Sam Thorp is a research communicator and founder of a small web startup based in Sydney. He’s also the second of two winners in our recent Synology NAS competition and, with the help of his two housemates, took the device through its paces over the Christmas break. This is his in-depth review.
At home, my housemates and I are pretty tech savvy, so the house is packed full of various aging games consoles, gadgets, and miscellaneous cables. Our lounge room is a good example. We use a WD TV Live as our main media centre to watch TV shows and movies, but we also have Foxtel, a PS3, an Xbox 360, an N64 and a SNES all connected up. Yes, a SNES, I know you’re jealous.
We love hosting movie nights and binge-watching TV shows, yet it’s always been a bit of a technological nightmare. We use a WD TV box, and getting shows onto it seems to always degenerate into a mess of USB sticks, failed transfers, and IT-related frustration. Two of us are PC users and the third uses a Mac. This can make things even worse -- transferring over the network has been touch-and-go from the PCs, and the Mac user has never been able to transfer files across at all. On top of that, our poor external hard drive has just about given up the ghost and we don’t really have a centralised backup, so we’re definitely looking for something a bit more robust.
I’ve never really owned a NAS before, but I imagined it to be fairly straightforward. How complicated could storage be? As it turns out, it wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Out Of The Box
The DiskStation itself is a pleasant-looking plain white box, from the ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ school of high-tech design. Nothing too flash, but simple and stylish. It fits in nicely in our entertainment unit, and I certainly don’t feel the need to hide it away somewhere. The build quality feels solid as well, despite the fact it’s not exactly a device you need to move around much.
There are some nice design touches on the inside -- the hard drive bays have large soft rubber washers to help minimise noise, and the entire assembly pulls apart with a simple tug. This sound dampening works well. You practically need to press your ear to the side of the box to hear anything, despite there being a fan and two hard drives spinning away inside.
They also use only a single type of screw to both hold in the hard drives and seal the case, which is a simple idea that makes the installation that much easier. Considering that you’re hopefully not going to have to open and close it very much, I’m impressed by the effort that has gone into making the process painless.
Perfect for first-time NAS (Network Attached Storage) users, the Synology DiskStation DS215j has two hard drive bays supporting your own 3.5-inch or 2.5-inch hard drives -- up to 12TB total storage.
Slot in your hard drives, connect the DS215j to your network (via Ethernet, superfast USB 3.0 or optional wireless dongle) and you’re set.
Enjoy your content across your computers, DLNA devices, TVs and mobile devices. With support for TV streaming across Samsung TVs, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast, the DS215j also makes it effortless to stream digital content to your widescreen TV.
You can even sync files between Google Drive and Dropbox -- plus use Synology's mobile apps to access your multimedia collection and work files on the go. As a backup device, the DS215j also supports Windows Backup and Apple Time Machine.
And as mentioned, the DS215j can also serve as your home surveillance hub. Simply connect multiple IP cameras to the home network, pair them with DS215j, and then easily view live surveillance feeds, record videos, or enjoy other advanced features like motion detection or push notifications.
I decided to buy two 3-terabyte Western Digital Green hard drives to install in the NAS and set them to mirror each other, so if one dies we still have all our data. I thought I’d prefer to have a little bit of redundancy in case things went wrong.
The entire initial setup is very straightforward. The provided instructions are IKEA-style, with no words and simple diagrams to lead you through the process. You just pull the DiskStation gently apart, insert your hard drives, screw them in, and put it back together.
For anyone that’s seen a hard drive before, the entire unboxing and installation should take you about ten minutes at most. Then you just plug it in to the power and your router, and the physical setup is done. I connected the NAS directly to our modem/router, and I suspect that will give you the best performance.
Connecting via Wi-Fi is a little trickier as the DiskStation doesn’t come with any wireless capacity out of the box. It does support connecting to Wi-Fi if you attach a wireless dongle.
You then go through the setup and formatting process. This, again, was remarkably intuitive. Go to the provided website, give it a name, and the NAS does the rest -- it formats the hard drives, downloads the relevant OS, installs the right packages, and lets you know when it’s all ready to use.
