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.

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44 Responses to “Synology gets even better w/ version 5.0: Why every Mac & iOS user should have a DiskStation”

  1. Scott Ribe says:

    I’ve personally tried two NASs at home. 1) Seagate BlackArmor, steaming pile of crap. 2) Synology DS413, very good unit (and that’s with older software since I haven’t tried this update yet).

  2. DubTheDJ says:

    As a recent owner of a Synology Diskstation I can relate to a lot of the stuff in the article, especially setting it up. Admittedly I found it a little more difficult than you did but I still managed to get everything up and running with the online guides from Synology.

    I haven’t been able to get Photo Station to work as you have but i’m really glad I picked up one of these NAS boxes. Definitely made my life a lot easier. Going to update to DSM 5.0 in the next few days so looking forward to the new features and UI.

    • Rob Sorbo says:

      I have a Synology DS410. Was very happy to see it supported with the new 5.0 update as it is, at least, five-years-old. It is the Swiss Army knife of NAS. So easy to use as access from anywhere.
      I have had problems with Time Machine and backing up. TM will throw-up an error and say it can’t use the current TM back-up and needs to create a new one. It works for a month or two then happens again…really frustrating!
      All in all it is the best piece of tech I own.

      • I had the Time Machine corrupt error too for a while, like you. Since I turned off the “power down at X:XX o’clock” feature it’s been fine. ‘Luck.

      • icerabbit says:

        ” I have a Synology DS410 … it is, at least, five-years-old. ”

        Time flies, but not that fast, unless you posted form the future ;) The DS410 was announced late March 2010 so it was still 3 yrs old when DSM5.0 came out and may just have had its 4th birthday, if you bought it right out the door :)

        I’ve been waiting for the DS413+ and now DS414+ but I guess Synology is not eager to succeed the 412+.

      • icerabbit says:

        I have no idea why comment doesn’t post? Are they all held for moderation without a prompt about that?
        - -

        ” I have a Synology DS410 … it is, at least, five-years-old. ”

        Time flies, but not that fast, unless you posted form the future ;) The DS410 was announced late March 2010 so it was still 3 yrs old when DSM5.0 came out and may just have had its 4th birthday, if you bought it right out the door :)

        I’ve been waiting for the DS413+ and now DS414+ but I guess Synology is not eager to succeed the 412+.

  3. Moises Soto says:

    All this sounds great. It really is one of the best NAS solutioms out there. But the way you set up this article you are comparing this to using non personal cloud services. I would not look the situation in that perspective. Mainly because the greatest advantage of using those cloud services is the confidence that there is almost 0% probability that you will lose your data.

    Ensuring that kind of redundancy on a NAS is not so easy to do.

    In the end the realistic way to see this is not as an alternative to those cloud services, but as another layer of redundancy.

  4. I will never understand the bandwagon mentality of putting “90% of your ‘stuff’ in the cloud”. If Google came to your house, would you give them your computer in exchange for a cheap chromebook that would allow you to view your ‘stuff’ when you are connected online?

    • Kieran,

      That’s what makes the Synology system better than Google. The data can still reside on the local machine, sync to the Disk Station, and become available to all of your devices. In addition, this is a private cloud. You control the data; not some silly, faceless corporate entity.

    • Guy Granger says:

      Having a backup stored at a separate location is important to many individuals, and businesses. A single location is a “basket”. Having all of your eggs in one basket isn’t good.

  5. Another big win with the Synology is having the ability to run CrashPlan directly on the NAS! It’s a 3rd party package, but works GREAT. Hopefully 5.0 is or will be supported shortly..

    Overall though the Synology is super product, highly recommended!

