ZyXEL NAS542 review

A great price for a four-bay NAS appliance, but features are basic and performance is poor

Price
£116
  • Very affordable; Good cloud support;
  • Poor performance thanks to underpowered CPU; Inconsistent front-end software; Non-upgradeable components;

Four-bay NAS appliances can be expensive, so ZyXEL's NAS542 should turn the head of any small business or home office seeking no-frills storage. For a giveaway price of less than 120, this desktop box even supports IP SANs.

Predictably, the hardware isn't terribly powerful. The CPU is a modest 1.2GHz FreeScale Cortex-A9 model, with 1GB of non-upgradable DDR3 memory. You get twin Gigabit Ethernet and USB 3 ports at the rear; behind a removable panel at the front sit another USB 3 port and an SDXC slot, which work in tandem with the one-press backup button above.

For testing, we slipped three 2TB WD Enterprise SATA drives into the tool-less plastic carriers. The handy NAS Starter utility, running on a Windows 10 desktop, quickly found the appliance and provided a link to its web interface.

This resembles Qnap and Synology's front-ends, with clear, chunky icons for storage management, control panel and file browser. It isn't consistent, though: clicking on the Administration icon opened a new browser with a different interface.

We opted to configure a RAID5 array, although the NAS542 also supports mirrors, stripes and RAID6. You can also set up disk groups, allowing the creation of multiple RAID volumes that can be expanded on the fly into available space. To create shared volumes, storage options are listed in the left pane in a tree-style menu. It's simple to set up users, groups and CIFS shares, and to set up access controls.

We then used the Application menu to enable features such as FTP, NFS and web publishing, and create jobs for the backup button. We tested with a variety of SDXC cards and had no issue configuring jobs to copy their contents to a local share or run a bi-directional sync when the button was pressed.

Under the Protect menu, we were also able to create backup jobs that scheduled regular copies from a local share to another location on the appliance and the SDXC card slot. The NAS542 supports rsync, so running synchronisation jobs between it and a Synology DS1813+ was simple.

Additional apps and services can be downloaded from within the ZyXEL interface, but there's a small selection. Your only options for cloud storage are Google Drive and Dropbox; Qnap and Synology also support OneDrive, Amazon S3, Microsoft Azure, Box, Amazon Glacier and Google Cloud Storage.

We found the Google Drive sync app wasn't as slick as the Qnap and Synology apps either. Still, it does support multiple accounts, and we had no issues authorising it, linking it with a shared folder and setting an update frequency.

It was also easy to pair the NAS542 with our myZyXEL cloud account, which allowed us to access our online content remotely via a browser. ZyXEL's Drive app for iOS let us remotely browse folders, view photos and play videos on our iPad 4.

However, performance is unimpressive: our 25GB test file was read and written at disappointing speeds of 104MB/sec and 53MB/sec respectively. And the NAS542 really struggled with our backup test: a 22.4GB folder of 10,500 small files was written at just 27MB/sec average.

The NAS542 also supports thick and thinly provisioned iSCSI LUNS, although it isn't straightforward to set up. ZyXEL insists on CHAP authentication and presents the target to only one iSCSI initiator, which must be declared using its full IQN.

Performance was again disappointing. Running Iometer against a 250GB target, we saw read and write speeds of only 74MB/sec and 56MB/sec respectively. The cause may not be a mystery: CPU utilisation maxed out at 100% more than once during the test.

At this price, there isn't much else that can do what the NAS542 does. Qnap's TS-431 costs 30 more but has only a meagre 512MB of RAM. That might make the NAS542 tempting when budgets are tight, but the core components can't be upgraded, so the saving must be balanced against sub-par performance.

Verdict

At this price, there isn’t much else that can do what the NAS542 does. That might make the NAS542 tempting when budgets are tight, but the core components can’t be upgraded, so the saving must be balanced against sub-par performance.

Desktop chassis 1.2GHz dual-core FreeScale Cortex-A9 1GB DDR3 4 x hot-swap SATA drive bays Supports RAID 0, 1, 10, 5, 6, hot-spare, JBOD 3 x USB 3 SDXC slot 2 x Gigabit Ethernet External PSU 190 x 225 x 160mm (WHD) 2yr RTB warranty

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