Starting at $1,199.99 (~£815) for 4TB, the Seagate BlackArmor 440 is arguably the most affordable high-capacity, high-end NAS server. Our Editors' Choice winner, the Synology DS209+, comes with no storage and costs £339.95. Although it's designed for the business environment, the BlackArmor 440 is also well suited for the home, provided you have enough networking knowledge (this device is not the easiest NAS to set up and manage).
A downside to the BlackArmor is that its write speed could be better compared with its read speed. However, once set up, this NAS box offers very fast read throughput rates, hassle-free remote access, great expandability and a vast amount of storage capacity — up to 8TB and beyond in due course. The device is sold in 2TB, 4TB and 6TB capacities. Currently, you'll need to supply your own drives to reach 8TB as Seagate hasn't released that model yet.
Seagate's BlackArmor 440 is a 4-bay NAS box with a current maximum capacity of 8TB.
Design & setup
The BlackArmor NAS 440 has a bold-looking design with four bays on its front and a top that protrudes further, showing off its tiny LCD. Each bay can hold one SATA hard drive of any capacity, meaning that currently the device can hold up to 8TB of storage. Currently, the device comes in three versions: with two hard drives (2TB, which Seagate sells as the BlackArmor 420) or with all four bays populated (4TB or 6TB). You can completely replace these hard drives yourself, without any tools, and also hot-swap any hard drive when the device is in operation in case of hard-drive failure. Seagate recommends you only use its hard drives and only provides technical support when you use its hard drives. However, the device works with SATA hard drives from any vendor.
Considering its large size, the BlackArmor's fan is surprisingly quiet. Also, it's the first NAS server we've seen that lets you replace its cooling fan. This is a useful feature, because over time the fans tend to collect dust, become noisier or simply stop working.
The BlackArmor's cooling fan is user-replaceable, which is unusual.
The back of the BlackArmor carries two Gigabit Ethernet ports and three USB ports, with another USB port on the front for convenient thumbdrive connectivity. The device supports both USB external storage devices and printers. A small LCD on the front displays the status of the USB-connected device, providing information such as IP address, link status, data, time and so on. On the right side of the LCD are two navigation buttons that we found rather confusing to use at first, as they are not labelled. The BlackArmor's backup solution is based on Acronis' excellent True Image and comes with a licence for 10 computers. One of its more useful features is the capability to quickly recover a crashed computer by booting from the included software CD that lets you perform a complete system recovery from a backup contained on the BlackArmor NAS.
Thanks to the included discovery software utility, setting up the BlackArmor is a simple task. Once you have everything setup, the utility assists in finding the NAS server on the network and will let you map network drives to its two default share folders: 'public' and 'download'. Fortunately, the utility isn't needed to access the NAS as it fully supports SMB protocol and can be easily found using Windows Explorer.
You can also use the discovery utility to launch the BlackArmor's web interface, but this is where the simplicity ends. Unfortunately, you'll need to work out a lot by yourself as we found the NAS server's manual rather scant on details.
Although it lacks support for IP cameras, the BlackArmor 440/420 NAS server has a long list of features. In this review, we touch on only those we found significant or unique to this device.
The BlackArmor has a standard user account management. By default, the device comes with an 'Admin' account that lets you log in and create other user accounts. This default account has administrative privileges, but it doesn't include all of the features of a user-created account. For example, you won't be able to use the Admin account to access the NAS remotely over the internet. This is confusing since most, if not all, NAS servers, give the 'Admin' account the same (or more) access to features as it does regular accounts.
Once a new user account has been created, you can assign it different access privileges for each share folder. Also, placing a user account in a group automatically gives it the access privileges of that group. Aside from public share folders, each user account has a private share folder of its own, and if you have an office with a centralised server, the BlackArmor 440/420 NAS can be set to work as a domain member. Again, this part requires you to understand Windows server's Active Directory as well as other advanced user account management to set up.
The NAS offers four ways to set up the hard drive: RAID 0, Span, RAID 5, and RAID 10. At least three hard drives are necessary for RAID 5 and all four for RAID 10 — a combination of RAID 1 and RAID 0. Setting up a RAID configuration proved extremely fast on the BlackArmor. In our test using four 1TB hard drives, we built all four drive configurations. RAID 5, which was the longest build duration, took about an hour to build. Other NAS servers we've tested can take up to 10 hours or even longer for a similar setup. Although the RAID setup is just a one-time process, this really helps cut down the time you need to get the server up and running. Nonetheless, if you buy a BlackArmor 440, it's likely that it will come with RAID 5 preconfigured.
With built-in digital media and iTunes servers, the BlackArmor can automatically stream music, video and photos to compatible devices, including computers, set-top boxes and game consoles. To share these types of files, simply place them in their appropriate folder within the default 'Public' share folder. For example, if you want to share music via iTunes, place the music files in the 'Our Music' folder, which is inside the 'Public' share folder. Then, you can set the intervals that the server will automatically scan for new music to add to the share, ranging from every five minutes to once a day. We tried this out and it worked very well.
