VERY RARELY DO we run into a product that is flat out unacceptable much less potentially dangerous, but the Netgear Storage Central SC101 is both. What started out as a day building a small home network for a friend has ended up as three days of pain with many more dead parts than we started out with, including a PC.
Let me declare up front that I am no storage or PC novice, I have done everything from writing a TCP/IP stack to designing and implementing enterprise-level storage solutions. Rarely do I need to read a manual on something so simple as a home NAS to find out anything more than the default password. This time however, the NAS won.
Of late, Netgear has been pretty good to me. It doesn't seem to make devices that die with the same rapidity as the more recent Linksys boxes, and it made the first router I could not overwhelm while torrenting. When my friend asked me to go shopping with him, the all Netgear lineup was on the short list.
We ended up with a Wireless-G router, the Storage Central SC101 and 2 500G Western Digital drives in the same family as some on the Netgear recommended list. All this was going into a household with a laptop, a Dell Dimension (P4 dual core, dead stock and dull) PC, and a generic cable modem. The router went in without a hitch, wireless was set up easily, and all was happy there.
The first pain occurred when I had to put I the drives. It looks like the SC101 is a good design, there is a screw in front that you can turn with a coin, and the front pops off easily. The drives slot in with the rear ends sticking out, and the short IDE and power cables pop on.
The idea is sound, but the drives, standard IDE, just don't want to fit. The people who designed this seem to have misread the specs on a dirt standard 3.5-inch , a millimetre or two more clearance would have made the initial impression go from pain and annoyance to the intended ease. In the end, pain and annoyance reigned.
Due to lack of appropriate length Ethernet cables, the installation was stopped for the day, probably a good thing seeing as I already wanted to throw the box into a nearby lake. Travel, work and life then intervened, and 30 days passed before I got back to the task, a welcome respite, but not long enough.
Armed with longer cables, I went back and powered the SC101 on for the first time and started the configuration.
I should have stayed at home.
Putting the first of two CDs with the configuration software in, the first problem cropped up. The software helpfully asked if it should check for an updated version of the program before installation, a refreshing and useful idea.
I agreed, and it went out, found a newer version, 3.x instead of the 1.x on the CD, immediately offering to download and install it in place of the older one. I agreed, and it went off and pulled down the newer version. The newer version came up as corrupt and it failed miserably. Back to the CD then.
The older version went in easily enough, and a reboot later, it ran and again asked to get the new version. This time, the download succeeded, and a few cryptic messages later, it uninstalled the old version, put in the new one, and correctly prompted the user in all the right ways. This was about the only thing that went correctly.
Once the software loaded, I immediately went to the advanced setup, wizards rarely allow you to mirror drives, a must for this setup. In general, setup software is pretty sparse but usually functional if you have enough background. Even by those low standards, the Netgear software is poor, and it borders on non-functional.
At setup, the software gives you two IP addresses with no explanation, and when you continue, it gives you the same IPs, with a box below that for configuring drives. The IPs are not selectable as you would expect, leading to much annoyance. A screen capture would be in order here, but as you will find out later, that is not possible in the aftermath of the SC101 setup. In any case, the box you have to enter the information has an outsized font that is larger than the area allowed for it, so you lose a few pixels of any text.
Ergonomics, or lack thereof, don't do much more than annoy, and it was a matter of minutes before the screen was decoded and a mirrored drive was specified. After 15 minutes of watching the screen blink "formatting", I took my leave for the day.
When I returned the next day, hilarity ensued. The format seemed to have worked, but there were no drives listed on the PC. The Netgear software listed the IPs, listed the drives, and showed both had zero free space. I took that as a good sign, the space was allocated correctly, and it was on both drives, so the mirroring worked. Silly me for thinking that.
The created volume was nowhere to be found at all. Browsing the network did not show it, nothing showed up in drive manager, and the Netgear software was singularly unhelpful. The vast majority of the options on the main screen returned either an 'all is well' message or an error intoning inapplicability. Wonderful.
So, off to the web site, the so called manuals included on the CD were not only two versions out of date, but also quite worthless. The web site was one of the least helpful I have run into in a long time. Mind you, anything else would have been such a shock so great I might have fallen out of my chair and hit my head on something.
