What is NAS?
NAS is essentially a bunch of hard drives that connects to your home network, powered and housed by a small computer, enabling a centralised file storage system you can access from anywhere.
Traditionally a NAS box required a bit of know-how to get running, but manufacturers have made great strides in this area to the point that almost anyone can set up a powerful network storage solution that is more capable and flexible than a cloud storage service.
Synology's DS218J is a powerful two-bay NAS box at an entry level price of around $230.
Since you're buying the NAS box and requisite hard drives outright, there's more of an upfront investment. But it works out cheaper in the long run as there are no ongoing monthly fees. Cloud storage is akin to renting a place for your data to live, whereas NAS is more like owning your own home, giving you complete control and ownership. Boxes are designed to run 24/7, but generally don't consume a lot of power.
A two-bay NAS box can be picked up from as low as $200. Filling those slots with two 1TB hard drives will set you back another $100, so in total you're looking at $300. By comparison, a Google One plan with 2TB storage will set you back $125 a year. I invested in a more expensive five bay Synology DS1019+, and filled up the hard drive slots as and when I needed more storage over time. More drive bays also give you better redundancy, as you can mirror data so you won't lose any if one or two drives fail.
Keep in mind that NAS boxes can do more than just store and share your photos. The likes of Synology and QNAP have an extensive app ecosystem that extends the functionality well beyond the bounds of traditional network storage.
I use mine as a media server so the family can easily stream movies and music stored on the NAS to any connected smartphone, tablet, PC or streaming box, in addition to serving as a PVR for recording major sporting events on free-to-air television. I also use it to drive and monitor my home security cameras.
There are a number of companies that make NAS boxes, including QNAP, Western Digital and Seagate, but Synology's DiskStation line is far and away the best in the industry when it comes to ease of use, stability and features.
For example making your NAS accessible from outside of your home network usually involves setting up port forwarding rules or other complicated network settings. But Synology's QuickConnect feature bypasses this by allowing you to assign a simple URL or ID for access.
The DS1019+ is a five-bay NAS box that supports 4K transcoding expansion bays for even more storage, at around $1000.
It's also the only NAS system that can match Google Photos in terms of smarts. Synology's Moments app, which runs on top of the company's Diskstation Manager operating system, analyses all your photos and puts them into sensible albums for you, making it much easier to find the photo you're looking for.
It uses facial recognition to group photos with similar faces, and scene recognition so you can search based on things that are in the picture.
Unlike Google Photos, Synology does all this without ever collecting any user data or sending a single photo to the public cloud.
You can also set the app to automatically upload any new photos from your phone to your NAS.
Another strong point for NAS compared to cloud storage services is speed. Cloud services are limited by your internet speeds and the bandwidth of their servers, whereas NAS utilises the speed of your local home network which is significantly faster.
Of course it's always wise to keep a backup offsite of all your important files in case there's a fire or burglary. Synology has multiple options for doing this, backing up data stored on the NAS to a public cloud service like Google Drive, OneDrive or Dropbox.
The benefit here is that Synology will encrypt your data before it is uploaded, so your data can't be trawled and won't be compromised if the cloud service is hacked or breached.
Some NAS boxes allow you to sync an encrypted backup of your storage to the cloud.
Synology also offers its own private cloud option called Synology C2 Backup, with the basic plan costing between $16 and $100 a year depending on your needs.
Another option is to invest in a secondary Synology NAS offsite and have files synchronise over the internet. I personally go the manual route; plugging a USB drive into the NAS on a monthly basis to back up my most precious data, namely my collection of family photos and videos.
Krishan is a multi-award-winning Australian technology journalist.
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