Which NAS unit should you buy?
The digital age has made the world a lot more convenient in most respects -- we can, after all, look up just about any fact we need at any time from our phones -- but it's also created a new problem: storage. Whether it's a massive collection of selfies, critical computer backups, or media like movies, TV, and MP3s, everything needs to be backed up and kept safe, and many files are simply too large to be stored in a cloud-based backup service.
That's where Network Attached Storage (NAS) units come in: small, unassuming boxes that hold hard drives and sit on home networks to store files and serve them to other devices. NAS units can be a little intimidating, because they're designed to operate "headless": instead of using a monitor or screen as an interface, most NAS units are accessed via a web browser. But once an NAS is setup, it doesn't require much care and feeding, and can mostly operate seamlessly with your smartphone, tablet, computer, or streaming box to give them access to your personal content.
The NAS unit market is incredibly diverse, so it pays to know what features you need or want before you start shopping. We recommend starting with the most essential features: storage and apps.
With NAS units, there are two storage metrics to pay attention to: how many hard drives it can hold at once, and its maximum capacity for data.
Most NAS units support between two and eight hard drives at once. You don't have to use all of the available hard drive ports on an NAS unit, so buying one that holds more can give you room to grow. On the other hand, larger NAS units are expensive, and that's before the cost of adding the actual hard drives.
Hard drives can be as large as 10TB, but not all NAS units support hard drives over 4TB. Spend some time thinking about how much storage you'll need before you start shopping; hard drives range in price between $100 and $400, and that can make replacing drives expensive in the future.
Some NAS units are designed to be simple servers: they host and backup your data, and that's it. But more and more NAS units today include built-in apps to add services that make it even easier to interact with your data. NAS unit apps can be used to do things like:
Schedule data backups. Most modern NAS units have built-in programs to save data from your other machines so you can rest easy knowing that you're protected in case of a data failure.
Run a media server. If you've ever wanted to access your photos, music, or videos from another device on your network, an NAS can do the heavy lifting of both storing your data and sharing it with your other devices.
Run virtual machines. If you're a seasoned tech -- or if you're looking to learn more about computers -- virtual machines are a perfect way to learn about or interact with a computer in a quarantined environment. Whether you need a reliable Linux machine or a full-fledged installation of Windows 10, many NAS units have enough power to let you run practically any virtual machine you could need.
Ready to make your digital storage dreams come true? Here are our favorite models for some of the most common use cases.
For the work-from-home warrior
If you're working from a home office, it's important that your storage and file server be stable, especially when a data loss or outage can cripple your productivity. The QNAP Turbo NAS TS-453Be is up to the task: not only does it have room for four drives, but it's got an HDMI output, making it one of the rare NAS units that can easily be connected to a monitor or TV. QNAP is one of the biggest names in NAS units, and it's easy to see why here -- it's quick, it's got built-in backup functionality, and you can easily upgrade the RAM to make it even more efficient. If you need a "set it and forget it" NAS unit, this is the one.
For college students
Whether they need to backup a term paper or safely store your enormous collection of MP3s, most college students need an NAS unit that's equal parts durable and convenient. That's why we love Western Digital's WD 8TB My Cloud EX2 Ultra: it's a completely straightforward option for storage that's focused on hosting files securely and helping you access your content from anywhere with an internet connection. Just be forewarned: the smallest model weighs five pounds before you add hard drives, so don't expect to be carting this little behemoth NAS around campus.
For the TV and movie fanatic
If you've got a massive collection of TV and movies -- or you just need a place to put your thousands of videos of your kids -- you'll want an NAS that can stream any content format to any device. Synology's entire current line is built around this need, but our favorite is the DiskStation DS218PLAY. The "PLAY" in the model name is no joke: with built-in hardware transcoding and a free application like Plex, it can store any content you have -- and then serve it up to your phone, tablet, or TV in seconds.
Jaime is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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