(This review was written by our latest contributor Roel Verhoeven – Ed.)
Over the last years I have occasionally wondered if I should invest in a Network Attached Storage (NAS) box. I, like most people, have amassed lots of pictures, home videos, music and more. All of these are stored on my laptop and I regularly back these up on an external USB harddrive which I keep at work.
If, like me, you've not owned a NAS before but are interested in what it can do for you, then this review is written for you. Note that this NAS has many features aimed at (small) business users which I've only partially covered, this review has a home user in mind.
So how did I go?
First of all, why should you consider a NAS instead of an external drive?
There is the potential of vastly greater storage space. The 4-bay QNAP TVS-463 can store up to 32Tb of data compared to a typical 2Tb for a 2.5" external drive. The NAS also supports an external disk bay for up to 16 more HDDs.
Also, a NAS box can be easily configured to use its hard drives in a RAID array (which stands for Redundant Array of Independent/Inexpensive Disks). This does provide you with tolerance against data loss due to hard drive failure. But note: you'll still lose your data should your house burn down. A NAS unit should still be backed up by a drive that is physically remote.
NAS further offers the advantage of being connected to your home network and the wider internet. Your NAS will act as a network drive, so you can retrieve, store and share files from any computer connected to your network and even from anywhere else via the internet. Furthermore, because you normally keep it powered up all the time, your files will be available to you anywhere and anytime.
What does it physically look like?
The QNAP TVS-463 is fitted in a robust metal housing which looks and feels well designed. This model comes with 4 drive bays (but without any hard drives). 6 and 8 bay models are also available in this range. Each drive can be released by pulling a lever.
The unit feels reassuringly heavy and is quiet in operation. The dimensions of the unit are modest, measuring only 18cm wide, by 18cm tall and 24cm deep.
Make sure that the hard drives you buy for your NAS are specifically designed for use in NAS units. Not all hard drives are. The QNAP website lists compatible models. I installed two identical Western Digital 'red' drives.
The QNAP TVS-463 is designed to be unobtrusive, quiet and to use only a modest amount of power. It is meant to be always on.
What is installation like?
Installation was pretty straightforward for me. I fitted the 2 hard drives in the bays with the provided screws and connected it to a power socket and to my network router via a LAN cable. After powering up the unit it beeps a couple of times during its boot sequence to let you know it's alive. The LCD display on the box then asks what RAID level you want to select. You should ignore that and instead navigate to 'start.qnap.com' on a computer that is connected to the same network router.
The installation (and subsequent use) of the NAS is all done via a web browser.
As you would expect, the installation is pretty straightforward and is mostly just clicking your way through a very visual setup wizard. Minimal knowledge of computer networks is needed.
During the installation you will be asked if your NAS will be for home or business use. I opted home use which has more apps installed by default. The setup will also ask what RAID level you'd like to use your drives at. If you only have installed one hard drive you only have one option (with no redundancy), but as you fit more drives, other RAID levels become available which duplicates your data across several disks to prevent data loss in case of hard drive failure.
You'll also be asked to setup an ID to access your NAS over the internet.
How to connect to your NAS?
Your NAS box will need to be connected to the network router via a LAN cable. If you connect to the internet via a WiFi modem, like I normally do, then you may find that there is no LAN port.
If you're going to use the excellent media server features of this model, then you'll want to locate the NAS within HDMI cable-distance of your TV. More on this later.
In the 'normal' case where your home PC and the NAS are connected to the same internet router, you can connect to your NAS without sending data over the internet. The Qfinder utility (which runs on Windows, Mac, Linux or Chromebook) locates the NAS on your local network and
provides a link for your web browser.
When you're on your local network you can also have folders from the NAS mapped (or mounted) to your PC/Mac/Linux machine. On a Mac and a PC this is all done via a clicking your way through a GUI, but on Linux the terminal is needed. On my Linux system I encountered some trouble during mounting but I was able to resolve this after a quick search on the internet.
If you are away from home (more precisely: away from your local network) you can still connect to the NAS via any browser or by using an app on your mobile phone.
During setup your NAS is given a URL which will allow you to access it over the internet. In effect your NAS will act as your own cloud storage. The experience is the same as if you're accessing it from your local network (although your ISP might meter your data).
The mobile apps make some functions of your NAS available to your phone or tablet. For instance there's an app to view/download pictures, one to stream videos and another one to stream music from your NAS to your phone. More on these later.
