Maxtor Corp.'s Central Axis (US$319.99) offers a new way to add a centralized, always-available terabyte of storage to your local network, whether you install it at home to share media files or set it up at work to share proposals among your colleagues. You can even stream your media to UPnP AV-compatible (Universal Plug and Play Audio/Visual) networked entertainment systems without using a computer. Best of all, by setting up an account with Seagate Global Access, you can store and retrieve files from the Central Axis device over the Internet.
I tested the drive with Windows XP and Vista desktop and laptops. The SATA II, 1TB drive is compatible with Mac OS X 10.4.11 or later. You'll also need IE 6 or later, Firefox 2 or later, or Safari 3.1 or later to handle administrative tasks.
Initial installation is simple -- as long as you carefully follow the steps in the Quick Start guide. After connecting the power cord and attaching the supplied Ethernet cable to your switch or router, you run the Maxtor Manager software from a CD included in the package to establish the administrator account's settings. They include password, preferred date format, the workgroup name of your network and the device name displayed in file managers such as Windows Explorer. You can also specify whether you want to enable Web access to the drive (an option you can change later). These administrative chores are handled through a Web-based interface.
After you've set up the administrator's account, you install Maxtor Manager on each system that will access the Central Axis. The last step of this installation searches for the Central Axis device. Once it's identified, click on the "Create a User Account" button. An input screen opens in which you enter a user account name and choose whether you want the account to be public (accessible by everyone on your network) or private (you provide the password which each user must enter to access their files).
You also choose whether this is a home or business account. Your choice determines the set of folders that are automatically created for the user account. For example, My Photos, My Movies and My Music are among the eight folders created for a home account; My Presentations, My Projects and My Spreadsheets are among those created for a business account. Maxtor Manager creates this set of folders, maps the user account to a drive letter (Z by default) and adds a shortcut to the Z drive on the desktop so a user can quickly access the new space set aside for the user account as well as access to the Public folder that all users share.
Once a user is set up, you move to the next user's system and repeat the process -- specify settings such as username, account type (home/business) and password; create the desktop shortcut; and so on.
It was mostly smooth sailing after installation. Once I finished setting up the Maxtor Manager software on four systems, users could easily save files to their folders and add, remove or rename files and folders, including the ones that were predefined during user setup -- anything you can do with an ordinary drive on your own system.
Although I didn't need to tweak any of the administrator account settings, the administrator utility gives you granular control. For example, you can change account passwords or delete user accounts. You can also change access to any shared folder -- options are full access, read-only or no access. The same admin interface lets you create additional shared folders (I created a team folder) and specify access for each user.
I found the administration utility painfully slow, taking anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds to respond to most commands.
Administration isn't without its problems. When a user switched systems (both had user accounts set up), I had difficulty switching to the user accounts because of the way Central Axis and Windows tie a physical system to a user account. When I tried to make the switch, the interface returned a cryptic "Access is denied" message. The program finally displayed a more helpful message, telling me I had to right-click the desktop icon and choose the disconnect command, then delete the desktop icon. Once the user accounts were released in this way, I could reassign them to the right systems.
Central Axis is all about keeping it simple. For example, you can't limit the amount of space a particular user consumes. I'd have preferred a user guide that wasn't so bare-bones; it's a disservice to any less-than-network-proficient home user.
A mixed bag of additional features
Maxtor touts the ability of Central Axis to "automatically back up the content of your networked computers." Do not use the backup program included with Maxtor Manager -- it's full of glitches. For example, the program doesn't let you select folders with dashes in their names (such as "Proposals-New York" on my system) because the Maxtor backup program doesn't recognize them. Furthermore, I scheduled the backup program to run every evening at 6 p.m. It reported a successful backup at 6:05 p.m. one evening, which was impossible because the drive hadn't been powered on.
Because the drive is recognized as just another drive letter by your system, I suggest that you configure a favorite backup program and choose the Z drive as the backup destination, as I did successfully with both Handy Backup and www.titanbackup.com.
The drive spins at 7,200 rpm and makes a slight whirring sound that shouldn't disturb you. Lights on the front of the drive indicate when the unit has power and when it is connected to the network; a third light flashes during disk activity. Speed is adequate thanks to the 32MB cache buffer. (Our traditional hard drive benchmark tests run only on physically connected drives, not those available through the network.) However, be aware that you won't get the speed of a traditional, USB 2.0-attached file. For example, we copied a 1.25GB video file to the Central Axis in 2 minutes, 32 seconds. We copied the same file to a Maxtor One Touch with a 300GB capacity in just 52 seconds. Such a discrepancy is common, but it's unlikely you'll notice the speed in everyday tasks such as saving a Word document. The slower speed is more annoying during backups -- but that's the price you pay for sharing data among all users, not just a single user.
If you sign up for a free Seagate Global Access online account, you can tie your user account and Central Axis drive to an SGA account, which allows you to upload and download Central Axis files from any folder for which you have permission.
On the back of the drive is a USB 2.0 port that lets you add a printer you can share or connect an additional external drive (FAT32 formatting is required) for additional storage. It worked perfectly with a Buffalo 1TB external drive. (Connecting a Western Digital drive with New Technology File System formatting gave all users instant read-only access to the drive.)
For sharing files among several family members or colleagues at work, the Central Axis fills the bill. Users can share files in a public folder or have their private space. A better backup program and more detailed documentation would make it a more useful product.