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My friend is going to china for a year and needs to have a large storage device to access lots of movies, music etc... from his iPad.

Wireless harddrives are available such as this one, they seem great but the problem is they have a pretty high price tag. I was thinking, would it be possible to get a router then just plug the external HD into it and share it over the WiFi network, then use an app on the iPad to access the drive?

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Just get a router that has a USB port, this will allow any USB storage device, to become a NAS. You can also get non-wireless NAS devices for much cheaper. I personally would not trust a wireless network in China unless I used a very long passphrase. – Ramhound Jul 23 '13 at 11:32
And this will work without an internet connection? Just the router and the HD eg… and… – Supertod Jul 23 '13 at 13:33
You should be able to connect to a router without an internet connection. The reason the linked product is so expensive is because it broadcasts its own wireless network, so its basically a router, and can function without an external internet connection. My suggestion is not guaranteed to work with an iPad because there won't be a dedecated application to stream the content, my suggestion, might require an iOS application or evne a PC to implement – Ramhound Jul 23 '13 at 13:42

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