The dual-bay Disk Station DS214se NAS server has more to offer than any other entry-level network attached storage (NAS) server I've seen.
Running the latest DSM 5.0 operating system, the server has many features found in much higher-end servers, such as the top-ranked DS1513+, making its US price of just $155 for the disk-less version (or $340 with 4TB included) a steal. It's just as good value in the UK and Australia -- it's available from various resellers with different amounts of storage, but you'll find it disk-less from around £120 or AU$180.
And despite the minimal amount of system memory and a lackluster processor, in my testing the DS214se still registered an excellent data rate for a dual-bay server, especially its read speed.
Keep in mind, however, that this is still a low-end storage device. Basically, it's designed to excel at performing just one (or a very few) tasks at a time, and isn't suitable for heavy multitasking environments. So if you're looking for a network storage solution for a small home with just a few users, you won't go wrong with the the DS214se. Otherwise, pick something that's more powerful from this list.
Robust operating system, budget hardware
The DS214se uses the chassis design of a much older generation, such as the DS410 that came out four years ago. This means you have to open the chassis before you can install or replace the internal hard drives. While this is quite easy to do (you just have to undo two little screws on the back and slide out the left side of the server to open it), I much prefer the front-facing drive-bay design found in new newer DiskStations, such as the DS712+, or the DS1513+.
You only need to do this if you buy the diskless version of the server. Otherwise, chances are you won't need to service the internal hard drive for a long time. But when you do, note that you'll need to turn off the server before you start the job. Considering the logistics, you can't expect to swap out the hard drive while the server is still running, as in the case of servers with front-facing drive bays. The server supports standard SATA internal drives of both 3.5-inch (desktop) and 2.5-inch (laptop) designs, of any capacities. You can buy it preloaded with only 2TB hard drives, however, so if you want to use 3TB or larger hard drives, you're better off getting the diskless version and buying the hard drives separately.
The DS214se has nothing to impress when it comes to its hardware components. On the inside, it's powered by a minimal Marvell Armada 370 processor running at 800MHz, and 256MB of DDR3 memory that's not upgradable. The "se" designation stands for "single-role," meaning the server is not designed to run multiple roles (tasks) at the same time. On the back, the server has just two USB 2.0 ports to host more storage or printers. This is very disappointing, since all the NAS servers that I reviewed last year already support USB 3.0 and have more peripheral ports.
To make up for the old design and the lackluster hardware, on the inside the DS214se runs the latest version of the acclaimed DiskStation Manager (DSM) operating system, version 5.0. The new OS brings about a much more robust Web-based user interface -- very similar to that of a native operating system -- and a new way to set up the server to work over the Internet, as well as a huge collection of apps that add much more value to the server.
Simple to set up
With DSM5.0, the DS214se is quite easy to set up, especially when you buy the version that comes with hard drives included. In this case, you just need to plug the server into your existing network using a network cable (one is included), and turn it on.
Now you need to log into its Web interface, which involves pointing a browser on a computer to its IP address, or running the Synology Assistant software. Once launched, the interface is presented to end-users similarly to the appearance of an operating system, like Windows or Mac OS. This is all within the Web page, and most users can figure things out from there. But if you can't, the Synology Assistant can also perform a few additional tasks, such as mapping network drives to share folders.
Note that, if you buy the disk-less version of the server, you'll need to install the hard drives and the operating system yourself. In this case, the Synology Assistant software can automatically download and install the operating system in a single, seamless step, much in the way you'd update your iPhone or install a new OS on a MacBook Air.
The Web interface allows you to perform any customizations to the server, including its general settings, RAID configuration, and all other settings, including those of all apps.
By default, the server's two internal hard drives are set up in the Synology Hybrid RAID (SHR) configuration. This is a useful setup that I highly recommend. SHR automatically sets up the available storage into the best configuration for the given number of drives, as well as the best data protection, performance, and storage space, in that order. In the case of the DS214se, since it's a dual-bay server (that is, it has two internal hard drives), an SHR setup is very similar to RAID 1.
On top of that, SHR also allows for the use hard drives of different capacities and allows you to easily scale up the server's storage space without having to rebuild the RAID from scratch.
You don't have to use SHR, however -- you can easily switch to standard RAID configurations, such as RAID 0 or RAID 1, with the DS214se. All Synology NAS servers support all available standard RAID configurations based on the number of internal drives they contain.
Excellent platform support
The DS214se supports all computing platforms available to consumers, be it Windows, Mac OS, Linux, or even mobile platforms such as Android or iOS.
For example, for Windows, apart from data-sharing via the SMB protocol, you can also set up the server to be part of a domain via the Active Directory Service -- this allows Windows administrators to manage the the NAS server's storage via the domain controller.