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Review: Synology DS213air Network Storage Drive

Centralised storage goes wireless.

Every now any then you come across a new idea and think to yourself “I can’t believe someone didn’t come up with that years ago”.  That’s probably what people said when someone had the idea of pre-cutting baked goods so that customers didn’t have to, but now there’s a product that might just be the best thing since sliced bread.

The DS213air borrows heavily in terms of design and specification from last years DS212j.  Not that that’s a bad thing, the DS212j just won an Award for Tech Accessory of The Year.

When it comes to the DS213 it’s more or less identical to look at.  The outer shell is a high gloss white plastic affair, with a tasteful grey edge on the front providing a home for the status LEDs and power switch.

Both sides of the enclosure feature ventilation built into the Synology logo.

To the rear you’ll find two USB3 ports as well as the standard Gigabit Ethernet port and power jack.  There’s also a 92mm fan mounted at the rear in order to keep your hard disks cool.

Under the hood it features a modest processor and RAM combo (more on that later) and has space for two 3.5″ SATA hard disks.

What sets the DS213air apart from the competition is that it features built in wireless connectivity which allows you to either use it as a wireless access point, configure it as a wireless router, or position it somewhere where it is out of the way and connect it to your existing home network wirelessly.

Getting Started

Inside the box you’ll find the DS213air, the power adapter, a network lead, a small amount of paperwork, some mounting screws and a utility CD.  As always, Synology have kept the plastics and polystyrene to a minimum so the packaging is more or less 100% recyclable.

Installation of hard disks is a relatively simple affair, though less elegant than other Synology drives I’ve looked at.  pull forward on the left hand side of the chassis and it will slide loose, revealing the inner workings of the drive, including the slots for the hard disks.

Unlike other devices (Synology or otherwise) there are no removable caddies here.  You slide your hard disks into the chassis and then screw them directly to the metal frame with the screws provided.

Some people might think this is a little low tech, but there’s really no need to go to any further lengths for a consumer device.  The absence of any rubber noise isolation for the drives does make things a little louder, but being that this drive can be positioned anywhere within range of your wireless router this isn’t necessarily a problem.

Once you’ve installed the disks it’s just a case of connecting the enclosure to your existing router (at least to start with) and firing it up.

Setting up

I was quite surprised at just how simple it was to connect to the DS213air wirelessly and set it up.  Initially you’ll have to connect it to your existing router, no matter if you’re planning on using it as an access point, router, or just connecting it to your existing wireless network.

What surprised me was that no sooner did I connect to the NAS wirelessly from my Mac, that a box appeared and asked me if I’d like to setup the DS213air.  Anyone who has used a public or hotel WiFi network will be familiar with this kind of thing, and it does make setting up the NAS incredibly easy.

Over the next few steps you’re asked to setup your user account, password, IP address and then download the latest version of the operating system from the Synology servers.  I found that all of the default values (except the new password, obviously) were just fine, and within seconds I was downloading and installing the latest version of the OS.

If the window doesn’t appear, you can quickly locate the DS213air on your network by going to ‘find.synology.com’ in your browser.  This scans your home network for any Synology NAS drives and would allow you to configure the new enclosure.

Once the new software is installed on the DS213air it’s time to configure it.  You can use the provided configuration utility (shown below) to connect to the drive, but I found it just as easy to use a web browser to access the web interface.

Clicking on “Connect” in this app will take you to the web interface for the DS213air, the ever beautiful DSM4.1

Diskstation Manager 4.1

Diskstation Manager, or DSM for short, is the name of Synology’s awesome operating environment for their storage products.  Rather than offering a simple web interface with a navigation tree on the left and a working area on the right, DSM simulates a familiar window-like environment for the user which makes getting things done an absolute breeze.

In the top left of the screen is a sort of “home” button from where you can access all of the installed apps and control options for the DS213air.  You can drag and drop shortcuts onto the main panel area for things that you’ll find yourself using often, these can include groups of apps arranged into folders as shown in the example above.  To the right of the screen is the optional system tray which gives you details on performance, system health and log information.

All of this accessed through a single web browser window.

