NAS drives are lot like cloud storage services: you can access all your files from anywhere, both inside and outside of your home or office. You can use them to store and play your music and video collections, as well as documents and other files. You can even install apps on them so they can do more, such as run your home security cameras, download files automatically and even host a website.
NAS drive buyer's guide
NAS stands for Network Attached Storage. Put simply, it's a big hard drive that connects to your router.
They make it easy to access your music, movies, photos and documents anywhere at all times. One of the most popular reasons to buy an NAS drive is for media playback. Your personal video library can be viewed on your TV, without having to connect a laptop. A bit like having your own Netflix.
Similarly, you can use an app on your phone to control music playback, much like your own personal Spotify.
A NAS drive will use much less power than a regular PC, too. For ease of setup and ease of use, a dedicated NAS drive is hard to beat.
Disks for NAS drives
One of the first decisions to make it capacity. Try to work out how much storage you need right now, and what you'll require five years from now. Many NAS drives come with no disks at all - these are known as diskless or bare drives.
The advantage is that you can choose the drives you want and easily upgrade them later on.
You can now get disks up to 12TB is size, and you can expect to pay around £25-30 per GB for a drive specifically for NAS use. NAS drives usually cost slightly more than normal PC hard drives, but it's worth spending the extra because they're designed to run constantly and tend to have a better warranty.
Hard disks designed for NAS use include more secure construction providing more resistance to vibration, which makes a lot of sense for a drive that’s designed to be on the whole time. They also offer power management so they can adjust performance based on their temperature.
A popular choice is the WD Red range. You can buy the 6TB version for £177 from Amazon, and the 3TB is £90. It's better to buy two disks and configure them in a RAID, rather than rely on just one disk.
What is a RAID?
RAID stands for redundant array of inexpensive disks. RAID can be quite complex but at a basic level you’ll want to use it primarily to provide redundancy so if a disk fails your data is still safe. Three of the most popular variants are RAID 1, 5 and 6.
Most NAS drives will offer at least two bays, which means that you can set them up as RAID 1. In this scenario the second drive is a mirror of the first, so if one drive fails completely all your data is safe on the other. You can then replace the faulty disk, and rebuild the RAID array.
RAID 5 requires at least three drives and offers parity data. That means a RAID 5 array can withstand a single drive failure without losing data or access to data. As data is ‘striped’ across three drives, reads are fast, but at the expensive of slower writes because of having to also write the parity data.
RAID 6 meanwhile requires four drives but offers both striped and dual parity, so two drives could fail and the RAID could still recover.
Whichever you choose however, don’t consider your NAS to be your only backup of your data. If the box just dies, or if something catastrophic happens like a fire, you’ll still lose all your data. To mitigate this you'll want another external backup, preferably to the cloud.
After storage, the next main concern is software and features. We prefer NASes which have an app store where you can download popular apps such as Plex instead of forcing you to use the manufacturer's own media software.
Some NAS drives also offer apps for Android and iOS, which make it a lot easier to get to your photos, videos and music from your phone or tablet.
Our reviews explain exactly which apps you get with each NAS.
You’ll probably need remote access to the files on your NAS when you're not at home. Previously this required signing up to a third-party DNS service, but these days with most NAS drives you can just sign up for an account with the manufacturer as you set up the drive. Log into the account and they'll handle the connectivity to your box at home using their own servers.
How powerful does your NAS’s processor need to be? The dedicated OSes that NAS drives run are lightweight, but a faster processor and more RAM will enable features such as transcoding.
This means that any media files can be converted on the fly into a format that's playable by your TV or set-top box, so you don’t have to worry if it can't play the file as it exists on your NAS.
It can also be useful if your videos are a higher resolution than your TV can handle, so look out for the ability to transcode 4K to Full HD in real-time.
Ports and connections
Don't overlook connectivity. If your priority is to use your NAS as a home video server, it might be worth picking one with an HDMI output so you can connect it directly to your TV instead of requiring the video to be streamed across your network. And if your TV can't play video from a network source you'll need a separate media streamer.
For the best performance, go for a model with Gigabit Ethernet, which is 10x as quick as 10/100 Ethernet. Look out for front-mounted USB ports and SD slots too.
