These days we are getting used to carrying more and more data around with us. It is the videos to keep the four year old happy, that wireframe I’m working on for my course or just the thousand pictures I have taken in the last week away. It is possible to keep all of this in the cloud but this can expensive in data and battery power and is inherently slower and less private.
A NAS (Network Attached Storage) drive is effectively a hard disk drive that is on your local network. Add a battery and a wifi hub for connectivity and there it is – storage space to carry with you. The Buffalo MiniStation Air 2 puts all this together and is available in a compact package in either 500gb or 1TB sizes.
The Air 2 is a small grey box with a single button on the front and a button on the top. It connects to your PC via a USB 3.0 cable and the internal battery charges via a proprietary cable or via USB. Unusually it also has a power out USB port on its side that allows it to be used as an external battery for your smart phone or tablet.
From a security perspective the Air 2 comes with WPA2 already turned on and with a unique password printed on the back of the unit. This is switchable off or to WEP via the smartphone app but the password cannot be changed. An unfortunate side effect of this is that anyone who can physically see the bottom of the Air 2 can get your password. The Air’s apps also allow a pass through internet connection – connect to the Air 2 with your phone and the Air 2 can connect to your wifi or mifi so that you still have internet access.
External Hard disk
As soon as I unpacked the Air 2 I could use it as an external hard disk. Plug it into a USB 3.0 (or 2.0) port and it can be used just like any other external hard disk. Buffalo claim a maximum data transfer rate of 5000 Mbit/s which is around 625 Megabytes per second (MB/s). In my testing I generally found it closer to around 95MB/s write times and 105MB/s. The difference is academic – in the vast majority of applications the speed it attained will be more than enough.
One of the Air 2’s biggest selling points is that it lets you stream your media from it. This can be pictures, music or videos, but all need to go via Buffalo’s app.
Pictures are straightforward. Both the iOS and Android apps let me view either all the pictures on the device or the Air 2, auto upload or play slide shows.
Music supports streaming of MP3s from the Air 2 to the device. Songs can be sorted by artist, album or genre and you can create your own playlists. There is also a search function as well as repeat and shuffle and the player does not need to remain in the foreground to keep streaming music. In all the player is basic but does what it does reasonably well.
Playing back video files with the apps was rather more hit and miss depending on their format. H264 and MPEG4 play fine on iOS but broke up and dropped frames regularly on Android. MKV files refused to play on iOS and without audio on Android. Divx was unpredictable everywhere with some files playing perfectly and others not at all. It was reliably broken or not though – if it worked it always worked. There were workarounds – if you download the video file from the Air 2 to the phone or tablet you can reliably use a third party player such as VLC. It’s a little clunky but it does work. I also encountered problems trying to stream very large video files, no matter what the format. Anything over about 3 gigabyte was problematic at best.
Do not let all the qualifiers in the last paragraph bother you. The Air 2 handles streaming of video reliably in most cases if you can give it the correct format of file. Videos can be converted if you do not have the right format on hand so that when you travel, the content is ready for use. Buffalo states that the Air 2 can handle up to 8 connections and three simultaneous video streams and I’ve had two streams and 5 connections at once with no problems.
The Air 2 software allows you to back up your images to its hard disk. This feature worked perfectly for me on iOS but initially did not work at all on Android. After a little experimentation I figured out the issue – it only auto uploads from the internal storage. My phone is a HTC One M8 that has a microSD card and I have my photos set to be stored on it rather than the internal memory. As soon as I moved some photos across to the internal memory the auto upload started working for those photos.
The Ministation runs on its own internal battery and Buffalo have added one extra capacity – a power out USB port. Plug the mobile phone or tablet into it and you can use it as an external battery. The total battery capacity of the Ministation is only 3020 mAh which is considerably less than most external batteries. This charge is also used to run the Air 2’s hard disk and wifi network so you need to be careful not to overuse it or you may find yourself without your NAS.
The Air 2 has uses as a backup device, an external battery and as a external hard disk on a computer, but its main strength is as a travelling streaming video and music storage centre. Do you travel a lot and want to carry your TV with you? Do you travel with children who enjoy their own media whilst away? You are the target audience.
The Air 2 is a multifunction device out of the box but I found one extra use for it that I’ve not seen before. My office is somewhat separated from our main house. I have the internet via ethernet but there is rather poor wifi signal for my phone. I discovered if I gave the Air 2 my wifi details and then put it half way in between me and the wifi router it would act as a booster. My phone connects to the Air 2 and the Air 2 connects to the wifi hub and passes data back and forth.
Buffalo has a very clear and extensive environmental policy which can be found here. They are part of a number of worldwide and local schemes and are actively looking to reduce packaging, decrease energy usage of their products and innovate environmentally friendly technology.