It’s been around for a while now, and there is still nothing out there (that I know of at least) that can beat it in terms of ease of use and features.

Going Wireless.

Now that I’ve got the DS213air setup, it’s time to take a look at some of its wireless capabilities.  Out of the box, it’s configured as a wireless access point with an SSID of “Diskstation” and no security setup on it.

But, Synology have seamlessly tied the extra network configuration options needed into the existing control panel that’s built in to DSM4.1.  So, it’s incredibly easy to setup the DS213air as a router, access point or client.  If you can setup a third party wireless router, then you will have no problem setting up the DS213air either.

Once you’ve selected the type of connectivity you want, you’ll be able to take steps to setup things like IP range and security settings when acting as a router/access point, and be able to configure connectivity to your existing wireless network as well.

The three modes operate in very different ways, so it’s going to be easiest to go through them one by one in order to assess how they work.

Connecting to existing networks

This is the simplest mode to setup and it allows you to connect the DS213air to your home network via WiFi rather than using an Ethernet cable.

The advantage of this approach is that you can locate the device anywhere within your home or office providing that it’s within range of your existing wireless router.

There are many reasons that you may want to do this but the main ones would be for noise and aesthetics.  The DS213air is not exactly loud, but it could be a disruption if you’re forced to house it in the living room right next to your TV, especially if you’re trying to enjoy music or a good movie.

The design of the device being what it is, some users might not want to have it out on display, so being able to hide it in a cupboard or spare room will keep it out of mind as well.

In terms of performance, the review model I was sent worked perfectly well in this mode.  Unfortunately it’s only 2.4GHz wireless N, so transfer speeds are far below the potential 1000Mbps available on the wired network port.

This isn’t typically a problem for streaming media, even HD content will stream perfectly well over WiFI.  But it does cause a major issue when transferring large amounts of data to the drive.

Be advised though that various comments online put steady transfer rates over WiFi at between 40 and 80Mbps, which is not great.

As an access point

This mode is a bit of a strange one.  Primarily because I struggle to think of the last time I met someone who had an existing home router with no wireless capability.  There’s a glaring question of why this type of functionality is required when most people purchasing this type of device will already have an existing wireless network at home.

One possible use is to provide additional wireless coverage for larger properties, but that would require a long Ethernet cable to connect the DS213air to the original wireless router.

That being said, it works very well.

The control panel in DSM4.1 offers you all of the options that you need for a wireless access point, including changing the channel, signal strength and security settings.

In tests I found that using the DS213air as an access point didn’t offer any advantage over using the WiFi built into my router when they’re in close proximity, but it does present you with other options.  It’s also worth noting that the signal strength from the DS213air was stronger than that of my router – a Virgin Superhub – over longer distances, which does present you with one good reason to use it as an access point.

As a router

I’m torn on this one.

First things first; yes the DS213air can work perfectly well as a router.  Connect it to your existing DSL or cable modem (or stick your ISPs router into modem mode) and the DS213air will take over all of the routing responsibilities.

It also has the ability to setup port forwarding, tunnel via IP6 and you maintain all of the wireless control that access point mode gave you.

But there is one glaring point that’s too big to overlook:  The DS213air only has one Ethernet port, and you’re using that to connect to your modem.

So, unless all of your other devices are wireless enabled, you’re stuffed.

Plus, even if they are, you’ve immediately throttled your DS213air down to WirelessN speed rather than the Gigabit Ethernet that it was capable of.

If Synology really want to make this a useful feature then they need to include at least one extra Ethernet port.  If they want to be able to compete with other routers then they need to include at least a four port switch in the back of the device.

Apps, apps everywhere!

A huge selling point of previous Synology devices has been the wide range of in-house and 3rd party applications that exist for it.  The DS213air is no different when it comes to which apps will run than last years DS212j, or most other “home” orientated Synology products.

There are dozens of apps available to cover things like media management and playback, eLearning, eCommerce, cloud storage, download management, the list goes on.

There’s no space to go into all of the different apps here, but here’s information on some of the more popular ones.

Download Station.

This is designed to allow you to download large files without needing to keep your main PC turned on.  This is a pretty common feature on this class of device, and Synology’s implementation isn’t anything revolutionary.

