Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

The NAS box. It's not particularly sexy or groundbreaking, but network-attached storage is an obvious solution for a common need. And here's the very best of the bunch.

A modern NAS, as the hub of your home network, can offer many advantages. Its terabytes of storage can provide not only easy backup for your devices, but also a centralized and unified media library that can stream to any device in your home—and beyond. With the use of smartphone and tablet apps, a web interface, and streaming services, your NAS can be your network's brain when you're at home and your personal cloud when you're not.

We're going to take a look at four of the top NAS devices currently on the market. All the products we tested support up to four SATA drives in the standard RAID levels (0/1/5/10), providing exceptional performance and reliability. These devices are geared toward small businesses and home offices, and they include features and performance that extend above and beyond what the typical home user will require. But then again, we've always felt that overkill is just another product feature.

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

Promise SmartStor NS4700

Promise Technology has been quietly making a name for itself as a major player in the storage space, producing a number of RAID and NAS solutions for all types of needs. The SmartStor NS4700 is the company's four-bay, performance-oriented NAS. The NS4700 ships without hard drives, but in our testing we used four 2TB Seagate Barracuda Green drives. Other items included in the box are an Ethernet cable, a standard computer power cord, a quick-start guide, a documentation/software CD, and screws for mounting your hard drives. The software CD includes a copy of Acronis Backup and Recovery NAS Edition, which is limited for use with Promise NAS devices.

The SmartStor NS4700 sports a dual-core Atom D525 processor running at 1.8GHz and 1GB of DDR2 RAM. Five USB 2.0 ports (one on the front) allow you to add USB hard drives to easily move large amounts of data to and from the NAS or to function as a backup medium, but there is no USB 3.0 or eSATA. Dual Gigabit Ethernet ports are automatically configured for load balancing, but this can be reconfigured easily in the browser-based management console.

In a world of plain black boxes, the NS4700's two-tone aesthetic seems downright daring.

From a hardware standpoint, the NS4700 looks very clean. The drives are accessible from the front of the device and are housed within four horizontally oriented drive trays. The trays themselves feature a sliding lock that prevents accidental removal but not unauthorized access. The LCD panel on the front along with the associated select and enter buttons, allows for some minor configuration and information gathering.

For the most part, configuring the NS4700 is done through a browser-based UI. The interface itself is clean and features an impressive dashboard, allowing you to monitor various aspects of the hardware. Actually configuring things like shares and permissions isn't as intuitive as we'd like, but that's not something you will be doing on a regular basis, either. Promise includes support for the DLNA Digital Media Server role, and the NS4700 also functions as an iTunes media server. Both protocols make your media library accessible to a wide range of client devices.

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

Promise SmartStor NS4700
$850 (enclosure only)

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

Synology DS411+II

Synology has been in the NAS business for a while, and it has an impressive number of products to show for it. The DS411+II uses the same housing as the company's DS409+ NAS box that we reviewed in our Holiday 2009 issue, and that's a problem. While the competitors are offering products with hot-swappable drives that are accessible from the front, the DS411+II requires you to remove thumbscrews and the cover to gain access to the drive bays. Synology supports a "RAID 5+Spare" drive configuration in the DS411+II, meaning you can have one drive configured as a spare in case of drive failure. In the box, along with the DS411+II itself, you will find the power cord and external power supply, an Ethernet cable, a DVD with software and documentation, and screws for drive installation.

The DS411+II is powered by a robust dual-core 1.8GHz Atom and 1GB of DDR2 memory, which belie the slightly outdated form factor. Sadly, the DS411+II lags in the connectivity department, offering just two USB 2.0 ports and a single gigabit Ethernet connection. A lone eSATA port is small consolation. The DS411+II supports USB hard drives, USB printers, and even USB speakers for playing music directly from the device.

Though it's not exactly a work of art, chances are you'd be purchasing a NAS for the functionality it provides, not its aesthetic value. For all of the DS411+II's hardware deficiencies, Synology nailed the software side of the equation. The web-based configuration utility is innovative and fresh, using modern web technologies to allow you to view multiple configuration screens or performance dashboards simultaneously. The DS411+II even provides a wizard-based utility that assists you in configuring your router and firewall to allow access to the NAS through the web. Synology offers both DLNA and iTunes media server options and even goes a step farther by functioning as a Squeezebox Server for Logitech's Squeezebox line of media streamers.

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

Synology DS411+II
$700 (enclosure only)

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

Buffalo TeraStation Pro Quad

When it comes to computer networking products, there are a few companies that always come to mind. Buffalo is one of them. Storage devices have always been a part of Buffalo's repertoire, so including the TeraStation Pro Quad in this roundup was a no-brainer. The "Quad" in the moniker refers to the four drives that come preinstalled in the NAS, with options for 1TB, 2TB, or 3TB drives at various price points. Buffalo chose a dual-core 1.6GHz Atom to run the TeraStation Pro, and 2GB of RAM provides more than enough memory for most purposes. The configuration we tested came complete with four 1TB drives. Inside the box, you'll find Ethernet and power cables, a quick-start guide, and a software and documentation CD. Buffalo also includes 10 licenses of NovaBackup Business Essentials.

Buffalo chose to keep the drive trays accessible from the front of the unit, though they are enclosed behind a locking door. The door locks at the bottom, but the handle is located at the top; this causes the door to flex when you attempt to open the door without first unlocking it. An LCD panel graces the front of the TeraStation Pro and provides simple configuration and diagnostic information. The back of the device has a generous array of connectivity options: two gigabit Ethernet, two USB 2.0, and two USB 3.0 ports. The USB ports support both external drives and printers, while the Ethernet connections can be configured for load balancing or failover.

