Review: WD PiDrive Node Zero


When the Western Digital Corporation announced Raspberry Pi products, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. In my mind, WD had always been synonymous with quality and reliability when it came to big storage, but what would their foray into the world of Raspberry Pi bring?

Not to long ago, and as a bold move, WD spawned its WDLabs team – dedicated to making products specifically catered to the Raspberry Pi community. Indeed, it put a huge smile on many faces – including my own. So as you can imagine, I’ve been eager to play with some of their products for a while now. Thanks to the nice folks over at WD, I now get the chance.

Overview

WDLabs & Community

As ripped from their site, the WDLabs team is billed as an internal team of innovators assembled to create exciting new products while engaging directly with lead users to get honest feedback, and to explore new trends and ideas.

All this may sound like Ivey League marketing MBA lingo to you and me, but they’ve made good on their promise. WD actually introduced the WDLabs Community Forums where anyone can partake in the free exchange of ideas – deomonstrating a genuine interest to really engage with the Raspberry Pi community. I like where this is going already….

Now let’s take a look at one of WDLabs’ key products: The WD PiDrive Node Zero.

What It Is

According to WD, the WD PiDrive Node Zero is a compact, all-in-one unit that includes a WD PiDrive connected to a Raspberry Pi Zero through a custom adapter board with 2 USB ports. This unit offers an affordable, low-power storage node with on-board compute capabilities. Ideal for video recording, data logging, offline analytics, and applications where stand-alone operation are needed because of network limitations or privacy/security restrictions.

But what the WD PiDrive Node Zero is really, is an ingenious-compact-amalgamation of a Pi Zero, a USB hub, and a 2.5″ hard drive (probably VESA mount-able) that can be hidden away behind an LCD/TV or plopped into a tiny enclosure for no one to see.

I can’t help to think that the WD PiDrive Node Zero was initially intended for non-networked / headless applications.

However, the following applications quickly come to mind:

  • Data logging weather station
  • Self-contained video / monitoring system (with a camera connected)
  • Retro-gaming system using Recalbox or RetroPie capable of housing your entire game library
  • JukeBox with something like Volumio or PiMiusicBox streaming your whole music collection

Technical Specs

The WD PiDrive Node Zero looks as follows disassembled but don’t fret, that’s not how you get it – no assembly required!

WD PiDrive Node Zero Disassembled

WD PiDrive Node Zero Disassembled

The kit comes with the following:

  • WD PiDrive 314GB
  • Raspberry Pi Zero
  • USB Adapter board (PCBA) with full sized ports
  • 4GB microSD card (with preloaded software)
  • Mini HDMI adapter cable

Contrary to the image above, the WD PiDrive Node Zero comes to you as a single, ready to go unit – which is great. This is how you will get the unit.

Notice the last image and port layout, all ports are laid out on one side of the unit: 2 x USB, power and HDMI – some serious thought went into the design.

However, the power LED can be a bit too bright for those planning on using it on covert operations…

WD Pi Drive Node Zero: Powered

WD Pi Drive Node Zero: Powered

Software

Fortunately the WD PiDrive Node Zero comes with a customized version of the popular NOOBS (New Out of Box Software). For the unintiated, NOOBS is designed to make it easy to select and install operating systems for the Raspberry Pi without having to worry about manually imaging your SD card.

All that’s needed to get going is just to plug in the power (adapter not included), screen and keyboard and work through the OS setup.

OS & Project Spaces

A “Project Space” is essentially a clean (untampered) install of Raspbian Jessie Lite in its own partition – what they commonly refer to as a vanilla install. The brilliance of this is that you can have many versions of the OS living in parallel on the disk – isolated from one another and in separate environments. Your projects co-exist independently and will not conflict with one another – great idea!

More so, each project space will have its very own /boot and /root partitions, thus allowing you to customize your settings for each.

If you check all the boxes and hit install (don’t forget to set the destination drive to the 314GB disk: sda,) you’ll get a single full blown version of the official Raspberry Pi OS; Raspbian (with a Graphical User Interface). In addition to that, you’ll get a partition for storage (in essence a shared area for files across multiple installations) and five instances of Raspbian Lite; which is a slimmed down command line only version of Raspbian.

The initial installation screen is presented to you as a one-time process on boot-up and requires a special keystroke to get back into it afterwards. If you skipped over this setup or would like to make future changes, you can hold down shift when you boot up and it will show you the setup screen once more.

On every subsequent boot-up you’ll be shown a similar menu to select which OS to boot into. If you do nothing, then the previously selected OS will boot by default.

Post Install

I opted to install the main Raspbian OS, Data Partition and the first project space. Installation took about 20 minutes give or take. Once completed you are greeted with the Raspbian Pixel UI environment. Granted, the Raspberry Pi Zero isn’t much of a workhorse, so expect the UI to be sluggish. Of course being marketed as a solution for headless applications, most will opt to use a project space running Raspbian Lite with only the command line interface and not the full blown UI.

Raspbian Pixel OS

Raspbian Pixel OS

BTW, these are the default credentials needed to log in via the command line.

username: pi
password: raspberry

Partitions

Now for some techie stuff…(steer away if this bores you)

After installation, you may find yourself perplexed looking at the number of partitions the installer created. I’ll try to clear that up for you.

Taking my example, the following partitions were created:

Post Install: Fdisk Partitions

Post Install: Fdisk Partitions

In the above, mmcblk0p5 is (always set as) NOOBS settings partition, sda8 (7.8G, Linux) is the first 8GB Project Space, sda7 (19.5G, Linux) is the shared data partition and sda6 (264.9G remaining space, Linux) is Raspbian PIXEL. This would be different if you installed different project spaces.

