I’ll admit, I’ve never felt the need to purchase network-attached-storage (NAS) hardware for storing and accessing my media or backing up my files. These days most of my content, from photos and movies to back ups of important files for work, are already stored in the cloud. My photos are (supposed to) auto backup to Photostream in iCloud, iTunes has all of my music downloadable from all my devices from the cloud, and any important files and everything else go directly to Dropbox or Google Drive. Around 90% of my content is already stored and accessible from anywhere in the cloud.

That being said, for the last year or so I’ve been hearing more and more about Synology DiskStation products. Coworkers can’t stop talking about them, and the products have received a lot of praise from many other reviewers as well.

I’ve been putting the Synology DiskStation hardware and brand new DiskStation Manager 5.0 software to the test in recent months to see if I could really benefit from a NAS solution despite all my content already being on the cloud and backed up. With today marking the release of 5.0, the company’s biggest software update yet, I thought now would be as good a time as any to share my experience. 

**I’m not going to spend too much time on the setup: if you can work a screwdriver, you can install hard drives into the NAS yourself, [so we’ll leave that for the end.]

Your own private cloud |

DiskStation-Manager-5-02

Once you’ve installed your drives, connected your DiskStation to your router, and run through a quick and easy wizard to configure everything, you can start setting up your own private cloud. You’re presented with a web based user interface that is completely familiar to any Mac or PC user called the DiskStation Manger (DSM). It feels almost like a full operating system in your browser and the 5.0 update brings DSM a completely new streamlined UI (pictured throughout this review) along with some performance upgrades and new features.

A “desktop” displays a few preinstalled apps like “File Station” (aka your Finder-like file browser), Control Panel (aka system preferences), and a handful of other utilities and apps. It also works just like a traditional desktop: you can launch, run, and minimize multiple apps simultaneously, resize windows for each, and view all open apps with an Expose style feature.

You can of course do a lot of things you’d expect from a NAS: manage your storage space, access your files from anywhere, schedule and oversee backups, but things really get interesting when you start installing some of the optional packages from DSM’s app store-like “Package Center.”

Apps |

First I downloaded a few apps that would let me to move the majority of my content that was previously scattered across a handful of online services to my new private cloud: Video Station, Audio Station, and Photo Station. The apps automatically pull in all of the content that I drag and drop and organize into folders in the File Station. The feel of the file management itself is a little on the Windows-side for me, but after enabling a few settings you can also manage everything from Finder on your Mac and that’s what I opted for.

From Video Station and Audio Station you can stream all your videos and music right from DiskStation to your computer and mobile devices or to AirPlay/Bluetooth devices and a long list of DLNA/UPnP/DMA-compliant devices from PS3, Xbox and Roku to most newer TVs. There’s also Plex and Logitech media server packages for most hardware as well as an iTunes server app that makes your DiskStation content pop up in iTunes. Photo Station is a slick web interface for viewing and managing your photos and also pulls in every shot you take on your iOS devices.

There’s also a Cloud Station app that lets you easily sync files between a folder on  all of your Macs (or PCs), mobile devices and the DiskStation itself. The whole web interface is also built to be touch friendly and in my experience is one of the slickest web apps I’ve used that is fully functional on an iPad while packing in such a rich experience:

DiskStation-Manager-5-iPad

There are times that using the full web UI will be a bit laggy on an iPad, but a decent mobile UI and the native apps make logging into the full web UI unnecessary when on the go.

The whole idea of having my content in one central location that I can access, share, and stream from anywhere turned out to be everything I wished my experience with online cloud services could be. No worry about storage limits or monthly costs, no frustration with trying to share large files online, no need to move content around or deal with Photo Stream and iPhoto, and no frustration with streaming my content on all my devices.

Getting my content off cloud services and onto the DiskStation didn’t prove too difficult or time consuming, although I admittedly have modest file, video and photo collections compared to others. It’s also easy to get anything off USB devices with at least a couple of ports included on most Synology hardware.

It’s worth noting that the whole experience probably wouldn’t be anything to brag about if Synology hadn’t made some truly easy to use and slick web apps and media servers that rival all of the popular alternatives I was using previously.

iOS apps |

Perhaps the biggest benefit to Synology products over some of the competition is the focus on making sure the entire experience is smooth for iOS users. All the apps mentioned above have iOS counterparts that let you access all of your content from iPhones and iPads.

