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Why a NAS should be your next home PC

Commentary: Network attached storage boxes have come of age, offering everything we were promised by entertainment centre PCs, plus a whole lot more.

What's a home PC really for these days? Once upon a time the answer to that question was "everything". It was the only computer in our lives. Before you buy another one, it's a good idea to know what you really need -- today, a Network Attached Storage box, or NAS, might be the better way to go.

Wireless devices of all stripes have taken centre stage, what we need from that home "hub" computer has changed dramatically. "General purpose computing" just isn't what it used to be. The need for a big desk-bound PC setup has faded for most households.

So why do we still own that hub PC? Mostly for its ability to store lots of files in ways a laptop or mobile device just isn't suited to. All our family photos, our music collection, our movies. With these at the forefront, a storage-centred device makes a lot more sense. Something that is all about feeding and supporting a home full of wireless devices.

With plenty of apps and a friendly interface, the modern NAS is an ideal household media hub.

Seamus Byrne/CNET

Network Attached Storage is an awfully dull name for an incredibly useful category of products. When it was named, it was nothing more than a dumb box of hard drives used to organise and share files among a wider network of computers. It didn't do anything particularly useful with those files except share them and do its best to keep them safe from data failure.

What a NAS was 10 years ago is not what it is today.

Much more than a storage box

Personally, I've been using home NAS for 10 years. First a ReadyNAS NV+ (bought from a company called Infrant, which is now a part of Netgear) and today a Synology DiskStation. At first the magic of owning a NAS was having a significant chunk of storage on my home network for running automatic backups of other PCs. Peace of mind humming away quietly under a desk.

But now the NAS has become the ultimate home hub for music, video and photo storage. It's everything we were promised by home theatre PCs without the fuss of managing TV connections and the dramas of a full-fat operating system.

Just like a desktop, but through a web browser.

Seamus Byrne/CNET

Today's home-friendly NAS -- Synology options lead the pack in the CNET NAS round up -- comes with a desktop-like interface you access through a web browser along with dedicated apps for phones and tablets. Any smart TV can also treat such a NAS as a media server, streaming your music, photo galleries and movie collections across your network in real time. Synology and QNAP (another NAS maker) have both released apps for the newest Apple TV ($85 at eBay) as well.

You can also setup your NAS to make your files available from outside your home, so you'll always have access to your media collections and files whenever and wherever you need them.

The application options keep growing too. There are a lot of business-style features among them -- email servers, web servers, databases, plus Synology is adding a lot of features like private calendars, chat systems and even word processing and spreadsheets. But there's plenty for home users too, with photo, music and video apps that make for a very user-friendly interface to all your stored content. In my home we've even got our NAS running a Minecraft server as the host for a shared family world.

It's easier than you think too

With its business tech legacy, there's a common assumption that a NAS takes serious technical skills to get up and running.

Synology DS Photo gallery app

Apps like this make it easy to explore your NAS photo collection directly from any mobile device.

Seamus Byrne/CNET

But today it's as straight forward as adding anything else to your home network. You buy a NAS, buy hard drives to fill it to a capacity that suits your needs, and plug it into your home router. That's it. Many home NAS options don't even need any tools at all to get the hard drives fitted, so it's a very simple process.

To get things running you install an application that finds the NAS on your network and from there you can use a Web browser to set up the NAS to do everything you want to do.

There will always be a reason to own a PC. Gamers will game, creatives will create. But in many respects the laptop is the domain of day-to-day PC usage, but their weakness is a more limited storage capacity and they are not easily "always on" for sharing their capabilities around the home. The personal "private cloud" experience a NAS can bring to a home is a powerful and complementary proposition.

NAS prices range from $170 for a good two-bay unit or up to $500 for a four-bay unit with extra bells and whistles. Hard drives are also now very inexpensive, with good 2TB hard drives now less than $90 each. That places a good basic setup around just $350 (roughly AU$450, £280), which sits very well compared to most.

What is your home PC for? Ask yourself again. If the answer relates primarily to storing files, then it's time to take a serious look at a NAS.