4TB version of Western Digital My Cloud EX2 Ultra NAS reviewed using Windows 7, 8.1, 10, iOS, and Android as well as various DLNA and PLEX devices. The My Cloud EX2 Ultra is being offered in four different sizes, including a diskless (supply your own drives) model. All four versions are identical aside from the included drive sizes and prices. The reviewed 4TB version includes two 2TB WD Red drives which as configured is a RAID 1 (mirror) set-up.
Western Digital has added a new Network Attached Storage device to its line-up, and for consumers looking for a 2-bay NAS, the My Cloud EX2 Ultra offers one very obvious upgrade over WD's prior offering the My Cloud EX2 -- it's faster. That's thanks to a quicker processor and double the RAM. Those upgrades mean that moving data on and off the drive, multitasking, or any kind of drive access (cloud, configuration, etc.) should be faster and smoother.
Having 2 drive bays naturally means greater storage potential and options (as do the two included USB 3.0 expansion ports), but the idea is to use two same size drives in a mirrored RAID 1 set-up. That way, if one drive fails, the other drive lives on to preserve the data.
Users can pick up a diskless version of the My Cloud EX2 Ultra for $159.99 (see here) and supply their own disks. While the hardware part of the equation -- the NAS enclosure, ports, the processor, RAM, and so on -- are an important part of what the consumer is buying, what's also included is the Western Digital web-based Dashboard. This lets customers manage and configure the drive, control user access and shares, run official apps like PLEX and WordPress right off the NAS, and have remote access for mobile devices (as well as PCs/Macs) via mycloud.com
Take it from someone who once configured a WD My Book World to run Ubuntu Packages so that the drive could be a proper media server, NAS set-ups can be incredibly powerful and useful, but they are only worth the trouble when they work and work reliably. Among the many functions that can be handled by a decent NAS include being a media server (local and remote), being network storage, being a system/file back-up, being a website server, and even a torrent server. All of this stuff falls right into the My Cloud EX2 Ultra wheelhouse with some important extras and some important caveats. Via the mycloud.com access (and some WD mobile apps), the NAS can be used as a remote media server/file server for iOS and Android devices (as well as PC/Mac) with a custom share set-up and a fleet of user accounts. Those accounts can be handled on a temporary access basis with expiration dates. There's also an entire built-in Cloud picture ability, through which that same fleet of user accounts can access and automatically upload all of their photos. Twonky-based DLNA support is built-in, and all of this functionality is before using the apps that can be installed through the dashboard to gain even more features.
The cloud pictures sync alone could make the NAS essential. Instead of trying to get all of my family members to use iCloud or Google Photos (and then not freak out about losing pictures when they misplace their phones and forget their account passwords), I could set-up individual WD Photo syncs.
The expanded functionality is a big deal for this consumer NAS, but it takes some speed and reliability to make it happen. This is a big strength for what is basically a 2-bay entry level device. While I can't speak to the long term reliability, the short term has been a pleasure. The EX2 Ultra has been extremely well-behaved. During several weeks of use I've never once had to power cycle the device. I have done restarts in the dashboard after firmware updates and such, but I've never found the NAS unresponsive after idling or being left alone. Considering I would have had to climb under two desks to get to where I placed the drive next to a network switch, even one hiccup would have raised my ire.
Likewise, copying files to and back has been wonderfully fast. I was able to load the drive full of media, work files, and other assets without blinking. For example, I have about 30GB worth 'The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt' set-up and patch files (downloaded courtesy of GOG.com) that I've been using whenever I borrow or use a new PC with promising hardware. I had been moving these files around using a 2TB USB 3.0 drive, but the EX2 Ultra makes the whole process so easy. A hardwired PC can copy over one of the 4GB bin files in less than a minute. (That numbers jumps up closer to 7 minutes if I use the AT&T Wi-Fi.)
I consider the Marvell ARMADA 385 1.3GHz CPU and 1GB DDR3 RAM to be welcome parts of the $160 shell. As more embedded technology becomes a regular part of professional and consumer life, this kind of tech will only get faster, and hopefully at a faster clip. For right now though, this is a smart alternative in terms of power, space, and cost to even repurposing an old PC.
Like anyone who takes pictures and the occasional video, I have GBs that come from every event or unboxing. Recently, when covering CES 2016, I found that I was copying the same photos off my phone or camera to my laptop, 2-in-1, and working desktop. And that still left an all-in-one and another desktop (two fallback work positons) without access. Instead, what I could have done as opposed to connecting a USB cable or memory card each time I wanted a set of 4MB pics is upload the pics straight from Vegas to the NAS. Believe me, dropping hundreds of CES pictures into a directory on the NAS carries with it a more empowered feeling than any cloud-based picture service that I have used. (I probably like using folders and renaming and copying files more readily than most.)
Without going too off-topic here, the My Book EX2 Ultra has enough horsepower and redundancy, that I could use it as source control. I don't currently share that many working files with other people, but even for my own workflow, it could really sort out all of the edited photos and videos that I have stashed everywhere. Stuff like GoPro captures, encodes, and edits, take up a lot of space. For me when I am done with an edit, I usually leave those raw and working files alone. And yet, I don't like to delete them. That alone makes them prime candidates for NAS storage.
