Streaming media from a network HDD

I currently have a Mac Mini (purchased new 5 days ago) acting as a HTPC attached to my LCD TV. I also have a Windows 7 computer in my office and an iPad floating around the house. All of these are connected to a D-Link DIR-655 Wireless-N router.

My goal is to have a large (2TB) HDD somewhere on the network that will host media to these connected devices. Currently, I have a directory on the Windows 7 machine that is shared to the network. This works fine at first, but after a while, for whatever reason, the Mac Mini has trouble finding the share. I think it has something to do with the W7 machine going to sleep and then coming back online, but I don't know for sure. It could be a problem on the Mac side. The problem with OSX losing the SMB connection has been well documented in forums around the tubes. In an effort to get away from this setup entirely, I'm wondering if a networked external drive plugged into the router would fit my needs.

Here's what I'd like the setup to look like:
- Large capacity drive shared to all devices on the home network
- Low power consumption, sleep mode when not in use
- Stays in power-save mode until triggered by a file request from another device on the network
- Networked devices don't lose the connection requiring a restart

Would a simple USB external drive plugged into my router do the trick? I've never used an external drive and I don't really know how they work. I can' t sacrifice functionality, but I'd really like to minimize power consumption. I want my devices to sleep when not in use, but I don't want to have to manually reconnect every time.
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  1. I would've thought this question to be one of the easier ones to answer. Anybody know anything about how external drives work?
  2. its sort of offtopic but freenas supports all this.

    I purchased a 80$ atom based computer put in a 25$ 2gb memory
    then popped in 2 500gb drives I had sitting here.. voila instant nas.

    it does take some reading to setup everything. its freebsd based.

    total cost if you find a deal about 120$ + drive and some time fiddling with it.

    otherwise you could snag something like a dlink 321.. I'm pretty sure that would do everything you want.. and its more appliance like.
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