QNAP's TS-509 Pro, like most NAS units, is a big box. In this case, it's a gun-metal grey chassis with a black plastic fascia. A silver power button, activity lights for hard drive, USB and network access are on the front, with a USB port and a programmable quick copy button situated at the bottom. Five lockable, quick load hard drive caddies are included, with grilles at the front for airflow.
A status screen is featured at the top; however, it only turns on when you press a button. The display lags and ghosts heavily, indicating its cheapness — it's certainly not as easily laid out or informative as the ReadyNAS Pro's screen, but by and large does the job. By default it displays the NAS unit's name and IP addresses. A configuration menu can also be entered, under which TCP/IP settings can be viewed and configured, and disk, volume, temperature and fan rpm stats can also be viewed.
On the rear, two gigabit Ethernet ports are supplied which support load balancing/failover, four USB ports and an eSATA port. The latter should be extremely useful for quickly dumping files to disk, should you have an eSATA external drive lying around. There is also a serial port on the rear, and interestingly a DB9 port for which its purpose is only listed as "reserved", usually meaning it has some sort of internal testing purpose.
Our TS-509 Pro arrived with version 2.1 of its firmware installed — a powerful but somewhat dull interface. We updated to version 3.1, and wow, what a difference! QNAP seems intent on not only challenging Synology, but beating them in the AJAX stakes, with a flashy and attractive menu system now in place and making it easy to use.
The web interface starts on a basic menu selection screen that "borrows" from Apple's Cover Flow, acting as a gateway into the NAS administration page, web server administration, web-based file management and providing links to customer service, the QNAP wiki and QNAP forum. While it looks fancy, it slows down the entry to the administration menu by adding a needless step and all options are present on the NAS administration page anyway.
The initial web UI home page provides quick links to commonly used tasks — creating a user, group or shared folder; FTP administration and backup scheduling options. A nice touch is the news panel down the bottom, which tells you not only when new firmware or utilities have been released, but when third-party extras have been as well. Annoyingly, the latter are linked to QNAP's forums, of which you have to register to be able to see. Ultimately this is of benefit though, as the forums are well populated and QNAP representatives appear to be quick to respond to users' queries.
Configuration options are otherwise provided on the left in a typical tree view, the right side acting as an information pane, making it easy to find anything you need. This is important, since as a NAS it's heavily featured and managing those features can be a nightmare without a good interface.
On the networking side, the QNAP supports whitelist/blacklist access through either IP or domain, can block IPs based on failed log-ins, supports SSL certificates, offers CIFS/AFP/NFS protocols, UPnP discovery, wake on LAN, dynamic DNS server support and allows email alerts as well as SMS alerts — although for the latter you'll need to point it towards your own provider, and often this service is not free.
System options include fan configuration speeds, scheduled power up/down, recycle bin functionality, NAS configuration backup, user/group management (although share folder permissions are not as granular as sub-folders, only top-level), backup options including remote replication, printer sharing and USB volume support. QNAP also includes a performance monitor to see how your NAS is doing on the bandwidth front, and an incredible set of stats and logs to help you analyse any issues.
On the storage front, single disk, JBOD (called "linear volume" here), RAID 0, 1, 5 and 6 modes are all supported in an easy to manage fashion, and you can choose to either format with EXT3 or EXT4. You can create encrypted volumes, it can act as an iSCSI target and supports virtual disks. SMART diagnostic information is available, although only one drive at a time — we'd prefer an at-a-glance view of all drives.
For servers, the usual FTP/HTTP (with PHP and MySQL support)/SSH/iTunes/UPnP AV quintet is present, although just like the Synology DS209 extra functionality is offered via "stations". The included Multimedia Station is a misnomer — it's just an image viewer for pictures dumped in the Qmultimedia folder on the NAS.
The Download Station is a bit more interesting, allowing the NAS to manage HTTP, FTP or BitTorrent downloads. While you can pause or queue downloads and prioritise that queue, there is no way to schedule them. The system does allow you to right-click an entry to choose extra options, however, none of those options worked in Firefox 3 — forcing us to choose from the menu on the left.
There's also a Surveillance Station, should you have some IP cameras set up in your network. All of these "stations" look quite old, aren't consistent design-wise and haven't been overhauled like the NAS administration section. You also can't just return back to NAS administration — you have to go back to the useless start screen again, and most annoyingly, you're required to log in again.
Extra applications can be installed to the NAS via QNAP's QPKG package manager, offering CMS suites such as WordPress, a news group downloader and even an eMule client.
The TS-509 impressed with its performance, able to write our 1GB test file at a maximum of 85MBps over our Netgear GS108T, and read back at 101MBps while set to RAID 5 using five 1TB drives. No doubt this was helped along by its 1024MB of DDR2 RAM, and 1.6GHz Intel processor.
Despite the fancy hardware, the NAS remained quiet throughout use. It was definitely audible, but the slow rotation 40mm power supply fan and 120mm fan cooling the rest of the unit on the back keeps things within acceptable limits.
The QNAP TS-509 Pro comes highly recommended — it's a flexible NAS with an interface that's gaining usability as time goes on. Its weak point is in its add-ons — the Multimedia and Download Stations could do with a complete rework, just as the main interface has been. If you aren't deterred by these shortcomings, the TS-509 should definitely be on your list if you're looking at five-bay NAS devices.