Network Attached Storage Roundup - Christmas 2011
Over the years I've used almost every brand of Network Attached Storage (NAS). I've tried Buffalo, Iomega, Seagate, Western Digital, Apple, LaCie and most recently Synology. Two major players I've missed out on are Drobo and QNAP.
Here are some comparison points to help you decide if you are considering NAS. There are several factors in choosing an NAS. One is media performance. Some units brag about DLNA* while others ignore it. Sone units come with disks which seems more convenient but is actually a LOT worse if you ever experience problems. The best choice is a unit where you have to put in your own disks. Why? If the thing breaks, do you trust Seagate or WD with your data? Do you think they will send you the same one back with your files on the thing? Even Apple doesn't do that. So spend a little more time and money and buy your own SATA drives and a NAS unit that accepts customer installed disks. It's the best way to go to protect your data.
*DLNA is a media standard to support streaming audio video and photos from a NAS drive to a DLNA aware internet TV, BluRay player, computer or even an iOS or Android device. I'm considering Apple TV someday but I already own a DLNA ready TV and a DLNA ready bluray player so I decided to focus on DLNA as one of the requirements for my NAS drive. I don't think I should have to leave one of our Macs running iTunes just to stream stuff around the house since iTunes generally makes my Macbook's fans run.
In the ratings that follow, I've included links to manuals for each unit. You can tell a lot about a unit by reading the user manual before you buy. If the manual goes on for pages about how to type a URL into internet explorer, you know the device is aimed at a novice user but you also know the setup should be quick and painless. If the manual is 200 pages long then you know the unit has a lot of features but you might be in for a long session figuring it out and setting it up just the way you like it.
***** Synology: Good quality, medium to difficult setup, above average cost, fast DLNA performance, fast network performance, no transcoding capability, can be set to power itself back on after a power failure, very low power 6 to 18 watts, extensive setup screens in a browser, apache, php, mysql web server, root shell access. DSM 3.1 manual (pdf) 5 stars.
**** QNAP: Good quality, purchase drives separately, high cost, no DLNA support, fastest network performance, turbo nas manual. 4 stars. (not tested)
*** Apple: Medium quality (except near 100 pct failure for first gen Time Capsules), drives included, medium to slow network performance, no DLNA support, moderate setup screens in airport utility, OS X and iOS update caching if you use your TC as your router. setup guide (pdf) 3 stars.
* Buffalo: Medium quality, drives included, slow network performance, does not power back on after power failure, 1 star. manual (pdf) (used an older model over 5 years)
** LaCie: Medium to good quality, drives included, medium to slow network performance, powers on after a power failure, firmware update may require factory reset to recover, moderate setup screens in a browser, 2 stars. manual (pdf) (used over 1 year)
* Iomega: poor quality, drives included, loud fan noise, high power consumption, runs hot, poor network performance, poor setup screens in a browser, 1 star. manual (used over 2 years)
* Seagate: medium quality, drives included, slow network performance, full capability requires annual subscription, avoid this brand, no power up after power failure, 1 star. manual (pdf) (brief testing)
** Seagate Blackarmor: medium quality, drives included, medium network performance, 2 stars. manual (pdf) (not tested)
**** Drobo: good quality, high cost, purchase drives separately, 4 stars. manual (not tested)
The Rest of the Story
Perhaps you're wondering how I wound up with so many NAS devices and why I decided to write this article in so much detail. I want to make it easy for people to avoid making the same mistakes I made like buying "bottom feeder" units that either failed prematurely or didn't do what I needed. I primarily use my NAS for file backup of media including photos and movies as well as to pass files around the house. I have tried dropbox, google docs, mobile me and iCloud for off site backup and found that I could rely on Crashplan to get me out of a jam. But Crashplan, like most of the others has a "cap". When you hit 200 gig, your uploads get "throttled". I can't deal with that so I only back documents up to the cloud. This means I must find a redundant on site backup for media like photos and movies. I started out with Buffalo. I was happy just to have something that worked. I think the thing was a whopping 250 GB and I filled it up almost overnight. I then got a larger Buffalo and later an Iomega storcenter. I found warts on each and every one. One thing that bugged me was running down to the basement to turn them back on after every power failure. One year we had 10 power failures 1 hour or longer.
