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REVIEW: SYNOLOGY DS213J NAS DRIVE

Cheap and cheerful home storage

Synology have become quite a big player in the NAS market in recent years, in fact at a recent press event we were shown a chart depicting some pretty impressive growth during one of the biggest financial crises the world has seen.

Part of that success has been the diverse market at which they aim their products.  Some, like the DS413, are aimed at business users.  But others, like this DS213j are aimed more towards home users who want to be able to store all of their data in one place.

Design

The DS213j is the 2013 replacement for last years DS212j, and the two are more or less identical on the outside.  The device is mostly a high-gloss white finish, with a grey accent strip to the front.

DS213j Front Side

On the front panel itself you’ve got the power button and light, plus independent activity lights for each of the two hard disks and the network connection.  There’s no USB to speak of on the front though, which is a shame.

The side of the unit is emblazened with the Synology logo, which is cut into the plastic itself allowing for proper ventilation of the disks, when coupled with the 92mm fan at the back of the unit.

It’s no change from the previous version, but a cool addition none the less.

To the rear of the unit you’ll find the 92mm fan, the power and Ethernet ports, and two USB2.0 ports.  I would have hoped that a faster USB3.0 port would have made it in to the 2013 revision.  As it stands you could find yourself waiting a long, long time to transfer large amounts of data from a USB disk.

DS213j Rear

You also get a Kensington lock hole, should you want to secure the drive somehow.

On the inside you’ll find space for two 3.5″ SATA hard disks.  Synology’s website says that 2.5″ disks are also compatible with this drive, but it looks like you’d need to buy your own 3.5″ adapters as none are included in the box.  Unlike the larger Synology models, hard disks are screwed directly to the frame of the NAS, with no removable caddies.  This shouldn’t be too much of an issue for home users, not until a disk fails anyway.  The good news is that the mounting holes feature silicon grommets which should help to isolate noise a fair bit.

Setting up

Synology make it a pretty simple affair to get the DS213j set up.  The first step is to chuck one or two hard disks in, for which all the necessary mounting screws are provided.  Hard disk screw placements have been standard for donkeys years, so users shouldn’t have too much trouble with this.

Once the disks are in, it’s just a case of connecting the power supply and a network cable and powering up the unit.  Synology do provide Windows and Mac utilities for setting up and managing their products, but you can also type “find.synology.com” into your web browser and it will show you any Synology NAS products attached to your home network:

Find Nas

Click connect and you’ll be taken through the setup wizard for the device, which will automatically download the latest version of the system software (more on that later) from Synology and install it on your hard disks.  The whole process takes about 10 minutes, once the software has been downloaded.  After that, the DS213j reboots and you can then navigate to the web interface using your browser.

DS213air setup

Diskstation Manager

All NAS products have some form of graphical interface which allows the user to change options and actually use the device.  Synology’s interface is called DSM, and it’s freakin’ awesome.

Seriously, it’s probably the best user interface of any NAS product available at the moment, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been using Synology products at home since 2011.

What makes it different is that it more or less seems like a full desktop environment within your web browser.  You can drag and drop things, apps open up as windows within the browser, and you can do multiple things at once without having to have multiple browser tabs open.

Screen Shot 2012-10-10 at 18.03.06

The latest stable version of DSM is version 4.2 (shown above) but the next version, 4.3, is currently in beta testing and should be available in the coming months.  DSM 4.3 adds a whole bunch of behind the scenes upgrades, but also includes important updates to some of Synology’s bundled apps (covered on the next page).  In truth, most users probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two versions just by looking, but it’s still good to know.

Applications

As with most products of this sort, there are a whole bunch of apps available which expand the devices functionality.  A lot of them are made by Synology, but there are also third party apps which give you a whole bunch of options when it comes to things like media sharing and web servers.

It would take me forever to provide a breakdown of all of the available apps, so I’ve kept it limited to my favorites.  For a full list you can check out Synology’s website.

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.

DownloadStation

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 DS2113j) 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 Station

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.

Where it does work really well is with the free Video Station app for iOS, Android and Windows Phone devices.  This allows you to access your video library from anywhere on your home network, or anywhere with an Internet connection if you’re comfortable with opening some ports on your home router.

It works really well, even on a 3G signal you should be able to play back standard definition videos on your phone with only a few seconds of buffering at the beginning.  Just bare in mind that this will eat into your data allowance really quickly, so tread carefully.

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.