The main problem is that the questions answered on the site seemed to all deal with what happens when the drive is successfully attached to the PC, with the vast and unhelpful minority dealt with the unattached case. None dealt with my situation.
Seeing as how the software was utterly and frustratingly useless, the web site was aimed at people entertained by shiny things, and no other tools available, I decided to reset the box and start anew. This, coupled with learning from your mistakes, tends to fix most problems.
Once again, silly me, I expected the hard reset to actually reset the box, not just reboot it. Resetting the SC101 does nothing, it does not actually reset it. The same drives came up, the configuration exactly as it was before the reset. Trying the same thing at power on accomplished the same squat all. I have never encountered a device that you are not able to reset at all.
Could things get worse? Yes they could. Buried in the unhelpful web site is a command line tool that seems to be the only way to really reset an uncooperative array. I dutifully typed in the commands, and unsurprisingly it told me to get stuffed with an error message that indicated failure and indignation at my trying in the first place. All the other options failed as well. Wonderful.
As a last resort, I tried to uninstall the Netgear software in the vain hope that a clean install might make a difference. Silly, silly me, the )#$(*ing software would not uninstall because of a perceived error in mirroring. Helpfully, it told me to contact support and gave a URL containing phone numbers to call. It was a long URL, but thankfully they made it not only non-linked, but also not cut and pasteable.
A hint to the nitwits at Netgear: long complicated URLs are no fun to type in when people are already annoyed at you. That would be me.
But wait, it gets better.
The software half-uninstalled and would not run, but the icons, start menu listings and add/remove entries were still there. Attempting to uninstall again removed the add/remove entries, but not the icons or program remnants. Brilliant! Now I had icons that did nothing but complain instead of uncooperative software I had broken software. In retrospect, this was as step up.
So, I attempted to reinstall, and it put in the CD containing the 1.x version which then prompted me to upgrade. That of course failed with the same mirror error that the uninstall did. So now I had the 1.x version, remnants of the 3.x version, and was no closer to the SC101 working.
By starting the 3.x upgrade and turning off the SC101 before the software checked, I was able to get 3.x installed, and 1.x manually uninstalled without drama. So far, so non-disastrous, but I was out of options. Time to call tech support.
Typing in the aforementioned long URL got me to a list of phone support numbers for Netgear, and on a Sunday afternoon, I got the first worrisome sign. You know you are in deep trouble when the tech support number offers you a specific option for your device and the maker makes hundreds of things. Even worse, it is the first option.
The first time, they answered after about 10 minutes of annoying hold music, and the person on the other end took my serial number, the name of the friend who owned it, and then disconnected me. The second time was less than two minutes on hold got me to a person. Things were looking up, and they got the serial, name and phone number before we were disconnected. They didn't call back.
The third time was when I found out that after about 25 minutes on hold, Netgear forces you to leave a message and tells you that they will call you back. Yeah right. The fourth call was not disconnected until I ended up hanging up in frustration 50+ minutes in, but it had been answered by a human in less than 10 minutes.
After the serial number was read yet again, the thoroughly unhelpful and quite green noob on the end of the line set about annoying me. I nicely explained to her that I was computer literate, and mentioned that the software would see the drives but could not address them, and the mirror appeared to not be working.
She obviously was not going to deviate from the flowchart, and asked me for the network configuration, in this case, the PC connected to the Netgear Wir eless-G router, and directly to the SC101 NAS. The WAN port on the G had a cable modem on it, and that was the entirety of the topology.
This perplexed the technician. The generic cable modem without a manufacturer without a manufacturer name on it (it looked like a Motorola unit) seemed to unnerve her, but eventually she moved on.
"Can you power cycle the unit for me?" When you hear those words enough, you realise that hell is not going to be that bad, and this was the point where hell lost any scariness in my book. I did so, and we went through the flowchart eventually getting to the point that I told her about within a minute of her answering.
Mind you, this took just over half an hour with me getting put on hold for minutes at a time several times. The technician didn't have a clue because I could hear the next level tech support telling her what to say. "Tell him to XYZ ", quickly followed by "Sir, can you XYZ". It would be high comedy, but it was happening to me.
Reinstalling always failed with the mirror error, something I mentioned in the early part of the now 30+ minute call. I could almost hear the light go on on the other end of the phone. Five minutes of hold later followed by more suggestions by the mysterious tech support engineer in the background, and a minor miracle happened.
