Belkin Network USB Hub

Belkin Network USB Hub

Belkin Network USB Hub

About a year ago I bought one of these gadgets, and despite the very obvious bugs in the software I was happy enough to score it a 3 out of 5 in an online review. In those days I was using it to share USB devices between two Windows XP PCs and the sheer convenience of not having to unplug certain devices from one machine and plug them in to the other went some way to making up for the various shortcomings this thing has.

Here’s a quick summary of what I had to say about it from the point of view of a Windows user:

  • Looks – neat. Same dimensions as a Mac Mini but about a quarter of the height.
  • Software – easy to install and configure, but buggy. No way to configure safe device removal. Can crash VPN software (e.g. AT&T client).
  • Performance – Ok for printing, downloading pictures off cameras. Very poor on USB hard drives, throttling speed to about 10% of what you get with a direct connection.
  • Compatibility – very hit & miss. No way to know if your device will work without trying it out.

Overall I said that if Belkin worked out the bugs and performance issues then they’d have a winner, but given those issues and the patchy device support I would be very cautious about recommending it.

Printer woes

Printer woes...

Since switching to using Macs, and given the fact that they haven’t addressed any of the bugs since I got this thing a year ago, I can safely say that I would not recommend this device at all. Unfortunately the one thing it seemed good at which was printer sharing, trying to print from my Mac via the hub is now a complete lottery as to whether or not it works. The general principle seems to be that if you want to print something ten you need to have your printer switched on and connected, before you launch the application on the Mac that you want to print from. Not really practical and not actually guaranteed to work either. All too often the hub will cause an error, in which case you then have to try and save what you want to print (not always possible), close the application, restart the printer and try again.

In addition to that, some devices that would connect to a Windows machine via the hub, won’t talk to a Mac when connected the same way. Here’s a table of what success or otherwise I’ve had.

What works, what doesn't.

What works, what doesn't!

If I’d bought this device today for use in a Mac environment I’d be asking for my money back. As it is, I had a reasonable amount of use from it for a year with my Windows machines, but there’s a good chance this little gadget will end up on eBay before long now!

Microphone for a Mac Pro

For a while now I’ve been wanting to use speech recognition on my Mac, and to be able to tell it to ‘Get my mail’ or to ‘Switch to Firefox’. The problem has been that the Mac Pro doesn’t come with a built-in microphone, and the built-in mike on my Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro, whilst fine for iChat and Skype, flatly refused to work with the Mac’s own speech recognition. So the search was on for a microphone that was guaranteed to work so that I could start talking to my computer, just like Scotty in Star Trek!

Now before we go any further, I must point out that I wasn’t in the market for a headset with a microphone on it. I figured that being attached to my Mac via a cable was going to be too restrictive and besides, I’ve already got a very nice set of speakers hooked up to the machine. Also, any thought of a wireless headset or even a bluetooth headset to perform this role were quickly dismissed, owing to the lack of evidence that they work with OS X.

So, having searched around in Google for a variety of ‘Mac USB Microphone Speech Recognition’ keywords, it became clear that there were no websites that stated categorically “this USB microphone works with the built-in Mac OS X speech recognition”, although I did start to find some likely candidates.

The MacMice MicFlex was mentioned on the MacSpeech Dictate website and I figured that if it was verified to work with their Voice Dictation software, then it would almost certainly work with the OS X feature. Unfortunately, tracking down a UK supplier selling them at a sensible price was another matter (I found one shop wanting £49.95 for it). I also spotted the Samson C01 (£54.99) and the Blue Snowflake USB (£49.98) on the Solutions Inc website, and as these guys are an Apple retailer I figured if they were selling mikes chances are they’d be sure to work on the Mac. I talked to one of their sales reps and while he said these were excellent devices for creating podcasts and working with things like GarageBand, they couldn’t guarantee they’d work with the built-in speech recognition simply because no customers had actually reported back that they did. Fair play to them as they weren’t about to sell me something they couldn’t guarantee would do the job.

Wasteful packaging

Wasteful packaging

In the end I decided to take a punt and just try out a ‘cheap’ Logitech USB microphone that retailed at Amazon UK for just £13.92, and with free delivery it arrived 3 days later. Once I’d disposed of the ridiculously unnecessary packaging, I was left with something that looked like it had escaped from a 1970’s B movie, but at this price what can you expect. Plugging it in, I opened up my System Preferences, found Speech and selected ‘AK5370’ as my input device. (AK5370 refers to the chipset used by the microphone). I then went in to the calibration settings and started talking, and guess what…. IT WORKS!!! Yep there you go Mac Pro owners, if you want a low-cost USB mike that works with the built-in OS X speech recognition feature then I can confirm the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone works.