You can tell that Synology has really worked hard to polish this process. The entire experience, from unboxing to having a working NAS, is about as beginner-friendly as you could possibly make a device where you have to bring your own hard drives.
The remarkable user-friendliness of the DiskStation DS215j does mean that it will occasionally make significant decisions without you. My first task was to go hunting through the settings to try and make the hard drives mirror each other, only to discover that they were already doing so. RAID 1 is actually the default setting (at least in this two-drive version of the DiskStation). While this was good for my particular circumstances, I can imagine some buyers wondering why they have two hard drives installed but only one hard drive worth of storage.
This was about the time I realised that I had been thinking about the NAS all wrong. I’d initially imagined it as an external hard drive that happens to connect to the internet. But it makes much more sense to think about it as a small, quite capable computer/server that just happens to have a lot of storage. It has its own operating system (proprietary, but Linux-based), its own apps, and can quite happily do a range of things by itself. In fact, the range of features is a bit overwhelming to start with.
One of the things I liked most (especially as a NAS beginner) was the comprehensive help section. Again, you can tell a lot of effort has been put into making it easy and intuitive – everything has simple step-by-step diagrams to follow, with every click highlighted. I didn’t have to refer to Google once during my entire time using the NAS, which I think is a first for any piece of technology I’ve ever used.
Connecting To The DiskStation DS215j
The main way to play with the NAS is through your desktop browser: you enter its IP address, give your password, and you’re in the OS. This will be very familiar to anyone who has ever used a browser-based remote desktop before. However, at the start you can only access the NAS when you’re on your local network. If you want to access your NAS from anywhere else, you need to set up either QuickConnect or port-forwarding.
QuickConnect is, as the name implies, the quickest way to set up the NAS as a true internet-connected device. You simply give your NAS a QuickConnect ID and password, and you’re done. You can then go to http://quickconnect.to/Your-NAS-HERE and access your NAS files from more or less anywhere.
There’s a trade-off, though. It’s fast to set up, but access through QuickConnect can be very, very slow. This is despite my NAS being connected directly to the modem and accessing it from a broadband connection. For me, navigating through the OS using QuickConnect occasionally felt like swimming through molasses. QuickConnect lets you look at your photos and stream music, but I had issues streaming movies (a 2 minute, 10MB mp4 had stuttering, jerking, and generally was unwatchable). Synology’s interface will warn you if you enter the video app while on QuickConnect, saying that “access performance may be affected”. With all that said, it was exceptionally convenient. Much of my testing was done using QuickConnect, which may be why many services (especially the sharing of files) were rather slow.
The alternative, port forwarding, requires a bit more access to the router itself and is considerably more technical. According to Synology, it leads to better performance. Unfortunately, making it work requires access to my router I don’t have, so I’ll just have to take their word for it.
As you would imagine, putting data onto the NAS was easy. What surprised me was just how many methods there were. Here’s a short list:
• USB Transfer: just plug in a hard drive to the NAS and away you go. My speeds topped out at about 40 Mbps, even though it was going through USB 3.
• Drag and drop. Once you’ve got the NAS open in your browser, you can simply drag and drop onto the File Station. This is very simple and intuitive, and handles uploading multiple files with ease.
• Connecting as a network drive. You can map the NAS to be a standard network drive, either on Windows or Mac. How easy this is to do is determined mainly by your OS, but the NAS gives you step-by-step instructions to guide you through the process.
• Cloud Station: You can install an app on your computers and mobile devices that syncs your files with the NAS. Once Cloud Station has been installed on both the NAS and computer, files stored in a specified folder on your computer will be automatically synced to the NAS. It’s aiming to be a kind of local Dropbox replacement, except that you can specify any folders on your computer to sync. I personally liked this a lot -- it’s simple, intuitive, and reliable.
• Download Station: This is a fascinating little app that allows you to download files directly onto the NAS, using BitTorrent, FTP, or a number of other services. It even comes with a built-in BitTorrent search engine. I downloaded a public-domain movie from archive.org over BitTorrent (who knew Plan 9 from Outer Space was public domain?) and it worked like a charm. The app itself is minimalist and lacks a lot of the higher-end features you would see on a dedicated BitTorrent program, but it does the job. It’s also missing some expected features, like a ‘time to finished’ calculation. Regardless, for those like me that don’t like leaving their computer on overnight to get a torrent complete, this is a fairly brilliant tool to have.
