Synology DS220j Is the Best Beginner NAS (and Great As a Surveillance NVR Too!)
Simply the best entry-level NAS for beginners. DiskStation Manager is easy to use, and there's a wealth of software packages you can run on it, including the Surveillance Station for IP camera recording.
There are very few technology devices that I would consider essential to my life, but a Network-Attached Storage device (NAS) is one of those. The Synology Diskstation DS220j is an incredibly good value 2-bay entry point for beginners to the world of NAS systems.
Join us as we take a closer look at the hardware, why you might want one, and why the DS220j is a great choice at around $170. We’ll also be testing Synology’s own Surveillance Station software, and how easy it is to set up a small CCTV system for your home or office.
At the end of this review, we have an incredible prize package to giveaway to one lucky winner, consisting of the Synology DS220j, some Ironwolf drives, and a couple of IP cameras to get started with Surveillance Station!
What is a NAS, and Why Would You Need One?
Since this is an entry-level NAS device, let’s take a moment to explain what Network Attached Storage is, and what you might want one.
The “network-attached” part means that rather than plugging a hard disk into your computer through USB (sometimes called Direct Attached Storage), you plug it into the network instead. The immediate benefit of doing this is that every device on your network will be able to access the files stored within. Not just computers, but tablets, smartphones, games consoles, and smart TVs too.
Another benefit is data security. If you have more than one hard drive bay in your NAS (the Synology DS220j has two), you would typically configure one hard disk for data redundancy. This means one drive acts as a duplicate of the other, such that if one failed, you wouldn’t lose any data. Hard drives can fail at any point, and if you don’t have multiple backups, you lose everything. Using a NAS makes securing your data like this an invisible process. You don’t need to make two copies. The NAS does it all for you, and will audibly alert you if one of the drives needs replacing, without any data loss being suffered.
This makes a NAS a great central backup point and secure file store, such as family photos.
Another reason to use a NAS is that they’re not just a case for some drives to sit in. They’re more like ultra power-efficient mini computers. In fact, the Synology devices run their own incredible operating system, called DiskStation Manager. It’s this software that ultimately determines how easy to set up and use a NAS is. DiskStation Manager is simply the best on the market. But your NAS can do so much more than just storing files. It even has its own app store with hundreds of free packages you can install. You can learn more about some of those packages later in the review.
Synology DS220j Specifications and Design
Superficially, the DS220j looks a lot like the previous generation DS218j, with a white plastic shell and grey accents.
Inside there’s been a significant hardware bump, however: a 1.4Ghz quad-core CPU (compared to 1.3Ghz dual-core), and 512MB of DDR4 RAM (compared to DDR3). It’s worth noting that the Realtek RTD1296 CPU is ARM-based, and some media applications like Plex require Intel-based CPUs for optimal video transcoding. If that’s your intended use, check out the DS418play instead .
Around the rear of the DS220j you’ll find the DC power port, two USB3.0 ports, and the single Gigabit Ethernet connection. There’s no USB port on the front of the device (sometimes used for one-button backups), but the ones at the rear can be used either to backup data to an external drive, or for sharing a printer.
To access the interior, you’ll need to unscrew the two screws at the rear, then half of the white shell slides off.
From here you can access the drive bays to add or replace drives. Like most NAS devices, you’ll probably purchase it bare, meaning you’ll need to factor in the cost of purchasing drives too. Although any 3.5″ hard disk can theoretically be used, if buying new you should look for those specifically designed for NAS, such as Seagate IronWolf or WD Red, which will last longer under heavy load.
Setting Up the DS220j NAS
Since there’s no HDMI port to plug in a monitor, you might be wondering how you perform initial setup, then access the DSM operating system. Simple: over the network, using the web interface.
Assuming everything is plugged in and powered on, simply navigate to find.synology.com. This should automatically locate the new NAS on your local network. Then you can continue to name your NAS, and create a user account. You’ll also be given the opportunity to set up QuickConnect, which allows you to access your NAS from outside of your home network. You can skip that now and set it up later if you want though.
After that, you’ll be booted straight into the familiar-feeling web interface and given a guided tour. Just like Windows, the button in the top left opens up a menu where you can access all the installed applications. You can even drag and drop and icon to the desktop.