However as is often the case in the computer world, this little story didn’t end on a high note. Yes, aside from the occassional misunderstanding (the Mac keeps launching FrontRow when I ask it to launch Firefox) the speech recognition is definitely a usable feature, and it’s quite fun to simply ask your Mac to do something and to see it respond. No the problem is that it seems there’s a bug with the speech recognition feature in OSX 10.5.x which is that it simply shuts itself off after a random period of time, and I’ve seen various posts from people complaining that this happens. I’m running OS X 10.5.5. and the only way I’ve found to restart it is to turn the feature off, turn it back on and re-calibrate it, at which point the little speech recognition ‘pad’ reappears on the desktop.

So close…..

Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M – Perfect? Not quite.

When it comes to paperwork I horde everything, convinced that some day I’ll need evidence of something to prove that I paid a utility bill fifteen years ago! The price I pay for this paranoia is three shelves of a bookcase groaning under the weight of thirty carefully organized A4 lever-arch files, stuffed with every last piece of paper that’s dropped through my letterbox. Now being technically minded I’ve known about scanners since they first appeared and I own a Canon CanoScan LiDE 25, but as a flatbed scanner, and a slow one at that, digitizing my collection of paper would probably have taken the rest of my (hopefully long and fruitful) life.

So there I was thumbing through the pages of MacWorld magazine when I saw it. A small, quick, colour, duplex scanner made specially for the Mac – the Fujitsu ScanSnap S300M. First job was to Google some reviews on it and the few results I found looked good. Second job was to find a UK supplier that stocked the thing, and I ended up going for The Mac Warehouse, and the painless online ordering system saw the scanner arrive on my doorstep the very next day. Unpacking it was pretty uneventful although I would make two ‘green’ observations at this point. Why wrap every single piece of wire in it’s own separate plastic bag, and why send me a 300 page manual when only 37 pages of it are in my language? It may cost Fujitsu less to print it that way, but what a waste of paper!

Unpacking complete, and the box safely stored in the loft (yes ok, I horde the packing too!) we’re in to setting it up and like most things with Macs these days it’s fairly intuitive, just install the software before you plug the scanner in. On that note I’d recommend that if you don’t plan on scanning lots of business cards, don’t bother installing the CardIris3 software. It’s the first piece of software that’s made my Mac act funny, causing it to become unresponsive for long periods during the install. The ScanSnap Manager software on the other hand installed with no problems at all. The version of ScanSnap Manager included was v2.2L10 and a link to where to find updates wasn’t obvious until after I’d installed that version, but to save you the hassle you can find the v2.2L11 update here. Another point to note is that this device can be AC or USB powered and in the case of the latter you’ll need two free USB ports. Scanning performance is supposed to be slower when it’s USB powered but I’ve only used it with the AC adapter supplied so I can’t vouch for that.

When it’s running, ready for you to scan something, the ScanSnap Manager icon just sits in the dock and offers a right-click shortcut menu to some simple scanning actions and your scanning preferences, or a left-click list of profiles to choose from. In the preferences you can set a default save path for output files, scanning options like quality, colour and simplex/duplex, output types (e.g. PDF), paper size and compression. There’s also an applications preference which lets you choose an application to handle the scanned results, but confusingly that option is greyed out if you’re scanning using what they call ‘Quick Menu’ mode. If you want to use an external application like Devon Agent Office Pro with the scanner then you have to switch to ‘Profile’ mode. I’ll try and explain the difference between the two modes as follows:

Quick Menu mode – either you choose simplex/duplex scan from the dock icon right-click menu or you press the scan button on the scanner and scanning starts. Once it’s complete, you’re presented with a menu of 4 options – Scan to folder, Scan to email, Scan to print or Scan to iPhoto. Depending on which you choose, you’re then presented with a list of options.

Profile mode – simply press the button on the scanner and once scanning has completed a ‘profile’ of settings and actions is invoked. For example, you might set up a profile to scan images, automatically rename the resulting images and then save them as individual PDF files to a specific folder.