You can download files normally or via a Torrent, and can manage bandwidth and time slots to make sure that bandwidth isn’t used up when you need it the most.  This is one feature that the majority of users will use, and it’s implemented just as well here as on any other device I’ve seen.

It also has a built in search facility for torrents, so if you know the name of the file you’re looking for, you can make short work of locating a decent torrent of it.

DLNA/uPnP Media Server.

If you’re not familiar with DLNA then you can read up on it here.

Basically it allows you to stream media from the host machine (in this case, the DS213air) to any compatible device on your home network.  The list of devices is growing all the time, both the Sony PS3 and Xbox360 are capable of receiving media from DLNA servers, as are a lot of new TV’s and set-top boxes being produced at the moment.

It’s an excellent way to play back your media library without the need for a PC, and because the library is held centrally there’s no need to keep synchronizing all of your devices.

Synology have opted to use their own software for this, whereas a lot of similar devices will bolt on software from other suppliers such as “Twonky”.  That’s not to say that this device does the job any worse than others, in fact it seems to handle the role well.

Turning on the server will create three shares on your drive, one each for music, photos and videos.  It’s simply a case of dropping the required media files into these folders.  You can use any sort of folder structure that you wish, it will be replicated on your DLNA compatible devices.

Video Manager

This is another media playback tool, but unlike the industry standard DLNA protocol, Video Manager plays back videos within the DSM interface.  It’s a rather clunky implementation as it requires you to open a web browser and log on to your Diskstation before you can view anything.

The upside is that Video Manager downloads metadata from online sources such as IMDB and The TVDB to create a media library full of DVD covers and information regarding your video library.

I can see why Synology has taken this step, most home users will likely store their digital video library on their NAS drive, but it’s not a great implementation when compared to other existing media management suites.  In fact, it’s not even the best media management tool available for DSM:

PLEX Server

This is a relatively new 3rd party addition to the Synology range, but PLEX itself has been around for quite some time.

The PLEX Server on DSM allows you to experience the same kind of information that Video Manager provides, but then makes this information available to the PLEX client, which is available for Windows, Mac, Linux and mobile devices like the iPad and iPhone.

The benefit of this over Video Manager is that you don’t need to open a web browser and log on to your Diskstation in order to browse and access your video files.  You just download the application for your PC or mobile device and the server will be automatically picked up when you’re on the same network.

Some Synology devices allow you to transcode video files using PLEX Server so that they’ll play back on mobile phones and tablets, but unfortunately the DS213air is not powerful enough for this and thus the functionality has been turned off.  This is a shame, but PLEX is still quite usable on the DS213air for desktops and laptops where the files can be sent to the clients without having to be transcoded.

PLEX Server also acts as DLNA server, so you can do away with the built-in streamer in favor of this package, to save resources.

Surveillance Station.

Synology are not alone in including support for IP cameras with their devices, several other big names are getting in on this picture as well.  The idea is that for any surveillance system you need cameras and you need storage space for video.  The NAS provides the storage space and the management, you just need to supply the cameras.

Synology claim support for over 760 models of IP camera, which covers most of them I would think, including support for more advanced models which feature PTZ (Pan, Tilt, Zoom) technology.

Surveillance Station can display live feeds from up to 36 cameras via a web browser or mobile device, which is a great feature should you be using this NAS in an office environment (or be REALLY paranoid about home security).  Unfortunately I don’t have the equipment to test it, but it looks like the suite is capable of some pretty advanced stuff, including only recording footage when motion is detected or when a door/window is opened.  In the majority of office situations, this NAS is probably good enough to do away with a bespoke CCTV system

Specifications and performance

As mentioned previously, the DS213air builds upon last years DS212j, so it’s nothing ground breaking in terms of technical specs.

At the core you’ll find an ARM processor running at 1.6GHz, paired with 256MB of DDR3 memory.  That’s quite meek for a NAS drive these days, but with DSM being the work of art that it is, the system rarely feels sluggish.

