On paper, the QNAP TS-251A looks like a well-specced network attached storage device for home use (buy it here for $319), featuring a dual-core processor and ample 2 GB RAM. It even has a HDMI port and bundled IR remote, so you can plug it into a TV and use it directly.
There are a hundred different features you can use a NAS for but I’m focusing on what I use: backup and a TV shows / movies server. I am looking for units that are easy to use and maintain with enough performance to handle multiple video streams at once, as I use my NAS to provide content for every television in the house. Here’s my hands on with the QNAP NAS and how well it handles media and backup tasks …
First off, is the physical chassis. The QNAP is about the same size as every 2-bay NAS which incorporates enclosures for 2 bays and some margin for the actual computer components. The timid LED indicators and the teal/beige appearance makes it look like an old PC; it’s not the prettiest thing ever. It would be better in a discreet black case. That being said, it is generally meant to be stored out-of-sight in an office or closet so a visually-pleasing appearance isn’t that critical. It has fans for cooling but I wouldn’t get too stressed about noise; it is very quiet.
To get started, the QNAP requires storage. This particular model is a two-bay system with the hard drives exposed on the front of the product. You don’t need to mess around with screws. Each bay uses a latch mechanism that you pull out, place the drive into, and snap back. These then click into the NAS itself.
The device does not support hot swapping so you can’t pull bays out willy-nilly whilst it is switched on. I don’t find this to be a problem, though. I installed two spacious hard disks and then left them there. If in the future I wanted to upgrade the capacity, it is not arduous to temporarily shut down the machine and do the switch.
I have two identical 2 TB drives fitted, using RAID 1. RAID 1 is a drive configuration that mirrors all of the contents across both disks automatically. This acts as a first level of backup, so that if one drive ultimately fails, there is no loss of data. You can choose whatever drive configuration you please, of course, so if you want to maximise capacity you can setup the QNAP so that both disks appear as a single larger volume.
The properties of each drive are abstracted away. In my setup, my machines see a single 2 TB network share that acts just like any other drive. Behind the scenes, the data is mirrored across both drives for the RAID redundancy. After installing the drives, there is some admin involved in the initial setup of the unit; the same sort of steps when you setup a new Mac for the first time. After that, you can log into the web UI which is the main control panel for the system.
The web UI looks like a faux-desktop. It has home screens like iOS with pages of apps. Clicking on apps spawn ‘windows’ of information with the usual array of buttons, switches and input fields. The web UI is not the prettiest interface I’ve ever seen (even other NAS software has better appearance) but it is intuitive to navigate around and makes all the features very accessible. I think the Synology DiskStation web interface has a cleaner visual appearance and is marginally easier to understand – it’s a marginal difference though. Both would benefit from having native Mac apps for configuration rather than web apps.
Nevertheless, you can tell that the QNAP TS-251+ is a very capable box. The unit features a dual-core processor and 2 GB RAM after all, I wouldn’t expect it to be slow. This means it can handle many tasks simultaneously with ease. But what can you do with a NAS like this?
The obvious next step is to actually start using the product. For me, the media server stuff is the most compelling feature. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to install Plex. Plex is just like iTunes, it’s a media manager that organizes all your content and then makes it available to client apps. Plex has a web UI, an iOS app, an Apple TV app and many other clients. The software automatically converts the media into a file format suitable for the current device.
QNAP has its own Video Station software that does the same thing but Plex is nicer to look at, easier to understand, updated more frequently and has very good third-party apps. The native Video Station is slightly more integrated into the system (no surprises there) but the advantages from Plex are too huge to pass up.
Download Plex from the App Center on the QNAP and run it. There’s a little bit of setup which involves selecting source folders for media from the filesystem. There are even dedicated how-to guides if you need additional troubleshooting steps if something goes wrong. Plex uses file names to identify TV shows and movies. It then searches an online database to grab all the metadata, like title, release date and artwork automatically. Here’s how it looks in the Plex web interface: note that all of this metadata is automatically retrieved.
