based portal and setting up a WD Cloud account.

The PR4100 is quite loud on startup; you can hear the drives spinning up and the fan at the rear of the unit. This mostly dies down once the unit has cycled through its startup procedure. The drives are very audible when being accessed, so this is not something you’ll want on your desk or in a location where noise could be a concern.

WD Sync software is included for automatic file backups.

Unfortunately, the PR4100 (and most NAS units, in general) doesn’t offer Wi-Fi as a connectivity option, so you’ll either need to set it up close to a router or pull a long Ethernet cable. While this isn’t good news for those who want to go wireless, Gigabit Ethernet provides a fast, reliable connection, which is crucial if you are transferring massive amounts of data. Your devices, however, can access the PR4100 on the network provided the router is wireless, of course.

A highlight of this device is its cloud capabilities. Once you have the PR4100 connected to the Internet, you can access the data you have on it from anywhere and nearly any device. If you are out at a client meeting, for example, and they want to see the latest sketch of your project, you can pull it up quickly – on a computer or the MyCloud mobile app – on a phone, tablet, or laptop.

But connection speed depends on the quality of the network – both the one in your home, office, or wherever, and your Internet access. This means that transfer speeds can vary quite a bit depending on a variety of situations.

In our case, we transferred a 1.5GB video file to and from the PR4100, using Wi-Fi. Using an AC wireless connection, the PR4100 achieved a maximum data transfer speed of around 43MBps, but the actual average speed fluctuated, so it was slower on average. In all, it took us roughly 1 minute and 20 seconds to transfer this file.

We attempted the same test using a hardwired Ethernet connection and hit transfer speeds that fluctuated around 115MBps. The hardwired connection was much faster, as you’d expect, so those looking to get the best transfer speeds out of the PR4100 will want one. We also tested with a powerline wired connection, and we don’t recommend it: transfer speeds capped out at 5-6MB/s.

This connection speed also varies greatly when connecting to the unit from an outside network, like a hotel or coffee shop. For what it’s worth, we connected to the PR4100 through our cell phone hotspot and were able to get around 25MBps.

The PR4100 isn’t all work and no play. In a home entertainment environment, it can act as a media server, for example. For testing, we set it up as a Plex server, streaming movies to multiple Roku boxes, desktops, and laptops throughout the home. We found that the unit had enough juice to handle four streams simultaneously without any issue. Any more than four and the unit would take longer to load a stream and even stutter on with weak connections. But for most homes this should be plenty. The PR4100 also supports DLNA and iTunes media streaming to compatible devices.

The Photographer’s Friend?

What the PR4100 isn’t good for is primary storage that you need to access frequently. It’s really meant to function as a backup solution. We wouldn’t recommend storing something like an Adobe Lightroom catalog on it, or files that you plan to work on, for example; that’s better served with a desktop-class external hard drive connected directly to a computer. It makes more sense to have your archived images or files stored on the PR4100 –data that you may need access to from anywhere, but only occasionally.

That said, we did test running an Adobe Lightroom catalog off the PR4100. As expected, there were some slowdowns, particularly when loading up images. But it was still useful, despite the delays. If you needed to access a Lightroom catalog remotely, this would work — but it wouldn’t match having a Lightroom catalog on your computer or connected external HDD/SSD.

The PR4100 supports cloud storage systems like Dropbox and Adobe’s Creative Cloud, allowing you to backup data to and from those services on your PR4100. This is a great way to achieve a little redundancy with your files (having them saved not only on your personal cloud, but also offsite). This capability, while not perfect, is beneficial for photographers and videographers who need to be able to access images or video while traveling but don’t want to lug around a bevy of external drives. For photographers, this would be access to RAW files or a Lightroom catalog; for videographers maybe it’s access to your clips and being able to stream them via the Plex app. The possibilities here are great for traveling creatives.

For backup, WD includes two software options, Sync and Smartware Pro. The Sync software is more like a file history backup: you tell the software what files or folders you want synced with the PR4100 and then the software does all the lifting. If you accidentally delete a file, the software will automatically pull the most recent version back from the PR4100 into your synced folder. It can keep a specific file or folder in sync as well, which may be too simplistic for some, but if you work within its limits you can have fast access to your data on your computer. One example of this: keep the folder that your Lightroom Catalog is in synced with the PR4100. That way you have fast access to it on local storage, but can also access it remotely. For Mac users, you can bypass the included software and utilize Time Machine in MacOS.

The Smartware Pro software is more advanced than Sync and gives users more control over what is being backed up to the PR4100. You can set your files to be synced automatically (so that the PR4100 always has the most up to date version of a given file) or you can set up the PR4100 to back up your files at set intervals (hourly daily, weekly, etc). Smartware Pro is definitely more of your traditional data backup solution, compared to the simpler file/folder based sync software.

With Plex support, it’s is as good of a home entertainment server as it is an office server.

The app isn’t difficult to use, but accessing data can be tricky if you don’t recall where you saved it on the device — an issue you can have with any cloud data service, of course. If multiple people (family or coworkers) need to access the PR4100, you can set them up with their own accounts, which then also separates out special folders for them to use. Navigation of the app is simple and snappy, especially on the same network as the PR4100. If you are accessing it externally, you may have a few slowdowns or hiccups, but overall the experience is painless. WD really did well in this regard.

You can’t manage the PR4100 completely from the mobile app, but you can add users, see the storage utilization, and view recent activity. If you do want to update your Plex server or install one of the various other available apps (WordPress, Dropbox, Joomla, PHPBB, PHPMyAdmin, etc.), you’ll need to access the PR4100 control panel from a web browser. It would have been nice to have complete management access from within the app, but what you can do is sufficient for most people.

Another thing to consider is the security available with this NAS. When you initially set up the unit and choose which RAID configuration to use, you choose whether to encrypt your drives. Add to that the ability for individual user accounts to access only specific parts of the PR4100, and this is more than secure enough for most uses. WD also has an Antivirus app that you can install onto the PR4100 that scans and monitors the data on the drives to prevent infections.

Our Take

The PR4100 is an incredibly solid NAS: It’s powerful and upgradable for professional use, while at the same time simple enough for non-techies. And the latter part is a key piece to this product: It just works, and be it for home or office, or a little bit of both, the PR4100 offers an experience anyone can enjoy.

Is there a better alternative?

The PR4100 is WD’s top of the line NAS right now, and it faces stiff competition from the likes of Drobo, Synology, QNAP, and Netgear. Whether there are better alternatives depends on your desired use; if you’re looking for a Plex media server, then the WD is your best option right now with built-in transcoding. But if you are simply looking for a personal cloud of data storage, other options will work just as well and will likely be cheaper. The PR4100 has simple setup and ease of use on its side. If you are a creative pro, you want a product that requires no fuss and works out of the box.

How long will it last?

The PR4100 is built solidly and the WD Red drives that it uses are known for their reliability and longevity. This unit should last for years, although hard drives can fail. Here’s where RAID’s redundancy comes in handy: Even if a drive goes down, replacing it is easy and the unit will continue to function with minimal performance hits. Expect a very long life.

Should you buy it?

We think that the PR4100 is a great option for creative professionals and home users who want or need the advantages of a personal cloud and home NAS but don’t necessarily have the techy background. If you fall into that category, then yes, the PR4100 is a product that we recommend.

WD has built a product that lives in the crossroads of performance and usability, being powerful enough to handle the workloads required of a pro with the simplicity required to set it up and use without help or hassle.

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