Photo Station

Got a whole heap of digital photos?  No problem.  With Photo Station you can catalogue your photo library into events to make browsing easy.  Historically I’ve not been a fan of Photo Station, but the latest version (coming with DSM 4.3) looks awesome.  As well as viewing your photos by folder or event, you can also view them on a Google Map if they were geo-tagged by your smart phone.  You can also set up smart albums which will group photos together depending on when they were taken, who’s in them and a bunch of other filters.

PhotoStation

You can navigate through your photos using either the web interface, or one of the smartphone or tablet apps, which work really well.  You can also upload photos direct to Photo Station from your smartphone, which is a nice touch.

Audio Station

Synology’s take on the classic music playback suite is no revelation, but it does work very well.  Using the web interface you can playback your music from within your web browser, but you also get mobile apps for iOS, Android and Windows Phone which allow you to cache your music locally and listen to it while on the go without running up huge mobile data charges.

audio_station

Of course, if you’ve got unlimited data then you can stream to your hearts content, which is excellent for those with the attention span of a goldfish (yo).

It also includes Internet radio via Shoutcast, so you’ve got access to thousands of online radio stations wherever you are.

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 1000 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

Antivirus Essential

Why would you centralise all of your data on to one device, and then not periodically scan that device for viruses?  The Antivirus package is free and should help protect your data from Internet nasties.  This app is a must if you’re making use of the Download Station app, which could bring infected files directly on to your NAS.  The app can be set to scan periodically and quarantine any suspect files, or it can be kicked off manually if you’re not quite sure about something you’ve downloaded.

There’s also a premium version available from McAfee, which links in to their virus database definition rather than the free one accessed by Antivirus Essential.  Most home users should be happy with this free version, though.

Mobile apps

Synology have worked hard to develop a suite of apps for iOS, Android and Windows phone devices.  Basically any of the core Synology apps for the DS213j have a mobile app available allowing users to access different types of functionality.

There are separate apps for surveillance, music, photos, videos, file management and downloading files directly onto the NAS.

DS Audio

As the name implies, this app interfaces with the Music management and playback app “Audio Station”.  You can use it to playback any media that’s stored on your Diskstation, as well as Internet radio stations that you’ve setup though Audio Station.

The interface differs slightly depending on whether you’re using a mobile phone or tablet device, but both are as intuitive as the built-in music playback apps on your device.  The iOS app has just had a refresh which includes a slick new interface, and the Android version has just been upgraded to allow users to cache songs locally on their devices.  This is something that iOS users had been able to do for a while, so it’s nice to see Android users are also able to make use of this feature.

DS Finder

Much like the versions for Windows and Mac, DS Finder acts as a gateway to configuring your Synology device.  Fire it up and it’ll scan the local network for any compatible devices.  What’s more, you can program in devices in remote locations, so you can still access and configure your NAS drive, even if you’re not on the same network.

DS Finder will also give you quick readouts on system versions, up time, thermal status, available disk space, hard disk health and network information.  It can also do a few snazzy things like allow you to email a table of system information, restart or shut down the system, or play a tone on the current device, so you can easily identify a specific drive if you have more than one in the office.

DS File

As the name implies, this is a simple file browsing tool for Synology drives.  Connect to a drive on your LAN and you can view and download any file stored on it to your mobile device.  You can also use it to sync files from your mobile device to your Diskstation using the proprietary Cloud Station backup system.

DS Photo+

Another obviously named one.  This app allows you to browse photo albums currently stored on your NAS.  It’s basically a viewer for Synology’s “Photo Station” web based app.  You can also use it to upload photos from your mobile device onto the system.

DS Download

No one could accuse Synology of giving things complicated names.  DS Download is the mobile app that interfaces with “Download Station” on DSM’s web interface.  Using the mobile version you can monitor existing download jobs, and add new ones by copying and pasting a URL from a webpage.

It’s worth noting that your downloads aren’t sent to your mobile device, but to your Synology NAS.  This is an incredibly useful app if you want to set a large download running but you won’t be home for several hours.  Just log into the app, paste the URL of the file into DS Download and set it running.  With a bit of luck your download will be done by the time you get home.

DS Cam

My personal favorite, DS Cam allows you to stream a live video feed from any camera that’s connected to your home network and managed by Surveillance Station.

It might seem a bit creepy, but there’s plenty of legitimate reasons why you might want to check in on your home while out and about.  A friend of mine was particularly keen to find out which of his cats was trashing the soft furnishings during the day.  A quick look at this app could have saved him much torment, not to mention a few pairs of curtains.

