Network Attached Storage - Buyers Guide

Why Get A NAS?

If you’re like most people you probably have multiple computers, laptops, and mobile devices in your home. As a result, your most important data files, music, photos, and videos are scattered across several devices in a chaotic manner. If that’s the case, most of that data can only be accessed by whoever owns or frequents the device it’s on. If something happens to that device the data is gone.

 

If you’re a parent you may have things on your network you don’t want your kids to have access to. If you live alone you probably have most of your data spread across multiple devices with no centralized system of organization or backups.

 

That’s where a NAS device comes in. A NAS provides a central storage area to organize, share, and back up your most valuable data, music, photo, and video files. You can use permissions and policies to set up file shares that can only be accessed by certain members of your family. Once everything is set up you’ll have peace of mind knowing all your most important data secure, easy to find and is being backed up regularly. You’ll be able to find anything you’re looking for from any device in your home and even devices away from home if you so desire.

A home network can be awesome without a NAS but any home network with a NAS is an Awesome Home Network.

Redundancy

Another big advantage of using a NAS device for backups is “redundancy.” Most NAS devices have multiple hard drives and use a special hard disk configuration called RAID. RAID stands for Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks.” RAID can be used to expand the storage space of several smaller drives into one larger disk. This is called RAID 0. RAID 0 maximizes space and improves performance but it’s not recommended if you’re concerned about redundancy. If a RAID 0 disk fails it takes all your data with it because it was being shared by both drives.

RAID 1 is also known as mirroring. It makes an exact duplicate of one drive on the other drive so if one fails you still have your data on the other drive. If the drive bay is “hot-swappable” getting your RAID configuration back is a simple matter of sliding the old drive out and another drive back in. The thing to know about RAID 1 is it cuts your hard drive space in half. If you have two 4TB drives in your NAS set up in RAID 1 your total disk space is 4TB and not 8TB. I get into more detail about RAID and how to set it up on a Synology NAS in my Free eBook.

What Can You Do With A NAS?

Before getting just any NAS device it’s important to decide what you plan on doing with one first. After exploring all the capabilities of your new NAS you may decide you want to do “everything” with it including wash the dishes. It’s easy to get carried away with one of these devices. That’s OK because most NAS devices can multi-task and aren’t tied down to a specific function. Still, it’s important to understand which features are most important to your priorities and budget. The most popular uses for a Network Attached Store Device are:

Backups

Things happen in this world and unfortunately, some of those things are computer crashes and hard drive failures.

 

Most of us have some sort of cloud storage these days but is that the perfect solution? Do you really want your most personal data “out there” with everyone else?

 

Many of us have a LOT of files and the more files you have the more you have to pay for a cloud storage server per month. A NAS is a perfect way to store back up ALL your data on a scheduled basis.

 

Many NAS devices come with excellent programs for backing up personal or business data. You can also use the backup software that comes with Windows to back up to your NAS.

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Personal Cloud

Most of us use some sort of cloud service like Google Drive or Dropbox to store files and sync them to our computers. The problem is they charge a monthly fee when your files take up too much space on their servers.

 

Some NAS devices have applications that allow them to become cloud servers in your own home. Synology calls its cloud application Cloud Station. It works with Cloud Station Drive to create an environment for you to store your files and folders and sync them with all your computers just like Google Drive or Dropbox.

 

You can also sync your Synology Cloud Server with other Synology Cloud servers and access your files from across the Internet using a web browser.

File Sharing

With a NAS you can give your My Documents folder and assorted shortcuts on your desktop a break and put it all on your NAS in an organized folder structure that’s easy to navigate from any computer.

 

You can set up your own categories in a centralized location and set up accounts to give certain people specific levels of access to certain folders.

 

Maybe you don’t mind your kids viewing certain documents and photos but with a NAS you can prevent them from accidentally deleting them or dumping their own files in that folder.

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Multimedia Player

Most NAS devices come with some sort of multimedia software package. Even without one, a NAS that supports DNLA can be used with whatever multimedia players you have on your computers and laptops. Simply point at the file you want and click on it.

Things change when you try to do the same thing with phones and other mobile devices. Many times a mobile device cannot play a certain file format or the file is too big. That’s where “transcoding” comes in.