Best NAS drives to buy in 2018
- Reviewed on: 10 January 2018
With excellent performance, brilliant software and easy setup this entry-level NAS drive is another great buy from Synology.
Ok, it's not much different to the DS216j, but it's hard to improve on something already impressive. And at only around £20 more, it's certainly worth going for the 218j over the older model.
Read our Synology DS218j review.
- Reviewed on: 15 January 2018
A small but remarkably powerful NAS box with buckets of functionality, scalability and value that demonstrates well how seriously QNAP now takes its NAS product range.
If the TS-231P2 is an example of where QNAP is heading, then the future for home and small-office NAS storage devices is a truly exciting one.
Read our QNAP TS-231P2 review.
- Reviewed on: 11 September 2017
Synology wants to repeat the success of the DS416j without treading on the toes of other products in the range. For almost the same price the DS418j offers more CPU performance, RAM, more USB 3.0 ports, larger drives and volume sizes.
Read our Synology DiskStation DS418j review.
4. QNAP TS 251A
- Reviewed on: 30 December 2016
The QNAP is an undoubtedly impressive NAS drive. There’s plenty of power for virtually all tasks, and H.265 aside it will handle anything you throw at it. The range of apps is very comprehensive and the interface is excellent. The downside is the lack of support for MKV from its native app, which will mean having to pay for Plex to play files on mobile devices. The unit was also noisier than we would have liked in operation and while it’s good value - it’s not cheap. If you’re willing to stretch to paying this much for a diskless system, the QNAP TS-251A is the best featured NAS drive at the price.
Read our QNAP TS 251A review.
- Reviewed on: 1 February 2018
The fine irony of the DS218 is that seen in isolation it’s an excellent platform, but jammed between the DS218Play and the DS218+ leaves it little room for manoeuvre.
With QNAP now offering Dual-LAN for less money and RAM upgradability, the DS218 needed to be less expensive or be similarly enhanced.
The DS218 is a superb NAS enclosure but fails to outshine the DS218Play sufficiently to make it a no-brainer.
Read our Synology DiskStation DS218 review.
- Reviewed on: 27 December 2016
We like the Asustor AS1004T for its ease of installation, it's relatively quiet operation in normal use and its decent performance. It isn't fast enough for hardware transcoding though, so you’ll need native support for all your files on all your client devices.
Where it trumps the completion is that it offers a four-bay chassis where some offer only two. If storage rather than performance is the priority then, it's a great choice and while the ADM interface isn't as accomplished looking as some of its rivals it's got the apps you'll likely need.
Read our Asustor AS1004T review.
- Reviewed on: 29 October 2018
An entry-level NAS which might well be the ideal choice for you if you don't want to spend to much and don't expect too much in return. For basic, general storage needs, it does a great job.
Read our Synology DiskStation DS119j review.
8. Drobo 5N2
- Reviewed on: 9 January 2018
It might be relatively expensive, but the flexible RAID system that can handle multiple drives of different size could be a major cost saving for many users. The performance, build quality and expanding app selection also makes the Drobo 5N2 a highly desirable solution.
Read our Drobo 5N2 review.
- Reviewed on: 2 January 2017
When it comes to ease of use the WE My Cloud Mirror is hard to beat. Initial setup is very easy and even sorting our remote access is simple too. For sharing music, movies, photos and documents it works a treat and performance is fine. The downside is that you don’t get the huge range of apps that are available for other brands. However, if you prioritise ease of set up and ease of use the WD is worth looking at and with 4 TB of storage included for the price, it’s a great value option.
Read our WD My Cloud Mirror 4TB review.
10. WD My Cloud Home
- Reviewed on: 20 December 2017
The design and styling of the hardware in the My Cloud Home is top-notch, with all its issues lying in the software components provided for it. The underlying platform is a solid one for which WD hardware engineers should be proud, and the software team needs to better support.
The My Cloud Home can provide DLNA storage to access with a smart TV or a personal cloud solution, but those that want more should consider Synology, QNAP or the higher-end WD My Cloud products.
Read our WD My Cloud Home review.