ScanSnap Manager Settings

ScanSnap Manager Settings

So, you load up the sheet feeder with up to 10 sheets and off you go. The result is impressive, with a single sheet of A4 being scanned in around 10 seconds on the ‘best’ quality setting, and that includes scanning both sides if you’ve chosen duplex mode. Cranking the quality setting up to ‘excellent’ didn’t really produce any better results and slowed the scan process considerably, so I’ve stuck with using the ‘best’ setting. Accuracy is really good, sheets feed through without snagging or skewing and the resulting images were clear and easily readable. In fact, with an initial session of scanning where I fed over 700 pages through the scanner, the only time I got a mis-feed was when I inadvertently included two pages stapled together which understandably the scanner took exception to. So my first impression is that mechanically this is an excellent little gadget. If only the same were true of the software…

My first complaint is that setting up profiles is un-intuitive. There is a Profile Manager, but all it lets you do is to rename, delete or re-order your profile list, you cannot add or edit profiles from it – how dumb is that? In fact if you want to create a new profile you have to proceed as follows:

Turn off ‘Use Quick Menu’. Right-click the ScanSnap Manager icon and choose ‘Settings’. From the ‘Choose a profile’ menu at the top, pick ‘Add profile’ from the list. Give the profile a name. Work thruough each of the settings tabs to decide what options you want. Click the ‘Apply’ button. You now have a new Profile that will appear Profile Manager list and that you can select by left-clicking the ScanSnap Manager icon in the dock. Editing an existing profile is a case of opening the ScanSnap Manager settings, selecting a profile name in the ‘Select a profile’ menu, and then working through the settings tabs making the changes you want before clicking the Apply button. If it sounds confusing that’s because it is. There is no distinction between changing settings for a profile and changing them for Quick Menu mode, it boils down to whether you happen to have ‘Use Quick Menu’ ticked in the right-click menu at the time you’re changing your settings.

A Better Finder Rename

A Better Finder Rename

My next gripe is about the rename or ‘serialize’ option. The theory is that this lets you automatically rename a batch of images, so you might scan 50 pages (in 5 batches of 10 pages) and want the resulting 50 PDF files renamed something like ‘Utility Bill – 001’ through to ‘Utility Bill – 050’. Sounds logical, but it only works properly in Profile mode. If you try it in Quick Menu mode, then each batch resets the counter to 001 for some strange reason, so in this mode what’s missing is a way to control the sequence numbers that are tacked on to the end of the filenames. By default the software will name your files based on the date & time the pages were scanned, and in the end I resorted to using this default and then using A Better Finder Rename to do the re-naming honours.

While we’re on it, my next complaint is about how the S300M handles blank pages. When scanning in duplex mode you can choose to ‘ignore’ blank pages, ideal for sheets where only one side has been printed on. While this works fine for clean, un-creased paper, the results are not so good when using paper that’s been folded. So for example, when scanning A4 sheets that had been received by post and typically have two prominent folds across the page, the scanner assumed these represented markings on the page and duly scanned in these blank pages. To make matters worse, the ScanSnap Manager software, while showing you a preview of each page in a batch after it’s scanned them, annoyingly doesn’t let you delete or otherwise exclude these ‘blank’ pages from the subsequent processing. So, if you’re using the ‘Serialize’ rename function, then the blank pages will be included in your sequence whether you like it or not.

My final moan about the software is that even though you can set the destination folder for your saved scans, this is actually ignored and files are saved to the last folder that was used for saving output unless you remember to change it – a bug which caught me out a couple of times. Let’s say you have two profiles, one called Receipts which saves to a folder called Receipts, and another profile called Invoices which saves to a folder called (wait for it…) Invoices. You set these folders in the default settings for each profile, then you scan a load of receipts and save them in your Receipts folder. Now you switch to the Invoices profile and start scanning invoices, but first time through, the destination folder shows up as Receipts even though the profile default is to save to Invoices. Annoying huh? Anyway, enough of me bitching about the software, it’s starting to sound like I hate the thing!

Quick Menu mode

Quick Menu mode

Returning to Quick Menu mode, the ‘scan to email’ function works well enough, giving you the option to set the file name(s) in the same way as the ‘scan to folder’ process does, before invoking your default mail application and inserting the scanned image in-line. It would be nice if there was the option to simply attach the file rather than embed it in the email body, but you can always work around that by scanning to a folder and then manually attaching the scanned images to an email yourself. The ‘scan to print’ option does what it says on the can, giving you a basic photocopying feature, while the ‘scan to iPhoto’ is pretty much self-explanatory in that the scanned results are converted to images and imported to a new event in iPhoto.