For example, if I boot into Rasobian Pixel and navigate to the /boot partition, then from there inspect the NOOBS config file: os_config.json

cat /boot/os_config.json

I would see the following:

{
 "description" : "A community-created port of Debian jessie for the Raspberry Pi  ",
 "flavour" : "Raspbian",
 "imagefolder" : "/mnt/os/Raspbian",
 "keyboard" : "us",
 "language" : "us",
 "partitions" : [
"/dev/mmcblk0p6",
"/dev/sda6"
 ],
 "release_date" : "2016-09-30",
 "videomode" : 0
}

You’ll soon notice that the /boot partition is on the SD card in partition mmcblk0p6 and the /root is located on the disk in partition sda6.

You can do the same for the other /boot partitions. In my case, I only installed one additional project space and Raspbian Pixel has mounted it on /media/pi/boot0.

Better yet, and as we now know, mmcblk0p5 (mounted on /media/pi/SETTINGS1) is the NOOBS settings partition. This should be consistent across all installations. Inspecting the file installed_os.json within that directory will reveal all the installed OSes and their respective partitions. Have a look for yourself!

cat /media/pi/SETTINGS1/installed_os.json

In short, this is how settings for each OS are kept independent from on another. NOOBS is awesome!

Disassembling

I imagine some would want to replace the included RPi Zero with the RPi Zero W or want to upgrade the hard drive. But according to WDLabs, the PCBA wasn’t designed for RPi or drive swapping. Nevertheless, it could be carefully done. See the excerpt below describing the process, taken from the WDLabs community forums:

The Pi Zero can be removed from the Node Zero’s USB adapter board. The two microB connector sets between the Pi Zero and the USB board create a very tight connection (each connector set is fairly tight to begin with). Use a wide flat-blade screwdriver with the tip inserted between the two boards right next to the microB connector set closest to the side of the HDD. The screwdriver shaft is oriented perpendicular to the Pi Zero. One edge of the screwdriver blade is pushing on the edge of the PiZero board right next to the female microB (by turning the screwdriver clockwise) and the other edge ends up pushing on the face of the USB adapter board. Be careful that the screwdriver doesn’t hit any components on the USB adapter board (there’s a clear spot in that area). Then you need to do a “rocking” motion where you create a little movement/progress with the screwdriver, then pull the opposite end of the Pi Zero (with your left thumb, for example) to make a little movement/progress on the other microB connector set. It’s a little tricky holding everything while doing this, but not too bad. Then go back and forth prying each side and gradually getting enough back and forth rotation of the Pi Zero to disengage both connections. It ain’t pretty, but I’ve done it many, many times.

 

Final Thoughts

What follows below are my thoughts on this product after tinkering with it for some time.

Networking

The unit I got came with the Raspberry Pi Zero and as many of you know (or may not), the first incarnation of the RPi Zero had no Wireless/BlueTooth – a real bummer to be sure! Of course, nothing stops you from procuring a WiFi/BlueTooth doogle and slapping it into a USB port, but it would certainly be more than ideal to have network capability built-in and free up a USB port.

An Ethernet port perhaps would have been overkill but wireless would have been a wonderful addition. Although, if Ethernet is a real concern for your project then Ethernet dongles like this or this do exist and can be had for relatively cheap.

To be clear, this is by no means a shot against the PiDrive Node Zero. Had the RPI Zero W (version with wireless) been available at the time, WDLabs undoubtedly would have opted for this choice. I can only hope that a future version with the RPi Zero W is just around the corner.

Lots of Space

I think the real selling point here is the benefit of added disk space – all packed into a single unit. Having this much disk space (not to mention, the reliability that comes from mechanical disks) really adds another dimension to projects previously needing some form of online storage.

Rundown

Ok, so here’s the rundown…

Pros:

  • Great innovative product by WD
  • The hub is cleverly designed
  • Customized NOOBS card which makes installing a breeze
  • Pre-assembled; comes with all your need to quickly get started with a Raspberry Pi
  • Mini HDMI to HDMI adaptor cable is also included
  • Mechanical disk: lots of disk space – micro SD corruption less of an issue
  • Concept of “Project Spaces” saves the need to keep stacks of SD cards
  • Low-powered (consumption without peripherals between 300mA – 350mA)
  • Affordable (coming in at $45 USD)

Cons:

  • Disassembling awkward – not user friendly
  • Lack of networking
  • USB OTG is not implemented for USB ports
  • Kit doesn’t include a power adapter (5V at least 2.0Amps)
  • Limited by the USB 2.0 bus

Conclusion

Out of the box, this product works fantastically. The inclusion of the customized NOOBS installer was a smart move as installation couldn’t be any easier. Disassembling the unit could be tricky and the inclusion of networking would have made it a solid 5-star product in my mind.

Overall, I applaud WDC’s (WDLabs) effort for a well thought-out, cleverly designed product, coupled with an online community standing ready to support the product. This makes it a real winner in my book. I have no doubt that the WD PiDrive Node Zero will bring many of you tinkerers much happiness. Personally, I hope to replace an aging Raspberry Pi with this product for my DIY Alarm Monitoring System project which currently needs online storage for recording.

Two thumbs up from me, well done WDLabs!

You can buy the WDLabs PiDrive Node Zero from the WDC site via the following link and the enclosure here.

Thank you to WDC Public Relations for sending in this product for review. The content above represents my own opinion and not that of the WDC company.

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