Naming conventions for files are straightforward; movies are encoded with their names and the year they were released (like ‘Finding Dory (2016).mp4’). TV shows are labelled with their episode number and stored inside a folder (such as ‘Modern Family/Season 01/Modern Family – s01e01.m4a’). The complete naming guidelines are documented online. Finding all this content in the first place is left as an exercise for the reader …
With a Plex library full of content, you can then open Plex on another device to view everything. Here’s what my library looks like on my iPad Pro. All of the descriptions and photography has been automatically found by Plex; manually tagging all of this metadata would take months. To start watching, just tap on an item.
The QNAP NAS then streams the file over the air, with the Plex server transcoding the video into an appropriate format, and the video starts playing on the iOS device a couple of seconds later. All of this technical stuff is invisible to the user. It just works. Plex tracks the elapsed duration so if you pause mid-way, you can come back later and pick up where you left off.
The advantage that the QNAP native media jukebox offering has, the aforementioned Video Station, is that it can access the hardware transcoder. Plex can only transcode on the CPU. This means it is less performant and it’s something to think about if you regularly store your media in file formats that require conversion. I ensure that all of my TV shows and movies are encoded as MP4 so they can work on all of Apple’s hardware natively. However, the QNAP does feature a dual-core processor that can adequately transcode files at 720p HD nonetheless. In a perfect world, Plex would take advantage of the hardware decoder.
Performance, in general, is very good. Its computing power is not taxed at all by streaming to just one television. As mentioned above, I use my NAS as a media service for the entirely family spanning multiple rooms simultaneously. The device is not powerful enough to handle multiple transcodes at one time, but it can easily accommodate several direct streams in native formats.
By the way, this device actually has two Ethernet ports for network connectivity. In some setups, it is significantly faster to have both connected to the network simultaneously. I tested this briefly but could not see a meaningful increase in transfer rate.
An interesting feature of the QNAP NAS is the inclusion of a HDMI port. This is unusual for cheaper NAS devices which are normally treated as headless servers. With the QNAP, you can actually plug it into a TV screen directly and use it standalone. The box can run Plex Home Theater, for example, to provide a ten-foot media center for TV shows, movies, home videos and music.
I mostly use an Apple TV with the Plex client app to view my media but it’s not a requirement with the QNAP as I could run everything off itself. Plex Home Theater is good and perfectly adequate but the Apple TV app experience is a nicer interface and features a better control scheme. The QNAP is controlled by a standard IR d-pad remote or a computer keyboard. I like the touchpad interactions of the Siri Remote more, of course, but the QNAP remote is as good as any normal IR blaster.
Although this is bundled in the box, I was expecting a slighter higher standard of quality as the remote is a hallmark feature of this particular NAS, that you can use it standalone. The remote is a plastic body with plastic buttons. The buttons are kind of rubbery and don’t feel great when you press them; they take a lot of force to depress but there is no travel. The whole thing feels incredibly light, almost like a toy. Maybe I am just spoiled by the aluminium Apple TV remotes which have incredible build quality.
The Apple TV has other advantages like AirPlay integration, iTunes apps and the ever-growing collection of games in the App Store. If you don’t want to buy an Apple TV for every screen in your house, though, the HDMI output functionality offered by the QNAP is very appealing for media playback. I also prefer keeping the somewhat-noisy NAS in a closet/office room and let the Apple TV be the interface in the living room as it is fan-less and – hence – silent. As stated previously, the QNAP is also not the prettiest consumer electronics item and its beige shell will stick out more on a TV cabinet than the sleek glossy black Apple TV.
I’m not trying to say that if you have an Apple TV, don’t buy a QNAP. One is a streaming set-top box and the other is a capable NAS: they are different products that have some overlapping uses. If you were trying to get the most value, you could have the QNAP hooked up to a TV in one room and have an Apple TV plugged into another; the beauty of a NAS is it can power multiple clients at a time.
The QNAP is a practical media center option but an Apple TV is made and designed for that purpose. The QNAP’s main purpose is to be smart-network-attached-storage and it excels at that. A QNAP running a Plex server and an Apple TV running the Plex client app is a great combination. It doesn’t have to be an Apple TV of course — Plex supports Roku, Xbox and many other platforms — but I am speaking from my perspective as an Apple-centric household.
