I’ve recently been testing the brand new Synology DS-216+ NAS ($299), a network-attached-storage product meant for consumers. Although Synology products include a variety of features, I will be focusing on two primary functions that I consider most essential and most useful to people today: Mac backup and home media management (TV shows and movies).
With Apple no longer shipping optical drives in most of their products, I think now is a great time to convert your home movie collection of DVDs and Blu-rays to digital files, which a NAS is great for storing. The Apple TV 4 was another big factor: with an app, I can now view all the TV shows and movies, stored on my NAS, from my TV.
Before I owned a NAS, I was worried about two things: whether the features would be useful and how much hassle would be necessary to get everything up and running. Hence, my review starts with an explanation of the setup steps involved …
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At its dumbest, the Synology NAS is a USB hard drive. At its smartest, it’s an always-on network computer that handles a wide array of data, media and backup tasks. For any of this stuff, though, you need hard drives for storage. When you buy a Synology, you typically buy it standalone with empty drive bays.
This means the first task to getting the NAS configured is to decide what kind of hard drives you want: speed, capacity, reliability, manufacturer and such. You can get away with any consumer OEM 3.5 inch drive really, it’s personal preference.
Anything from Amazon will suffice for home consumer needs. Storage capacity depends on what you plan to use the NAS for, of course. Given the ever-falling price of HDDs however, it’s pretty cheap to pickup several terabytes worth of space. To get started quickly, I’d suggest getting two equal-sized drives from the same manufacturer. For my setup, I went with 2 x 3 TB WD-Red NAS drives from Western Digital, costing about $200 in total.
Installing the drives into the Synology is very easy. The main NAS caddy contains two bays. Take one of the bays out and remove the side strips. Then, slide a hard drive snugly into the bay. Re-attach the side strips to secure the hard drive in place, and then slide the whole lot back into the Synology. Just make sure to insert the bays the right way up and you can basically do no wrong — there’s a right-side-up indicator engraved into the plastic. Looking at naked hard drives can be scary for some, but installation into the NAS is very straightforward and simple. The clever design of the Synology bays eliminates the need for screws, or any tools at all.
Aside from hard drive installation, the Synology hardware is as simple to configure as any other home appliance. Plug in the Ethernet and power cord, then switch it on.
Before I tested this unit, I wasn’t sure what to expect with regard to setup. I knew about the easy-to-switch drive bays, but I had this feeling that the software configuration would be finicky and annoying. For the most part, I was very wrong. Setting up the Synology system is a breeze. After plugging in the unit, you visit a special website URL that acts as the web setup portal for the NAS. There’s a fair amount of waiting for initial loading to complete, but generally you just tick the boxes and progress.
Eventually, you gain access to the real Synology system — again exposed through a web UI. It looks like a desktop GUI, a weird conglomeration of OS X and Linux elements, but it’s all in a browser. This is fine but it is sluggish; any click takes at least a second for something to happen. Clicking on things is not as responsive as a real desktop computer by any means, however much it tries to ape the visual appearance.
Still, you don’t have to spend that much time in the fake OS, after you have set up stuff. I used the File Browser to configure some shared folders; one for Movies, one for TV Shows and one for the Time Machine backup destination. I wouldn’t say that ‘anybody could do this’ but if you have ever done anything remotely technical to a Mac before, there is nothing scary here. It’s mostly filling in a few forms and clicking Next. There are hundreds of online tutorials if you really want pictorial step-by-step guides for any feature, and the manual PDF included with the Synology is pretty good to boot. I think I referenced the official how-to guide once.
Synology bundles its own movie / TV show server apps, but I think they are mediocre. The iOS apps are bad. There is an Apple TV app now (search ‘DS video’ in the tvOS App Store), but I prefer a third-party solution. I use Plex. Just like an iOS App Store, the Synology NAS has a Package Manager. Downloading Plex to the NAS is as simple as clicking Install from the web GUI. Plex then asks for pointers to the folder structure; these are the shared folders that were configured earlier. And that’s about it. From then on, the Plex service runs autonomously. Client apps (available for Apple TV, iOS and much more) connect to the server automatically — you don’t have to fiddle with the server side unless you want to change something structural with the server itself.
Time Machine backup setup is a bit more intricate. You have to do things like create a new user, add a Shared Folder, allocate X GB of space to the Time Machine client, etcetera. Could Synology design this setup to be simpler? Does it really matter? Probably not. Like with Plex, the steps only needs to be done once and then it can be left to its own devices. On the Mac side, OS X sees the Synology just like a Time Capsule, as another Time Machine destination with the size allocated as defined in the setup.