The software end of things is where Buffalo really shows its business bias. The most apparent tools in the web-based interface allow you to locate your NAS through beeps and a flashing LCD, features that are primarily suited to users with several NAS devices. Other prevalent features, such as Active Directory integration are key tools for business environments, but are of little use to home users. BitTorrent downloads are supported, as are DLNA and iTunes servers, though configuration for media-centric functionality is pretty sparse. One rather compelling feature is the WebAccess service, which allows you to create a friendly URL for accessing all of your files.

Performance is the biggest cause for concern in our opinion, as our large-file copy to the NAS took a whopping 2 minutes, 4 seconds. Compare that to Synology's DS411+II coming in at 28 seconds, and you can understand our disappointment.

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

Buffalo TeraStation Pro Quad
$1200 (four 1TB drives preinstalled)

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

QNAP TS-459 Pro II

When the previous version of a product holds a spot in our Best of the Best hardware rankings (see our review of the QNAP TS-459), it's only fair to have some high expectations, and fortunately, QNAP meets them with its TS-459 Pro II. The TS-459 Pro II ships with power and Ethernet cables and includes NetBak Replicator software to easily manage backups to the device.

Some aspects of the TS-459 Pro II hardware are comparable to the competition, and in other respects, it's just head and shoulders above the rest. A 1.8GHz dual-core Atom powers the TS-459 Pro II, and 1GB of DDR3 RAM comes preinstalled, though you can upgrade to 3GB yourself. The front of the NAS features four individually lockable drive trays that are mounted vertically. The LCD provides quick access to important information and can be used to handle some minor configuration.

QNAP offers more connectivity options than most mortals will know what to do with. The dual Ethernet ports are pretty standard for these devices, but QNAP also tosses in four USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, and two eSATA ports. QNAP also gets a leg up on the competition by providing support for SATA3 drives internally, giving it lots of potential when paired with high-performance drives. In addition to all of the standard RAID levels, QNAP also supports a RAID 5+Spare configuration for folks with a phobia about data loss.

On the software side of things, QNAP shows similar attentiveness. The TS-459 Pro II offers three distinct web console interfaces for administration, media playback (Multimedia Station), and file browsing. QNAP's web UI isn't as cutting-edge as what Synology offers, but that doesn't make it any less usable. From an administration perspective, all of the key features and capabilities are easily accessed. The Multimedia Station is especially handy, as the system indexes your media and gives you very usable methods of viewing your pictures or listening to your music away from home. DLNA and iTunes server support are both included with the TS-459 Pro II, though DLNA is handled with a Twonky server plugin.

It might be pricey, but the TS-459 Pro II covers all bases.

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

QNAP TS-459 Pro II
$950 (enclosure only)

Is NAS Really the Best Option?

The decision about whether to go the NAS route or to purchase/build a Windows Home Server can be a tough call and is similar to the desktop/laptop decision; a big part of the choice comes down to how you plan on using the computer.

Windows Home Server excels at bringing several Windows-based PCs into a single network by integrating into the client computers transparently. Synchronized user accounts, automated integration into file libraries, and automated backups are just a few of the benefits of owning a Windows Home Server. The media sharing and backup capabilities of a Home Server are in direct competition with the NAS boxes in this review, but the NAS devices can't compare to the level of integration achieved by Windows Home Server.

If you're not in a Windows-centric environment, NAS devices offer more functionality for users of other operating systems, such as Linux, or mobile platforms like iOS and Android. All of the NAS appliances reviewed offer some sort of iOS application, and both QNAP and Synology also support Android devices. Time spent on proper care and feeding of a NAS can be lower than that of a full-blown Windows Home Server, making it a good option for friends and family who may be less tech-savvy. There may also be situations where you don't want all of your files and folders to be shared with family or roommates.

At the end of the day, the only person who can tell you which storage option is best for your scenario is you. Settle on a price point, determine which hardware and software features you need, figure out which platforms you will use to access your files, and decide how much time you want to spend managing and maintaining the system that is supposed to be making your life easier.

The Performance Picture

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

In our performance testing, Synology's DS411+II consistently led the pack, though the QNAP TS-459 Pro II wasn't ever far behind. The real surprise was how terribly the Buffalo TeraStation Pro Quad performed when writing to the device, especially given its top marks for read speeds with the large-file test. All of our testing was performed with both the PC and NAS boxes connected to a Netgear GS108E eight-port gigabit switch.

When all is said and done, it's hard to argue against the QNAP TS-459 Pro II, which meets or exceeds every specification and feature of the competition. Though it did fall behind Synology's DS411+II in our performance testing, the breadth of its capabilities makes up for those mostly minor performance differences. From where we sit, the biggest selling points for QNAP are the bevy of connectivity options, SATA3 support, expandable memory, and more software features than you can shake a memory stick at.

The real battle in this competition is for second place. Promise and Synology both deliver quality products, with Promise winning the hardware battle and Synology the software. If forced to decide between the two, we'd have to go with Synology because its control panel and software features show so much attention to detail. Add to that the price difference between the Synology DS411+II and the Promise SmartStor NS4700, and you can see why the former is the clear winner of the pair.

To be fair to Buffalo, the TeraStation Pro Quad is a solid piece of hardware, second only to the QNAP box. The biggest problem we have is the inconsistent performance, which we can only assume to be software-related. Hopefully, the kinks can be worked out with a firmware update in the near future.

Our test bed features a six-core AMD Phenom II running at 3.2GHz, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB SATA2 WD Caviar Green drive. All testing was done across a Netgear GS108E gigabit switch. Testing consisted of copying a single 2.79GB file and a folder comprised of 659MB worth of files and folders to and from each NAS. Each test result is the average of three test runs.

Think Inside the Box: The Ultimate NAS Showdown

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