The best gadget to invest for your home network — after a solid router — is a Network-Attached Storage (NAS) drive. If you're new to the idea of drives, they're basically hard drives that connect directly to your router rather than a PC — and that gives them a number of advantages to the local hard drive you might have installed inside your laptop or desktop. Here's why you might want to set up a NAS drive yourself.
We're not going to go through an extensive buyer's guide here, but you'll find plenty of options online. Prices depend on the features and capabilities you need (usually in terms of compatible apps and plug-ins that work with the NAS), as well as storage capacity — some NAS drives are sold with hard drives included and some are not, so make sure you double-check.
1) Access data remotely
Many (but not all) NAS drives have the option to set up remote access, which means you can get at your important files from anywhere in the world, without having to leave a computer running all the time or deal with any complicated remote access software.
Typically this involves a few minutes of setup on the NAS end and then logging in with a username and password in a simple web interface that works in your browser.
You're not going to get blistering transfer speeds, unless you have a fantastic broadband setup at home, but it's certainly going to be useable. If you need remote access to your files, double-check it's included as a feature before buying a NAS.
2) Increase your storage
A separate NAS drive can instantly increase the storage space available to you, just like plugging in an external hard drive. It may be a touch more expensive, but you get all the extra benefits we've mentioned here, besides the boost of all those additional gigabytes.
Getting an external drive is simpler, but you can't share files from it around all your home computers as easily and it doesn't come with some of the data redundancy features we're going to talk about below. Plus, if you need your files on the go, then you have to carry your drive around with you.
Having more space available on your NAS means you don't need to spend so much on the storage inside your laptop or desktop. You can get a Chromebook for home use, safe in the knowledge that you can still get at your files at any time through a web browser window.
3) Data backup and redundancy
Many NAS drives come with RAID options built-in, which means you can duplicate data across multiple drives rather than just one — and that in turn means if one drive should suddenly break down and die, you've already got an exact copy ready and waiting.
You do have to pay extra for additional drives to create this data redundancy, but it does minimise your downtime if a drive should suddenly fail — perhaps it's an option to consider if you've got a home office setup or important work files at home.
This does have an impact on disk speeds (as you're writing double the data) but it shouldn't be hugely noticeable for most tasks. What's more, most modern NAS units will make the RAID setup so simple that it's largely invisible as far as day-to-day tasks go.
4) Switching between computers
Most of us have now grown used to enlisting the help of services like Dropbox or Google Drive to keep files synced between machines, but a NAS does the same job: It makes all of your data available to every device that you use, no matter where you are in the world.
You'll have to pay up for the NAS unit and your disks to begin with, but after that there are no recurring subscription fees as there might be with a cloud sync service. Even better, you own all the data, so you're not passing it on to a third party.
If you do rely on cloud storage as well, though, most modern NASes can work alongside these services if necessary. For example, you might want to combine the best features of both Dropbox and a NAS and keep yourself covered with backups in the cloud.
5) Stream your videos around the house
One of the most common reasons for getting a NAS drive is to be able to stream movies, TV shows, music and photos around the house, to multiple machines and displays, without having to keep one computer running all the time to serve up the content to other devices.
Plex, for example, one of the best solutions for setting up your own private Netflix, works very well with NAS drives: You can get at your movies and shows from pretty much anywhere, as long as the NAS is online.
You can even plug in an antenna using something like HDHomeRun and have not just your own private YouTube, but your own private YouTube TV as well.
This does require a bit of horsepower on the part of the NAS (because it's serving up media without the help of a computer), so factor that in when you're making your choice — you shouldn't go wrong if you specifically look for a unit that works with Plex or whatever media server app you prefer.
6) Sharing and collaboration
We've just mentioned how using a NAS drive instead of a cloud storage solution makes life easier for you, but it can make life easier for other people too — you can share files with friends, family and colleagues straight from your NAS box rather than a separate service.
Plus, if you're working on projects together — whether that's a presentation with colleagues or a vacation photo gallery with the family — a NAS can make it super-straightforward to get everyone accessing the right files and folders, without syncing everything via the web first.
You can either grant people extensive access to certain folders on the NAS or just point them towards a download link — for them it will just be like downloading any other file from the web. Again, the NAS software should handle all the hard work for you.
7) Control your internet
We've already touched on some of the third-party plug-ins and integrations you can take advantage of with a dedicated NAS box, like Pi-hole for instance: An effective ad-blocker that works across your whole network to keep out intrusive ads on sites you don't trust.
Getting something like Pi-Hole up and running does take a bit of time and effort, but it gives you more control over the internet as it comes into your home. Just remember to whitelist the sites you want to support.
There's plenty more app support, including Dropbox and Plex and apps for setting up your own email server on your NAS, or storing footage from a connected surveillance camera. Most data that can be stored in the cloud can also easily be stored more privately on a NAS box instead.