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Great hardware with 4K transcoding support, on top of easy-to-use management software. If you need a reliable NAS with Plex support, buy this one.
Are you content to pay through the nose for a measly few gigabytes of cloud storage from Apple, or do you entrust your photos to the great Google overlord? Or even worse, do you backup your data to DVD-Rs, only to find out 3 years later that they’re corrupted? (Go check now, I bet they’re broken. Sorry about that.)
But there’s a solution to all of this! A Network Attached Storage (NAS) device can act as a centralised, secure backup and filestore for every device you own – and the data need never leave your home network. The Synology DS418play is a fantastic choice for a beginner NAS – and even better, it’s also the perfect media server, streaming your movies to anywhere in your home.
The Synology DS418play is available for $430 for the bare device, though you may find deals that include bundled drives. No special hard drives are needed to get started however. You can simply add two or more spare drives of any size that you have lying around.
For New Users Without a NAS
The number of times I’ve heard someone lost all their photos because they didn’t bother to back them up from a mobile device is shocking. Hard drive storage is cheap, but effective management of it isn’t. If you value anything at all that’s saved on your hard drive or mobile devices, investing in a central backup and storage server is great option to take your home networking to the next level. The Synology DS418play is the latest in a range of reliable, easy to setup, and easy to upgrade network storage solutions.
With four drive bays, you can stuff it full of drives and let Synology manage the available space efficiently. Even if you don’t plan to use all four drive bays initially, the unique Synology Hybrid RAID system gives a lot more flexibility for expansion, allowing you to reuse older drives and upgrade at any time.
If $430 is a little too much – you will need to allow for some drives too, after all – and don’t especially need the media transcoding capabilities, consider the DS418j model instead. The software features are the same, and you can still add a total of 4 drives in there – it’s just a little less powerful and won’t transcode 4K movies to mobile clients.
play / J / +, What’s The Difference?
For budget conscious users, the Synology j-series have always been a great purchase. I’ve been using a DS413j myself, and it’s served me well for the past 5 years. But they have one crippling restriction when acting as a media server: the ARM CPU doesn’t support media transcoding. What this means is that if you have a movie stored on your NAS, you can typically stream it fine to a Windows or Mac client. The raw file is streamed over the network, and the (powerful) client machine handles playback directly.
However, mobile processors are a lot more limited, and often unable to play back certain file types or extremely high bit rates, like a 4K movie. In these cases, it’s still possible to play the media file, but only if the heavy lifting is done by the server – transcoding it down to a bitrate, resolution, or file type more suitable for streaming on the client device. The Synology Play series was created specifically to address this concern. The CPU is x86 based, and can handle up to 2 different full 4K h.265/h.264 stream transcoding sessions, which is likely more than you’ll need in a single family home.
Pro users: you may also be considering the DS918+, which is around $100 more expensive. Here’s the difference:
- No MVNE m2 SSD expansion slot on the DS418play.
- Celeron J3355 with 2GB memory (expandable to 6GB) on DS418play, vs J3455 with 4GB (expandable to 8GB) on the DS918+.
- DS918+ can be expanded with DX517 (5-bay storage enclosure).
- DS918+ supports virtualization.
- DS918+ uses twice as much power during hibernation, so running costs will be higher.
DS418play Specifications and Design
The DS418play is a 4-bay NAS, retaining the same “don’t fix what ain’t broken” chassis as the higher-end DS918+ model, measuring 22.5 x 16.5 x 18 cm.
Internally, you’ll find:
- Intel Celeron J3355 dual-core CPU @ 2.0 GHz (2.5 GHz burst mode capable)
- 2GB DDR4 RAM (max 6GB with optional upgrade ~$100)
- 2 x Gigabit LAN/Ethernet port
- Max capacity 4 x 14TB drives (~42TB with redundancy)
- 1 x USB3 ports
- AES-NI encryption, BTRFS and hardware 4K video transcoding support
Crucially, the DS418play features an upgraded CPU with hardware decoding of h.264 AVC or h.265 HVEC video streams. More on this later when we put it to the test.
The four drive trays are lockable, but accessible without taking it apart, unlike the 413j and 416play, which required you to take off the case. That sounds worse than it, but we’re really talking about a once-a-year operation that takes 10 minutes. Still, the addition of easily swappable drive bays is a good design change regardless.