Transcoding automatically changes a file on your NAS to a format that works on your mobile device. If this is important to you look for a NAS that has a processor that contains a “Hardware Transcoding Engine.” This will take the load off the processor when transcoding files and keep your processor from being overloaded.

Plex is a popular web browser-based multimedia software you can use to categorize and organize your favorite multimedia files. It’s a little work to get set up but once it’s done you’ll be able to sort your favorite movies, videos, music, and photos but category, date, and genre. A Plex installation also includes an online account you can use to easily access your music, photo, and video libraries from anywhere. Not all NAS devices support Plex. If you’re getting a Synology NAS check this list to make sure it supports Plex.

Storage

If you’re using a NAS for a home business or small business purposes storage space becomes extremely important. I remember an IT job I had where some of the employees were complaining that the server I was purchasing was overkill and a waste of money. They thought there was no way we would ever need that amount of hard drive space.

 

Three years later the server’s hard drives were full and we were scrambling around trying to find duplicate files to delete because replacing RAIDed hard drives with larger ones is not an easy upgrade.

 

If you’re in the video or photography business you already know how big those files can get how they eat up storage space. 

To future proof yourself it’s best to get a NAS with four or more drive bays. You don’t have to use them all at once but you’ll be able to add drives later fairly easily. At the very least you want an expandable two-bay or four-bay NAS that allows you to connect expansion bays later.

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A Word About Transcoding - OK More Than One

Anytime you get near a group of computer enthusiasts bragging about their Plex servers you’re likely to hear the word “transcoding” dropped a few times. It’s a big topic that’s important to understand when choosing a NAS server to run Plex so allow me to condense and simplify it as much as possible.

 

Desktop PCs generally have the power and capability to playback any media file you store on your NAS. Mobile devices generally have less processor power and can struggle while playing back large media files that require higher resolution than they are capable of.

 

Transforming a media file from a format that PCs and laptops prefer to a format a mobile device prefers is called “transcoding.” Transcoding performs this transformation on the fly with no intervention from you. It’s pretty amazing technology. Still, there are things you need to be aware of. There are two main types of transcoding.

 

1. Hardware-based transcoding. Some processors have a special “hardware transcoding engine” built into them. This offloads the work of transcoding files from the main processor to the hardware transcoder. In Intel processors, this special capability is called “Quicksync”

 

2. Software-based transcoding. If a hardware transcoding engine is not available 3rd party software like Plex can emulate what a transcoding engine would normally do. Unfortunately, all this extra work is done by the processor and can cause your device to slow down considerably.

 

By far the preferred way to go is hardware transcoding. Always check the specs of the NAS device you’re looking into and make sure there is something along the lines of “10-bit H.265” in the Hardware Transcoding Engine column.

 

I’d like to end this section here, but unfortunately, there’s a major caveat. Plex will not “activate” the Hardware Transcoding Engine on your NAS unless you purchase a special “Plex Pass.” That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to transcode at all. Your NAS will just have to use more CPU power to do it natively – a lot more. Don’t be too alarmed though. For the most part, major transcoding is not needed until you start watching large 4K files on mobile devices while away from home. As long as your on your home network you should be able to transcode to any relatively new device with no problems.

Best NAS Devices At A Glance

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Synology DiskStation DS220j

Best Price 1 Synology DiskStation DS220j
8.5
Affordable Personal Cloud System
The Synology DS220j is an affordable, 2 bay NAS personal cloud device that's perfect for entry-level users. Like all Synology devices, it comes loaded with useful software and it's easy to set up. It's somewhat underpowered compared to high-end NAS devices but performs well as a backup, file sharing, and media playing device. The OS is very user-friendly and comes loaded with many apps to store and share your music, photos, and video files. Several RAID configuration options are available to provide hardware redundancy and backup software is also included.
Rating
8.5
PROS:
  • Affordable
  • Good performance
  • Easy setup
  • Many useful apps
CONS:
  • Drives not included
  • Tools needed
  • Only 1 LAN port
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BUFFALO LinkStation 220