Note that by default you’ll be accessing the NAS using the IP address, but this can be tedious to remember and might change. Instead, to access the web interface in future, try using the name of your NAS and .local. In my case, that’s cctv.local. Most modern routers should support this feature (called mDNS or Bonjour).
The first thing to set up is a storage volume. Open up Storage Manager, navigate to Volumes, then click Create. The wizard will walk you through the process. By default, it creates a one-disk fault-tolerant SHR array. Note that you can keep using the device while the storage array is being built (or rebuilt, if one of your drives ever fails), but you may have degraded performance.
From there, use the File Station application to create shared folders and manage your filesystem, or start installing some software from the Package Center and explore the other features.
Synology Hybrid RAID and Upgrade Paths
RAID is the storage technology that keeps data secure by spreading it out across drives. If any drive fails, you can replace it without having lost data. With standard RAID, these drives need to be the same size, or any excess will be wasted. Synology Hybrid RAID optimizes that excess space to make more efficient use of mixed capacity drives, but only if you have three or more drives. Use the RAID calculator to see this in action.
On a two-bay NAS, this doesn’t offer any benefits though–it’s only once you add more drives that it starts to “recover” some of that lost space. So why should you care if the DS220j only has room for two drives? Because at some point down the line, you’ll probably want to upgrade.
Thankfully, Synology also has some very convenient upgrade paths. Depending on exactly which series of devices you’re moving to and from, you may even be able to just pull the hard disks straight from your old device and into the new one, and keep all the data in the process.
Increasing the total capacity of your Synology is also easy, regardless of whether it has two or four (or more) bays. Just pull out the smallest drive, and put a larger one in. You can then jump into the management system and rebuild the array. The NAS is still usable while it does that. Once completed, do the same for the second drive. And hey presto, you’ve upgraded the capacity with only a few minutes of downtime!
For me, Synology Hybrid RAID is a huge selling point as it allows me to mix and match older drives and upgrade in a more affordable way.
From the DiskStation Manager desktop environment, the Package Center is where you can install additional functionality to the DS220j.
There are hundreds of packages available to install, but here are a few of the highlights:
- Moments allows you to store all your family photos in one beautiful interface, and make use of deep learning AI to recognize faces. With support for Live Photos, and 360 images, you no longer need to rely on cloud services for advanced features.
- Note Station is a drop-in replacement for Google Keep or Apple Notes. For those trying to shift away from cloud services and control their own data, this is a must.
- Video Station is Synology’s own video server software, with accompanying smartphone apps for streaming your stored media to any device on the home network. Personally, I prefer Plex, which is also available in the package center. Plex includes features like movie posters, trailers, and automatic metadata gathering, but may be a little more complex than your needs. Read our complete guide to Plex .
- Download Station is an all-in-one download manager for Usenet, BitTorrent, FTP and more, and includes features like RSS enqueuing.
- WordPress. Although I wouldn’t suggest opening your site up to the world, running a local copy of WordPress for development or testing can be quite useful.
That’s but a fraction of what’s available. You can view the current selection from Synology’s site, but we’d like to highlight one in particular, that makes it simple to turn your NAS into an IP camera recorder.
Of the many software packages available to run on the DS220j, Surveillance Station is perhaps the most impressive, completely replacing the need for a separate hardware NVR. With official support for a wide variety of IP cameras, any model that offers a generic ONVIF video stream can also be used.
I’ve been testing Surveillance Station with some Reolink cameras, and I’m pleased to report it’s the most user-friendly way of monitoring and recording that I’ve come across yet. From basic features like viewing live feeds, setting up motion-activated recording schedules, or viewing archived footage–Surveillance Station has it all, and then some.
One advanced feature I’m fond of is Time Lapse, which automatically generates summary videos, slowing down for detected events and allowing you to view a full days footage in a few minutes. Live Broadcast lets you choose a camera feed to broadcast to YouTube. IP Speaker can integrate with IP-based audio solutions to broadcast audio patterns on schedule. There are far too many advanced features, but suffice to say, Surveillance Station even has its own app store, separate to the main package center!