If you think four drives is a bit excessive, Synology do also 2-bay systems, though bear in mind your drive space is going to be used less effectively on that if you do create a redundant array. With four drives, you need only assign one drive as the parity disk to secure data on the other 3. If you don’t plan on using any redundancy features, and just want use two large drives, the 2-bay system may be more suitable to your needs.
Installation and Setup of the DS418play
After unlocking the drive trays with the supplied plastic key, you can easily slide in either 3.5″ or 2.5″ drives, and you’ll only need screws for the latter. Next you plug in the power and at least one of the Ethernet cables, and power on.
Assuming you don’t already have something named “diskstation” on your local network, you should now be able to access the setup program by navigating to http://diskstation:5000/ or http://diskstation.local:5000. If you’re upgrading from an older device however, you may already have that name in use. In that case, I’d recommend changing the existing server name first. You can do this at any point by logging into the web interface and visiting the Control Panel -> Network -> Server Name setting.
You should see this screen:
(If you do assign a new name to your server, I’d suggest reloading the page again with the new server name in the URL instead)
Next you can choose to setup QuickConnect. QuickConnect is an outstanding feature that lets you connect from anywhere in the world to the files stored on your Synology server. They aren’t on Synology’s server or stored in the cloud: QuickConnect just bypasses the usual port forwarding kerfuffle and gives you a special QuickConnect address to use, such as: http://quickconnect.to/makeuseof
Finally, Synology recommends some default packages to install, and prompts you to set up automatic updates.
BTRFS, or b-tree file system, replaces EXT4 as the default option. Some of the touted highlights include:
- Integral support for snapshots of shared folders, with minimal storage and performance impact.
- Customizable retention policy and interface for file recovery with Synology File Station or even native Windows File Explorer, much like Apple’s Time Machine.
- Self-healing of corrupted files without user intervention.
- Metadata mirroring, allowing for easier data recovery is the drive is damaged or suffers from bad sectors.
- Instant server side file copy.
For the average end user, it suffices to know that BTRFS keeps your data even safer than it was before. And, as someone who often decides to re-organise their shared folders, the instant server-side copies are a real time saver.
As a Plex Media Server
As a DS413j owner, I’ve struggled with Plex. While the software side of things is compatible, the j-series don’t support hardware encoding, so it was unable to stream to Android TV boxes, smartphones, or other slim media clients that can’t decode the full bitrate stream. The DS418play however… is about as perfect a small Plex Media Server you could ever ask for.
The only downside is that at the time of writing the official Synology app store doesn’t yet contain Plex. However, from the Plex website, you can download Plex for Synology devices (Intel 64-bit version), and this will work fine. By default it’ll create a shared folder called Plex, but you’ll probably want to use your own folders to separate media more efficiently. If you have existing folders or are making your own new ones, be sure to give read/write permissions to the plex user as well as yourself.
Once you’ve booted up the Plex server app, you can add your custom folders by locating them from /(root)/volume1/folderName.
To stress test the system, I added a 140Mbps 4K HEVC file to my movies folder, courtesy of jell.yfish.us. Even my (albeit old) Mac Pro refused to play this natively, so it came as no surprise that Plex on the DS418play struggled too. Plex warned me the server wasn’t powerful to transcode this. I tried the 120Mbps 4K h.264 version next, and that was buttery smooth. Plex status indicated it was indeed using hardware acceleration to facilitate transcoding for playback on the mobile device. Since that was fine, I tried upping the bitrate again, with the 140Mbs 4K h.264 file (as opposed to the HEVC format). Again, this was fine too. I should stress this these were very much on the extreme end of files you would never realistically play: at around 500MB for a 30 second clip, the equivalent movie would be 45GB. Most 4K movies you’ll find are in the 6-12GB range, so they should present no issues at all for the DS418play to decode.
Synology Hybrid RAID
RAID is a standardised storage technology that allows you to either mirror or spread data across multiple drives, with various levels of increased performance or data redundancy (or both). Any NAS device with multiple drive bays will offer some kind of RAID features, but mostly you’ll be concerned with drive redundancy: that is, if one drive fails, you can replace it without losing any data. The problem with most RAID setups is that you’re limited by the size of the smallest drive, so it’s only once you’ve upgraded all of the drives that you can make use of the extra space. With 5 different RAID modes to choose from, it’s also really difficult to get your head around which is right for you. RAID isn’t a technology I would recommend to the average home user.
