Judging by the fact that this "router" is really four (or more) devices in one, we wouldn't expect it to look like an average router. And lo and behold, it doesn't. Rather than lying flat as most routers do, this device stands tall much like a thickened digital photo frame. D-Link includes a handy stand to keep it slightly propped back, and the omission of any external antennas gives it an atypically clean look. The array of ports (an AC input, two USB 2.0 sockets, a WAN port and four gigabit Ethernet jacks) are all lined up across the bottom, while the most unusual aspect of the whole device is front and center.
Indeed, a full-on color LCD (3.2-inches) isn't what you'd usually expect to see on a WLAN router, but it's a welcome extra here. D-Link ships the DIR-685 with FrameChannel, a rather intuitive software inclusion that allows users to add "channels" such as Facebook / Twitter status updates, RSS updates, weather forecasts, sports headlines, etc. via the internet. You simply get a registration code from your device, create a free account online and start the tweaking. Within minutes you can customize your own personal secondary display, even giving priority to certain channels (Facebook, for instance) while telling other channels to flash less often and for shorter amounts of time (your photos, for example).
Oddly, D-Link chose not to include a touchscreen, but to implement a small cadre of touch-sensitive buttons in order to control the menus. As much as we adore touch-sensing buttons, we're hard pressed to think of any that are less responsive than these. When attempting to cycle through the UI, we had to mash harder and tap buttons multiple times for it to accept an input. Thankfully, users won't generally be using those buttons very often after the initial setup is complete, but they're definitely lacking in the whole "sensitivity" department.
Widgets and features
Without question, the standout feature on the DIR-685 is its ability to showcase widgets and other pertinent information (status, network speeds, settings, etc.) on the included 3.2-inch LCD. While setting up our own frame via the FrameChannel web portal, we were pleased with the simple nature of the process and somewhat surprised by how quickly our adjustments took effect on the device. We do wish that more channels were available, but the ability to add any RSS feed on the world wide web removes the sting of that somewhat.
The panel itself is perfectly fine for this application. It could definitely stand to be a touch brighter and sharper, but it's not like you're going to be glancing at this an awful lot. Unlike bona fide secondary displays, you're pretty limited with what content can be shown here. No IM windows, no web browsers, just FrameChannel, RSS feeds and router statistics. As a means for seeing glanceable information, it's suitable but far from perfect. For instance, the Twitter FrameChannel shows the three most recent tweets from folks that you're following, which means that the text is so scrunched that it's not readable unless you're within two feet of the screen. Other channels do it right, however, as the New York Times Sports feed shows a single headline and introductory blurb per window, which is easy to make out from a reasonable distance.
The other most interesting addition to this router is the internal HDD slot, which is willing to accept any 2.5-inch SATA hard drive you feel like shoving in there. We understand the reasoning behind the 2.5-inch choice; it's quite a bit smaller than the 3.5-inch HDDs found in traditional desktops, but they're also less likely to be collecting dust in your attic. In other words, you'll probably have to budget for buying your own 2.5-inch HDD to slot in here if you're looking to take full advantage of the NAS capabilities, but if you've been meaning to upgrade your laptop drive to an SSD anyway, this may be the opportunity of a lifetime. We tested the device with a 500GB Seagate Momentus 5400.6, which packs 8MB of cache, a 5400RPM spindle speed and a SATA 3Gbps interface. We also utilized a 500GB Seagate FreeAgent Go external hard drive to see how the device reacted to having a drive connected externally.
Sliding the drive within the router was a cinch. Simply pop open the cover, push it in and go about your day. When we first started up the router, it asked us if we'd like to format the drive on its 3.2-inch LCD, and we managed to press "yes" and wait five or so minutes for the process to complete. Once that was taken care of, the drive was immediately recognized as a network space by our Ethernet-connected Windows XP machine and our WiFi-connected MacBook Pro. Of course, connecting via OS X wasn't quite as easy, as it required us to pull up 'Connect to Server' (Command + K) and type smb:// followed by the router's IP address, which was located within the device's Admin web portal.
If you manage to splurge for a hard drive here, you'll also be able to setup an FTP server, a UPnP streaming device and even a BitTorrent manager. Needless to say, having an HDD enables the DIR-685 to become much more than a simple router. With a drive, you instantly pick up an iTunes server, a media streamer and a P2P file manager -- not bad!
Performance and impressions
Overall, D-Link did an excellent job shoving four devices into one without sacrificing quality in any one area in particular. Could the LCD stand to be better? For sure. It's hardly a suitable substitute for a genuine digital photo frame, but it does manage to showcase a shocking amount of web content in fine fashion. The touch-sensitive keys could also use a serious overhaul, but after our initial setup, we rarely found ourselves having to rely on them. As for wireless performance? We've nothing but kudos here, as the range proved excellent (we couldn't find a dead / slow spot in our entire house, and even the back yard was sufficiently covered) and the transfer rates snappy. We will say, however, that this was the noisiest router we'd ever had the displeasure of hearing. When transferring files to the internal HDD, the unit hummed aloud at an alarming level, one that was audible a few rooms over. If you've got a wind tunnel of a desktop, you may not notice it, but laptop users will certainly hear the whir above everything else when utilizing the internal HDD. Also of note, the FrameChannel app was somewhat sluggish to tinker with on the device itself, but again, you'll hardly have to deal with that once you've got it arranged how you like it.
As you can see above, the file transfer rates here pale in comparison to some of the more professional NAS drives. Of course, those utilize Intel CPUs, 256MB (or more) of RAM and speedy 3.5-inch hard drives. This, on the other hand, is a router at heart that just so happens to handle networked storage on the side. Considering the underpowered innards and the reliance on a 2.5-inch hard drive, the results are pretty impressive. In fact, they line up quite well to the few other 2.5-inch NAS devices out there. Like we mentioned before, this is hardly the device to get if you're in the market for a bona fide NAS drive that you'll need for redundant storage. But if you figure a little NAS support wouldn't hurt on your next wireless router, you can't really go wrong here.
So, after all of this, is the DIR-685 really worth the coinage? If you're actively searching for a new router, a new media streamer and a new NAS drive, absolutely. D-Link's latest may not give you the same amount of flexibility as a SMB-oriented QNAP NAS nor a Popcorn Hour A-110, but for the basic consumer looking to simply back up a few files over the 'net and stream their iTunes to networked machines, the value proposition here is hard to beat. As a router, it performs admirably; during our days of testing, we didn't experience a single connection dropout over WiFi. As a NAS drive, it handles the basics like a champ, and offers plenty of options for all but the most professional storage junkies. The ability to view widgets on the integrated screen is just another bonus of ownership, and one we definitely learned to appreciate. At near $300 (MSRP), the price of admission is indeed a bit steep, but you definitely get a sleek, multifaceted package for the price.