  6. Erik Tank says:

    I use a synology at work, as well as three qnaps. I have a qnap at home as well. QNAPs have had these features for over a year – great iOS apps as well. I backup my mac to one qnap at work, and another at home… When we got the synology – it was visually a step ahead of qnap, but apps, features, etc – they are both great devices. I have had some issues in the past with my qnaps from failing hard drives and unmountable iSCSI LUNs (something you didn’t mention that both Synology and QNAP can do is iSCSI with persistent failovers (vmware, hyperv clusters, etc)) – this is what sets them apart. Synology has nice customer service – but QNAP has out of this world customer service. My QNAP at home is probably 4 or 5 years old – and just recently had a real bad mishap with three of the four HD’s going belly up. QNAP spent 1.5 hours one night and 2 more another night all for free. Anytime I’ve had to contact them (QNAP) they have been ridiculously outstanding. The kind of service that wins your loyalty over, and makes you want to share your experiences with everyone considering a NAS… and thus – now I have.

    No complaints about Synology though – great little unit.

  7. You can set up torrent download?

    • js0891 says:

      Yes, with the Download Station app. Drop the .torrent file into a watched folder and the download starts automatically. There are controls to control b/w usage, force encryption, etc.

    • Thierry says:

      You can even use the iOS app to search and launch your torrent download. Very easy and quick. It’s been 2 years that I don’t run anymore my Mac for downloading. The Syno is doing for me, with low consumption.

  8. Why would someone upgrade from a Apple Airport Extreme w/hard drive attached to this??

      • Erik Tank says:

        Well a NAS does far more than just an AAE w/HD, but whether you need or could use those extra features is the answer to your question. I’m honestly not even familiar with AAE stuff anymore – does it do cloud/sync/sharing? Can you install third party plugins to make the AAE more feature rich (like a web server, mail server, SQL database, etc, etc…)? I’m not picking on the AAE – but when I used to have one – you could do those things. Plus the AAE doesn’t offer any type of redundancy, does it?

      • I know that once you have a AAE with a external hd attached you can share it with other users. I don’t believe it has redundancy. I know it lacks plug-in capabilities.

    • There are hundred reasons, many covered in the story above. But a TL;DR is that the Synology makes your NAS more like a server with just about any functionality you can imagine and includes a set of connected apps that allow you to have access and control of your media from anywhere.

    • williemaykit says:

      I have two Airport Extremes and a Synology DS413j.

      The Synology NAS does more than just backups. As the article mentions, it is a file server, a media server (running Plex or the Synology apps) and a backup server. As a file and backup server, NAS devices like the Synology and QNAP come into their own if you have a mixed environment (i.e. Windows and OS-X clients) as it supports both SMB and AFP.

      Unlike the AE, I can configure multiple drives in RAID 0,1, 5 and Synology’s hybrid RAID (allowing you to use disks of different sizes).

      If you only want to backup to a hard drive on your network, the AE with a USB drive attached is a decent option and the AE is an excellent router/wireless access point

  9. shareef777 says:

    I’ve recently purchased a DS1813+. It’s easily the single greatest appliance I’ve ever bought. It can do so much with little to no effort.

  10. Anoop Menon says:

    Looks nice.. So far I have used only WD LIve Duo .. it works like a charm.

  11. A couple of things the author hasn’t noticed… I own two DS213+ and from within the web UI you can backup your DiskStation to another 3rd party NAS quite easily. You can also sync quite happily between two DiskStations and set automated backup tasks (I have my second one in an off-site location).

    And a nag: in iOS it is a complete NIGHTMARE to watch any movies through the DS Movie or DS File apps, if they are in a format that the apps don’t natively support. I’ve browsed around the forums, used all kinds of 3rd party apps, tried all sorts of settings on the DS … with no luck

    • VLC is your friend on watching videos that Apple doesn’t support natively.

      • Yeah but it only works(unless you jailbreak iOS) on os x. But the format thing is a nightmare whether you use something like this or even the seagate wireless plus. I mean there was some video i had through the seagate that wouldn’t play, One of those is especially a format like mkv. I forgot there was even one named that…

      • Hello. I can see any video formats (including MKV and ISO) saved on my DS210j with VLC using iPhone4, iPad, iMac or PC without problems and my iOS devices are not jailbroken.