So the bottom line is am I glad I bought this scanner, and how does it stack up against my Canon CanoScan LiDE 25 flatbed? Well it beats the Canon hands down on everything except of course the ability to scan stuff that simply won’t fit through an ADF scanner, but what about as a scanner in it’s own right? Well, build quality is excellent, the scanning mechanics are really clever and work reliably and the resulting images for documents, letters, etc., look great given this is only a 600×600 dpi scanner. What lets it down is the software, so Fujitsu if you’re listening here’s what you need to address:

  1. Make the Profile Manager intuitive – include a Create and an Edit function, and make the configuration of profiles distinct from configuring Quick Menu settings.
  2. Add a ‘check for updates’ feature to your software, it’s not that difficult.
  3. When previewing and processing scan results, provide the ability to drop blank pages that the scanner mis-reads as having something on them.
  4. Make the ‘Serialize’ feature a bit more intelligent when in Quick Menu mode by allowing the user to specify a starting number for the sequence instead of always defaulting to 1.
  5. Allow images to be attached rather then embedded in emails.
  6. Save paper and don’t ship huge manuals in multiple languages, seeing as I now have a nice paperback book 4/5ths of which I can’t even read.

This might sound like I’m having a real downer on the S300M when the truth is I’m still glad I bought it. Aside from the fact that I sometimes find myself using other utilities to do what the ScanSnap Manager software should do, the speed and accuracy of the scanning really does impress, and in hindsight I might even have bought the S510M just for added capacity and the OCR feature (if it works!). So if you’re looking to digitize a huge mountain of paper, I’d definitely recommend the ScanSnap S300M so long as you can forgive the quirky software.

PS – I could not get this device to connect to my Mac using the Belkin Network USB Hub, but it works fine when connected directly to the Mac. This is almost certainly the fault of the Belkin device which can be very flakey in a Mac environment.

Automatically mount a TrueCrypt volume at Login (Mac OS X tip)

Everyone these days is banging on at us about taking more care of our personal data, but we’re a lazy bunch you & me and like every other bit of advice we get, we tend to push it to the back of our minds unless it’s easy to follow. Securing your personal data is all very well, but quite frankly it can be a pain in the butt if every time you login to your Mac you have to launch a program and navigate through various options to get something done.

I’m just as guilty and having installed TrueCrypt on the Mac some months ago, I’d barely given it a second thought until I had to get it to automatically mount a volume on my Windows XP work laptop the other day. In Windows it’s a relatively straightforward taks to get TrueCrypt to run at startup and then automatically mount your ‘favourite’ volumes. Doing the same under Mac OS X took a little more effort! Yes Mac OS X can automatically mount network volumes if you simply drag the relevant icon into your User Account/Login items, but sadly this doesn’t seem to work for TrueCrypt volumes, so here we go…

For the purposes of this exercise I use the excellent Lingon utility to create an agent that runs when I login, but it should be just as easy to do this using a script, or even an Automator Action – the syntax of the actual command line will be the same.

Lingon details

Lingon details

Assuming you have already installed TrueCrypt in your Applications folder, create the volume you want mounted at login if you haven’t already done so. In my case I created a folder called Document_Store in the root of my ‘user’ folder, and then created a 2Gb TrueCrypt file called ‘docvault‘ inside it.  What you now need to do is work out the full pathname of your TrueCrypt file – in my case it’s:

/Users/macbitz/Document_Store/docvault

…where ‘macbitz’ is my user name, Document_Store is the name of the folder I created to hold my TrueCrypt files, and docvault being the name of the file I want to automatically mount.

Now fire up Lignon and click on the + button to create a new agent and choose User Agents from the list. First thing to do is to give your agent a name – in my case I called it ‘com.truecrypt.mount_docvault’ but you can call it whatever makes sense to you. Next step is to tell Lingon what application to run by using the ‘Choose’ button and navigating to where you installed the TrueCrypt application. Once you’ve done this, you should see some text in the ‘What’ box that looks something like:

/Applications/TrueCrypt.app/Contents/MacOS/TrueCrypt

…that’s Lingon telling your Mac what application to run. The next thing you need to do is add the parameters that tell TrueCrypt what it’s supposed to do. In our case we want TrueCrypt to mount a file called ‘docvault’ and to put it somewhere where it’s easily accessible, like a volume on the desktop, so we add the following text into the Lingon ‘What’ window after the TrueCrypt stuff

--mount /Users/macbitz/Document_Store/docvault /Volumes/VAULT

Once you’ve done that you’ll have a long command line that looks like this:

