You'd be forgiven for mistaking the D-Link DIR-685 Xtreme N Storage Router for a cheap digital photo frame, at least from just glancing at it. Dominated by a 3.2-inch LCD display, and lacking obvious giveaways such as external antennas, it's a stylish way to upgrade to draft-n WiFi. There's also plenty of interest inside, with an internal hard-drive bay and surprising file-sharing flexibility. Have D-Link forgotten their connectivity basics, however, in the rush to fill the spec-sheet? SlashGear set to finding out.
In the box there's the DIR-685 itself, a roughly 4.4 x 5.8 x 1.2 inch tower of gloss and matte black plastic, together with a CAT5 Ethernet cable for connecting it to your modem, a stand to keep it upright and a power adapter. There's also a CD with D-Link's setup wizard, although we found it easier to tap in the router IP, username and password defaults as conveniently printed on the back of the unit.
As well as the standard high-end home router connectivity - WiFi b/g/n, four gigabit Ethernet ports, WEP/WPA/WPA2 wireless security and a NAT firewall - there are also two USB 2.0 ports which can be used to add external hard-drives or printers and share them across the network. More unusually, there's a 2.5-inch hard-drive bay inside, which allows you to treat the DIR-685 as a basic NAS.
Slotting in a spare HDD and powering up the router kick-starts its setup wizard, offering to format the drive and then mounting it. Formatting takes around five minutes, drive size depending, and after that the volume shows up as a normal network drive on any connected computers. You're getting more than a simple file sharing system, too; the DIR-685 supports UPnP and iTunes media streaming to computers or compatible media players, together with a BitTorrent manager meaning you can download files without having your computer turned on. There's no way to queue up downloads from the DIR-685 itself, mind, but given the limited controls that's no great hardship.
As for those controls, it's worth noting that they're not the most responsive we've ever experienced. In fact, they're incredibly frustrating, and the combination of missed-touches and occasional lags in the DIR-685's firmware can leave you uncertain if you should tap again, wait, or simply pull the plug and reboot.
Thankfully you can set up and control most of the display functionality from the FrameChannel web portal. At its most family-friendly you can use the DIR-685 as a digital photo frame, either uploading your own snaps, allowing friends and family to email their shots to your FrameChannel account, or pulling them from Flickr. There are plenty of settings for adjusting the frequency and priority each of these are shown, and you can also mix in weather reports (which are based on ZIP code) and RSS feeds. FrameChannel also supports Facebook status updates and Twitter, though it's a one-way system as there's no way to respond; three messages are shown on-screen at any one time.
The scheduling settings for FrameChannel are deceptively comprehensive. After telling the site what you consider to be "morning", "daytime" and "evening" via simple sliders, you can then have different sources show up at different periods of the day or on certain days of the week. That way, you could have work-related RSS feeds dominate the display Monday to Friday, then allow family photos to take over at the weekend. One upcoming feature is the ability to set a "blank screen" period, which will be useful for shutting off the display when everybody is in bed.
We're a little surprised D-Link didn't build a pair of stereo speakers into the DIR-685 - or at least a 3.5mm audio output - and allow you to use it as a standalone media player and Internet radio. After all, we imagine plenty of people will end up loading their MP3 collection onto its internal drive. It would also be useful to drown out the DIR-685's most frustrating feature, its extremely loud fan. It's hard to convey how annoying this is; seemingly pre-emptively temperature related, the fan kicks into action whenever the hard-drive is accessed or during high-volume data transfers. You'll definitely hear it over your laptop, and we'd hate to think that D-Link opted for a lesser fan in order to save a few cents on hardware costs.
Of course, in the end this is a wireless router, and so has to be judged primarily on that instead of just its whiz-bang feature set. The good news is the WiFi b/g/n support and gigabit Ethernet ports; the bad news is that there's neither WiFi A nor 5GHz on offer. The absence of the former is unlikely to affect most home users, but leaving out 5GHz support seems a clueless decision for a flagship router. In a nutshell, the DIR-685 uses the 2.4GHz frequency band (as do various intercoms, short-range radios and other wireless gadgets); high-end rival routers offer the 5GHz, as an either/or or a dual-radio setting, which allows you to switch high-priority traffic (such as streaming HD video or VoIP) to the more stable higher frequency.
Admittedly, you'll need a 5GHz-compatible WiFi adapter on any device you want to use with such a router, and they're still in the minority compared to 2.4GHz, but to simply omit the technology altogether seems short-sighted on D-Link's part. Still, performance on both the wired and wireless sides was excellent, with better coverage than we've seen on most WiFi routers. We used a Seagate Momentus 5,400rpm 80GB drive that D-Link supplied for our testing, and BitTorrent proved particularly impressive, notching up download speeds up to six times faster than with our Belkin comparison router.
There's always a fear with convergent products like the DIR-685 that they could be "jack of all trades and master of none". To be fair, there are some things the D-Link does more seriously than others; we can't see its 3.2-inch display replacing a standalone digital photo-frame, and the internal hard-drive is obviously limited to the maximum capacity of a 2.5-inch HDD rather than a more capacious (and faster) 3.5-inch. The 2.4GHz limit is also annoying, considering the price, while the whining fan is just plain unacceptable.
Nonetheless, if you have sensible expectations for the onboard storage - and don't forget, with user-account control, BitTorrent, FTP, remote network management and more, this is still better than a simple USB drive - and can tune out the fan noise then the D-Link DIR-685 is an excellent router and a capable media streamer. The display may seem gimmicky but all but the most jaded will find some useful application for it. It's certainly not cheap - MRSP is $299.99, though you can find it for significantly less online - but it delivers plenty for the money.