Another possible use for the QNAP’s HDMI output is the Surveillance Station. This app is compatible with hundreds of IPTV security cameras and can record what they see direct to the QNAP storage. Client computers can also visit a local web URL and watch the live streaming video within the network. Connecting a screen to the QNAP directly will display the active cameras in a grid, no other hardware required. This is a great feature.
Like the Synology I reviewed previously, the QNAP will also serve as storage for Time Machine. This makes backing up your Mac a breeze. Enable the Time Machine server in the QNAP web interface and then select the device from the Time Machine app on the Mac. It’s that simple to get network backup up and running. The initial transfer will take some time as it is starting from scratch but future backups are incremental, hence take much less time to complete.
macOS automatically attempts to do a Time Machine snapshot once an hour. If you leave the network and return later, it will automatically reconnect. You don’t have to manually reconnect to the drive. I have had a Time Machine backup fail once across my month of testing and this was the fault of my router, not the QNAP system.
If you want to go further than Time Machine, the QNAP has its own clients for snapshot backup and recovery. You can back up to cloud services too, if you pay for AWS storage or similar offerings. As the NAS is a mini computer with a lot of storage, this can all happen automatically without any work being done by your actual home laptops or desktops. There’s a Download Station app that can crawl RSS feeds and download any files it finds every day.
As always, NAS devices are incredibly versatile. I have spoken about just a few different features of the QNAP. The App Center includes a hundred different “apps” that enable various functions from an intranet blog to a karaoke server. Underneath the frills, it really is a headless computer with a big hard drive. I’ve focused on Time Machine and media for this review as that is what I use NAS’s for but it is good to be aware of the potential flexibility.
The biggest barrier to NAS adoption is the upfront complexity. Initial setup involves installing hard drives, managing the volumes in a web interface and maybe configuring some router settings. However, once this out of the way, NAS devices are very straightforward. Plex is an incredibly sophisticated media server that is as simple as iTunes. My family can watch movies and TV shows on Apple TV as easily as they watch Netflix. It is not difficult to use once it setup. Time Machine backup happens without any ongoing setup or configuration.
This will sound like a small niggle but it really annoys me — the QNAP operating system does not let you change the name of the AFP share on the network. A suffix of ‘(AFP)’ is always enforced. As this sits in my Finder sidebar all day long, it is a minor but frustrating issue. I wish it was changeable.
I only started using a NAS in the last year but it is a critical addition to the home. The QNAP is a great option with a lot of features and power for a good price. The integrated HDMI output is handy and eliminates the need for another piece of hardware to act as the receiver.
It’s worth noting that the QNAP also has several USB ports for further expandability but I am yet to find a compelling use case for my personal digital life. One of these is a USB 3 ‘QuickAccess’ port which you can plug into and access the files and folders stored without a network connection.
Even so, I think most people will want to use the QNAP in tandem with an Apple TV, if they want to watch movies and TV shows from the living room. Let the Apple TV be the interface for your own private NAS server that’s situated in an office or cellar. Of course, you aren’t limited to just one output television either. QNAP and Plex will happily stream to multiple Apple TVs (or iPads or iPhones) around the house.
The QNAP TS-251A is available to buy for $319. The Ts-251A is a 2-bay product which suits most home needs but a 4-bay version is also available. Most consumers will be perfectly satisfied by the 2-bay options: just get a large hard drive to suit your needs. The 2-bay QNAP has a theoretical maximum size of 16 TB, 8 TB per drive.
Check out the QNAP website for their full range of products. I think the QNAP is good value but it is all dependent on what you want to do with it. If you aren’t going to use the TV features, you may want to consider a cheaper variant that does not include a remote. Note, though, that this version is not as well-specced so it is considerably slower. If you are just wanting a box for backup needs, that’s fine. If you are interested in the media side, the additional power in the TS-251+ is going to make for a better experience.