The BlackArmor NAS server has support for Network File System that lets the system administrator store resources in a central location on the network, providing authorised users continuous access to them. It can work as an FTP, HTTP and secure HTTPS server. It also has support for Dynamic DNS through dyndns.com, meaning you can set up the servers to work over the internet for free with an easy-to-remember address.
Like most high-end NAS servers, the BlackArmor supports self-downloading with its Downloader Management feature. This lets you run three download jobs at a time and, in our test, the feature worked well with web sites that require authentication. You can also schedule the download jobs to run at a particular time — for example at night — to avoid bandwidth congestion.
Apart from FTP and HTTP servers, the BlackArmor also comes with a very convenient way for people to access its data securely over the internet via Seagate's free Global Access solution. This method of remote access was introduced first with the Maxtor Central Axis NAS server and the BlackArmor brings it up a notch.
The BlackArmor supports multiple Global Access accounts, one for each user account on the NAS. For example, User1 can create a Global Access account, then log into the NAS server via its web interface to associate his or her Global Access account with the user account on the NAS. Then, User1 can go to the Global Access web site and access a private folder as well as public folders on the BlackArmor from anywhere in the world. User2, User3, and so on and all do this simultaneously. Seagate suggests that the BlackArmor can support up to 50 users in this way.
If logged into the NAS from a remote location, you can transfer files back and forth between the remote computer and the NAS server. Although this vendor-assist method of remote access is nothing new, Seagate's Global Access does allow for easy copying of entire folders from the NAS server to the remote computer. You won't be able to simply drag and drop the folder; instead, once you've selected a folder to download, the NAS server will compress that folder into a ZIP file and you'll need to decompress it once it's downloaded. This helps the file download faster and since Windows (and Mac OS X) support ZIP file natively, we didn't see this as a big hassle.
Backup and dual-Gigabit Ethernet
The BlackArmor by far offers the best backup solutions we've seen in a NAS server. The wizard-based backup software allows for a long list of backup options including incremental and differential backups. You can restore data by running a restore wizard, by booting using the included CD or by mounting the backups into a virtual hard drive and copying data using Windows Explorer.
Other than being the destination to store the backups of network computers, the NAS also comes with many options to back up itself including: NAS to USB and NAS to NAS. The first one allows for backing itself up to USB external hard drives and the latter means you can back up one BlackArmor NAS to another. Either of these options can be used without a computer, at any time — manually or automatically.
The server supports external hard drives formatted using FAT32 and NTFS file systems, allowing you to simply plug any existing USB drive into the NAS and immediately share its files. The NAS can also format external hard drives using the FAT32 file system, regardless of the drive's capacity. This is really useful as Windows only allows you to format a hard drive that's smaller than 32GB using FAT32.
The BlackArmor 440 NAS server comes with two Gigabit Ethernet ports. These ports, apart from allowing for the linking of multiple units together for NAS to NAS backup, can also be used for aggregation. Currently, the NAS only works well with the Fail Over Aggregation option, where if one port stops working, the other will kick in immediately to prevent interruption; however, Seagate has suggested it will release a firmware update to allow the two ports to work together, increasing the throughput speed.
We tested the BlackArmor 440 in all three of its supported RAID configuration and were pleased with its scores. Although its write speed was consistently much lower than its read speed, its overall performance trumped most NAS servers we've reviewed and trailed only behind our Editors' Choice Synology DS209+.
In RAID 0 (which is optimized for performance), its write speed was a fast 179.7Mbps, while the write speed achieved a very fast 334.0Mbps. At these speeds, you could copy 500MBs from your computer to the NAS in 22 seconds and copy it back in another 12 seconds.
In RAID 5 (which is the recommended configuration as it balances data safety and available storage), the NAS's write performance was slightly lower, as expected, at 145Mbps, but the read speed was slightly faster at 336.6Mbps, which was unexpected.
In its RAID 10 configuration (which is the combination of RAID 0 and RAID 1), the BlackArmor offered 160.2Mbps on the write test and 310.6Mbps on the read test.
Overall, the BlackArmor 440/420 posted excellent data transfer rates; however, we wish the gap between its write and read score weren't as huge. The Synology DS209+, for example, had a RAID 0 write speed of 256.3Mbps, significantly closer to its read speed, of 375Mbps. It's very normal, however, for a storage device to offer a higher read speed than write speed.
The BlackArmor 440 worked quietly in our test. However, we happened to run into a very unusual situation where the NAS didn't work well at all. It was when we used it with one of our test routers, the D-Link DIR-825. In this case, the BlackArmor's web interface was very sluggish and its throughput performance was extremely slow, especially in RAID 0 configuration. The reason for this strange behaviour was inconclusive and was the first time we've experienced this. Also, we don't know if it will happen to another DIR-825. Nonetheless, we hope Seagate will work this out and have it fixed with the next firmware update. We tested the BlackArmor 440 NAS server with its initial firmware, version 4000.0181.
Service & support
Seagate supports the BlackArmor 440 NAS server with a decent three-year warranty, which is much more than the one-year warranties many other NAS servers provide. Telephone support is available, and you can email technical support via a web form. Seagate's support web site offers installation and troubleshooting assistance, a download library, a knowledgebase and a drive troubleshooter.
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