Synology devices however, are unique. While you can set them up with standard RAID arrays, you can also opt to use a Synology Hybrid RAID. This system optimises your total space automatically, while still keeping either a one or two drive redundancy. And it’s really easy to set up and manage. You don’t need to think about which mode to choose and what that means for the drives you put in: just throw in what you’ve got, and the Synology will figure out how best to use them.
The benefits of SHR begin after upgrading just two of the current drives. To explain the diagram above: at the start of your array, you’ve got 4 x 500GB drives, with one used for data redundancy. Your total capacity is therefore 3 x 500GB. (Note: you don’t need to start with four drives, and they don’t need to all be the same size, but this is the simplest way to explain the Synology advantage). Upgrading a single drive has no benefit – because the extra storage offered by that drive has nowhere else to be duplicated, so it would be unsafe to store data there. However, each subsequent drive upgrade immediately gives you proportionally more space. In a standard RAID array, the extra space on those drives would’ve been useless until every single drive had been upgraded.
So just how easy is it to upgrade a drive? Simple: pull one out, and replace with something of higher capacity. Then boot the system up again, and choose Repair Volume. That’s it. And that’s definitely one reason why Synology is my first choice when recommending a NAS.
Software: DiskStation Manager (DSM 6.1)
A good NAS is packed full of advanced features, but presents those features in a way that’s easy to understand and simple to set up. While the underlying hardware between competing NAS devices varies very little – they are essentially just power efficient mini-computers with lots of drive bays – the software varies greatly.
Synology devices all run the same software: DSM, currently version 6.1. It’s the most user friendly NAS interface I’ve ever used, and offers every feature I’ve needed.
DSM is bright, cheerful, and familiar, with all the elements you’d expect of a fully fledged desktop environment. There’s a status bar in top right where you can click to access notifications or user settings.
A number of widgets can be added to the desktop for an at-a-glance look at system utilization and other fun statistical stuff.
A “start” button in the top left gives you access to your installed apps, but you can also drag your favorites to the desktop for quick access. And if you get stuck, there’s a full help system (and it’s actually helpful).
The benefit of being the most popular NAS brand is that custom software packages for various servers to meet common needs are available in their app store – many of them first-party, created by Synology themselves.
The weakest part of the Synology offering are the VideoStation and MusicStation apps. With media clients like Kodi and Plex that are really the best for any media playback, it’s hard to see why anyone would opt to use Synology’s own apps, but they’re there just in case.
Surveillance Station is a superb CCTV/DVR interface for compatible IP cams. If you have a few cameras, this might be a great solution for you, but bear in mind that each camera being recorded 24/7 will leave less bandwidth or normal file operations. Although the software can handle more, at that point we’d recommend switching your cameras to a different network (or opting for BNC wired analog cameras to a dedicated CCTV system).
Cloud Station has lately become my favorite. For a mixed OS environment like I have at home, iCloud and OneDrive just don’t cut it. I could use Resilio Sync, but it just doesn’t integrate as well with a NAS. CloudStation allows you to specify any number of shared folders to be available for cloud sync. You then install the relevant apps on your other systems, and everything stays in sync. I love it because transferring files because Mac and Windows machines usually isn’t an urgent task for me, but it is a frustrating one given incompatibilities. Throw the file into the shared sync folder, and it’ll immediately begin transferring itself to any system turned on and to the NAS, simultaneously.
Shared Folder Encryption
You may want some folders to be kept private. At the most basic level, you can just hide a folder from the network browser. Anyone who knows the folder name will be able to access it, but it won’t be publicised. Beyond that, you can completely encrypt a folder, such that if the NAS shuts down for any reason, the folder will need to be mounted again by opening the web management interface, before it can be accessed from any clients.
My performance testing showing very little difference in copy speeds to an encrypted folder, thanks to the powerful hardware encryption built into the system.