Surveillance Station itself is free, but you’ll need a license for each camera you want to use with the system, and third-party integrations may have their own associated costs. Two camera licenses are included with the DS220j, and up to 12 cameras in total are supported by the hardware. Additional licenses cost around $50 per camera, but these are a one-off purchase, not an on-going subscription.
So how does Surveillance Station compare to a budget NVR, or smart cameras with built-in cloud recording options?
- With Surveillance Station, your data is stored locally on your own network, and recordings never leave the premises without your explicit permission. Anytime the cloud is involved, there’s an inherent risk, whether that’s from hackers or rogue employees. You can also set up a custom retention period if needed for local data protection laws.
- Cloud-connected cameras often have an ongoing cost–upwards of $10 a month per camera, or the free plans are extremely limited. You can add two cameras to your Surveillance Station for free, and although additional cameras will have a higher upfront cost than other solutions, the total cost of ownership will likely be less due to easier upgrades of storage capacity. Not to mention you’ll have saved a lot of stress thanks to the incredibly easy-to-use interface!
- Your recordings are safe. It’s rare to find a hardware NVR with two drive bays for data redundancy, so unless you have a strict backup policy in place, data loss of recordings is likely at some point. With one disk fault-tolerance on the DS220j, it’s highly unlikely you’d lose data. If a drive dies, you won’t have more than a few minutes downtime as you physically replace the failed drive.
- Your folders can be securely encrypted, so if your NAS is stolen, the thieves can’t pull out the drives and get access to all those recordings.
The only downside to Surveillance Station compared to an NVR is that you can’t plug a monitor directly into an HDMI port for live viewing the camera feeds. On the other hand, you have a great web interface, as well as mobile and desktop apps, so there’s a lot more flexibility overall.
Limitations of The DS220j
Ultimately, the DS220j is an entry-level device, so you shouldn’t expect it to run some of the more advanced NAS server software such as virtual machines.
The ARM processor limits the amount of heavy media transcoding you can do. That’s not to say you won’t be able to stream anything to smartphones though. The latest models are quite capable of decoding a high bitrate MP4 without requiring any transcoding, and with Plex you can generate optimized copies in advance if needed.
In terms of file copy performance, we managed to copy a 1GB file in around 5 seconds over a Gigabit Ethernet wired connection. That’s slower than a hard disk plugged in over USB would be, of course, but it’s a trade-off worth making. We haven’t published any more detailed performance testing, because it wouldn’t represent real-world usage. The performance will vary according to many factors, such as your individual network conditions, the protocol you’re using to connect, the type of cabling you have installed, whether you’ve encrypted the drives, how much software you’re running on the system, or whether it’s a full moon. Ok, we’re kidding on that last one, but the point is that any bottleneck will likely be on your end, rather than on the DS220j.
You should also remember that a NAS alone is not a complete backup solution for your computer. It is but one point in the ultimate triple backup system .
Finally, you should know that for some applications, a network drive simply can’t be used. I know from experience Adobe Lightroom and Final Cut Pro, for instance, don’t like their libraries to be stored remotely. For those you’ll need a local scratch drive, but can use the network storage for backups.
The Best NAS for Beginners?
The Synology DS220j is the best budget NAS by far, but it’s not the cheapest. You can find competitors models for $20-30 cheaper, but it’s a small saving to make for a drastically inferior product. Synology devices are worth the small premium for their sheer ease of use, as well as the added value from Synology’s own software packages such as Moments and Surveillance Station. Calling it “Network Attached Storage” really doesn’t do this device justice given the wealth of other features to be found.
The only reason not to buy the DS220j is if you already have a selection of three or four mixed capacity drives you’d like to use. In that case, you’d need a four-bay Synology NAS to benefit from the Hybrid RAID technology, such as the DS420j. Synology’s NAS selector tool is a great way to find the model that meets your requirements.
In my mind, every family and small business needs a NAS. But let me clarify that further: every family and small business should have a Synology NAS. If I sound biased, it’s because I am: Synology has served me well for well over a decade, and I’ve never lost data. Drives have failed, and I’ve upgraded countless times, but my data has remained secure.
Enter the Competition!Synology DS220j and Surveillance Station Giveaway
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