In a few years, we'll all own a fireproof black box containing a big hard drive. It'll be tucked away in a closet, and we'll never think...

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In a few years, we’ll all own a fireproof black box containing a big hard drive. It’ll be tucked away in a closet, and we’ll never think about it once it’s installed.

The hidden hard drive will be connected to our home computer network and will automatically and invisibly do two very important things: Make backup copies of our files, so we never lose precious data when any of our computers break down; and serve as a library for sharing music, digital pictures, video and other files.

Such a magic box is almost within reach today, but not quite, as demonstrated by the new Maxtor Shared Storage drive (, or MSS.

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As more families acquire multiple computers and set up home networks, there’s a growing opportunity for what techies call Network Attached Storage, or NAS. It’s a fancy name for an external hard drive that connects to a network rather than an individual computer and can therefore be accessed by any computer on the network.

NAS drives were initially built only for businesses and intended for installation by networking professionals, so they were both expensive and complicated. A new class of affordable home NAS drives, mostly priced at $250 to $500, has emerged in the past two years — although many of these drives retain a degree of complexity that will baffle nonexpert users.

The increasingly crowded field of home NAS suppliers, beyond Milpitas, Calif.-based Maxtor, includes Buffalo Technology, D-Link, Iogear, Iomega, LaCie, Linksys, Mirra and Ximeta.

Some of the products, such as the MSS, are more focused on easy sharing of files than backup. Others, such as Mirra, emphasize easy backup over sharing. As far as I can tell, there isn’t yet a product that makes it simple and obvious to do both.

Maxtor now offers backup and sharing separately. The company’s well-regarded Maxtor OneTouch and OneTouch II external hard drives allow quick backup of your files by providing software to automate the process. But the OneTouch drives connect only to a computer, not a network.

The MSS, introduced recently, does a good job on sharing, but — unlike the OneTouch — doesn’t come with backup software.

You get two choices with the MSS: 200 gigabytes for $299 or 300 gigabytes for $399. Both models weigh just under 4 pounds and come in sturdy but slender silver cases that can slide into any nook.

The physical setup is simple. You plug in the MSS power cord, connect its Ethernet cable to your home router and press the power button on the front. This might be the last time you’ll touch the MSS.

You then install a small piece of software on each computer in your network that you want to link with the MSS. This requires Windows 98 Second Edition, Windows Millennium Edition, Windows 2000 or Windows XP. The MSS isn’t compatible with the Macintosh or Linux.

The software puts two icons on your screen: one for the drive itself, another for a program called Maxtor Quick Start that lets you change the MSS’s settings.

The whole process, from setting up the drive to installing the software on two computers, took me just under half an hour. At the conclusion, the MSS showed up as the Z:\ drive on the desktop computer in my home office and on the notebook computer in my kitchen.

I dragged several MP3 music tracks and JPEG digital pictures to the MSS icon on my desktop computer. Thanks to a clever feature from Maxtor called Drag and Sort, the songs were automatically sent to the My Music folder on the MSS and the photos to the My Pictures folder. I could then play the songs and view the pictures on the notebook computer, without having to copy the files to the notebook’s overflowing internal hard drive, even when my desktop computer was turned off.

This is where the MSS shines. Any files copied to the MSS are always available to everyone on the network. No more trying to figure out which file is on what computer, or having to start up a computer elsewhere in the house to retrieve a file on that computer’s drive.

There are also two USB ports on the back of the MSS. These can be used to attach more external hard drives for expanded storage, or USB printers to be shared by all computers on the network.

However, I discovered the instruction manual’s directions for connecting a USB printer were incomplete. I couldn’t succeed in connecting a printer without calling Maxtor tech support; the company said it hadn’t been aware of the problem but promised to post corrected instructions online.

The MSS can also be used for automated backup, but only if you go to the trouble of acquiring and installing backup software on your own. Windows XP comes with a basic utility called Windows XP Backup. Detailed instructions for installing and using the program can be found by entering the search term Windows XP Backup on Microsoft’s home page ( You can also buy more powerful backup software from a variety of vendors, typically for $50 to $100.

Maxtor’s OneTouch line comes with a good backup program called Dantz Retrospect Express ( I spoke to a Maxtor executive who said the company decided not to include Retrospect Express with the MSS because it might be confusing. I think that’s a mistake, because it forces customers wanting to use the MSS for backup — a very logical thing to do with a NAS drive — to jump through extra hoops.

If Maxtor starts including a free copy of Retrospect Express with the MSS and fixes the instruction manual, the company might rise to the top of the NAS heap — and my future magic box might be Maxtor silver instead of anonymous black.