Network-attached storage (NAS) used to be an arcane and pricey option for sharing files via a home or office network. But now, the latest drives are packed with tools that make adding a NAS device easy for anyone without a degree in information technology. That's good news for consumers: Networked homes are more and more common, and more and more devices can connect with computers and with network-attached storage (TiVos stream music, game consoles can read video files--the list goes on).
After a protracted period of little evolution, the NAS drive market is now undergoing two big shifts. First, the price of entry continues to drop, as hard-drive prices fall. The price-per-gigabyte for a 1TB NAS drive has decreased by more than half from two years ago. Second, and more notably, companies are courting home users with sleeker case designs; streamlined, user-friendly interfaces; and eye-popping, living-room-conscious features.
We tested five new NAS drives in the PC World Test Center. These models--two of which made our chart--represent a diverse cross-section of the NAS options available today. All of the drives have the same basic purpose, but they take different paths to providing similar functionality.
One unit, the US$547 Synology Disk Station DS207+, came configured with 1 terabyte of storage across two drives. Two others, the $299 HP Media Vault mv2120 and the $400 Netgear ReadyNAS Duo, came with a 500GB drive and an open drive bay for additional storage (or a second drive for disk mirroring). A fourth model, the $299 LaCie Ethernet Big Disk, had a single 1TB drive inside. And a fifth, the $1075 Synology Cube Station CS407, spread 2TB of storage across four drives.
The results of our tests? The ReadyNAS Duo earned first place on our Top 5 Network-Attached Storage Drives chart; the Synology Disk Station DS207+ also leaped onto the chart. Those two models stood out from the pack thanks to their ease of use and their home-friendly features.
Ready, Set, Store
Netgear's ReadyNAS Duo lacks some of the advanced redundancy features of its larger sibling, the ReadyNAS NV+, simply because it is a two-bay NAS device (with the second bay kept empty for future upgrades). Still, the Duo sailed through our performance trials, finishing all but one test at record speeds, beating even the NV+, our previous NAS-device performance champ.
This handsome unit has sturdy construction, with easy-to-access drive bays. Pop in a second drive, and by default the Duo will mirror the primary drive's contents to the second drive. Some people will like this protection--especially when using the device for backup--but I wish the Duo made it easier to toggle between RAID 0 (striping) and RAID 1 (mirroring). An extra boon: The device stores its operating system in flash memory, so you could replace the primary drive with a larger one.
The Duo comes with a handy utility, RAIDar, for setting up the unit on a Windows or Mac system and configuring the Duo's high-octane features, including photo-sharing server software (so you can e-mail an embedded link for a secure connection to your drive); media streaming to UPnP- and DLNA-compliant devices (the latter is the Digital Living Network Alliance standard); and support for Apple's iTunes, Logitech's Squeezebox SqueezeCenter, Microsoft's Windows Media Center and Xbox 360, Sonos' Digital Music System, and Sony's PlayStation 3. Uniquely, the Duo even has an embedded BitTorrent client so you can download directly to the device.
Synology: Colorful, Clear Navigation
Synology earns high marks for the stellar software bundled with its four-drive CS407 and two-drive DS207+. A Linux-based operating system, Disk Station Manager 2.0, marries the depth of what the ReadyNAS is capable of doing with a terrific user interface that makes any task a simple button push away. Want to stream files to game consoles? No problem. Need to create a photo-sharing site? Simple--just enable the feature and drop files in a folder. (That makes the task even easier than it is on the ReadyNAS Duo or the HP Media Vault.) Both Synology models even have SSL/TLS protocols on HTTPS, which makes for more-secure remote access to the drives via the Web. (The ReadyNAS Duo also offers this feature.)
The two units proved their performance mettle in our tests, producing similarly speedy numbers near the top of the pack. Their only performance hiccup was in our test for writing a large (3.06GB) file, where they were notably slower than the competition's average.
Both Synology devices lack removable drive bays; however, you can replace drives that are screwed inside the chassis, and mounting and securing drives inside the enclosure is easy.
The obvious difference between the two systems is that the DS207+ is a little smaller, since it supports just two drives, while the CS407 houses four. For data redundancy across drives, both models can be rigged for RAID 0 or RAID 1, and the CS407 adds RAID 5.
Tiny, Flexible, Friendly
HP's Media Vault mv2120 screams friendly: Its calling card is a soft and chewy interface that even NAS rookies can digest in seconds. The menu system's approachable push-button design walks you through the setup of everything from media folder shortcuts to premade video, photo, and music directories to automated file backups.
The mv2120's software even helps you set up a simple (though HP-branded) photo-sharing Web site so that you can grant external access to the NAS without broadcasting your IP address to the world (I created, for example, PCWtest.hpmediasmart.com). The mv2120 also takes the network interface to new heights--one slider, for instance, adjusts how often the device pings iTunes to back up music.
Unfortunately, the HP model's performance was lackluster. In our tests, the mv2120 was consistently average compared with all the other NAS models that we evaluated here.
The mv2120's hardware also cuts a couple of corners. The largely plastic housing makes the unit feel a bit lightweight. Another issue is that the primary drive that comes with the unit cannot be replaced by the user, because it contains the NAS's operating system.
In contrast to the HP Media Vault mv2120's abundance, LaCie's Ethernet Big Disk is short on features: It is simply a single, 1TB drive for storing and sharing files.
The Big Disk didn't score big points with us in performance, either. Coming in toward the back of the pack, it poked along. The best it could manage was in our copying-files tests, completing the run in 384 seconds. By comparison, Synology's DS207+ finished the same task in 277 seconds.
In the end, while Synology's units score massive points for their software, the ReadyNAS Duo comes out as the big winner, winding up on top for its rock-solid construction, highly configurable software, and impressively fast performance.
Go to our Top 5 Network-Attached Storage Devices chart to see the reviews, specs, and latest prices for the NAS devices we tested.
Drobo: An Alternative Approach to NAS
Technically, Data Robotics' Drobo falls outside the scope of what we consider a NAS device--namely, an integrated box with at least one hard disk and an ethernet connection so you can share the device on a network.
Nevertheless, the Drobo deserves mention. Priced at $500, this USB direct-attached storage appliance provides a four-bay enclosure for adding your own drives to the unit. The Drobo uses data virtualization in lieu of RAID to provide data redundancy over multiple drives, as well as to monitor drives for disk failure.
Rather than release a dedicated NAS, Data Robotics came up with the DroboShare. This $200 add-on lets you link up to two Drobo units to your network (Linux support is still in beta). The Drobo's simple dashboard software automates the network configuration process. Since it's not a native NAS device, you don't get features like FTP, Web server, print server, or even Web-based drive management. But you can unplug the Drobo from your network.