      • shareef777 says:

        My original plan was to use the DiskStation to stream to my AppleTV, unfortunately I’m still stuck converting them to an Apple approved format, and on top of that having to use a 3rd device (in addition to the DiskStation and AppleTV) to actually start the play back. Was really hoping I can see the DiskStation from the AppleTV (expected it to show up as a ‘computer’).

      • @shareef777 yes, if you have a model with ARM processor (like the 213 pictured) you’ll need to jailbreak your AppleTV. Which you can do fairly easily (If it’s not an AppleTV3) using FireCore (http://firecore.com/infuse).
        You can then use apps such as Plex, XBMC or something called “Infuse” to browse and play the movies on the Diskstation. Plex won’t do any transcoding on an ARM processor, so you have to use an MP4 format that AppleTV natively supports to watch any moves using it. “Infuse” however, will play most formats.

  12. Nice article / review. Great timing as I am consolidating from an old MacPro tower (1,1) with multiple drives to a Macbook Pro.

    I had considered getting a 3 or 4 tb external drive for the extra content and for backup, but remembered someone gave me a Promise SmartStore NS2300N. Dug it out of the garage, unpacked it and tried it out. Short version/impressions: It sucks!

    I’m a “techie”.. totally get it.. 25+ years plus around this arena, but it was bad! 1st and foremost.. it formatted a 320gb drive without asking. Luckily the data on it wasn’t crucial, but still. Little warning would have been nice!

    The web interface sucks. The “application” not much better. Oddly enough the application worked on the Mac but not the PC (vmware ) side.

    I finally got it to work after 2 hours of mucking with it, updating firmware and whatnot. AFP is “on” but doesnt really work. Connection is via SMB. Not impressed.

    I am not saying that the new stuff from Promise is bad, just keep in mind, a product with good UI and overall support is totally worth it!

    I’ll be looking at the Synology later today! thanks!

    -Adam

  13. Steve Munroe says:

    One problem with personalised cloud….crappy home internet upload speeds. streaming a movie from home while on the road = endless waiting.

  14. Nathan Baird says:

    going to upgrade my 2311+ to it today. Really looking forward to adding two ssd’s to give me write tiering.
    Never had any probs with these units. Never had an external drive formatted expectantly, the time backup needs a drive formatted as ex3 or 4, but that is expected.

    For sharing videos to my mobile devices , nothing beats plex.

    Besides that these products seem to be pretty bullet proof as long as you fully understand what you are doing. If you are sure there are heaps of videos on seting up apps and the devices.

  15. The only drawback of your post (that for the rest, was very useful) is that you didn’t mentioned that is not possible to install Plex on the DS213J (the model you have). You just wrote “There’s also Plex and Logitech media server packages for most hardware”, without specifying that your hardwRe is not supported.
    And by trusting your misleading sentence, guess what? I’ve bought the 213J model, that I’m now going to return, of course.

    • @Andrea, I have a DS213air (below your model) and I can install Plex via “Package Centre” – it’s called “Plex Media Server” to be exact.
      I can confidently say that Plex is supported on your hardware (DS213j) – have you confused support for something else? Like streaming to an iPad?

  16. I have multiple Google Drive accounts (business/personal). In your images above, it appears that one could use multiple Drive accounts, is that correct? If so, this would truly be amazing as I’m currently only able to use one GDrive account on my mac.

  17. Guy Granger says:

    Synology NAS systems are my choice however DSM 5′s Cloud Sync package has some serious flaws.

    With Cloud Sync, you cannot choose a folder on Google Drive to receive the files. This means a separate Google Drive account is required for each Shared Folder nor your NAS(s) you want to back up. Further, sync operations that take longer than an hour fail because the security token expires and the Cloud Sync software does not renew it.

  18. What’s the difference between the one you demoed and the DS214 available from Amazon for $299 and in black? It is also diskless.

  19. mpatric says:

    There are ongoing issues with Time Machine and many NAS devices (including Synology). See this very long thread on Apple’s communities site: https://discussions.apple.com/thread/3684176 I’ve personally experienced these issues too and no longer rely on Time Machine. What a shame.