DS418play Performance Testing
I did some basic read/write tests of real world use cases. As a point of comparison, I performed identical tests on my old 413j, though has suffered from slow down over the years and is obviously no longer in factory condition. I uninstalled extraneous servers and software from my older device to make the test fairer, though undoubtedly the hardware configuration also made a difference, with 2 x 10TB drives in the DS418play vs 4 x 4TB drives in my older 413j. I repeated tests with the network cabling reversed too, to ensure those weren’t a factor. All tests were done using SMB, with other protocols disabled, from a MacOS client (SMB is used by Windows too, and it’s generally recommended to avoid AFP on recent versions of MacOS), also connected via Gigabit Ethernet to the same switch. The results were as follows:
527MB .mkv file to unencrypted folder:
- 5s to DS418play
- 17s to 413j
527MB .mkv to encrypted folder:
- 6s to DS418play
- 58s to 413j
4.66GB .iso file to unencrypted folder:
- 40s to DS418play
- 2m42s to 413j
4.66GB .iss file to encrypted folder:
- 47s to DS418play
- 9m48s to 413j
Although the DS413j does have some kind of hardware encryption engine on the ARM processor, it’s clear that it’s nowhere near as fast as the x86 architecture in the DS418play, with copying to the encrypted folder being over ten times faster than the 413j, and barely any difference compared to unencrypted copy speeds. Copying to an unencrypted folder showed less differential, but still three to five times faster than the older model.
Again, although this comparison isn’t meant to be an empirical and completely fair test, the speeds found to the DS418play should be representative of what you would achieve with a similar setup for standard file copies – about 100MB/s. The comparison to the 413j is merely meant to indicate the benefit from the upgrade that I will personally see in my home environment.
Empirical testing is tricky. I used HELIOS LanTEST, though the results were not initially indicative of actual file copy times compared to using Finder:
HELIOS explain this is due to optimization algorithms that Apple uses to gradually increase packet size until no performance gains can be obtained. The results above were with a 300MB test file, designed for Gigabit Ethernet connections. By increasing the test parameters to 3000MB – or Enterprise-level 10 Gigabit Network testing as HELIOS defines it – significantly higher scores were achieved, more similar to the real Finder speeds:
One interesting feature of the DS418play that’s new to me is Link Bonding or Link Aggregation. Since the device offers two full Gigabit Ethernet ports, both can be plugged in at once and used to create a single, higher speed interface.
There’s a number of different modes that can be used:
- Adaptive Load Balancing, which doesn’t require any special protocols or support. Most home users can opt for this, and should see a benefit when at least two wired clients are connected simultaneously.
- Dynamic Link Aggregation, but your switch must support the 803.ad protocol. (Static Link Aggregation is also an option)
- Active/Stand-by, which offers no speed benefit, but will automatically switch interfaces if one goes down.
Durability and Future Proofing
When purchasing a NAS, you should look at something that will last and expand with you. They are reasonably complex to set up and configure, and transferring massive amounts of data is not something you want to do often. While I obviously can’t tell you how the DS418play is going to perform after 5 years without actually waiting for that to happen, I can tell that my DS413j – which I reviewed back in June 2013 – is still in use, daily. Over the years I’ve expanded the storage to the point where it’s now chock full of 4TB drives. The SHR feature means I could do that one drive at a time, without needing to purchase in pairs. I’ve not once lost any data or had any issues at all with it. In that period, I’ve had two drives completely fail, and was immediately alerted to the fact, and could purchase a replacement to keep the data secure. When the boot drive on my main work machine failed, I was able to replace it, then restore from the Time Machine volume stored on the NAS, and be back working within days.
It’s moved house with me, it’s been shuffled around offices, and it’s kept chugging along. Synology is a rare brand that can be trusted to make durable devices and keep your data safe, and I expect no less from the DS418play.
Should You Buy the Synology DS418play?
With double the RAM of previous models, this is a big leap forward for the Synology play-series that makes an already great product line even better. The cheaper j-series are great devices too, but lack the hardware acceleration for transcoding.
Synology make reliable devices that are user friendly in every way. From the custom DSM operating system that makes setup, software installation and configuration a breeze, to the proprietary Hybrid RAID technology that means you can upgrade a single drive and still benefit, they’re a great device for all levels of user.
If that weren’t enough: the DS418play performs fantastically as a media (or Plex) server, taking advantage of hardware transcoding to serve up to two 4K streams should you need it.