Thecus 5-bay NAS units have always been an odd fit in the Thecus product family. The 4-bay N4800, the NAS we call the best consumer / SOHO NAS on the market today, offers more features, one less drive bay, but a higher price than the N5550.
Moving up the scale, Thecus has the N7510, a 7-bay unit that costs considerably more than the N5550. To help blur the product family, Thecus has three five bay units on its website and all three look nearly identical.
The N5550 uses an Intel Atom processor, but just as important, ships with 2GB of DDR3 RAM. Thecus also ships the N4800 with 2GB, twice as much DRAM as most products in its price category. The N5550 is also a price leader in the 5-bay market, but costs a little more than the N5200xxx and N5500, both from Thecus as well.
The extra expense isn't just a generation upgrade without additional features. The N5550 brings USB 3.0, HDMI output, twice the amount of DRAM and audio in/out capabilities.
Before we get too far into the specs, let's have a look at the spec list so I don't leave anything out.
Specifications, Availability and Pricing
Modern NAS servers have moved well beyond data storage through a network. In order to get the most out of a NAS you have and look at the extra hardware and software features. The Thecus N5550 offers a good mix of features on both of these fronts.
On the hardware side the Thecus N5550 is an impressive unit that comes in at a very good price point. At the heart of the N5550 is an Intel Atom D2550 processor and it's paired with class leading RAM capacity - 2GB of DDR3.
Five HDD bays make up the main storage, but four USB 2.0 ports, a USB 3.0 port as well as eSATA offer room for expansion even further. The lone USB 3.0 port is on the front of the NAS behind the front door. We would have liked to have seen dual USB 3.0 ports on the back of the unit as well.
HDMI connectivity is the new buzz feature on NAS products at the moment, but making use of full HD video coming out of NAS products is still a challenge. The thought is we'll have media center like features in NAS appliances and servers in the future. Thecus is well on its way with a number of TV tuners supported, but without a handheld remote control, the feature is still a niche not lived up to its full potential. Given Thecus' heavy tablet and smartphone app list, it won't be long before your iPad and phone become a remote control for on-screen video features. UPDATE: Thecus just announced a new remote control features as I was going back over the review for the last time. Bonus!
Even with the heavy software features built into the N5550, the main task of any NAS is still data storage. Getting data to your NAS is easy with the two built in gigabit Ethernet ports. These ports can be used a number of way including 803.11ad "teaming" to increase data throughput.
At the time of writing, Provantage had the Thecus N5550 in stock for just $450.46. That's a significant price reduction when compared to the 4-bay N4800 that shows up in Google Shopping for $625. Provantage's website shows 60 units in stock and to be honest I really surprised they have any left at that price.
NAS products are an equal balance between hardware specifications and software features. Together, one compliments the other and a well-rounded product immerges.
It's been a while since we published a deep dive article on Thecus' software. You can view the last one at this link.
At this time I don't think it would even be possible to write an all inclusive article on Thecus' software features and have it considered current for more than a few days. Every week we receive email updates from Thecus about new additions to the software, compatibility and module features.
While putting the final changes on this review an email arrived announcing Thecus's new remote control feature for the local display (HDMI video out) feature.
Thecus ships the N5550 in a double box package. We removed the outer box since it was a bit dirty from shipping and didn't want to get clean the photo tent again. The inner box is just a brown box with a few informational stickers on it.
Even though the N5550 doesn't ship in a full color package you still get a bit of info from the stickers.
The NAS is secure in the boxes by dense foam that keeps at least two inches of form on each corner. Generally, when large packages are damaged it's from a drop on the corner. It would take quite a fall to damage the N5550 in the box.
The N5550 ships with a nice Quick Installation Guide, Warranty Card and three software disks. On the disks you'll find Acronis True Image, Twonky Media Server and an addition disk with full manuals.
The Thecus N5550 is a small office NAS that also happens to be perfect for our core audience for home use. Thecus only ships one Ethernet cable, but the NAS is capable of dual gigabit operation with the right switch. You also get screws for installing drives, keys for locking the sleds and a power cable.
Thecus N5550 NAS
If the N5550 looks familiar, that's because Thecus used the same case for a few other products as well. When we reviewed the N5500 in 2009 we found it to be an amazing NAS with best in class performance. The N5550 looks nearly identical on the outside, but has new 2012 features.
