Tinkering inside

These models often have removable panels for quick access to the drives, and the better ones have bay systems for inserting drives quickly without having to screw them into cages or housing. However, the Drobo/DroboShare system aside, all the systems we’ve looked at here require all drives in a RAID set-up to be the same capacity.

A wide choice of RAID options is important for future flexibility, and the drives inside a unit need to be fast to deliver data to multiple users at once.

A NAS with 7,200rpm hard drives inside will offer better performance than one with 5,400rpm drives. Drives should also be removable for easy replacement.

A gigabit ethernet connection is a must for copying the large media files creatives work with to and from a NAS – models with slower 10/100-BaseT network connections should be immediately discounted. Some devices offer wireless connections, though the fastest current wireless connection, 802.11n, offers around a tenth of the speed of gigabit ethernet. The one exception to this is with some devices that also have WAN ports, so can provide Internet access to your network. Here the wireless connection is for connecting computers to your network – rather than connecting your NAS – so it can be a useful function.

If your NAS is also a router, it should have a DHCP server to administrate IP addresses on your network. All NAS devices should also work as a DHCP client, as well as the ability to have a fixed IP address. A fixed IP allows you to access the NAS’s Web interface by typing 192.168.x.x into your Web browser, with no need to run a separate tool.

All of the NAS devices we’ve tested here connect to computers using the SMB protocol (and newer version CIFS), which is standard for Windows devices and usable by Mac and Linux PCs. Some also offer Apple’s AFP. LaCie is unique in supporting Apple’s excellent Bonjour device discovery technology – which works across Mac and Windows systems, and powers iTunes networking – to quickly find devices.

Incorporating Bonjour also allows a NAS to run an iTunes server, so you have a convenient place for all of your music, which appears in iTunes as another Shared user. Some NAS device also offer Microsoft’s DNLA technology for streaming video and audio files from the NAS to Windows PCs. Some offer a mail server and a torrent server for downloading/uploading media over Bittorrent without requiring a computer to be one. Audio-streaming, in particular, could prove popular with music-addicted creatives.

Many NAS devices allow you to plug in extra drives via USB 2.0. Rather than adding to your overall capacity, these allow back-up to a portable hard drive that you take home. The device’s Web interface should provide an easy way to administrate this. Most NAS devices also come with automated back-up software for your computer, which will upload your work folder on a daily basis – or even hourly – though the number of client computers is sometimes limited.

USB 2.0 ports can provide a way to share a non-networked printer across multiple machines. Some NAS devices offer a printer server function, so that jobs from multiple computers can be queued to the printer.

Drives reviewed

Acer Aspire EasyStore

Drobo + DroboShare

Freecom Network Drive Pro

Iomega StorCenter Pro 150D NAS

LaCie 2big network

Thecus N3200