Performance will depend heavily on the upload speed of your home Internet connection and how good a 3G/WiFi signal your mobile device has, but I’ve found it to be perfectly usable when in areas with good signal strength.

DS Video

Remember the Video Station app from the last page?  well DS Video makes it as worth while as other centralised systems like Plex.

Although the web interface for Video Station is a bit clunky, DS Video is comparatively smooth and easy to use.  Library information is streamed to the mobile device so you can see artwork and read bio information for all your video files.

Then you just need to tap on a file to play it directly on your mobile device over the Internet.

The only downside is that it’ll only playback file formats that are native to your device, which is a bit of a pain if all of your video files are encoded in a non-compatible format.

Performance

You shouldn’t expect too much from the DS213j in terms of performance, after all it is Synology’s budget 2-bay NAS device.  That being said, it does offer some small improvements over last years DS212j.  This unit comes with 512MB of RAM, compared to 256MB on the older model.  And while it’s a little more power hungry when in use, it draws around 30% less power when in hibernation, which is good if you’re not constantly using the device.

The web interface works particularly well, given the slightly anemic specs, though some of the bolt-on apps like Photo Station tend to run quite slow.  That being said, for file transfer and media playback it works pretty much flawlessly, so home users shouldn’t have any issues providing their requirements aren’t too high.

Specs from Synology’s website:

  • CPU Frequency : 1.2GHz
  • Floating Point
  • Hardware Encryption Engine
  • Memory : DDR3 512MB
  • Internal HDD/SSD : 3.5″ or 2.5″ SATA(II) X 2 (With optional 2.5″ Disk Holder) (Hard drive not included)
  • Max Internal Capacity : 8TB (2X 4TB HDD) (Capacity may vary by RAID types) (See All Supported HDD)
  • External HDD Interface : USB 2.0 Port X 2
  • Size (HxWxD) : 165 X 100 X 225.5 mm
  • Weight : 0.91Kg
  • LAN : Gigabit X1
  • Wake on LAN/WAN
  • System Fan : 92x92mm X1
  • Easy Replacement System Fan
  • Wireless Support (dongle)
  • Noise Level : 17 dB(A)
  • Power Recovery
  • Power Supply : 65W
  • AC Input Power Voltage : 100V to 240V AC
  • Power Frequency : 50/60 Hz, Single Phase
  • Power Consumption : 19.82W (Access); 3.65W (HDD Hibernation);
  • Operating Temperature : 15°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

System noise is also down from the DS212j’s 18.3dB, which is great news for those who want (or have) to store their NAS in family rooms.

When compared to other 2-bay Synology products, the DS213j doesn’t fair too badly:

perf_chart_2_samba

The DS213j (blue, far left) performs just as well as most other devices when it comes to downloading information to a Windows environment, and surprisingly edges out the two bay small office model, the DS213.  In any case, the performance is more than enough to max out a typical 100Mbps home network, and would even make use of gigabit network speeds, if you have the capability at home.

Conclusions

For a home user, the DS213j could represent a very good investment.  The hardware isn’t exactly mind blowing, but it doesn’t stop the device from chugging along quite happily with most typical “household” tasks.  As a central point to store digital media, there’s not much out there that can challenge the DS213j.  Synology have worked hard to develop apps for music, photos and video that help you share your content around the home and beyond.  What’s more, it does it in a very elegant fashion, with a clean cut user interface and a variety of media meta-data available.

When it comes to storing other files, Cloud Station offers a way to keep all of your files in sync without having to rely on a third party service.  This is excellent if you regularly create and edit documents that you feel need to be backed up.  You’ll also benefit from seemless integration with Windows and Mac environments thanks to SMB and AFP sharing support built in to DSM.

In terms of looks, some might find the high-gloss white plastic a little too flashy, but it does give the DS213j a quality feel and should sit amongst most home setups without raising too many eyebrows.  If you’re absolutely against having the thing on display, then it’s small enough to find a home inside a decent sized cabinet, providing you take airflow into consideration.

At around £165 online, it’s probably one of the better spec’d budget models on the market at the moment, not so much in terms of hardware, but because of the excellent DSM operating system, which continues to win awards world wide for it’s ease of use and functionality.

In fact, I’d go so far as to personally recommend this device to any home user who’s looking to buy their first centralised home storage device.  It may not have the most RAM or the fastest processor, but it does offer an incredibly simple user interface and a whole bunch of functionality relevant to the home user.

DS213j Review Score

Author

Matt

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