How do these storage boxes stack up?

Netgear RN202

The Margin puts a selection of NAS devices through their paces to give you some insight into their technical prowess. Which should you stock?

With the increasing quantity and quality of personal and corporate data, as well as the insecurities that come with pure cloud storage, onsite Network Attached Storage (NAS) devices pose an interesting option for storage hungry users.

What is a NAS?

Essentially a standalone hard drive, a NAS device can connect to a home or corporate network by plugging it into a router or switch.

NAS devices can be deployed to share files over a (WiFi) network. They can also act as a print/backup/e-mail/FTP server, handle secure VPN connections, be managed via a browser or mobile device, automatically download/sync files or folders and even work as a media server. In addition, they feature a built-in firewall, extensive file/folder permission managemen, support encryption and even auto-updating/scanning ant-virus protection.

Modern day NAS-devices are compatible with Windows Active Directory and also support any Apple or Linux based machines. By default, none of the entry-level devices tested feature integrated WiFi support; they do, however, facilitate a separately sold USB WiFi dongle. All tested NAS-devices also feature comprehensive (personal) cloud services, can connect to existing cloud providers and are fully manageable with mobile iOS and Android apps.

Shapes and sizes

NAS-devices come in a number of different forms. The simplest, entry-level versions have room for just one or two hard disk drives (HDDs), but models with space for tens of drives exist. All five tested devices were entry-level, two-bay. For most consumers, prosumers and SMBs anything with room for more than four HDDs will be overkill.

Different HDD setup modes can be chosen, such as Redundant Array of Independent Discs (RAID). RAID data storage technology intelligently uses multiple drives to significantly enhance performance (RAID 0), reliability (RAID 1) or both (RAID 5 and 10).

The most widespread alternative to a RAID configuration is called JBOD (Just a Bunch Of Disks), which offers no form of improved performance or reliability of any type, but combines the drive as a single, logical volume. JBOD does, however, offer the full capacity of two or more drives instead of splitting them up. On the downside, if one drive fails, all data is gone and when performance lacks, there’s no way to speed it up.

Benefits of NAS

For consumers and SMBs, NAS devices provide users with control, functionality and (security/policy) management over their own personal or corporate data. Especially when compared to cloud storage, which also places more dependency on a solid internet connection and often comes with a monthly recurring fee.

NAS devices also offer higher performance than cloud services, since they’re located onsite. That said, most NAS-devices can connect to current cloud services or be configured to create a secure personal/corporate cloud.

Test conditions

For this comparative review we focused on the latest models of entry-level, two-bay NAS devices. All five tested devices can handle conventional SATA HDDs, as well as the more modern SSDs. Most of them, with the exception of the WD, support both 2.5 inch and 3.5 inch drives.

Each NAS device was tested without pre-installed HDDs and individually fitted with the exact same HDD – a 3.5-inch WD RED 8 TB SATA. Each tested NAS had a maximum storage capacity of 16TB. Furthermore, all tested devices were one-time updated to the latest firmware at the exact same moment. All devices were set to factory defaults and test relevant settings chosen, where applicable.

Test aspects included ease of use, versatility, power consumption and performance. We used Intel’s NAS Performance Toolkit (NASPT) as a primary indicator of the device speed. In addition, 10GB of data was copied to and from the NAS as a secondary performance metric.

All performance measurements, as well as power consumption, were based on a single fitted HDD. When installed with two HDDs, power consumption will increase slightly. All tested NAS brands/models have mobile apps to manage them, however these apps weren’t tested and therefore aren’t included in the final verdict.

Synology DS216J Synology DS216J
Synology DS216j: Very versatile

RRP: R 3 995

Dimensions: 22.6 x 10 x 16.5cm

Distributor: Corex

Product page

When it comes to market share, Synology is by far the biggest NAS-manufacturer worldwide for consumers, prosumers and even SMBs. The Taiwanese company has a solid reputation for highly functional NAS-devices. Most Synology NAS-devices lack aesthetic qualities, however. This DS2016j, for instance, features a simple plastic housing. However, its operating system is where the magic happens.

While competitors try to visually outshine the market leader, Synology engineers are continuously improving and polishing the software that powers of their NAS devices. Only the QNAP brand comes close to the extremely comprehensive list of features that Synology offers. The Synology interface wins on ease of use.

Because of the highly optimised Synology operating system, the DS2016j doesn’t need much horsepower to run smoothly. In fact, it has the lowest hardware specs of the lot, with a dual-core 1 GHz CPU and 512MB RAM. Nonetheless, it does measure up to the more powerful NAS-devices in this test with a total Intel NASPT score of 785 MB/s.

Installing and swapping HDDs is initially tricky and requires a screwdriver, as does the QNAP NAS. The WD, Netgear and Asustor use either a handy clicking mechanism or thumbscrews as an alternative. The DS216j doesn’t house a front-facing USB connector, and both ports are on the rear of the device. The DS216j does, however, feature a one-touch USB sync button on the front.

Compared to the other tested NAS-devices, the DS216j consumes the most energy (13.3 Watt) when idle. In addition, it features just one Gigabit LAN connector where the QNAP and Netgear models have two to improve network performance. The DS216j also lacks an eSATA port, which again, is featured on the QNAP and Netgear devices. On the bright side, it is quiet during operation.