The front door hides the drive bays and makes the N5550 appealing for home users. Beyond the door we found the five drive bays, power and reset buttons. The N5550 also has a row of status LEDs along the top just about the single USB 3.0 port on the front.
At the bottom, Thecus has a status display panel with manual settings adjustments for some of the most used settings.
The N5550 can only use SATA drives; the backplane is not keyed for SAS connectors.
The side with a motherboard under the cover has an open vent to cool the components.
The opposite side appears open, but it's covered with a film on the inside.
The N5550 uses a large fan to cool the HDDs and the power supply has a fan as well. The system is quiet and you can use it on your desk if you need to have it close by your work space.
The internal power supply means you don't have to worry about an external power brick.
The N5550 has a microphone and line level input as well as line level output on the back. An eSATA connector is next two four USB 2.0 ports.
We've seen VGA connectors on NAS servers for years, but HDMI capability is new for 2012.
Dual gigabit Ethernet ports bridge the gap between a typical home NAS to a more powerful small business unit.
The cover comes off very easy with preinstalled thumb screws so you can easily upgrade the RAM inside the NAS.
Inside we found a single DOM and this nice little add on that's undocumented. It's an mSATA slot. This has me wondering if a Windows Home Server unit wasn't on the drawing board at some time.
The N5550 ships with 2GB of DDR3 RAM. This is twice what many of Thecus' competitors' uses in similarly priced units.
Test System Setup
The Intel NAS Performance Toolkit (NASPT) is a file system exerciser and analysis tool designed to enable direct measurement of home network attached storage (NAS) performance. Designed to emulate the behavior of an actual application, NASPT uses a set of real world workload traces gathered from typical digital home applications. Traces of high definition video playback and recording, office productivity applications, video rendering/content creation and more provide a broad range of different application behaviors.
- RAID Level Description
JBOD: Combine multiple drives and capacities into one drive.
RAID 0: Normally used to increase performance and useful for setups such as large read-only NFS servers where mounting many disks is time-consuming or impossible and redundancy is irrelevant.
RAID 1: Create an exact copy (or mirror) of a set of data on two or more disks. This is useful when read performance or reliability are more important than data storage capacity.
RAID 5: Use block-level striping with parity data distributed across all member disks.
RAID 6: Extend RAID 5 by adding an additional parity block; thus it uses block-level striping with two parity blocks distributed across all member disks.
RAID 10: A Stripe of Mirrors. Multiple RAID 1 mirrors are created and a RAID 0 stripe is created over these.
RAID 50: Combines the straight block-level striping of RAID 0 with the distributed parity of RAID 5.
RAID 60: Combines the straight block-level striping of RAID 0 with the distributed double parity of RAID 6.
Western Digital RED - The NAS HDD
TweakTown uses Western Digital RED 1TB hard drives for all of our NAS server tests. You can read our full review of the Western Digital RED 1TB in this article.
Benchmarks - HD Playback
HD Video Play - 720p HD stream from Windows Media Player* 256kB reads
2HD Video Play - 2x playback
4HD Video Play - 4x playback
Today we're comparing the Thecus N5550 that costs around $560 to the QNAP TS-860 Pro that costs double that amount and holds eight drives compared to the N5550's five. On the surface it doesn't sound like a fair comparison, but the Thecus N5550 performs so well the needed a product with a little more muscle to compare it to.
With five bays, the Thecus N5550 works best with RAID 5, but RAID 6 is still an option. All of our tests are with five drives installed in the N5550 except RAID 10, a architecture that needs en even number of drives, so RAID 10 on the N5550 is with four drives. The QNAP TS-869 Pro runs eight drives in all tests.
In the HD Playback tests we scale through one, two and four video files coming from the NAS. With just a single drive installed we see the Thecus N5550 showing it's high performance and pushes the data out 10MB/s faster than the QNAP. The Thecus unit continues to outperform the QNAP until we get to RAID 5. At RAID 5 things start to level out, but at RAID 6 the QNAP unit takes the lead.
Benchmarks - HD Record
HD Video Record - 720p HD stream, 256kB writes
HD Video Play & Record - 1 playback, 1 record simultaneously
2x HD Video Play & 2x Record - 2 playback, 2 record simultaneously
The Thecus N5550 ships with 2GB of DDR3 RAM and the QNAP only ships with 1GB. Again we see the Thecus perform really well. The NAS slows a bit in some of the tests at RAID 5, mainly when recording and playing back data at the same time.