The next step in my long line of mediocre NAS experiences was the Apple Time Capsule. Why mediocre? It crapped out after 18 months, taking the last copy of some of my daughter's files with it. I was not amused. I now use an external WD USB disk for my TM backups and I use Crashplan for my "real" backups. I own a LaCie firewire drive and I've been very happy with it so when the Iomega storcenter started making funny noises, I went looking again. I actually held a $1200 Drobo unit in my hands at Microcenter for a good 10 minutes before I decided to put it back and try a couple more lower cost units. I tried Seagate. I took it home. I fired it up. It asked me for a credit card number for a subscription service just so I could enable ftp inside my house. I took it back the very same day I bought it. No more Seagate GoFlex! I needed FTP because we have a network scanner that supports ftp. Since then I've enabled ftp so the files come straight to my Mac but ftp is one of my requirements for an NAS drive. I then considered a WD Live but decided against it when I noticed a LaCie Network Space 2. I called LaCie support and I was impressed with their service so I bought it and took it home.
I' was happy with the NS2. Very happy. Until a week ago Saturday. I wanted to stream a movie using DLNA to my TV. The movie kept sputtering and stopping and throwing all sorts of errors and exceptions and it was always in the same spot which made me wonder if I needed to go dig up the DVD and handbrake it again. Before doing that, I decided I needed a firmware update on the NS2. Big mistake! The unit was bricked. I called LaCie. Their tech support is CLOSED ON WEEKENDS. My problem started Saturday morning. This meant going 36 hours or more without a secondary backup of 200 GB+ of my family photos. As far as I knew, I only had one copy on my LaCie firewire drive. The second copy, viewable via DLNA on our internet TV, had been on the NS2 until it blew its own brains out trying to update its firmware.
I was so angry I sent off an email to LaCie support and then immediately started researching a better quality NAS solution. No more bottom feeding. After 5 cheap drives, I had finally learned my lesson. I ordered a Synology DS212J and a WD 2TB SATA 3.5 inch drive to put in it from Amazon. I was impressed that over at smallnetworkbuilder, they rated the Synology and QNAP drives highly. Over at DLNA.org, they didn't list any QNAP drives but all the Synology drives were DLNA certified. Meanwhile, LaCie got back to me by email and suggested I reset the NS2. All my files would come back on "openshare." Ok, I tried it. The drive came out of its reset loop but my files were still gone. I emailed them and complained that my files were not back but that since I had a backup I would restore them myself.
The Synology shipped that day and I didn't consider stopping it. Even though I had a working LaCie unit, I wanted something better. I got another email from LaCie. It seems the files weren't in openshare as I was told earlier. I needed to look in admin's myshare for a hidden folder called recovery. Sure enough they were there. Now I had 2 copies of everything. Just peachy. First the thing bricks itself. Then it says my files are gone. Then my files mysteriously come back. This was the day the WD drive arrived. The synology unit was scheduled to arrive the next day. I couldn't wait.
The day the Synology came, I was pretty busy but I found the time to unpack it, toss in the single 2TB drive leaving the second bay empty, power it up and start the setup. It came without firmware. I had to use the DVD to get the firmware to send it to the drive over the network. It went flawlessly but the formatting of the drive took OVERNIGHT. I later found out that if I'd shelled out an extra hundred bucks for the 212+, I would have been offered the option to skip the "disk check" that took over 8 hours. Oh well.
It was the next day, when the drive was formatted and available that I began to realize the difference between the Synology and all that junk I had been using. The browser interface was like its own OS. There were semi transparent windows with close buttons. There was a control panel where I could set up shares, users and what's this?!? A web server with PHP and mysql? Be still my beating heart. I bought a replacement NAS and got a backup low power consumption Linux box. Ok so it's ARM based and can't run x86 Linux binaries but it does pretty much everything else I need a Linux box to do.
I decided to watch HP7 Part 2 again to see if the movie would "skip" or "abort" in the same spot it did when I tried watching it from the NS2 (just after Harry looks in the pensieve). Not only didn't it skip, fast forwarding was more responsive. Way more responsive. This meant I could move around the movie better than I could on our Comcast DVR. I know that's not saying much but I'm trying to replace the Comcast DVR with ripped DVDs of all the commercial laden movies we've recorded. Since we're paying over $100 a month, if the DS212J lets me dump Comcast, it will pay for itself by March 2012! If it lets me drop to a lower tier service and get rid of the DVR, it will take a little longer to pay for itself but it's still such a deal. If I ever have problems with the unit, at least my data doesn't leave my house to get the unit serviced. I went through a firmware update of the Synology DS 212J today. I went from DSM 3.2-1922 to DSM-3.2-1955 without incident. All my settings were intact and the only down side was the somewhat lame 500 second countdown timer (in the browser) for the update.
My next steps are to finish copying everything over from the NS2 to the DS212J. I will "mirror" files on both devices for a while. Later I will grab the last files off of the old Linkstations and Storcenter. I will format them and sell them off or donate them and I'll be down to 3 NAS: A time capsule for TM backups, a Lacie NS2 for media backup and a Synology DS212J for media streaming and primary on site backup.