Review: My Book Live is cloud storage with a physical twist

A while back, we posted about how physical media is on the way out, with cloud storage enabling us to access all of our stuff anywhere, anytime. One major concern that about a hundred of you brought up was the issue of security: someone else owns the cloud, with your data in it. Western Digital's My Book Live offers an effective compromise, letting you keep control of all your data while still making it available wherever and whenever you want it.

At its most basic, Western Digital's My Book Live is an external hard drive. It comes in anywhere from one to three terabytes, which is likely more than enough room for you to store almost all of your data, including your pirated music but probably not all those "artsy pictures." Unlike most external hard drives, the My Book Live (which will herein be abbreviated "MBL") does not include any interface besides an ethernet jack.

Ethernet Only (Seriously)

I know, FREAK OUT. But this is the future, and the MBL is a pure-bred network hard drive. I'd feel better if it had a USB port or something on the back, but I'm old school like that. Anyway, the MBL is not designed to be attached to any one computer. Instead, it lives on your network and is accessible by any computer (or other device) that's also attached to your network (or to the Internet at large). It's really fairly remarkable. By plugging this thing into your router, you can get at it from anywhere in the universe with an Internet connection. Welcome to the cloud, baby.

Here's how it works: you turn the drive on, and then jack it into your router. That's it, you're done. Setup completed. Any modern computer should pick the drive up immediately as network storage, and for those of us who are still clinging to Windows XP with our teeth, there's a handy little discovery tool that finds it for you. WD has thankfully foregone trying to stick you with a desktop utility to manage the MBL, and everything is controlled via an online interface that you access directly over your network. You can simply type "mybooklive/" into a browser window, and up pops an alarmingly slick config page with more options than you can shake an ethernet cable at, and friendly pop-up help files to boot. Behold:

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It's an added layer than you'll usually find when handling any ol' hard drive, but one that makes some sense, as you're about to see.

Communal Storage

As far as all this cloud access stuff goes, there are three things that you'll probably be excited about: you can set up folders on the drive with different levels of access, you can set up multiple users with access to however many of these different folders as you choose, and you can enable remote access of all of the above. Happily, the remote access stuff is just as easy to use as the rest of the drive: go to the WD 2 Go website, login with your username and password, and you'll get to a page running a Java plugin that looks something like this:

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Those magical "open in Explorer" buttons do exactly what they say they will do (at least in Windows), and when you click them, you get access to the MBL just like it was on your home network, but this works from anywhere. You can drag, drop, copy, paste, rename, run, and delete files to your heart's content without having to deal with anything but the OS interface that you're used to. It's very fast, too, thanks to a 800 MHz CPU inside the drive itself that blasts through files faster than USB 2.0.

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One thing to keep in mind about this remote access service is that besides the login page, you're not going through a third party server. You're making a connection directly to your drive, and WD is just mediating the initial introduction, not serving your data. And this is part of the point of this drive: it offers the remote accessibility that makes the cloud so appealing, without you having to turn over a single byte of your data to anyone else. It's all safe and sound on your drive at home, 100% of the time.

WD has also provided a couple apps to let you get at your data through a mobile device. WD 2go Pro gives you access to everything on your drive, and is brisk enough to stream audio and (depending on your connection) video. It's easy to set up and easier to use; I really have to give WD credit here for making an effort to keep things as simple and straightforward as possible.

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In addition to all of this cloud-enabling remote access awesomeness, the MBL also operates as a full-fledged DLNA media server. Systems like the PS3 pick it up right away, and you can easily browse and play all of your media on your TV, just like that.

So, this is all good stuff. The My Book Live is an external hard drive that lives securely in your house while still providing most of the benefits of cloud storage.

Most of.

Not Perfect, But Not Bad

There's one big, big thing that the MBL can't touch when it comes to traditional cloud storage, and that's redundancy. Rather than being spread out across multiple remote data centers ("the cloud"), your data are stuck on one single hard drive that's vulnerable to failure, theft, fires, earthquakes, tornadoes, asteroids, lasers, aliens, swamp monsters, small children, locusts, and jealous robots. Not that I'm paranoid or anything, but, well, I am super paranoid about my precious, precious data.

Personally, this is a pretty big deal, because I have experienced (several times) the pain and suffering that comes with having a hard drive with all of my perfectly legal music and "artsy pictures" on it just up and die for no reason. Some of these concerns are alleviated with included software from WD that allows you to back up the MBL onto another drive on your network, which is a fine idea, but that only really covers the "failure" issue as opposed to the "theft' or "aliens" issues. Eventually, this data mirroring will be expandable to drives on external networks as well, which ought to solve the problem, but for the moment, it's a downside.

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This minor quibble aside, I'm quite impressed with the functionality offered by the My Book Live. It does what it's supposed to do, and does it in a simple, reliable, and no-nonsense way. It offers many of the benefits of fast local storage that keeps your data under your control, while also offering many of the benefits of cloud storage. It's not the best of both worlds, not quite yet, but it's a start, and they're working on it.

Western Digital is currently selling the 2 terabyte version of the My Book Live for $150, and going up or down a terabyte will cost or save you about $30 either way if you poke around a bit online. There's no fee for the ability to access your data online, although if you want fancy mobile device access that lets you sync your data, you'll have to dig an extra $3 out from under your couch cushions for the full-strength version of the mobile app.

Via Western Digital

Disclosure: Western Digital provided us with a My Book Live unit for the purposes of this review.

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