WD My Cloud EX2 Ultra WD My Cloud EX2 Ultra
WD My Cloud EX2 Ultra: Simple setup

RRP: R 2 499

Dimensions: 15.7 x 9.9 x 16.5cm

Distributor: Corex

Product page

The My Cloud EX2 Ultra from storage giant WD is the most compact of all five tested devices, and is also the cheapest, by some distance. The EX2 Ultra features a new generation dual-core 1.3 GHz CPU and 1 GB RAM. Unfortunately, it has just one Gigabit connector and lacks an eSATA port to connect further external storage. While it has sleek looks, it doesn’t feature a front-side USB port, with its two USB connectors found on the rear. This device lacks an easy one-touch USB-sync button.

In idle mode, the EX2 Ultra is quite energy-efficient using just 11.4 Watt. When active, however, it requires a hefty (17.4 Watt) amount of energy. When it comes to performance, the EX2 Ultra is almost as fast as the Netgear and Asustor devices with a total Intel NASPT score of 830 MB/s. It can, however, be a bit noisy at peak performance. A major advantages is the ultra-easy setup and configuration. Our Windows 10 and Apple test systems had no issues finding the WD My Cloud EX2 Ultra on our network without having to set anything up. In addition, the web interface is functional, clean and easy to navigate. Although this NAS has lots of features, the range feels limited when compared to the options the Synology and QNAP devices offer.

QNAP TS-231: Countless connections

RRP: R3 995

Dimensions: 22.5 x 10.2 x 16.9cm

Distributor: COREX

Product page

QNAP’s latest entry-level NAS features a solid plastic design with a premium look. Connection-wise, it’s well represented and can easily match the more expensive Netgear NAS. The TS-231 features two Gigabit connections to theoretically double network performance. This device features three USB ports, including one on the front for easy access. When connected with an external USB drive, a one-touch sync button quickly transfers data between both devices. There’s also an eSATA port on the rear.

Of all the tested devices, the TS -231 delivers relatively low performance results with an Intel NASPT score of 565 MB/s, mainly because of the Freescale CPU architecture. Performance is still more than sufficient for most home and SMB scenarios, though. On the upside, when actively transferring data, the QNAP requires the least amount of energy (13.2 Watt) of all tested devices.

When it comes to versatility, QNAP has a great reputation and is a definite trendsetter. The TS-231 features an incredible amount of options that can only be rivalled by Synology, albeit with a slightly less clean interface. Installing and replacing drives is less user-friendly than with the WD, Netgear and Asustor and comparable with the Synology method requiring a screwdriver.

Netgear RN202: Premium powerhouse

Estimated RRP: R 5 2

Dimensions: 23 x 10.3 x 14.3cm

Distributor: Tarsus

Product page

The serious-looking, metal housed Netgear RN202 is the most expensive device in this test, but delivers the highest clocked CPU (1.4 GHz) and a generous 2GB RAM to justify the high price. These specifications reflect in its performance, which is the best of all tested models delivering a total Intel NASPT score of 847 MB/s. The downside to all that pure processing power is that, when active, the RN202 requires the highest (18.3 Watt) amount of energy of all tested devices.

Fitting drives is a breeze thanks to the handy clicking mechanism. The drive trays are hidden behind a shiny ‘door’, which also houses the power and one-touch USB-sync buttons. The RN202 features three USB connectors – two on the rear and one on the front. With two separate Gigabit LAN connectors, users can theoretically double network bandwidth up to 2Gbps. The device also features an eSATA connector.

Netgear specifically aims the RN202 at users looking for a super secure backup device, and as a result offers tons of security and backup features. The general web interface doesn’t look very special, but is clean and does the trick nonetheless. Initially, Netgear NAS devices lacked serious third-party app support, but this has improved lately.

Asustor AS1002T Asustor AS1002T
Asustor AS1002T: Energy efficient

RRP R3 300

Dimensions: 22.3 x 10.2 x 16.4cm

Distributor: Mustek

Product page 

Compared to the other NAS brands Asustor is a relative newcomer. Nonetheless, the company has some serious chops; as the name might reveal, Asustor is a subsidiary of Asus brand. It’s also worth noting, some Asustor engineers are ex-QNAP employees.

The AS1002T runs on a 1 GHz dual-core processor and uses 512MB RAM. Unfortunately, it lacks easily extendible drive bays. To install or replace drives, you need to unscrew the casing and HDDs. Luckily, the thumbscrews mean you won’t be searching for a screwdriver – it’s not a daunting task, but the WD and Netgear devices offer easier, clickable systems.

The AS1002T features one USB connection on the rear and one on the front, but lacks a button to easily sync USB content. When it comes to versatility, the AS100T scores pretty highly. With lots of available apps and options to choose from, the device features most of the essential bells and whistles that its rivals offer. Additionally, the interface is fresh and clean. Measured performance is impressive, as the AS1002T scores second place with a total Intel NASPT score of 843 MB/s. It also consumes a minimal amount of energy, both in idle (11.3 Watt) and active (13.4 Watt) states. The AS1002T was also quiet, even during heavy file transfer.

In conclusion

This comparative review knows no losers. All devices proved to be great products for NAS-newcomers, advanced users or even SMBs. However, each device comes with its own, unique set of pros and cons. The expensive Netgear has a solid, premium looking metal design and scored highest in raw performance. The cost-effective WD device, on the other hand, is a breeze to setup and offers an elegantly, compact design. The Asustor NAS doesn’t excel in ease of use, but showed great performance at low energy consumption. Synology and QNAP primarily differentiate their products by adding extreme amounts of versatility and functionality.