I wouldn't say it's a double the price / performance reduction.
Benchmarks - Content
Photo Album - All reads - wide distribution of sizes
Office Productivity - Reads and writes, 1kB & 4kB reads; Mostly 1kB writes
Content Creation - 95% writes; 1k, 4k & little reads; Writes up to 64kB
The content creation and photo album tests are two of the most difficult tests for a NAS to perform quickly. These tests are also why we wanted to put these two units against each other for this comparison.
The N5550 in RAID 5, the most commonly used RAID type in smaller NAS units, outperformed the 869 Pro in RAID 5 and keeps pace in RAID 6.
Benchmarks - Copy
Directory Copy From NAS - 64kB reads
Directory Copy To NAS - Predominantly 64kB writes, wide scattering under 16kB
File Copy From NAS - 4GB file copy, 64kB reads
File Copy To NAS - 64kB writes
Even with all of the additional features now included in modern day NAS units, transferring data is still the number one used function.
In RAID 5, we see these two units each take two of the benchmarks and the margins of victory are very close.
I hate starting out final thoughts to a review with pricing, but the Thecus N5550 is really strong in this area. The rest of the conclusion will build off the points I make about pricing. I put together a little chart (above) that shows all of the players in the 5-bay category and also included the Thecus N4800, the best and most feature rich 4/5-bay NAS on the market today. We really love the built-in UPS on the N4800, a feature Thecus didn't include on the N5550.
All of the prices are from Google Shopping at the time of writing and all taken within 10 minutes of each other. The Thecus N5550 shares the lowest price with the Thecus N5200xxx, an older model with Intel's previous generation Atom processor. Both of these units come in at $450. The N5500, the unit replaced by the new N5550 we're reviewing today is a little more expensive, but still has high availability according to Google.
Two models ship with 2GB of RAM, the N4800 and the review unit today, the N5550. The N5550 has five drive bays, the N4800 only has four, but the N4800 ships with a faster processor and that certainly plays into the higher price of the N4800 along with the dual display, one being OLED. The N5550 ships with the D2550 Atom processor, but as we saw today in the benchmark charts, the Intel D2550 is a very capable processor and handles network traffic very well. Most users will not notice the different in clock speed when going from 1.86GHz to 2.13GHz. The increase is about the same as the same clock speed on your desktop or notebook. If you're downloading Linux distros via Usenet the difference between these processors in the PAR check and RAR decompress action is around 10 seconds with the advantage going to the D2700 in the N4800. Since this action isn't taking place on your desktop you won't notice the small delay.
Now that we've established the Thecus N5550 as the best value on the market today let's take it a step further. For some the processor speed may still be an issue. In our benchmark charts today we compared the N5550 to the QNAP TS-869 Pro, a NAS that costs $1048 and runs eight drives. The Thecus N5550 ran with the TS-869 Pro and even outperformed that NAS in many tests. Thecus managed to do this with its programming / software and turning it into an efficient system. When you have efficiency you have more clock cycles free so your system runs faster, it's not much different than optimizing your desktop for performance by disabling all of the Windows features, services and such that suck up CPU cycles. If you are good with Linux I'm sure you could go in and do the same thing on any number of NAS units, but Thecus' software already has the magic configuration right out of the box.
I would love to finish this review without touching on the new A/V features, but I don't want to get that email from Thecus. The N5550, along with other new NAS products from Thecus and others have HDMI out, Line Level In/Out and Microphone In capabilities. While writing this Thecus announced its new remote app, a feature we knew was coming. I like the new A/V capability for what it is, but I'm not sold on putting my Must Never Lose data in the living room or in a common area in the office. If you have kids, you know exactly what I mean. Actually, if you have people over to your house that don't live there, you know what I mean, too. Let's even change that to, if you have anyone in your house other than you, bad things can happen to your NAS.
"Hey Chris, did you know you could slide these things out really fast and feel the gyro effect... that's cool!"
While the HDMI feature is a big leap for Thecus, they've made steady progress in all areas of the N5550. As mentioned in the review, almost every week we get email updates of its progress and that's possibly the most exciting thing about Thecus products. You buy one today for data storage and next week you're using it to do other tasks.