Obviously, there is a lot more the Synology can do beyond Plex and Time Machine. You can run your own email mailbox, host a web server on it, replace Apple Photos and much more. I want to focus on media and backup in this review because that’s what I find most compelling … and that’s what I use it for every day. I think the important takeaway is none of this is as hard or as scary as the alphabet soup of acronyms could imply. It could be simpler, for sure, but you really shouldn’t see it as a barrier to adoption. With setup over, it’s time to look at what using the Synology as a home NAS is like. Spoiler: It’s pretty great.
Using Plex and Synology as a Media Server
Loading content into Plex is straightforward. It’s a simple matter of dragging and dropping media files into the designated folder on the Synology. Plex will happily import most file formats, as it automatically transcodes the content on-the-fly to optimize the viewing experience for whatever device you are using to watch.
To help Plex attach the correct metadata, it is recommended to name files in a certain way. For instance, films must be labelled like ‘Daddy’s Home (2015)’. The rules are very simple — read the documentation on this for more information. Acquiring such content is the real tricky bit here: the official method is to rip your movies from optical media, using a disc drive and HandBrake. Obviously, there are other avenues to find TV shows and theatre films digitally. I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
Once loaded, you can access your movies and TV shows through a variety of apps. There’s a browser-based client for Windows and Mac, as well as App Store downloads for iOS, Android, Apple TV and many more devices. The great thing is, because everything is being hosted on an always-on network-connected NAS, you can access your library outside of your home network too. It’s like a private cloud: you can be anywhere in the world and stream your personal video library to your devices.
A big draw for me was the Apple TV compatibility. With older Apple TV models, you had to jailbreak to get some semblance of a Plex interface. With Apple TV 4, Plex can simply offer an official client in the App Store as a free download. The app is great. The home screen displays shortcuts to the different libraries, shows and films that were only half-watched in a previous sitting (so you can quickly continue watching), and new unwatched episodes of a series (‘On Deck’).
The UI uses TVML extensively, meaning that the components and grids mirror Apple’s system apps. The app is logically structured, with shows separated by season. You can also just press Play at the show level and it will pick up where you left off. The detail views look good, assuming you have correct metadata for your content.
Big, blurred, poster art act as the backdrop for ratings, description info and other details alongside a cast list in the sidebar. Use the navigation bar at the top of the page for a myriad of discovery options including the ability to view your movie collection based on cinema air date, not just when the title was added to the Plex library. Plex also generates related recommendations for other movies in your library, automatically finding films by other actors or directors that you own.
The downside to Plex being based on TVML is that it can be slow to load on occasion. For example, after finishing a TV show, the whole page has to visibly reload so that everything is up to date. I think a truly native app would not have these issues. It is also easy to get lost in a deep navigational hierarchy, where the only path of action to get back is to spam-press the Home button to eventually return to the main screen.
Overall, these are minor niggles. I love the Plex Apple TV app. It even supports the Apple TV’s Top Shelf feature, so if you put the app on the first row of your Home Screen, it will display dynamic ‘Recently Added’ and ‘Continue Watching’ content in the shelf area.
Using Synology with Time Machine
With regards to using the Synology as a Time Machine box, there isn’t too much to say as the premise of Time Machine is that it gets out of your way. After doing the aforementioned setup, the Synology appears as a target drive in the Mac Time Machine preferences. It then proceeds to automatically backup at regular intervals. If you disconnect from the network and rejoin, it does the intelligent thing and remounts the drive without user intervention.
I have used standard USB network-connected drives with Time Machine before and have always encountered some friction or annoyances. The Synology works flawlessly. I haven’t had to troubleshoot anything since setting it up. The folder rollback feature on the Mac (where you enter the single-window timeline mode) does not seem to work with the Synology Time Machine’s implementation. I don’t really care about that though: for me, Time Machine is used as a straightforward, automatic, backup only. I have tested the restore to another Mac from Synology and it completed successfully, seamlessly.
My only criticism is that, whilst a Time Machine backup is happening, the Synology gets noisy as the hard drives spin up. If you store the Synology in a cupboard or basement, then this is a non-issue. If you keep the NAS in your living room, this is something to consider. Outside of Time Machine operations, the machine is barely audible.
Getting a Synology NAS has dramatically improved my life. I’ve only scratched the surface of what it can do, of course. In the future, I want to experiment with using the Download Station functionality, so it will automatically grab files from RSS feeds whilst I sleep. There’s so much more possible with a home NAS beyond backup and media server. But those two features alone are fantastic and make it worth a purchase for me.
The Synology DS-216+, the unit I reviewed, is available to buy for $299. Synology offers many different models, with differing feature sets and number of drives, for respectively more or less money. Compare all the available models on the Synology website.