Over the last several weeks, we’ve taken a close look at several network attached storage (NAS) units from QNAP and Synology, including the Synology DiskStation DS2415+ and the QNAP TurboNAS TS-451. NAS storage solutions typically play host to more than one hard drive and have access to the local network. They resemble small, boxy PCs, complete with one or more fans to keep them cool. And depending on the model you purchase, they can act like small PCs as well.
Naturally, all NAS offerings have their pluses and minuses as far as features are concerned, but one thing is perfectly clear: having a NAS in the home or office can be an excellent investment. The drawback is that multi-disk NAS units are not cheap, costing hundreds of dollars before stuffing them with hard drives. However, which is worse: the cost of purchasing a NAS or the cost of losing all of your data?
As a matter of fact, you can also build your own NAS. If you have a spare PC (or if you can just build a new one) and have a few HDDs. There are plenty of free options available, and one of the most popular is FreeNAS -- which we'll cover in a separate article. But for the scope of this one, it's for those who want an all inclusive solution.
This feature should be pretty obvious. While, as stated previously, NAS solutions don’t come cheap, we can't recommend one-disk solutions. What’s ideal is to have more than one hard drive storing the backup files. If one begins to fail, the other drives will still have your information. That said, if you’re only using one disk, such as an external hard drive connected via USB, chances are that disk will eventually fail and your data will be lost.
Backing up a Windows-based machine is simple. For example, you can load up File Explorer in Windows 10 and find your NAS unit by clicking the Network link, and then the actual NAS unit listed within the "Computer" window. In the same way as any other networked PC, the NAS unit will reveal its folders, allowing you to create a new folder into which Windows can dump the backup files. After that, simply point Windows in the right direction and voilà! You've backed up your operating system.
Of course, NAS units aren’t just for backing up Windows: they’re an ideal solution for backing up anything that’s stored on your desktop or laptop, such as documents, pictures, video, and more. As with backing up Windows, you can locate the NAS in File Explorer and either create a folder, or just use the folders created by the NAS’s operating system.
That leads us to our next reason why you need a NAS: to create a personal cloud. Sure, there are solutions like Dropbox, Google Drive, and Microsoft’s OneDrive on the cloud market, and they’re pretty reliable in regard to uptime and keeping your digital goods out of the hands of hackers and government officials. But if you’re like us (and Mulder and Scully from The X-Files), you likely don’t trust anyone with your data.
One great aspect of most NAS solutions is that they embrace the cloud in several ways. As we highlighted earlier, NAS units are designed to be accessed by anyone on the local network. They can also be accessed outside the network if the user has the correct login information. Yes, that means NAS units can be accessed remotely on any device, including iOS- and Android-based units. All you need is an app and the login info to upload and/or download approved files.
For instance, Synology provides a number of apps for iOS and Android that cater to one specific type of media such as DS Video, DS Photo, and DS Audio. There’s also a DS File app for accessing all files stored on the NAS and DS Download for specially accessing the download folder. Thus, users can back up their Android and iOS devices by using these applications wherever they may be.
Another reason to consider a NAS purchase: its media server capabilities. Not only can you store music, videos, and photos, but they can be played on devices connected to the local network. For instance, if you have an Xbox One, you can load up the Media Player app and it will show the available NAS units. Click a NAS shortcut and your media folders will appear, whether it’s Music, Video, Photo, or a combined folder labeled as Multimedia.
Because of this feature, you won’t need to burn Blu-ray discs, DVDs, or CDs to play your favorite media within the home. And the media is accessible from any device on the network, including your smart HDTV, game consoles, desktops, and mobile devices. Media can also be downloaded and played locally on a device, or played when you’re out and about and away from the local network.
That leads us to our next reason to get a NAS: accessing the Internet.
As we’ve seen in recent reviews, NAS units can serve as makeshift home theater PCs that are dressed up with apps that can access the Internet. For example, the QNAP TurboNAS TS-451 we recently reviewed provides apps for Chrome, Firefox, Facebook, LibreOffice, Plex Home Theater, Skype, and more. These NAS units also typically have HDMI output so that you can connect them to an HDTV and USB ports for connecting a mouse and keyboard.
That said, having a NAS that acts like a PC keeps customers from having to purchase a separate PC to dish out content for the living room. But as we stressed earlier in this article, a NAS can get quite expensive as the storage capacities get larger. Remember, a NAS is typically purchased without the hard drives, so the cost could skyrocket if you want a lot of storage capacity.
Nevertheless, what we're suggesting here is that consumers should consider a NAS and expect a premium pricetag for a solution that not only stores data but pumps it all to an HDTV and other devices. Keep in mind that there are NAS devices that don’t provide support for video output and peripheral input, which will likely have less of an impact on your wallet.
Apps, Apps, and More Apps
Finally, the NAS units we reviewed recently came with their own app stores. This is another feature that makes NAS units so cool: They can be customized by way of the apps installed on the device. Each NAS comes with apps pre-installed for music, video, and photos. But there are tons more served up in Synology’s “Package Center,” which provides just over 70 apps ranging from backup to multimedia to business to security to utilities. The QNAP App Center provides over 140 apps.
That said, let’s say your QNAP NAS is all about business. You can install nearly 15 apps on the device such as OpenCart, OpenERP, OrangeHRM, osCommerce, FrontAccounting, and more. Want the NAS to focus on entertainment? You can install Plex Media Server, a port of Super Mario Bros, Podcast Generator, Video Station Lite, and so on. There are also apps for content management, developer tools, surveillance tools, education, and even home automation apps. See? NAS devices are somewhat like PCs.
A Compelling Purchase?
We hope we’ve made our point about the benefits of owning a NAS unit. With a NAS, you’re in control of what the device does and what it contains, not some third-party cloud service with servers located who knows where. Also with a NAS, you’re in control of how the data is consumed, allowing access to approved devices and people. Even more, your NAS is usually out of the public limelight, making is less likely to be hacked.
As we’ve stated a few times, however, NAS solutions can be rather pricey once you start cramming in hard drives. Still, once you’ve backed up Windows, your documents, music, videos, and photos, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that your precious data is safe. Sure, you can purchase a single external drive to back up everything, but with a NAS, disk failure doesn’t mean your data will be lost forever.