Introduction, Design Features
QNAP makes some seriously swanky network attached storage (NAS) drives, and its all-new TS-253B, designed for small offices or home power users, is no exception. It comes bristling with new technology, and it redefines what we can come to expect from high-end NAS boxes in the near future.
The most significant core differentiator in this NAS unit is that it includes a half-height PCI Express slot that allows for the installation of several varieties of expansion cards. This slot could be useful for adding drive caching (using solid-state memory on an optional card, which QNAP sells), including adding one of the new Intel Optane Memory 3D Xpoint drives or some other M.2 SSD for caching. Or you can use it to install a 10Gbps Ethernet port, which is designed to allow for a many-fold performance improvement over traditional Gigabit Ethernet. Heck, you could even install a wireless Ethernet card and turn the TS-253B into a place-it-anywhere media center, as it includes a remote control, too.
This new series of drives (known as the QNAP TS-x53B, where “x” equals the number of discrete hard drives you can put inside) is available in two-bay, four-bay, and six-bay models. All this leading-edge tech is going to cost you, though, as the two-bay model we’re reviewing is a steep $549 without drives and with 4GB of onboard RAM, and $699 for an 8GB model. Make no mistake, though the chassis on this model is small, this is a high-end line of NAS products designed for small business and SOHO usage, and for folks who will leverage its advanced capabities and available apps. If you’re a casual home user, you should opt for a less audacious model with one or two drives. (See, for example, our review of the basic Seagate Personal Cloud.)
TS-x51 series, which were high-end devices in their time, as well. These new models continue this tradition. The guts of the NAS include an Intel Celeron J3455 CPU, a quad-core 1.5GHz chip that can boost to 2.3GHz. The onboard electronics are also capable of AES-NI encryption, and depending on the model, it comes paired with 4GB or 8GB of DDR3L memory, as we mentioned above. Celeron chips may seem ho-hum if you see them in an ordinary budget desktop or laptop PC, but they are a premium solution in a NAS drive. (Many NAS drives are powered by lesser Intel Atom or ARM chips.) So this is a powerful NAS in terms of its hardware.
The NAS itself has an interesting design, as well as some features that, though not unique, we’ve not seen in the flesh in a NAS before. First of all, the drive trays are tool-less, and are inserted into the front of the unit to allow for a painless installation. That’s nothing new, of course, but what is new is that once the drive trays are inserted and secure, a small cover slides over the front of the unit, obscuring the trays and giving it a sleeker look. Without the cover, the bays look like this…
Adding to its high-tech appeal is an OLED activity display, which is, as far as we can tell, a first on a NAS…
Using an OLED screen for this purpose is overkill, really, but hey, the little panel looks high-tech, sharp, and cool. Alongside, you’ll see two capacitive-touch buttons that bring up information in the tiny window, with the readout including the IP address of the LAN connection.
The rest of the TS-253B’s front plate is equally snazzy, as NAS drives come. Prominent is a plethora of connections that make copying files from portable storage quite easy. There’s an SD-card reader, a USB 3.0 port, and (most interesting of the three) a USB Type-C port, in case you have a new-generation drive with a similar connector, or get one in the future. You can access the NAS directly via the ports in the front of the NAS, with no network connection required. Riding shotgun with these ports is a quick-copy button, too, to enable fast backups from USB-attached media to the internal drive(s).
Out back, the TS-253B is just as loaded, and with lots of ports for a NAS drive, or at least much more than we typically see in one of this size and drive-bay count…
First up are the dual Ethernet LAN ports, which allows for redundant connections for uptime safeguarding or for port aggregation if you have a compatible router or switch. The latter, theoretically, allows for double the bandwidth across the connection, and is a feature designed for a NAS that will be serving many users concurrently. Also back here are four USB 3.0 ports, which is twice the typical number we see, as well as dual HDMI ports as well in case you want to run a dual-display media center off the unit. You can hook it up directly to an HDTV for use as a media station, which is where the remote control comes in, as well as to a separate display.
Note that the HDMI ports are of the 1.4b variety, so they support 4K resolution (3,840×2,160-pixel) video output but only at 30Hz, which may be a deal-breaker for those who want to use this as a source device for lots of onboard 4K video. (It can run lower resolutions at 60Hz over HDMI.) Also back here are discrete audio jacks (see above, about the media-station scenario), a Kensington cable-lockdown slot, and the backplane opening for the aforementioned PCI Express slot at the very top, which comes unoccupied.
Running the show is QNAP’s Linux-based QTS operating system, which is loaded with more features (and access to more apps and utilities) than even the most IT-expert human could ever hope to deploy.