The Synology DiskStation DS215j also allows you to share your data with anyone. Once you’ve got QuickConnect set up, you can create public links to any file on the NAS. This is fantastic for sharing large files without going through an online service or using a cloud based system (many of which have file size limits). The only problem is that actually downloading the files is a pretty tedious endeavour, limited by your upload speed and, in my case, the speed of QuickConnect. In practice, this meant that I was getting a maximum of 80-90 kb/s when downloading files from the NAS as a member of the public. Great for small files, but for anything substantial (which is the main benefit of the system, after all) means waiting much longer.
Apps On The DiskStation DS215j Itself
There are a number of apps available for the NAS, but I think a fair description of all of them is ‘minimalist’.
Audio Station: a very simple audio player. It will play your music and some internet radio stations, and that’s about it. You can also share your playlists with the general public, but I’ve found loading to be hit-and-miss (this may be due to QuickConnect).
Video Station: A simple, fairly straightforward video player. It’s here that I begin to miss the extra features that more robust video players provide. For instance, there’s no fast-forward button. The app is heavily dependent on browser plugins to work, so I found myself often getting screens like the below. More generally, this seemed to be the most buggy of the system apps. Videos wouldn’t play, the timer at the bottom of the app occasionally didn’t update, responses to user input were sluggish, and it generally behaved quite poorly. It’s serviceable, but I’d call it an app of last resort. I found it preferable to just download the video from the NAS or play it using my media player of choice from the network drive.
Photo Station: a place to store and view your photo collection. I will admit that I’m not much of a photographer (as my photos will attest) so this didn’t really push my buttons. One of the main selling points is that you can access the photos from anywhere, making it similar to Flickr/Picasa but without any storage limits. It even allows people to comment on photos, though not by default. Its main limitation, as with many of these apps, is the speed at which you can reach it. In my tests, ‘public albums’ that anyone can access were so slow I felt nostalgic for 56K modems. This may be the quality of the Internet connection for the NAS, but ADSL2+ shouldn’t be this sluggish. The photo sharing app also has (in an uncharacteristic display of spectacular scope creep) its own blogging platform, hosted on the NAS itself. While I can imagine this might have uses, I struggle to imagine anyone using this over the copious and significantly faster free online blogging platforms available online. Though it does come with ‘WELCOME TO BLOG’ as the default title, which I found hilarious and slightly endearing.
Note Station: a note-taking and storage app. This one actually got me quite excited -- it’s a quite nicely designed, minimalist note-taking app, similar to Google Keep or a simplified version of Evernote. As with all of the above, the benefit is that there’s no limit on storage or uploads. It has only one crucial flaw: no desktop app. So the only way to access the notes is from the mobile app (more on that later) or logging in to the NAS itself and opening up Note Station.
The apps aren’t perfect but this isn’t a dealbreaker -- it’s unlikely that you’re going to be using them on a daily basis. They’re serviceable for occasionally interacting with your content, which is all they really need to do.
There are a lot of other apps available for the NAS as well, but they’re mostly developer-focused. You can set up your DiskStation as a mail server, install Joomla or Wordpress, host a wiki, and so on. For those with a technical bent you could turn this into a mini server, though the 800 MHz CPU and 512MB memory might cramp your style.
Streaming And Media Server
Streaming and acting as a media server is where, in my opinion, the DiskStation really shines. Everything I tried streaming, and every device I tried to connect up to it, worked almost immediately and with no fuss.
The PS3 and Xbox 360 both immediately recognised the NAS without any input from me, and were able to play files from it quickly and cleanly. To borrow from a different company with a love of white, minimalist products, it Just Worked.
Setting the DS215j up as a connection to the WDTV was similarly simple, and I was even able to set it up so that the WD TV could fetch the album art and synopsis (the NAS will also fetch these, but they won’t be recognised by the WDTV for some reason).