One of the primary functions of your NAS is to be able to upload and download data to and from it. The specifications list some very impressive data transfer speeds. It should be noted that the unit can be equipped with a 10 gigabit ethernet card. But knowing that the real world can be a different thing than QNAP's test lab I used my somewhat aged router (a Telstra branded NetComm 11g modem) to perform a not-so-very scientific test to see what speeds I could achieve:
On WiFi: download at 3.4Mb/s, upload at 2.4Mb/s
Via LAN cable: download at 17.5Mb/s, upload at 11.3Mb/s (NB: megabytes, not megabits).
Note that my router is probably the bottleneck in this test, as it may well be for you.
What features does it offer?
Traditional NAS only offered network storage with an optional level of data redundancy. For this job the 'traditional NAS' box only needed the minimum of processing power and memory. The QNAP TVS-463 has significantly expanded the definition of what a NAS can be though. It provides far more than the basics. It can be used as a media player, virtual machine (running windows, iOS, Linux or even Android), a webserver, a recorder for security cameras and lots more. It also has great apps for Android and iOS which give you access to your videos, music and pictures from your mobile phone.
Sharing your files with others is easy. You can make accounts for additional users which gives them access to selectable folders of the NAS via the QTS interface. Read/write permissions can be customised for each folder. Alternatively, you can let the NAS email a link which gives access to files or folders without setting up a new user account. It's possible to set an expiry date for these links.
I found that this NAS can do so much that initially all the available options seemed pretty bewildering. Should I set up a VPN server? Or an LDAP sever? I had never heard of many of the features before and most are probably aimed at users more versed in IT than I am.
To power all these additional features, the TVS-463 is fitted with a 2.4GHz AMD Quad Core processor and either 4Gb or 8Gb of RAM (the model I reviewed had 4Gb). This device is clearly more than a basic data repository.
All this power and functionality does come at a cost though: the TVS-463 retails at around $1200, without any hard drives.
The NAS is controlled by QNAP's proprietary operating system QTS (version 4.1.3). You work with its visual interface through your web browser. QTS feels a bit like a mix between Windows and an app-based OS. For instance, you can install extra functionality by downloading apps, but it also has a task bar. You can drag and drop files and right click items to show context menus.
The basic QTS apps provide a file explorer (called 'File Station'), a picture viewer, music player and a video player. There are many more apps (I counted 143) available through the 'app center', including third-party apps. Dropbox offers an app to synchronise your dropbox cloud storage with the NAS, which I thought was a good idea (there is no equivalent Google Drive app though).
QTS also offers a 'QSync' utility which enables automatic synchronisation between folders on multiple computers and the NAS. This seems a very useful feature but is unfortunately only provided for Mac and Windows users. Because I run Linux, I cannot tell you how well Qsync might work.
The TVS-463 also has plenty of advanced features which I won't cover. For instance, the 'virtualisation station' offers the possibility to run several virtual machines on the QNAP. Activation of this option seems straightforward (all you need is an image file of the OS you want to run and import this into the virtualisation station app).
The media centre (HD station) is a very clever addition to traditional NAS capabilities. Since your NAS provides an always-on repository of all your music, pictures, home videos and movies, you might as well connect these to your TV. HD station runs XMBC which I found to work very smoothly and intuitively. There's even an app to use your mobile phone as a remote control.
It's also possible to plug a digital TV (DVB-T) tuner into the NAS via a USB port. This promises the possibility to watch and record digital TV and use your NAS as a PVR. I didn't have an opportunity to test this because you need to buy the USB dongle separately. This is a shame and I think a digital TV tuner (or twin tuner) should be integrated with this otherwise supercharged NAS. It would have made a lot of other devices redundant and would have helped to justify its hefty pricetag.
Mobile apps are available for iOS and Android. These apps are designed to mirror individual QTS apps like for instance the File Station or Video Station.
At the time of writing the photo and video app were not (yet) available for iOS.
The 'Qvideo' app allows you to stream any video on your NAS to your phone/tablet. It can transcode (re-sample) your video to a lower resolution as it streams it to your phone. This feature allows you to limit the data transfer rate. Transcoding on-the-fly requires number crunching which is made possible by the ample processing power this NAS has at its disposal.
Conclusion; Should you get one?
Having tried this premium NAS for several weeks I am now sold. Storing and sharing of files has become a lot easier and all of your data is accessible anywhere and anytime. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it. The interface is simple but powerful and the mobile apps allow you to access your media on the go.
With the TVS-463 you also have a fully functioning media server. The optional plug-in TV tuner goes some way to integrate the functionalities of a PVR. I think QNAP should have gone further and have built in a twin TV tuner as standard.
The TVS-x63 range seems to offer many features that a basic home user wouldn't really use. This indicates that these devices are more aimed at advanced users or at small businesses.
A small negative point is that support for Linux systems is somewhat limited, especially QSync is missed. Also fewer mobile apps for Apple's platform are available than for Android.