Synology DiskStation DS211j NAS Review
By Ted Kritsonis on October 17, 2011
Synology’s DiskStation DS211j is a Network Attached Storage (NAS) box that caters equally to both consumers and home offices in need of a centralized file server. It has also been designed to be operating system-agnostic and to provide access using mobile devices like the iPhone and Android handsets.
The nifty consumer-friendly packaging touts the DS211j as a one-stop solution to serving up files, along with the ability to leverage home security cameras as well. On paper, the DS211j is an NAS that offers an array of features that are meant to cross a gamut of needs for a home or office.
A camera server for IP-based surveillance cameras, as mentioned above, is joined by built-in server applications for mail, printing, downloading, FTP and backup. A little later in the review, we will go over some of these features and explain what they can do.
On the front of the DS211j is a row of four LED lights, indicating the status of each of the drive bays inside. Below that is a USB port with an automatic backup button underneath. This comes in handy in cases where you want to back up anything from files on a small USB thumb drive or even from a portable external hard drive. And finally, underneath that is the unit’s on/off switch.
On the back are two more USB ports, both of which can be used to expand the DS211j’s storage capacity. They would need to be configured to show up as extra drives, and you can’t really apply any of the extra features to them as you would with the SATA drives within the unit itself.
The DS211j runs on a 1.2 GHz Marvell Kirkwood MV6281 processor, 128 MB of DDR2 RAM and a maximum storage capacity of two 3 TB SATA-300 3.5” or 2.5” hard disks (6 TB total) in JBOD, RAID 0 or 1 arrays, with iSCSI support also included. Our review unit came preconfigured with a 1 TB drive installed in one of the two drive bays inside.
There is a 70 mm fan inside that keeps airflow circulating to the drives, and Synology has made a point of presenting the DS211j as an energy-saving unit. The drives can be set to hibernate when idle, including the option of telling the unit to power on and off based on your preferred schedule.
Synology has clearly considered all types of consumers in designing the hardware and software to make it as user-friendly as possible for the setup process. From the hardware side, you only need to plug in the power cable to the slot in the back and a wall outlet, and then plug the included Ethernet network cable directly into your router. It’s advisable that you ensure you’re either using a router with Gigabit ports or a Gigabit switch; otherwise, you won’t be able to fully appreciate the speed that the DS211j can offer. To be truthful, having a media server to stream content almost demands that you have a ‘fatter pipe’ through which to push the data.
The unit comes with very basic setup instructions that take you through to the step of sliding in the included install disc into a Windows PC, Mac or Linux computer, and then launching the DiskStation Assistant software. After the install is complete, the DiskStation should immediately become recognizable across the network, though we found it interesting that Macs recognized it in the Finder even before we ran the Assistant.
The key to everything the DS211j does begins and ends with the DiskStation Manager (DSM) 3.0 software. Instead of a standalone application saved to a computer’s hard drive, Synology opted to use an operating system with an entirely web-based interface that can work on different browsers. You can access this by typing in the DS211j’s IP address into a browser, along with the default username and password, all of which you will find in the Quick Start Guide.
It’s a Linux build stored on the DiskStation itself, so it’s agnostic because there is no actual OS installation on any computers. The web-based user interface looks identical in PCs, Macs and Linux, as it’s been optimized to work with multiple browsers. Synology recommends Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari and Chrome, whereas others not on that list may have display issues. Even so, it all goes through a standard HTTP protocol, so it’s entirely possible that non-mainstream browsers may still display everything normally anyway.
DSM 3.1 has been simplified to a level that uses visual icons and aids, while also allowing for multitasking. You can have multiple windows open within the interface to set up or configure whatever you like, but the level of customization and multitasking doesn’t end there, which we will delve into further.
Upon login, the Quick Start welcome screen gives you four options. You can set up a volume and create a shared folder, create new users and assign them privileges as the admin, access files on your DS211j and discover more applications.
That being said, the sheer number of features within these four options is quite extensive. We simply can’t go through all of them in great detail, but we can outline the ones that are the most practical. These are just the four basic starters — the Control Panel offers the full gamut of features this NAS carries, of which there are many.