As we noted above, this is an expensive NAS that’s fully loaded and groundbreaking, so, naturally, it has a price tag to match. We already discussed pricing for the two-bay model, but perhaps you fancy a few more drives? If so, the flagship six-bay model with 8GB of RAM is a healthy $1,049, though if you drop the RAM allotment to 4GB, it’s “just” $899. The four-bay version with 8GB of RAM will run you $849, while the 4GB version will set you back $709. To give you some context as to how expensive this is, the recently reviewed four-bay Synology DS416 Slim is just $289 without drives, so the TS-253B is clearly premium and full-featured. You’ll want to be sure you need the above-average connectivity and at least some of the specific feature set here before shelling out; you can get basic NAS models for much less.
When we first connected the TS-253B to our network, we were instructed via a sticker on the chassis to go to a URL and type in the code printed on the sticker. We did this, but the software was unable to find the NAS. After repeated attempts at this, we finally downloaded a handy QNAP utility, Qfinder, that searched the network and located the NAS, but setup still would not continue. We next had to allow the Qfinder app through the Windows Firewall, and only then installation proceeded normally. From that point, it was a mundane affair that involved downloading the latest version of the QTS operating system, wiping the two drives we had dropped into the trays, and installing the OS. All in all, it took just a few minutes once things were rolling.
From there, we had to create an administrator password…
Next, the setup routine configured everything, and, as you can see below, the estimated time was about 11 minutes. Not too shabby.
The following step asked us to configure an SMTP mail server, so that the NAS could e-mail us important updates and notifications. This is a handy feature for monitoring the NAS, but we skipped it since we were just going to be hanging around long enough to get the gist of the device.
Et voila! Finally, we arrived at the desktop of the QTS operating system. QNAP shows you a few panels to help you understand the layout of buttons and menus, but overall it’s easy to figure out, even for first-timers.
The main “desktop” of QTS is clean and uncluttered, featuring six icons by default along with additional controls and menus along the top of the window. Time is displayed in the corner, and you can allow a dashboard to slide out showing all kinds of information, including current CPU and RAM usage, system temperatures, drive status, and how much space is being used on each volume. You can also drag the individual widgets to the desktop if you want to keep tabs on a certain aspect of the NAS’s performance.
Let’s take a look at each of these icons on the desktop first, then we’ll examine more of the extra controls.
When we describe a NAS drive with “advanced functionality,” this is what we mean…
If we were to explore the options provided by each of these icons, this review would be 50 pages long. Everything is broken down into handy sections, but as you can see, there are controls for everything from managing shared folders to advanced networking options, and then some. It’s smartly laid out and easy to access.
This is a service (or an app, if you will) that gets installed by default and lets you navigate the NAS, seeing all the files in all the shared folders. Think of it as Windows Explorer for QTS…
You can add new folders, rearrange them, and move them from the NAS to your local machine. There’s an interesting option when you click on movies, in that it asks you what resolution you’d like the movie to be transcoded in…
Once you make your selection, it sets it for future videos, but there’s a drop-down menu you can access that lets you change it on the fly, too.
QNAP’s “Personal Cloud”
Many NAS vendors provide a feature that is often called a “personal cloud” function, and this one is no different. In essence competing with the functionality you can get from Dropbox, Google Drive, and other cloud storage services, most NAS companies now let you access your NAS device via a Web site or app. You can have access to way more storage via your drives than is typically feasible via those cloud services without paying a deep monthly fee.
QNAP’s implementation is called “myQNAPcloud”…
We tested this, and it works as advertised. When we accessed the files via the browser interface, it looked like Windows Explorer, but it did allow us to preview files, including movies, and easily share links to content via e-mail or by copying and pasting links wherever we wanted.
NAS-based apps allow you to extend the functionality of the NAS beyond what it provides in stock trim. NAS apps are much like plug-ins for your browser or apps for your smartphone, but taken to a whole new level. The number of apps available on the QNAP platform (which you access via a utility called “AppCenter”) is simply staggering. We couldn’t even fit them all into one screenshot…
We can’t imagine testing them all, or even half of them. Many are for advanced users, but there are basic ones too like Video Station, Music Station, and Photo Station. Beyond that, though, the sky’s pretty much the limit; whether you want to run virtual machines, run karaoke directly from the NAS, or set up a surveillance camera, the QTS ecosystem has an app for it.
Also available for the QNAP ecosystem are a ton of mobile apps for remotely accessing your media via tablets and phones, as well as performing some remote management of the NAS.
To our chagrin, we found that these apps are mainly separate entities for handling things like photos, video, music, and the like. You’ll find Qmanager, Qphoto, Qfile, Qget, Qvideo, Qmusic, Vcam, Qremote, Qcalculator…and on and on. We found it frustrating that there’s not just one overarching one for media (or, at least, if there was, we couldn’t find it easily). But the various sub-apps we looked at were all well-made and easy to use. A few are pretty nifty; Vcam, for one, lets you use your mobile phone as a virtual roving IP cam, streaming video to the NAS, while Qget lets you manage several NASes from one mobile interface.
We especially liked Qmanager, which we used for monitoring the NAS, and Qphoto, for looking at cats. Here are some screens of each…
Beyond puttering with the apps—which are a world of their own—we then set to running some formal performance tests on the TS-253B. That’s up next.