One advantage of the ARM processor over a more powerful Intel chip is that the DS213air draws less than 25W under load and 5.76W when the hard disks are in hibernation.  For a device that could potentially replace your home router, that could mean that your electricity bill is hardly affected at all by the addition.

Hardware

  • CPU Frequency : 1.6 GHz
  • Hardware Encryption Engine
  • Memory : DDR3 256 MB
  • Internal HDD/SSD : 3.5″ or 2.5″ SATA(II) X 2 (Hard drive not included)
  • Max Internal Capacity : 8 TB (4 TB HDD X 2) (Capacity may vary by RAID types) (See All Supported HDD)
  • External HDD Interface : USB 3.0 Port X 2
  • Size (HxWxD) : 165 x 100 x 225.5 mm
  • Weight : 0.94 kg
  • LAN : Gigabit X 1
  • Wake on LAN/WAN
  • System Fan : 92 x 92 mm X 1
  • Built-in Wireless Support
  • Noise Level : 19.0 dB(A)
  • Power Recovery
  • AC Input Power Voltage : 100V to 240V AC
  • Power Frequency : 50/60 Hz, Single Phase
  • Power Consumption : 22.44W (Access); 5.76W (HDD Hibernation);
  • Operating Temperature : 5°C to 35°C (40°F to 95°F)
  • Storage Temperature : -10°C to 70°C (15°F to 155°F)
  • Relative Humidity : 5% to 95% RH
  • Maximum Operating Altitude : 6,500 feet
  • Certification : FCC Class B, CE Class B, BSMI Class B
  • Warranty : 2 Years

Built-in Wireless Support

  • Operating Frequency: 2.4 GHz
  • Standards: IEEE 802.11b/g/n
  • Wireless Security: WPA/WPA2-PSK, Wi-Fi Protected Setup (WPS), Wired Equivalent Privacy (WEP)
  • Firewall: NAT firewall with up to 100 rules
  • Quality of Service (QoS): WiFi Multimedia standard (WMM) ensures smooth audio and video transmission
  • Filtering: Deny/Allow by MAC address

Performance

As mentioned above, the DS213air doesn’t feel sluggish while using the we interface.  And, with a few different apps silently running, I was still able to stream several HD video streams to devices on my network using Plex media server.

Unfortunately connecting the DS213air to your existing network via WiFi does cause issues when trying to do multiple things at once.  I set both of the TME test rigs to conduct backups at the same time, while trying to stream HD video.  I did experience a couple of minor (less than a second) periods of buffering.  But, I set out to see if this would happen, and it did.  In reality you won’t often put the connection under that kind of load.

When it comes to comparison to other Synology models, the DS213air comes in nicely between the cheaper DS212j and the more expensive DS213.

Windows transfer (single 5GB file)

Windows transfer (5000 x 1MB files)

There are still some pretty big gaps when compared to some of the more “enterprise related” models, but this is to be expected.

I found transfer speeds to be comparable with Synology’s published results when using the Ethernet connection, but transfer speeds took a significant hit when using the built in wireless capability.  However, you’d get the same kind of losses if the files were transferred from a wirelessly connected laptop, so that’s not something to get too concerned about.

Conclusions

At the beginning of this review I pondered whether the combination of wireless router and NAS box could be the greatest thing since sliced bread.

In principal, the answer is yes.  But in practice, the DS213air is not quite there yet.

Don’t get me wrong, it performs well at everything that it’s designed to do.  It’s just missing a couple of key things that would make it perfect.

The primary one is the absence of a built in Ethernet switch, which would make the DS213air the perfect replacement for your existing router.  Unfortunately, as it stands, the wireless connectivity only really makes sense when using it as an access point or to connect the DS213air to your existing wireless network.

Those points aside, the DS213air performs well in the home environment, though the relatively low processing power and RAM might impact on the products longevity.

DSM4.1 is still the best environment available for a home orientated system, and the sea of 3rd party apps will keep you busy for hours while you come up with new uses for your NAS box.

I really, really want to give this product a perfect score, but unfortunately the shortcomings when it comes to the routing ability mean that it has to be marked down.

It’s still an excellent device though, and should be considered above the DS212j, even if you currently don’t see much use for the wireless features.

Author

Matt

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