2 BUFFALO LinkStation 220
8
BUFFALO LinkStation 220 4TB
NAS stands for Network Attached Storage and that's exactly what you get with the Buffalo Linkstation 220 - nothing more and nothing less. No fancy apps, no media server - just additional, fault-tolerant hard drive space added to your network. No painstaking setup or installing hard drives either. Simply take it out of the box, plug it in, turn it on and you're off and running. The Linkstation 200 comes "pre-populated" with 2 hard drives that are pre-configured with RAID 1. Once it's up and running you can map a network drive on your computers, place it in a corner of the room, and forget about it.
Rating
8
PROS:
  • Pre-populated hard drives
  • Pre-configured with RAID 1
  • Simplicity
  • Mobile apps
CONS:
  • No fancy apps
  • One USB 2.0 port
  • Low powered
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Asustor AS4002T NAS

3 Asustor AS4002T NAS
9
Asus Performance And Quality For The Price Conscious
The Asustor AS4002T NAS has a stylish, shiny black design and a handful of high-performance components you would expect from a top-notch manufacturer like Asus. Those components include a 10Gb Ethernet port, link aggregation that allows you to combine two Ethernet ports into one, and DDR4 memory. It's easy to set up and configure and offers a ton of apps to be used for regular backups of your network devices, synchronization with client devices, and various video, music, and file-sharing applications.
Rating
9
PROS:
  • Installation CD
  • High performance
  • 10Gb Ethernet!
  • Huge selection of apps
  • No tools needed
CONS:
  • Supply your own drives
  • Humming sound
  • No HW transcoding
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Synology DiskStation DS220+

Editor Choice 4 Synology DiskStation DS220+
9.5
Synology Upgrades The "Perfect NAS"
There are those in the Network Storage industry who would claim one of the best home NAS devices you can get is the Synology DS218+. It's relatively powerful, affordable, quiet, and very flexible. Time marches on and Synology has decided to give its 2018 model a facelift and introduce it to the year 2020 with the DS220+. The improvements are minor but why mess with perfection? The interesting thing is the newer model is now available for slightly less than the older model. There's no telling how long that will last.
Rating
9.5
PROS:
  • All the RAID options you need
  • Multitude of apps
  • Plex Support
  • 4K Video transcoding
  • Hot-swappable HDs
CONS:
  • Upgradable memory with weird 6GB limit
  • No eSATA port for expansion
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Synology DS418 NAS

5 Synology DS418 NAS
9
SOHO Storage Meets Synology Flexibility
There are many reasons to get a NAS. If you're looking for a way to share files with multiple users, provide backups and storage space for your small office or home office network you may want to start off with a NAS that offers up to 48TB like the Synology DS418. The DS418 is basically a DS218 (Not the DS218+ with an Intel processor.) with two additional drives. Yes, there is a DS420+ and it does have a slightly better processor, but I can't justify $200 extra for 2 additional drives. The better recommendation is the DS418 which is less than $70 more for the 2 additional drives.
Rating
9
PROS:
  • Easy setup
  • Dual LAN ports
  • Tool-less drive bays
  • File X-Fer speeds
  • Multitude of apps
CONS:
  • Long wait to configure RAID
  • Drives not included.
  • Pricey for home use

Buzzwords You Should Know

Transcoding

The process of converting the format and size of multimedia files on a source device to a size and format that’s compatible with the target device. This allows HD content to find its way to many more client devices even in low bandwidth situations.

Volume

A Volume is a series of hard drives set up in a RAID array that appears to be a single virtual drive to the operating system. For example, four 2GB hard drives in a RAID 0 array will appear as a single 8GB hard drive to the operating system.

RAID

RAID is a technology used to increase fault tolerance, improve performance, and increase storage capacity by combining a series of hard drives with a specific RAID configuration.

 

RAID stands for Redundant Array of Independent/Inexpensive Disks. It’s a technology that allows data to be store across multiple hard drives (Striped) or duplicated on multiple hard drives (Mirroring) or creating a cross-section of data that can be used to regenerate the data on a failed drive (Parity.)

 

RAID 0 is known as Striping. RAID 1 is known as mirroring. RAID 5 is striping with parity. There are other types of RAID but they are generally a combination of those three.

Array

An Array Is the total size of the physical hard drives in a volume. For example, if you have two 2GB drives setup as RAID 1 (Mirrored) The size of the array is the total of both physical hard drives (4GB.) The size of the volume is what is seen by the operating system which in this case is 2GB.

Plex

Plex is a browser-based program that gives you a convenient user-friendly way to store, access, and categorize all your multimedia content. It’s an application that can be accessed almost anywhere with an internet connection and on many different types of devices.

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