The DS photo app auto-uploads all of your photos from your device’s camera roll, you can stream or download videos for offline viewing from the DS video app, and all of your music is, of course, available to stream and download from the DS audio app. Synology has done an excellent job of making all of your content available on iOS devices without having to think about it. The whole experience is much like what I hoped iCloud would turn out to be when Apple first announced it for iOS devices.  There are also iOS apps for other DiskStation apps that let you manage surveillance cameras and file downloads, as well as browse your files all from your iOS device. 

Back-ups |

One of the main things I knew I’d be taking advantage of with my new DiskStation is storing Time Machine backups. While it wasn’t super straightforward to setup from within the DSM UI itself, Synology’s guide on the topic had me up and running in about 5 minutes. Once you’ve created a new user and shared folder for your Time Machine within DiskStation Manager, you simply select that user and enter its credentials in the Time Machine system preferences pane on your Mac.

There’s one incredible advantage to backing up your Mac to your DiskStation rather than a standard hard drive not connected to your network: the ability to access your Mac backups from anywhere in the world at any time. This is amazingly handy for professionals that lug around their life in a MacBook while on the road. One less piece of gear to carry and one less hard drive to worry about getting damaged or lost in transit, for me, makes this feature worth the cost of the entire product by itself. You’ll also be able to log in to DSM wherever you are and keep an eye on your backups as well as use a single DSM user account and a shared folder to back up all of your Macs using Time Machine.

Time-Machine-backup

DSM also has its own Time Machine-like feature called “Time Back Up” that will let you backup the folders on your DiskStation either onto another volume or external drive, an Amazon Glacier package, and a Cloud Sync app that lets you back up and sync with Google Drive, Dropbox, and Baidu.

Sharing |

The real power of running your own private cloud using a DiskStation and DSM is the ability to create user accounts for others. For example, you can setup several user accounts and have complete control over what those users can access. You could setup user accounts for friends and family to have access to certain photo albums, or let certain users access content from your Video Station or Audio Station. I’ve setup certain accounts that can only access specific folders so I can share large files, and Cloud Sync keeps all the files I throw in a dedicated folder synced across devices through desktop apps. Since I’ve been using the DiskStation, I’ve never had the need to use an outside cloud service to share files, folders, or anything that can’t fit in an email.

What else can you do with it? |

I couldn’t possibly go over every single feature packed into the new DiskStation Manager. A Download Station app lets you handle all BT/HTTP/FTP/NZB and file hosting/Bit Torrent downloads, while other apps will let you setup mail servers, host websites, and setup connected printers. A Surveillance Station app gives home and business owners an out-of-the-box cloud solution for monitoring surveillance cameras, Video Station can record TV with supported dongles, and even Android and Windows users are welcome with most features I described here available across platforms.

Version 5.0 of DSM also introduces a number of new features, fixes, and performance upgrades even for existing DiskStation users on top of the slick new redesign. It includes high-res imagery for 4K and Retina displays, a popular QuickConnect feature that provides simplified remote access has been expanded to most of the popular DSM apps including all the mobile apps, and a ton of other tweaks have been made to improve core apps and features. A full list of what’s new in 5.0 is here and there’s a LIVE DEMO of the new software that you can try out.

Set up |

A couple screws pop the case off most of the consumer facing DiskStation products— including the DS213J model I was using— and the drives you can buy pop into place with ease and stay in place with screws on either side. From there it’s as simple as connecting to your router with a Ethernet cable and turning it on.

Before you get into most of the good stuff, you’ll also want to make your NAS accessible via the internet by configuring your router settings. Synology makes it super easy for a long list of supported routers with a “EZ-Internet” wizard that guides you through the process step-by-step and also sets up firewall and DDNS settings (that lets you set up a domain for your accessing your NAS remotely, for example: MYNAS.Synology.com). The total process from drive installation to completing router configuration will only take about 15-20 minutes and it’s pretty easy to manually configure routers that aren’t supported by the EZ-internet wizard.

Should you buy it? |

There’s no doubt that setting up a NAS is still a little bit more than your average non-techie is going to put up with, but Synology definitely makes the process as painless as possible. Unless they’re scared off by using a screw driver to install drives (you could even get them preinstalled), and following a few quick guides to configure for devices and get up and running, there’s absolutely no reason why every Mac and iOS user shouldn’t have a DiskStation to run their own private cloud.

Getting into the Synology DiskStation products will of course require you to purchase the hardware first. That starts as low as $150 (a little over $200 for the model I’m using), plus a couple of drives that will vary in price depending on what you need. Decent 3TB WD drives that will work for a lot of users can be found for around $100 and you can find even cheaper options than that depending on your needs. Amazon’s page of top rated NAS products is usually a good place to start, which (unsurprisingly) has consisted of mostly of Synology products for the last year or two.