Synology DS115j single-bay NAS drive review

Synology DS115j

Synology has an wide range of products in its portfolio of network-attached storage appliances. Given a budget of several thousands pounds, you can now find a Synology RackStations with 10 disk bays and a server-class processor. (Read all NAS drive reviews.)

The greater number of businesses and enthusiasts may be content with the company's popular two- to eight-bay desktop devices. But now the entry fee for Synology membership has come down from its previous start point of around £140 for the single-bay DS114 enclosure, to just £78 for the new DS115j. Simply add your own hard disk to make a working Synology NAS.

But given the outward identically finished product, how did Synology manage to nearly halve the price of its cheapest NAS?

Synology DS115j review: Build and design

The DS115j is truly a budget model in terms of the key hardware components of processor and memory, but the essential build quality of this white plastic-cased drive is up to the brand's usual high standard.

As crucial, the drive's firmware – which we should really be calling an operating system for today's fully featured network storage computers – is the same versatile DSM 5.1 that is rolled out across the entire Synology line.

The Synology DS115j follows earlier models like the DS114 and DS112, taking the same elegant chassis design. This is a two-part ABS plastic case in gloss white finish, with one half shell sliding forward to enable access to the inside. The construction means hot-swapping of its solitary hard disk is clearly not an option, nor for that matter on any single-bay NAS drive that stores its OS on the storage disks.

The NAS drive supports one 3.5-inch SATA hard disk inside on a galvanised steel bracket; if you wish to use a 2.5-inch disk or SSD, you'll need to find an adaptor as unusually there's no mounting holes or screws included.

There is one gigabit ethernet port, and two USB ports available at back, the latter only the slower v2.0 type. It's perhaps a sympton of a downsize in specification for marketing or cost reasons that only USB 2.0 ports are fitted here – the previous DS114 featured USB 3.0.

Peering closer at the specification we can see other places Synology has pared back the components and performance. Replacing last season's 1.2 GHz Marvell Armada 370 is the same processor but now underclocked to just 800 MHz. And in place of the 512 MB of system memory in the DS114, the DS115j has just 256 MB. (See also: Best NAS drives.)

Synology DS115j review: Operating system

The DS115j today includes Synology's DSM 5.1 software, with free upgrades available for the lifetime of the product. We've detailed many of the software's manifold features before, such as standard file-sharing protocols (SMB, AFP, NFS, FTP). Additionally there are many modules available to install through Synology's Package Center from the company's application repository.

Given how attractive are always-on storage units attached to people's home and business networks, with more and more public-facing services and open ports, security is now a major concern. Among several new features added to DSM 5.1 since 5.0 is an automatic software update function, which will download updates to patch the latest vulnerabilities without any user intervention.

Synology DS115j review: Lab report

With its slower single-core ARM processor and limited amount of memory, we shouldn't expect particularly spritely performance. But the DS115j is not terminally slow, and will be useful for anyone that doesn't mind a wait for certain file server operations to complete.

We setup the Synology DS115j with a 3 TB Seagate Barracuda NAS disk. Tested first in Windows 7, we found that both ATTO Disk Benchmark and CrystalDiskMark were reporting unusually respectable numbers for write operations – the everyday achilles' heel of budget NAS drives with their underpowered processors.

And even more remarkable, both benchmark programs agreed exactly on the same maximum sequential write speed, returning 68 MB/s as the file upload performance. Read spees were similar: 102 MB/s for ATTO and 94 MB/s from CDM.

Small-file transfers were also not conspicuously poor, 16 and 12 MB/s for 4 kB files, read and write respectively, from ATTO.

Synology DS115j

The CDM test pegged figures lower in its more realistic 4 kB random read/write test, reporting 2.7 and 4.4 MB/s respectively. Set up with parallel threads, the DS115j became rather choked though: in the 4 kB QD=32 tests, 4 kB random reads actually fell to 2.0 MB/s and writes barely changed at 5.2 MB/s. That's likely symptomatic of the single disk being run by a slower single-core processor.

Performance with Macs running OS X ranged from usable to entirely desultory, depending on connection protocol.

Best performance was seen when using Apple's own AFP network protocol, despite this being deprecated by Apple in favour of Microsoft's SMB since the update to OS X 10.9 Mavericks last year.

Maximum sequential speeds recorded by QuickBench were just under 100 MB/s, averaging 96 MB/s reads using files from 2-10 MB size. Writes were inevitably slower, averaging here a still respectable 56 MB/s.

Random read/writes of small files averaged 24 and 22 MB/s, which are also decent figures.

But set up to connect using SMB2, which seems to be the default Windows protocol in DSM 5.1, large sequential file reads dropped to 59 MB/s while sequential writes fell off a cliff to just 5.9 MB/s. Small file random transfers at least held up to 21 and 11 MB/s, averaged for reads and writes from 4 to 1024 kB.

We reconfigured the DS115j through its DSM 5.1 interface to drop back to SMB instead of SMB2, and experienced a mixed bag of results. Large file transfers were now around 32 MB/s for reads and 36 MB/s writes; and small-file random reads became much slower at just 1.5 MB/s reads, with a better 22 MB/s result for writes.

For Mac users, it would make sense to stick with Apple's own AFP connection, which will be the default from this Synology drive after setup, with this service advertised over Bonjour for easy connection.

A further annoyance for Mac users is a long-standing compatibility issue between the Safari web browser and Synology DSM. While you can usually log in to DSM with Safari, the NAS will frequently disconnect with an annoying warning message that ‘You are not authorised to use this service'.

Power consumption was incredibly low. We measured just 14 W during peak operation. Synology promises an idle state of just 3.85 W with disk hibernated; and we recorded 4 W, although had to remove the network cable in order for the disk to spin down. (See also: Best NAS drives.)

Synology DS115j

Synology DS115j: Specs

  • 1-bay NAS drive
  • Synology DSM 5.1 operating system
  • 800 MHz Marvell ARMADA 370 88F6707 single-core (ARM)
  • 256 MB DDR3 RAM
  • mounting for 1x 3.5-inch SATA Revision 3 HDD
  • 1x gigabit ethernet
  • 2x USB 2.0
  • 1x 55 mm cooling fan
  • 36 W external power supply
  • 71 x 161 x 224 mm
  • 1-bay NAS drive
  • Synology DSM 5.1 operating system
  • 800 MHz Marvell ARMADA 370 88F6707 single-core (ARM)
  • 256 MB DDR3 RAM
  • mounting for 1x 3.5-inch SATA Revision 3 HDD
  • 1x gigabit ethernet
  • 2x USB 2.0
  • 1x 55 mm cooling fan
  • 36 W external power supply
  • 71 x 161 x 224 mm

OUR VERDICT

Synology has made headlines with its new cut-price DS115j, and its recommended retail price of just £78. The performance has also been cut, along with useful features like USB 3.0, but if you need these the DS114 is still in the range for around £140. And if you really would rather not spend that, the cheaper DS115j will take on basic storage tasks, and still perform faster than some more expensive competition.