/Applications/TrueCrypt.app/Contents/MacOS/TrueCrypt
--mount /Users/macbitz/Document_Store/docvault /Volumes/VAULT
Custom icon

Custom icon

One last thing is to tell Lingon when it should run your command. Do this by ticking the box that says – Run it when it is loaded by the system (at startup or login). Now if you’ve done this correctly then the next time you login to your Mac, TrueCrypt will load, and then prompt you for the password to access the encrypted file before mounting it in the location specified. In my example I asked TrueCrypt to mount the file as a volume called ‘VAULT’ which then appears on my desktop (as per my Finder preferences). With a little bit of imagination you can even create a custom icon for your encrypted volume (see left) which Finder kindly remembers. If you want to auto-mount your TrueCrypt volume using a script then just put the TrueCrypt command line and it’s parameters into a compiled script that you run as a login item.

Nicest of all, TrueCrypt is free so now you’ve got no excuse for not locking up your super-secret data away from prying eyes! Having said that, the authors of both TrueCrypt and Lingon are happy to accept donations.

Hopes of an Apple-friendly server fade a little…

The repeated and random disconnects I’ve been getting between my Mac Pro and my Windows 2003 Server shares prompted me to look at alternatives. My Kalyway project ended as abruptly as it started. I managed to install it on an old Asus A7N8X-Delux based machine but not long after I was experiencing kernel panics and had to give it up as a bad bet.

The next plan was to use FreeNAS which would let me access disks on the ‘server’ as AFP shares. The fact that FreeNAS only truly supports it’s own proprietary file system, and warns of dire consequences when using FAT or EXT did put me off a little, but I was prepared to stick it out. Unfortunately the next problem was a little more severe. I was testing backups from my Mac to the FreeNAS box by repeatedly copying 100Gb or so of data to it, then copying it back to the Mac and comparing it to make sure it was the same. Then deleting it off the NAS box and starting over again. All of a sudden I was getting messages that the backup job was unable to create folders on the target drive. I checked all the usual suspects but found the only way to get things going again was to reformat the FreeNAS data drives and start over. Third time round the loop I decided to give up. I’m sure with more investigation I might get to the bottom of this, but not being a Linux guru makes me nervous about entrusting my precious data to something I understand even less that Mac OS X or Windows 2003 Server.

So it’s looking more likely that I’ll invest in a basic Mac Mini, hang two 500Gb USB drives off it and use that as my backup server. That of course leaves me with two 500Gb SATA drives ‘spare’ from my Windows server box. Now I have seen a PowerMac G5 up for sale that’s got space for two internal SATA drives, has lots more memory than the Mac Mini, and is cheaper by about £100. It’s a PowerPC model dating back a couple of years but it’s good enough to run Leopard and it’ll let me use all my spare internal and external drives.

I could of course buy another D-Link DNS323 NAS box. Despite it getting mixed reviews, my one has been incredibly reliable (famous last words), then I’d have to hang the two external drives off the Mac Pro.

Decisions, decisions…

More PCI slots for a 2008 Mac Pro

Mac Pro owners will know that finding accessories for their machine can sometimes be a bit of a lottery. iMacs and Mac Books have things like cameras and microphones built-in, and anything else is either a dedicated peripheral from Apple, or something that connects via USB. So when it comes to expanding the Mac Pro it’s often a case of reaching for Google and off you go.

I’m already looking for a USB microphone that works with the voice recognition built-in to OS X, given that the ones on my Logitech webcams work with everything (Skype, iChat, etc.) except any form of voice recognition. Both the MacMice MicFlex USB and the Logitech USB Desktop Microphone look like possible candidates, and I’ve got the latter on order from Amazon UK (for just £13.89 rather than the £24.99 PCWorld want to fleece you for it!), so when it arrives I’ll let you know how it works out.

However all these USB devices need a home on my Mac Pro and with only 3 USB slots at the back and 2 at the front (that I want to keep free), I need more slots! A bit of research will tell you that the 2008 Mac Pro sports PCI Express (aka PCIe) slots. This means that many of the regular PCI style cards won’t fit and you need to look elsewhere. What I also found are many websites that try and sell you PCI cards telling you they’re supported under Mac OS X but failing to warn you that they may not fit the latest Mac Pros.

In the end I was looking at a Belkin PCI Express 5-port USB card from Amazon UK for the princely sum of £42.35. Surely that couldn’t be the cheapest? A bit more digging and I found Cancom stocked USB cards so I headed over there. Turns out they didn’t have what I needed, but the salesman very kindly telephoned Maplin who are just a 5 minute walk from their store and established that they had what I needed. With service like that it seemed a shame to go elsewhere, and if you want helpful Mac-buying advice I can definitely recommend Cancom. Just a short while later and I was picking up my ‘4 + 1 USB 2.0 PCI Express Card‘ at Maplin for just £24.99!