On the consumer side, when most people think NAS, they think media server, and traditionally that means DLNA. The EX2 Ultra is a DLNA certified device, and indeed, it worked well with all of my DLNA devices, including the PS4 and Xbox One. With that said, there are some major caveats. For example, the Twonky-based DLNA support is stalwart, but it's not a transcoding machine. Sticking with what the DLNA players (PS4, PS3, Xbox One, etc.) could handle natively made the most sense, and the best results I found were with a hardwire and 720p encodes. (Wi-Fi works as well.) This isn't all that surprising, but I know it will disappoint readers who expect 1080p standard. What I would say is that, this is why a consumer grade NAS is perfect for housing a DVD collection.
For example, I long ago took my adult swim DVDs and turned them into MP4s. This kind of SD content is ideal for the NAS. Not only is it excellent for the DLNA friendly PCs and set-top boxes, but it's great for mobile devices. I recently got an elliptical/Nautilus, and I set-up an old iPad 3 with a Bluetooth speaker to serve as the fitness companion. While the iPad has Netflix and Amazon Instant Video on it, the WD My Cloud app is currently my preferred choice as it lets me access the NAS content.
The results are excellent. I even set-up a temporary account for a colleague who is attending Mobile World Congress 2016 in Barcelona, and she was able to pull down shows from the NAS through local Wi-Fi (download the full files).
I should mention here that while my iOS devices worked just as advertised (with a simple log-in much like on the PC), I had real trouble on the Android side. As it turns out, I needed to have Dashboard Cloud Access enabled to get the Android WD My Cloud app to work with the NAS. Once I figured that out, Android access was great. It's good enough that I can stream my music collection off the NAS right over cellular, and yes, videos as well.
Of course, DLNA isn't the only way to roll. PLEX support is part of the package as well. (Just have to go into the dashboard and install the PLEX app.) It's actually possible to use PLEX on the NAS and the PS4 without anything more than a free PLEX membership. Here again, it's important to expect NAS performance when it comes to transcoding. Also, with just a $5 PLEX app, the Fire TV stick had access to the NAS media content, and that makes for an excellent convergence of tech. (And no worrying about sleeping PCs.)
The My Cloud EX2 Ultra has great potential as a back-up, and using the 2-bays to protect the data stored on one drive via a second redundant drive should minimize any potential for data loss. Few things are more deflating than having a carefully curated media server, picture library, or file repository go down with a drive. (I think of all the hard drives I own and use as either having failed me or hopefully managing to survive until unpowered retirement.) Thus, I would recommend a 2-bay set-up as a minimum. Of course, the EX2 Ultra does have expansion via USB 3.0, and the NAS can also can be backed up remotely or serve as back-up to another My Cloud device (and other NAS models). There are also Dropbox, ElephantDrive, and Amazon S3 cloud options available among other options for the NAS. Even so, I think using the same model drives in Raid 1 is a smart way to go.
As for the actual backing up of PC files, the WD SmartWare software is not something I would recommend. The WD Sync is more viable for simple jobs. I also really don't like the way that Windows does back-ups. I have to say that this is an area where Synology has a big edge, but manual file and folder selection suits me for right now.
My review unit for the My Could EX2 Ultra is the 4TB version, which includes two 2TB WD Red (WD20EFRX) drives. The drives are $89.99 each on Amazon right now, and although they are 5400 RPM drives, I have no complaints. Red drives are positioned for NAS duty and for various RAID configurations, but there's no chance that I'd run the NAS in RAID 0. The last thing I want is to lose two drives worth of data when one goes down. I suppose if it's being backed up remotely, then going for a 4TB RAID configuration might be an option, but I'd say in that case why even use a 2-drive NAS?
The enclosure itself looks more like a large external hard drive than a heavy-duty NAS, but the aesthetic is fine. (Plus it's under the desk.) When the drive is off and disconnected, the drives are easy to remove. The top pops open with the press of a button, and a single screw-in retaining bracket keeps the drives in place. Two screw-in bolts let the drives slide on the rails, and the only potential sadness is that the drives might be a little tricky to get out the first time. WD has attached simple plastic pulls to one bolt for each drive, so even out of the box from the factory, it's all pretty simple. If I had a pair of 6TB WD Red drives on hand, the hardware switch would take no time at all. Underneath the plastic shell, the NAS sports plenty of metal. There's nothing about the construction that I can see that suggests some kind of important wear and tear issue. If the enclosure were to fail, the drives could be extracted in mere moments.
Because I favor a 2-bay design, I consider the WD My Cloud EX2 Ultra the standard for an entry-level NAS for both regular consumers and more hands-on types. The CPU and RAM upgrades make the Ultra an obvious upgrade over the older EX2. There is serious capability and reliability (RAID 1) in the EX2 Ultra, but media serving doesn't cover all the bases. The third party app support, including PLEX, is very welcome. Some of the WD software is amazing, but other parts are tricky to work with or fall short of the mark. Hopefully, any improvements that WD makes in the next model will trickle down to the EX2 Ultra.