Streaming worked… almost too well. By using the Android app, I was able to screencast video immediately to the WDTV. The video controls are minimalist, but fluid and responsive. This was extraordinary, mainly because the WDTV is almost impossible to stream to. On it, the native Android screencasting works maybe one time out of five, and I’ve had an even lower rate of success with Windows 8 miracast. But the Synology? It worked first time, no delays, no setup. Ridiculous. You should be able to stream to Samsung TV, Roku players, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast.
To complement the DiskStation, Synology have also produced a number of mobile apps to allow you access to your files on the go. I tested them on my trusty Nexus 4 with Android 5.0.1, so I unfortunately can’t comment on iOS usage. In general, the apps did exactly what they said on the tin.
• DS Cloud: syncs files you specify from the NAS to your mobile device. Worked well.
• DS Download: allows you to remotely control any downloads the NAS is making. I can imagine this being very handy, especially for scheduling downloads when you’re out of the house. The app actually includes its own browser, so you can navigate the web to get downloads you’re interested in.
• DS Note: allows you to write notes (with pictures and audio) that get synced to the NAS. Loads a lot faster than the other apps, which is excellent for when you need to write notes in a hurry. It’s simple, clean, and intuitive. If it was more easily accessible on the desktop this might have replaced Keep as my default note-taking app.
• DS File: allows you to look at all the files on your NAS and either download them to your device or share them with others. It’s slightly buggier than the other apps, and it didn’t work at all the first time I used it.
• DS Video: allows you to stream video, either straight to the device or cast it to another device. Works well, especially the streaming.
• DS Audio: allows you to stream your music collection from your NAS. Does the job, and has a nice homepage widget. It doesn’t screencast, though, so you can’t send audio to your TV.
• DS Finder: gives you information on your NAS, and can… make it buzz? I can imagine this being helpful for server farms, but if you’re unable to find your NAS in your own house, this could be the app for you.
A quick note here on the separate HikVision 720p camera I tested -- this is not a device for beginners. When a camera needs a 132 page English-ish user manual and doesn’t come with a power pack (yes, seriously), you know you’re in for a world of hurt. Luckily I had a spare 12V power pack floating around (I knew hoarding cables would come in handy one day) but consider yourselves warned.
Thankfully, the DiskStation takes a lot of the complexity out of the setup. You’ll still need to battle the proprietary HikVision software to find out the IP of the camera and set up the Wi-Fi, but once that’s done it interfaces with the NAS smoothly and with no fuss.
Having never used an IP camera before, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but like many things about the Synology DiskStation DS215j there are an excellent set of default settings which make life a lot easier. Just by plugging it in, the NAS sets up the camera to automatically begin recording whenever it detects a certain amount of movement. The only issue is that the initial settings are a perhaps a little too sensitive. It managed to record about 1.3GB of footage in an hour staring only at my empty couch -- apparently the slight shifting of the shutters was triggering the movement sensor.
I ended up using the camera to monitor my tomato plants for unwanted pests. Which worked a treat -- no possums got to them. The plants died anyway, but that’s not the camera’s fault.
There’s also a mobile app for home surveillance, which works quite well and allows you to view live coverage of your house from wherever you are, as well as allowing you to record whatever you’re looking at.
Should You Buy It?
Overall, I’ve been very impressed by the DiskStation DS215j, though considering how little I knew about NAS systems before that probably wasn’t hard. I’d call it definitely worth the $259 RRP (remember you’ll need to pay extra for the hard drives).
The DiskStation DS215j is a remarkably user-friendly piece of technology. You could almost certainly give it to your parents (with the implicit assumption that you’ll help them assemble it), which I consider the gold standard for beginner tech. Anyone with a scrap of technical know-how will find the entire setup laughably easy.
Once the NAS is ready, it just blends into the background of your daily life. Files get backed up automatically, everything you want is downloaded while you’re at work and sitting waiting for you when you get home. Plus your tomatoes are diligently monitored. It’s not without its flaws (many of the on-NAS apps could definitely be improved) but thankfully none of them interfere with its core functions.
I’d definitely recommend the DiskStation DS215j for anyone with a home media centre and a collection of digital movies, or those who want a fire-and-forget backup solution.