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NAS drive buying guide

Choose the best network attached storage for your personal, family or business needs.

Quick facts about NAS drives

  • Network attached storage, or NAS drives, provide a central storage hub for all your files and allow access for multiple users.
  • They offer a practical solution to file storage and sharing.
  • Prices typically range from $99 to $750. However, devices designed for corporate use can cost thousands of dollars.

What is a NAS drive?

Network attached storage, more commonly known as a NAS drive, is a high-capacity storage unit that connects to all the computers and mobile devices in your home or office via your local network. It can also be accessed over the Internet when you’re away from home.

While traditional external hard drives must be physically plugged and unplugged when moving files between devices, NAS drives offer a quicker and more convenient way to store, stream and share files. Many units also allow you to replace their hard drives with larger-capacity models if you need more storage space.

Why should I consider a NAS drive?

Deciding if you need a NAS drive can depend on several factors. But if any of the following features would make your digital life simpler, it might be time to invest.

  • Centralized storage. NAS units allow you to connect all your electronic devices to a central storage hub, allowing for convenient data management.
  • Quick and easy file sharing. NAS drives offer a centralized way to share data between all your household electronic devices without having to plug and unplug. For example, your whole family could simultaneously access your extensive library of movies, music and photos on separate devices.
  • Extra space. If you need to store a large volume of files, NAS drives can significantly increase your storage capacity. Many drives can also be expanded further if your storage needs an increase in the future.
  • Back up your files. NAS units provide a safeguard against hardware failure, theft and other unexpected disasters by automatically backing up your files across multiple devices.
  • Personal cloud. Most NAS providers also offer a personal cloud service to allow you to access your files from anywhere in the world. All you need is an Internet connection.

However, if you don’t have any need to share your files with other users and your current setup adequately meets your file storage requirements, there’s probably little reason to consider a NAS drive.

Most people who only have one or two computers at home can probably get by using USB drives or even an external hard drive to share and back up files.

NAS drives vs. cloud storage

NAS drives should not be confused with online cloud storage, which allows you to upload and share files to “the cloud.” The cloud refers to a server or network of servers connected to the Internet. You can access it from any computer, phone or other electronic devices with an Internet connection.

A NAS drive is a physical storage unit set up inside your home or office. However, most NAS drives can also connect to a personal cloud service and back up your files online.

Types of NAS drives

There are two main types of NAS drives.

  • Prepopulated drives. These units come with hard disk drives already installed and are most commonly offered by companies that also manufacture hard drives.
  • Unpopulated drives. Also referred to as diskless, these units allow you to insert your own hard drives.

Some NAS drives are available in both prepopulated and unpopulated form. Make sure to compare the price difference between the two models to determine whether the included hard drives provide good value for money.

Storage capacity

NAS drives are also distinguished by their storage capacity, which is determined by the number of bays (or slots) it has for hard drives.

  • Most home and home-office NAS units have one or two bays.
  • Multimedia-centric units usually have four bays.
  • Models designed for business use tend to have four or more bays.

NAS units with two or more drives allow you to create a more effective redundant array of independent disks (RAID). A RAID setup basically merges all the hard drives into one logical unit, allowing you to enjoy performance benefits and protect your data in case of drive failure.

For example, if you copy the contents of one drive to another, your data remains accessible even if one drive fails. However, this configuration (known as RAID 1) means your unit only has 2TB of space available, not 4TB.

How to compare NAS drives

When choosing a NAS drive, consider your file storage and sharing needs both now and into the future. By comparing the storage capacity, ease of use and connectivity of the units in your price range, you can purchase a NAS drive that meets your requirements.

Drive bays

For most home users, a drive with two bays is ideal because it allows you to mirror the contents of one drive to the other. NAS drives for business offer four, eight or even more bays. Single-bay drives are not recommended for most users because of their lack of redundancy.

Hard drives

NAS units can come with drives already inside or with space for you to insert your own drives, so make sure you know what type you’re getting. If hard drives are already included, check whether you can replace those drives in the future. If you can insert your own drives, check whether the manufacturer provides a list of compatible models.

Web portals and mobile apps

NAS manufacturers offer their own programs, apps and online services to manage your storage. These can sometimes be complicated and confusing for the average user, so look for a NAS drive with straightforward software.

DLNA and compatible devices

DLNA, or digital living network alliance, is a protocol that allows devices from different manufacturers to communicate with one another over a network. Most NAS units support DLNA, which enables you to stream media content to other DLNA devices in your home, like your smart TV, tablet or games console.

CPU and RAM

Check the specs sheet for details of the drive’s CPU and its processing speed (measured in gigahertz). But remember, because this is a storage unit, it won’t need anywhere near as much power as your desktop computer.

Check the amount of RAM as well — the more RAM a NAS unit has, the quicker it will access data.

Hot swapping

Hot-swappable drive bays allow you to replace a broken hard drive or increase your storage capacity without having to shut down your NAS system.

Security

Check what built-in security features a unit offers, including password encryption and firewalls.

Power consumption

NAS drives are designed to be on 24/7, so check how much power a unit will consume before buying.

Available RAID configurations

There are several types of RAID. Check which of the following your NAS drive supports.

  • JBOD. Short for just a bunch of disks, this refers to a collection of hard drives that haven’t been configured to act as a RAID. It doesn’t provide any redundancy or performance benefits.
  • RAID 0. Known as disk striping, this writes data across multiple disks to boost performance.
  • RAID 1. Known as disk mirroring, RAID 1 mirrors the contents of one hard drive on another to provide a data backup.
  • RAID 5. Commonly used for business NAS units, RAID 5 stripes data and parity across three or more disks, making it easy to recreate data if one drive starts to fail or doesn’t function properly.
  • RAID 10. This combines RAID 1 and RAID 0 and is commonly referred to as RAID 1+0. RAID 10 improves performance and provides data redundancy. However, a minimum of four hard drives are required.

Choosing hard drives for your NAS unit

NAS hard drives

If you buy a unit that doesn’t include built-in hard drives, you’ll need to shop around to find ones suitable for your needs. However, don’t assume that you can simply go out and buy any old drive.

Many hard drive manufacturers offer NAS-optimized hard disk drives. While they cost more than standard hard drives, they’re typically designed to run 24/7.

NAS-optimized drives feature special firmware to improve long-term reliability, reduce operating temperatures and offer better performance. Some also come with an extended warranty.

Overall, make sure to check your NAS unit’s list of compatible hard drives before you buy.

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