Yes, she gave me a good idea. No, not only that, a great idea that I hadn't thought of, open the box and disconnect one of the drives. No second drive to mirror, potentially no more mirror errors. It only took about 40 minutes to get this far, but we were making progress.
It didn't work, so eventually she told me to go to the web site, and download the latest firmware along with the offline installer. I did, and she put me on hold while it downloaded. The firmware finished first, and when the installer came down, I was still on hold so I ran it.
It actually installed without errors, it just worked. Oh joy, no more mirror headaches. No, oh nigh unmeasurable bliss. You don't know how happy a "you must reboot your computer to complete the installation" prompt can make a person until you have spent four hours beating your head against shoddy software and over an hour switching between a thick eastern European accent and smooth jazz hold music.
Rebooting resulted in the predictable. No, not a still broken SC101 NAS box, but a BSOD. Yeah, playing with low level software that emulates SCSI over the network is tricky at the best of times, but who would have thought it would die after the only uneventful install of the day?
No problem, last known good config should get me back. Yeah right, if you buy that you probably also believe Vista is secure. Nope, BSOD there. OK, I was still on hold, how about safe mode. Nope, BSOD. Safe mode command prompt only? BSOD. The box was dead dead dead.
A few minutes later, the helpful lady came back on the line and I explained to her what happened. It installed fine and then BSOD'd, same with safe mode, and the box appeared dead. That is when Netgear have up all hope. The reply sealed the coffin.
"I didn't tell you to install it".
I was floored. I was slowly and painfully told to download the firmware upgrade and the software, and put on hold. What was the next step? Please people, guess? I am rarely at a loss for snappy comebacks, but this was one of them.
"What were you going to tell me to do next" I snapped. "Not install it? Were you about to tell me to install it?". Long long pause.
"Can I put you on hold again sir?", followed by more hold music. A long wait later I was told to "Press F8 when it is booting".
"I already told you it BSODs in safe mode"
"Well sir, we are going to try it in... ummm.... safe mode.... now."
"I told you, it BSODs, it BSODs in safe mode, last known good, and every other option in the boot menu. I tried them all, it is dead."
Five more minutes passes with me wanting to kill the next jazz musician I see. She came back and said the magic words "Sir, you need to reinstall Windows before we take the next step".
Yeah, they just killed my friends box, and told me to reinstall before they would give me any more aid, the BSODs were my problem now. Please note, they didn't warn me that data loss could occur or any of the other things they should have, just a kind suggestion. If I had followed their instructions, I probably would end up with a dead NAS and complete data loss, not just a dead PC. This is where lawsuits come from.
I then demanded it to talk to a higher level of tech support, and she tried to dissuade me. I told her to just ask the guy who was standing behind her telling her what to do, and there was a rather uncomfortable pause. She put me on hold for another five minutes, coming back to tell me that they were all busy.
In a far less polite way, I insisted that I wanted to talk to someone competent. Five more minutes of hold later, I was politely told that they were still all busy. I less politely explained that I bricked my machine following their orders, so I expected to talk to competent tech support, and I wanted to talk to them now.
This is when my tormentor somewhat lost her cool and basically told me that she didn't like my attitude, and besides, level two wouldn't talk to me until I reinstalled XP anyway. Great, I was lied to for the last two times, but at least I now knew I was getting screwed and Netgear was not going to help at all.
I thanked her for not helping, and was told to call back after I reinstalled, and given a case number. Over two hours elapsed since I started calling Netgear, and in that time, the SC101 NAS was still screwed up beyond words, the PC was bricked, and I was told off after an hour of the most painful tech support I have dealt with in a long, long time.
In summary, the Netgear Storage Central SC101 NAS is a product that surpasses bad. The software is a nightmare, the product does not work, tech support is incompetent and frustrating, and if they brick your PC, that isn't their problem.
To recommend this product would be well past irresponsible. Plugging your Ethernet cable into an electric outlet could be less painful than installing a Netgear SC101.
Avoid this one like the plague. If my experience of the quality of Netgear's support is anything to go by you should avoid any of its NAS boxes like a multi-drug resistant plague. If it is this bad for one product, it doesn't bode well for others.
Users should beware of the nightmare that is the Storage Central SC101. ?