Creating and setting up user accounts is easy to do. You can add multiple users and set storage limits, provide access to shared folders of your choosing and also choose what, if any, of the unit’s additional features are made available. An itemized list of these details can also be emailed to the user as well. Creating a volume is one way to virtually partition a portion of the storage, which is useful when you want to set aside a storage amount for a specific user account.
The Control Panel is where you will find the list of extra features, though you can also pull them down using the drop-down menu at the top left of the interface.
By default, the DS211j has individual folders for music, video and photos. You can add more folders for any of your specific needs, but media files must be stored within the preset media folders if you want to be able to stream them to devices around your home network. Despite the odd restriction on a relatively flexible NAS unit, you can still create your own folders within the default media ones to better organize your collection of content. Folders for documents and other non-media files can be stored on newly-created folders, as mentioned above.
Streaming these files to various devices throughout a home environment proved to be easy with solid performance. We tried this with a MacBook Pro, a Windows 7 notebook, a Boxee Box, a WD TV Live Hub, an Xbox 360 and even an iPhone and iPad. Though there were slight hiccups here and there, we later assumed that these might have something to do with the UPnP protocol, rather than an issue specific to the DS211j. The reason why is because the hiccups were random, and affected files that were vastly different in size and bitrate.
The good news is that, as stated above, these hiccups are random. The DS211j proved more than capable of serving up files and media content, and we can honestly say that it is adept at being a media or file server for a home or office.
Copying files over to the unit is also very handy. For example, it took about 90 seconds to copy over a 550 MB video file to the DS211j over a home network running on a modestly fast cable Internet connection, and a Cisco Linksys E4200 Wireless-N router. When a computer was connected to the same router via Ethernet, the copying process was even faster, at about 60 seconds. It should be noted, however, that we didn’t find much of a speed difference between RAID 0 and 1.
Reading smaller files topped up at about 18-20 MB/s, but larger files saw a further bump as higher bitrates demanded. Two movies totaling 5 GB copied over at a top speed of about 40 MB/s, while streaming each one gave us speeds of 61 MB/s and 66 MB/s, respectively. This was more a case for video, whereas music, photos and documents were always streaming at more than respectable levels. Copying over one folder with 1 GB full of documents and photos slowed the NAS down to just over 22 MB/s.
Having a dedicated media server, along with iTunes, audio and photo servers helps simplify everything, too. Configuring all of this is really just clicking a checkbox to turn on the features. From there, the unit does the heavy lifting in opening up ports to stream the content to any compatible device you have.
Backing up files from a USB storage device is also quite fast, and the DS211j can be set up as a Time Machine backup for Mac users, while Windows users can point any backup or syncing software to the NAS as well. This can be very ideal for both home and office users, particularly since you can schedule the timing for backing up and for telling the DS211j to power on and off on its own.
Should you have your own website for your business, or to store work-related files under different protocols, the NAS has a Web server and MySQL functions specifically for those purposes. Setting up a print server was also a breeze, yet another feature that would be perfect for an office. Add in the Mail server, and some indispensable office tools are packed into one box. Even setting up surveillance IP cameras through the NAS is possible.
The Download server is another win for the DS211j. Rather than have files download directly to a computer, they can instead be queued and downloaded directly into the NAS. This way, you can download files or use the included BitTorrent client without even keeping the computer on. If the downloaded files were meant for the NAS anyway, this saves the step of having to copy them over afterward.
The main features for the Synology DiskStation DS211j include:
* Researched at Newegg.com on the day we published this review.
When taking into account all of what the DS211j offers, coupled with its actual performance, it can be a great addition to any home or office environment. Its biggest advantage is the fact that it’s so user-friendly to set up and manage. It also offers such a wide range of features, that the level of customization makes it equally appealing to both seasoned techies and late adopters, alike.
Some retailers sell the DS211j for about USD 199.99 without any hard disks installed, whereas the price can reach up to USD 399.99 with 2 TB of storage. This is pretty much in line with what other NAS boxes sell for, though you may be able to find a better deal by getting the unit diskless, and then buying the hard drives separately.
The good thing about the DS211j is that it doesn’t need a great deal of maintenance to keep it going. You set it up and it works for you, with automated features that can easily be turned on or off from anywhere in the home network or beyond, if you want remote access. So long as you have a 100 Mbps Gigabit network to share and stream files, you will likely be pleased with the level of performance here.