The eco-unfriendly-slice-your-fingers-sharp-plastic(!!) packaging mentioned nothing about Mac compatibility, and indeed the little leaflet enclosed said I needed some flavour of Windows from 2000 up to Vista (eugh!), but the edge connector was exactly what I was looking for. Fitting it was a 3 minute job, and powering the machine back up with my two external Freecom USB drives connected saw them burst in to life. Likewise my Logitech QuickCam Vision Pro works a treat, as does my iPhone 3G dock. With the receiver for my Logitech MX Revolution mouse, and my Elgato Hybrid TV tuner plugged in to the Mac Pro’s built-in rear USB ports, I’m left with one free slot – for my USB microphone when it arrives.

The PCIe card fitted.

The PCIe card fitted.

Testing out the read/write performance of my external USB disks, they seemed as fast as they were when connected to the Mac Pros built-in USB ports. One point to note is that none of the USB devices that I have plugged in to my new PCIe USB card is bus-powered. The card does have a 4-pin power socket on it, but I elected not to power up the card, a) because I don’t need it, and b) because I have no idea where I’d take a power feed from inside my Mac Pro anyway, at least not without some further investigation!

So, if you’re a 2008 Mac Pro owner looking for a PCIe USB card, you could do worse than opt for this one from Maplin.

Incidentally, if you don’t have a Maplin store in your part of the planet, here’s the website for the company that makes the card (SunRich Technology H.K. Limited). Navigating the site can be a little tricky, you want to click on ‘Product’ at the top, then ‘PCI Express I/O Card’ then ‘PCI-E USB 4 + 1 Port’. If you don’t manage that, then the part details off their site are as follows.

Article No: PCIE-USBNEC101-5P-1 (4+1) PORTS
Part No: IE-N17-1241-00-00012
Description: U-321, PCI EXPRESS NEC101 USB 2.0 4+1 PORTS ST LAB GIFTBOX

The FreeNAS experiment

Kalyway kernel panic

Kalyway kernel panic

I am still searching for that elusive ‘server’ that’s going to be a little more Apple-friendly than my Windows 2003 Server machine up in the loft. The Kalyway 10.5.2 exercise was interesting but seemed stricken with some fatal flaw. It stopped responding and when I went to investigate, I discovered the machine had suffered a kernel panic. Over the course of the next hour or so, every time I rebooted, the machine had a kernel panic within 5 to 10 minutes. I’m sure that with a bit more patience and effort I could have worked through this, but as a robust system for taking backups to it wasn’t looking good. Time to move on…

Enter FreeNAS.

What could be better? A free, Linux based OS that does nothing but share out disk space and that supports AFP. It’s a 22Mb download – that’s right, just twenty two meg. Burn the iso image to a CD, pop it in the drive and you’re away. I opted to install it on one of the hard disks in my ‘server’ rather than repeatedly boot off the Live CD, and installation took just a couple of minutes.

The server sets itself up with a default address of 192.168.1.250 and configuration is then done by browsing to that address from another machine and using the Web GUI. Everything you need is in a very good Setup and User Guide, and if you follow this you really can’t go wrong. All I had to do was provide a couple of settings, format and mount my 500Gb disk, then enable AFP and share it. This really is a clever piece of work – the Web GUI is pretty intuitive, and the OS itself has a tiny footprint, so you could run it on pretty much anything. My next job is to ‘soak test’ the setup by copying 400Gb or so of data to it and seeing how it performs over the next few days.

My only advice is to think carefully about what file system to use when formatting your data disks. FreeNAS defaults to it’s own ‘UFS’ scheme. That’s no problem in itself, except that should the worst ever happen and you need to transfer your disks to another machine, you might be stuck being able to read the disks unless you can install FreeNAS on the new host. FreeNAS does allow you to use FAT32, EXT2 or even SoftwareRAID, although a bit worryingly there’s a warning on the Disk Format screen that says:

UFS is the NATIVE file format for FreeBSD (the
underlying OS of FreeNAS). Attempting to use other file formats such as
FAT, FAT32, EXT2, EXT3, or NTFS can result in unpredictable results,
file corruption, and loss of data!

Possible file corruption is really something I’d rather avoid if it’s all the same to you.