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Review: Synology DSM 4.1

Still king of the NAS operating systems

Most people wouldn’t think of the OS that their storage system uses. After all, it’s job is to sit there and function quietly, not actually be usable, right?

Thing is, people are now starting to use their network storage devices as more than just a simple file server. Now they’re media hubs, download managers, CCTV systems, backup systems and loads more to boot.

Thankfully, Synology have recognised this and made sure that they’re DiskStation Manager (DSM) can handle all of this and more.

Look and Feel

DSM 4.1 looks and feels more like a full desktop OS than an interface for a storage drive.

You still have to access it via a web browser, but what you’re presented with is a far cry from what you might see on similar devices.

You get a full desktop style environment to work with. At the top you’ll find your currently running apps and tasks, in the top right corner you’ve got a system tray, to the top left is your “start” menu, and the main panel is yours to arrange how you wish.

In the shot above you’ve also got the system panel showing on the right of the screen. This can be minimized, but I quite like having it available to show how the system is performing.

It’s great that you can add shortcuts to your most used apps to the main part of the screen. You can even chuck several similar apps into groups so as not to let things get too cluttered.

What’s more, the desktop environment is user specific, so if one user wants to keep desktop clutter to a minimum and another wants to plaster everything onto the main part of the screen, it’s not a problem.

Available apps

Synology certainly don’t sit around doing nothing when it comes to applications for Synology NAS drives, and all of them tie in perfectly with DSM.

To start with you won’t have much of interest on your Diskstation, but the mind boggles with the sheer number of apps available to download from Synologys servers.

We count over 30, covering uses such as file and download management, backup solutions, IP camera management, plus a whole host of media management and web development tools.

Quite a few of these apps are developed by third parties, but all the ones that we’ve tried work flawlessly with the Synology hardware.

Rather than spend a year and a day going over each of the apps available, let’s cover off some of the more common ones:

Download Station.

This is designed to allow you to download large files without needing to keep your main PC turned on. It’s a pretty common feature on this class of device, but Synology’s implementation isn’t anything revolutionary. It’s a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The app runs fine, and does exactly what it’s required too without any additional fluff.

You can download files from a direct URL 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 we’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, a Synology NAS) 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 Smart TVs, set top boxes and dozens of software packages for Windows PCs and Macs.

It’s an excellent way to play back your media library without the need for a local copy of the file, 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.

In using this app the system 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.

That being said, it’s not the best media server available for DSM, but we’ll get to that further down the page.

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.

When you choose to play a video, it opens in a new tab within your web browser. It uses a VLC plugin, so if you’ve installed VLC on your computer you’re going to be fine. Mac users might struggle though as we weren’t able to get videos to play back using Safari or Firefox.

PLEX Server

Remember when we said that Synology’s Media Server wasn’t the best DLNA manager for DSM? We were talking about Plex.

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 Server 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 Server 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 this is restricted to more powerful Synology devices that feature dual core Intel processors . This is a shame, but PLEX is still quite usable on older Synology devices providing the client machine doesn’t require the video to be transcoded.

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 we 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). We’ve checked it out using our very own IP camera and it works very well. We weren’t able to find the specific camera model listed but it worked just fine when we selected a similarly named model from the same manufacturer.

Mobile apps

Not only does DSM offer great functionality via a web interface and third party apps, Synology have also taken the time to craft several mobile apps for IPhone, iPad and Android devices that interface perfectly with the devices themselves.

This proves really useful when traveling as it allows you to connect to services on your NAS at any time, providing that you can access the Internet on your mobile device.

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.

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 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.

Review: Synology DSM 4.1

In practice

We switched to using a Synology NAS at Tech Made Easy about two years ago, and we never looked back.

As a web based journalistic site we’ve had the opportunity to use a fair few of the apps in a legitimate way.

All of our files are stored on it, our computers back up to it, we store a few Terrabytes of media on it, it manages an IP camera and we use several of the web based apps for development purposes.

We’ve never had one problem with our trusty DS411j, even though it’s hardware is pretty basic by current standards.

DSM seems to have a way of making the most of the hardware it’s installed on. Quite how it is capable of doing what it does, we’re not sure, but it never misses a beat.

That being said, if we’ve got a couple of backups occurring, someone’s streaming some music and I’m trying to work on our Moodle site, then things start to slow down a bit. But, that’s more a limitation of the hardware in our DS411j, not a limitation of DSM.

We’ve used it on much more powerful Synology devices and it just seems to be built like a tank, nothing phases it.

Conclusions

We get to use a lot of different storage solutions, but none of them have an OS that comes anywhere near DSM.

Synology have really hit the nail on the head by focusing on the user experience as much as the architecture and design of the devices themselves.

Truth be told, a lot of the features in DSM are available from other manufacturers, but none of them are able to present their devices abilities in quite the same way as DSM does.

It really does feel like you’re using your NAS as a separate PC on your network, albeit from a web browser.

It’s almost to the point that DSM has become the selling point for Synology themselves.

That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with their devices, there’s not. DSM just provides the best user experience for users. It’s not even specific to a type of user, we know of companies that use enterprise class Synology devices, but we also know home users that have smaller scale versions, all of them run DSM, and it just rocks.

Author

Matt

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