Synology DiskStation DS218j review: Indispensable for power users, expensive for everyone else

A NAS is definitely an acquired taste. You might not see the point initially, but once you get used to it, you won’t be able to live without it.


Managing home storage isn’t for the faint of heart. As I mentioned in my earlier WD MyCloud review, I have close to a dozen device at home, including 5 computers, all of which need a centralised way to access shared data.

My first experiment with sorting out my home storage needs started with the WD MyCloud unit, which can best be described as a network connected hard drive with certain smart features. An upgrade from that is a NAS (Network Attached Storage). A NAS is something that companies might use to back up their data, but for power users, it can be a great and incredibly powerful backup option.

Synology DiskStation DS218j review: Indispensable for power users, expensive for everyone else

This diminutive white box can change your perspective on storage

Now NAS devices don’t come cheap. The Synology DiskStation DS218j that I received for review is an entry-level model and by itself, costs around Rs 20,000 once you pay for taxes and import duty. This is without hard disks, which need to be purchased separately. In contrast, the WD MyCloud I checked out earlier only costs Rs 14,000 or so and includes 4 TB of storage.

If I were to kit out the 218j, I could easily spend another Rs 20,000 just on storage (8 TB). But is that worth it?

Honestly, that question can only be answered by you. A NAS device is more expensive, but it’s also more powerful. Where the MyCloud didn’t come with an option for backup or media transcoding, the Synology DS218j does. You also get access to a wide variety of “apps” just for the device, which you can use to add any number of additional features.

Where something like a MyCloud is almost exclusively meant for data management, the DiskStation is a mini PC that also does data management, and that can be incredibly useful.

Pre-requisites

For the setup, I first needed a hard disk. Not having a spare drive around, I got WD to send over one of their NAS-rated drives, and they obliged with a 4 TB WD Red drive. If you’re going for a NAS drive or some sort of dedicated home storage option, I’d recommend that you get a NAS-rated drive.

Primarily, NAS drives like the Red are designed to be more durable, which is very important since it’s these drives that are tasked with storing and managing terabytes of our precious data. You can use a regular hard drive for sure, but those are not designed for continuous use. If you use a regular drive for surveillance applications, for example, it will fail more easily and quickly than a NAS-rated drive.

For your network, ensure that your network is capable of high data transfer rates. If your router has a gigabit ethernet port, use it. I'd also recommend that you invest in CAT6 LAN cables. Unlike regular LAN cables, these ones are designed for much higher data transfer rates.

My test setup is as follows:

Synology DiskStation DS218j
1x WD Red 4 TB NAS drive
Netgear R7000-100INS Nighthawk AC1900 Router
CAT6 cables for wired connections

Features and setup

The Synology DS218j I’m reviewing is a 2-bay unit, which means that it can hold two 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch drives. You need a separate bracket to install 2.5-inch drives, but it’s not included in the box.

Installing a regular HDD is quite easy and you only require a screw-driver. The HDD is very well held in place by rubber damping and screws.

The device is powered by a 1.3 GHz processor and has 512 MB RAM. You get two USB 3.0 ports on the back, as well as a gigabit ethernet port.

The device runs a custom OS called DSM

The device runs a custom OS called DSM

After installing the drive, there is a little bit of setup required. If you’re familiar with PCs, you’ll be fine setting up the device. Otherwise, you’ll need help.

The first thing you need to do is download the DSM OS that’s required to run the NAS. Think of it as downloading and installing Windows for a PC. Also, be sure to use a formatted drive or this won’t work.

After this, there’s some more setup involving formatting the drive, setting up network shares, users, etc. The process is a bit involved so make sure you’ve got a few hours to spare.

Once the initial setup is done, the rest of the updates can be installed automatically as and when they pop up.

The OS itself is very barebones to look at, with just a few icons and status widgets. It’s accessed via the browser. This is also where you’ll realise that you can install apps (from the Package Centre) to enhance the functionality of the device.

I/O is quite limited, but enough for most users

I/O is quite limited, but enough for most users

These apps include iTunes servers, DNS servers, Cloud Sync software, contacts managers, an antivirus program, VPN, mail server, etc. There’s tonnes of stuff to do with the DS218j, and that’s when it clicks, the NAS can also be used as a home server and not just as a hard drive.

Apps like Cloud Station Drive are particularly useful, as you can now have your own personal cloud accessible to you wherever you go. iTunes servers and the like are also useful for managing things like your iTunes media library, which can be quite vast.

You get options to sync folders to the NAS or to the cloud, though it’s a bit finicky at times. Other conveniences include the option to have *cough*legitimate*cough* torrent files download directly to the DS218j. You can even queue up downloads via a mobile app, which is indescribably convenient when you get used to it.

Performance

For my test network, all the devices that needed to be physically hooked up were connected to a router via a CAT6 ethernet cable. Wireless devices like iPhones and laptops connected to the router via a 5 GHz Wi-Fi band. Since I had a single hard disk in the DiskStation, there was no RAID setup.

In my tests, data transfer over LAN easily crossed 100 MBps, and over Wi-Fi, speeds comfortably crossed the 70 MBps mark. Streaming videos via the Video Station app worked fine for even 4K Blu-Ray rips.

As far as I could tell, access latency was also not noticeably worse than when using a regular HDD in your PC.

Encrypting the drive is also an option, and is recommended if you’re worried about data security. However, I would like to point out that the transfer speeds do fall noticeably when accessing encrypted content.

Conclusion

A NAS isn’t a device for the average user. It requires some degree of maintenance and setup that only a truly involved geek would appreciate. For such a person, however, I can say this for certain, any form of NAS device is an acquired taste. You might not see the point initially, but once you get used to it, you won’t be able to live without it.

The sheer convenience of having an accessible, intelligent storage solution is something else entirely. Especially as someone who tests a lot of products, including phones and laptops, having a cohesive, easily accessible data dump was very useful.

As far as the 218j is concerned, I have two concerns. The first is the price. The best price I could find on the device was Rs 20,000 in India, which is almost double its US price of $170. At that price, it’s not worth it, especially as you can get 4-bay NAS devices for around Rs 27,000.

My second concern is that for a power user, two bays can be limiting. For backup, you’re only limited to RAID 1, which means that you get only half your storage. A larger number of drives would mean more options for RAID.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations:

If you just want an easy, networked-attached backup solution, get yourself something like the WD MyCloud.

If you want a more powerful and advanced home data management solution or a simple device for surveillance applications, the 218j is a great option, but only if you’ve got a kindly aunt or uncle popping over from the US.

If you want a more powerful solution, I'd heartily recommend Synology's 4-bay option, the DS418j. It's a far better investment in the long term.