Size: 15 x 8.5 x 1.8 cm
Capacity: 500gb or 1TB
Item Weight: 250g
Material: Plastic and metal
Connectivity: USB 3.0 USB 2.0 compatible
Wi-Fi: 802.11 n 2.4Ghz capable
Battery Capacity : 3.7V 3020mAh
Charging Input: DC 5c 2A
Warranty: 3 years
The Air 2 is designed to work with either an Android or iOS smartphone or tablet and the apps require Android 2.3 or later an iOS 6 or later. Firmware updates are applied via the apps. When used as an external hard disk drive it will work with almost any system including multiple versions of Windows, Linux and OSX. It is possible to connect to the Air 2 from a laptop via wifi using SAMBA but while Buffalo have not locked this down (user name and password of Admin!) they have not made it accessible to the average user.
The Air 2 has four LEDs on it. These show power – is it turned on? Wifi – is the wifi on? WPS Pin – is it looking for a someone trying to connect with a Pin and is the Air 2 charging.
To switch on the Air 2 as a battery press the button for 1 second and the USB out port starts putting out power. To switch on the wifi network and make the NAS available press and hold the button for three seconds. To switch off press and hold for three seconds. Even if you have poor vision and cannot see the LEDs you could switch on and off by remembering one or three seconds. If you have hypersensitivity you could cover the LEDs up.
The apps are somewhat standard on both Android and iOS. They use predominantly dark grey text on a light grey background with red text to show highlighted options. Both apps work reasonably well with the system accessibility options including magnifiers and screen readers.
There is no use of color as a single indicator at any point except for the batter indicator. This shows green if the battery is at 100% and red if it is not. The is no flash or bright or potentially problematic graphics or colors.
The Air 2 has no audio component. It has no inbuilt speakers or microphone and the app does not use audio at any point. When playing videos I have not been able to get subtitles to appear with the app, but was able to get around this by downloading the video file and subtitle file to my phone and then playing locally with another player.
The Air 2 is silent in use. When the hard disk is being accessed you can feel it spin if you hold it but it does not generate any noise.
Input and touch
The Air 2’s hardware is solid feeling but somewhat smooth in the hands. It should be noted that the hard disk is a spinning magnetic one that is not particularly hardened – in other words drop it while its in use and there is a good chance of a head impacting which might damage the disk. I would recommend having it on a stationary surface when in use.
The buttons are small but not tiny and require being pushed in and held for three seconds to switch on the wifi network. This is something that should not have to be done more than once per use and could be done with the blunt end of a pen or pencil for example.
The apps are standard Android and iOS and work with both operating systems accessibility options.
Ease of Use
The Air 2 is not the easiest device I have ever setup. The details are different depending on whether you use Android or iOS but in general I found it went like this: download the app, switch on the Air 2, load the app, go to the settings and add the Air’s wifi network to the list of known wifi networks, go to the app, add my normal wifi network to the app’s settings and then use.
After I had it setup I found it straightforward to use, although Android does report it as an unstable network regularly. It is possible to switch this warning off in most versions of Android, but not apparently in my HTC Sense skinned Lollipop.
Cognitive, language and math
Setup needs a reasonable understanding of how wifi networks work, but Buffalo has provided a simple flow chart which takes you through setup in a flow chart dependent on your particular system. It is as clear as it could reasonably be, but it is a complex task that can only be simplified so far.
Once setup is done then the apps are straightforward to use. My four year old was able to turn on the Air 2, get to the right app on the iPad, switch wifi networks when prompted and then load up her video.
There is no social interaction with the Air 2. It is possible not to setup (or disable) the pass through internet connection which would have the effect of deliberately knocking you offline but retaining access to your videos or data. This could be very useful if you wanted a fenced off experience for a child or if you simply did not want to be disturbed.
Trigger warnings & age ratings
The Air 2 has no relevant age ratings and is not likely to trigger users, however as it is a device that can stream video there is always the possibility of triggers within videos.
Retailer: Amazon for £107.82
The Buffalo Ministation Air 2 is not the cheapest wifi NAS on the market and is certainly not the cheapest external hard disk. In fact it is considerably more expensive on a cost per megabyte basis than most. It does however have a well designed app, the ability to charge other devices and a nice classy design. Perhaps more importantly it has a 3 year warranty which for a device designed to go with you is very nice.
The Air 2 comes in two sizes – 500gb and 1TB. It is indicative that the 500gb version is available on writing for £107 on Amazon and the 1tb version for £112. For an extra £5 you get an extra 500gb. If you buy the Air 2 make sure to get the larger version – an extra 500gb for £5 is a easy decision.
The Buffalo Ministation Air 2 is designed as on the go data storage and streaming device with a couple of extra features built-in. The device is solidly made and attractive and its three-year warranty is very appealing. On a cost per megabyte basis, even looking at the 1TB version the Air 2 is more expensive than most of the market but the extra features and warranty will balance this out for many users.
Recommended if you have kids to entertain on the go or need access to your data and if want the extra features and want the extra piece of mind that comes with a three-year warranty.
The review is based on the Buffalo MiniStation Air 2 500GB External Hard Drive kindly provided by Buffalo. The apps were tested on a HTC One M8, Nexus 5, Hudl2 and iPad Air