  20. Hi there, I came across this post and hoped one of you might be good enough to give me a little advice as to how I might best plan for archiving and backing up my data for day to day use and also bearing in mind future changes in technology. I’d prefer not too hand over the bulk of my data to cloud-type services such as Google but keep it in a home possible network/NAS setting.

    I work off a Mac Powerbook and I keep a load of files on its 1TB hard drive and on a series of external hard drives. I back up the Powerbook to an external hard drive (manually via firewire) using Timecapsule – this backing-up of mine is a bit ad hoc, which is not good! I want to update my setup and in doing so hopefully make life simpler and give greater security against some future crisis. They do happen don’t they!

    I would like to strip down my Powerbook so that there is a minimum of personal data/files kept on it day to day, just in case it gets lost or stolen. I would then like the Powerbook to back itself up automatically, wirelessly and hassle free in the event of my needing to rebuild it as a result of crashing etc. Would Apple time-capsule be the best, the easiest and most reliable for this task? I see other cheaper products on the market such as WD My Cloud etc.

    Next, I would like to pull together archived data from other external hard drives and from the Powerbook in one single device/place from which I can wirelessly retrieve files in my home (and possibly via the Web if I’m out and about). Whatever device I install it should ideally create a mirror of itself in the event of a problem arising on one of the drives. It would be helpful if the device was expandable too. Again, I see lots of products on the market such as WD My Cloud (cheap) and Synology (expandable, reliable(?), pricier).

    Would I be better off separating the automatic back-up of the Powerbook from the other personal data served by an NAS set up such as Synology or a WD product? Or, would it be fine to mix the two together as some sort of partitioned WD or Synology set up. Would I be better off plugging an NAS into time capsule and approaching the problem this way. Questions, questions… thanks for your patience

    I’d like a solution that is simple, reliable, without too many devices and relatively affordable.

  21. I have had home RAID servers for many, many years. Initially these were Linux boxes with dedicated RAID controllers, then Linux soft raid using 3ware controllers (15 drives in a 3U Supermicro box was my last), and then 3 Thecus 6-drive RAID boxes.

    I now have a DS2413+ and could not be happier.

    The performance and software quality isn’t perfect, but it blows all these other solutions out of the water.

    A couple things: you really want to run RAID6 for redundancy, and you want drives with TLER (time-limited error recovery), which most consumer drives don’t have. Western Digital Red drives are intended for RAID configurations and have TLER. Most enterprise-grade drives do, too, but are more expensive.

    You also want to set up scheduled SMART tests on the drives using the DSM software. I run a short test on all drives nightly, and a long test on each drive once a week. The long test *apparently* reads the enture drive, which will surface failed sectors that you haven’t otherwise accessed (see below for why this is critical). The Synology can sent you SMS messages if it sees things that indicate a drive is having trouble so you can replace it and rebuild your array, saving your data.

    Here’s the issue with TLER. This happened to me twice with older RAID5 systems and consumer drives:

    Say you have a RAID5 or equivalent setup. You don’t read all the data all the time, so sectors can go bad (“rot”) without triggering an error.

    Then one of your drives fails. You put in the replacement and the array starts rebuilding. You breathe a sigh of relief.

    After 10 hours the rebuilding process hits a failed block on one of the non-failed drives. With a consumer drive the read will never return, and the controller will mark the drive as failed.

    You’ve lost your entire array.

    So: use only TLER-capable drives, run a full SMART test on every drive, asoften as possible, run a RAID6 config so that two complete drive failures can occur without losing the entire array.

    Finally, offsite backup. There are several main options with the Synology boxes but the main ones to me are backup to CrashPlan with 1T data pre-seeded (this costs $125 extra for CrashPlan), and backing up to another Synology box at your office or a friend’s house.

    After I’m done reorganizing all my files from the 4 servers I moved off of I’m going to run CrashPlan pre-seeded with the most critical data but backing up all of it, and a second Synology box at work backing up only the most critical data.