In this age of high-resolution photos and near-constant video capture, the storage space in your PCs and mobile devices fills up faster than ever. While you can certainly use an external hard drive for offloading and backing up files from your PC (and by extension, from your phone), if you disconnect the hard drive and leave it in your office, you won’t be able to get to those files from another location, and neither will anyone else. There are ways to allow other users to share and access the files on your hard drive, however these can not only be challenging, but also carry security risks.
Instead, consider a good network-attached storage (NAS) device. As its name implies, a NAS is high-capacity storage that connects to your home or office network so that you and other users you designate can access your files from mobile devices and PCs without plugging in to the drive. Here’s what you need to know to choose the right NAS.
What Can You Do With a NAS?
Once you decide that you need to store files on a network drive, you then need to figure out what you mean to do with them, in order to determine what kind of NAS you need.
For example, a typical business scenario might be sharing access to Office files, like spreadsheets and Word documents, with your coworkers and perhaps backing up select office devices on a regular basis. All of that is relatively simple for a NAS. Additional layers of data security and serving files to a relatively large number of users is typically where businesses need to be careful about NAS storage.
Home users may not need to worry about large numbers of users, these days it’s the number of simultaneous devices that make a difference. If you’re using the NAS to back up your laptops overnight, that’s pretty straightforward. But if you’re serving HD videos over your home network to two tablets, a laptop, and your smart TV, all at the same time, you’ll want a NAS with higher specifications for memory, processor, and network capabilities. You’ll also need a more powerful NAS if you want to store big media libraries, like a collection of 100,000 stock photos, for your graphic arts studio, for example.
Like any computer peripheral, the features offered by the various NAS units vary greatly to meet these different demands. So you’ll need to understand the terms and features before you go shopping.
NAS Buying 101
Since a NAS device is, at the simplest level, just a container for a hard drive or drives (with some added intelligence), the number one spec for any NAS unit is its maximum potential storage capacity. That’s determined by the number of drive bays it includes and to a lesser extent what kinds of drives it can carry. Most consumer-grade and home-office NAS units have one or two bays, while models designed for the office have four or more. But that’s not an absolute guideline, especially now that newer NAS devices are showing up with support for 2.5-inch laptop-style drives, both platter-based and solid state. These drives will allow NAS makers to fit more drives into their chassis, which means more long-term storage capacity.
We don’t generally recommend NAS drives with just a single bay, unless they are to be used strictly for backing up data that will also reside on computers on the network. That’s because of the lack of redundancy out-of-the-box. (Some single-bay NAS drives will allow you to attach a second NAS device or an external hard drive, to that end.) You don’t want the only copy of your data residing on just one drive on the network.
The beauty of a NAS device is that it can use some version of a technology called Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID). This tech allows the software that manages the NAS devices to distribute and duplicate the data it stores across multiple hard disks. That means even if one of the drives fails completely, the RAID system can simply take in a new, completely empty drive and repopulate it with the data the failed drive was carrying. There are different levels of RAID that perform this function in different ways depending on exactly what users need. Check out our RAID explainer for more information.
Still, for most home users who aren’t rabid video-file hoarders, a two-bay NAS should be sufficient, provided that you buy big enough drives from the outset if you’ll be mirroring them, meaning simply making one drive an exact duplicate of the other. Err on the high side of capacity, though; it’ll cost more now, but you don’t want to have to rebuy two hard drives for your NAS to get a higher effective mirrored capacity. Remember: Mirroring takes two physical drives. More on redundancy below.
Buying a NAS: Populated or Diskless?
Some NAS drives are sold pre-populated with disks, oftentimes already formatted for use in a particular RAID configuration. Many other are purchased empty of drives, or “diskless.” This was an important consideration a few years ago because it used to be that the NAS vendors who also manufacture hard drives would make sure their NAS devices could only take their hard drives. These days this only applies to Western Digital as the vast majority of current NAS devices are hard disk-neutral as far as disk brand is concerned. Because most of these devices at least have a diskless option, you’re really only concerned with overall drive capacity, their interface technology, and how much buying them will add to the overall cost of your NAS.
VLC Media Player utility, and some NAS units work with Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku, Android phones/tablets, and other types of hardware. It can be complicated, though, to guarantee that a specific file or file type will play on a given device, so look at the specs of the NAS closely to determine its capabilities.
Dropbox or Google Drive, but with way more storage capacity—and no monthly bill. Many NAS makers tout this. (Look for the much-bandied term “personal cloud” around this kind of feature.)
How each vendor offers this capability, however, can vary. Some may do as little as offer a simple File Transfer Protocol (FTP) manager as an app or simply a command line feature. This will certainly work, but you’ll need to know something about configuring a secure FTP server to make sure your files aren’t suddenly open to the whole internet. The better NAS devices offer an app that handles remote Internet access. These come with easy-to-learn user interfaces and more advanced security options, including the ability to encrypt whatever files you’re opening up to the cloud.
With this functionality, you can also access the NAS itself from any internet connection, not just via your local network. As a result, you can download files you need on the road, or stream a movie or music files resident on your home NAS to your laptop in a hotel across the country or the world, network bandwidth permitting. Most, but not all, NAS drives offer this kind of feature, so be sure to do your research before you pull the trigger if it’s a must-have. (Ourselves? We wouldn’t get a NAS without it.)
Below are the top NAS devices we’ve recently tested, ranging from simple home-oriented models to multiple-drive arrays that can serve dozens of users in an office environment. Whether you want to serve media files to the rest of the house, keep office documents in a single, accessible repository, or simply back up your digital life from your PCs, tablets, and mobile phones, there’s a drive here for you.