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Synology DiskStation DS213Air review: A great home NAS server with built-in Wi-Fi

In the DiskStation DS213Air, Synology has a great home-network storage server with loads of features, including built-in Wi-Fi support.

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Dong Ngo
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Dong Ngo

SF Labs Manager, Editor / Reviews

CNET editor Dong Ngo has been involved with technology since 2000, starting with testing gadgets and writing code for CNET Labs' benchmarks. He now manages CNET San Francisco Labs, reviews 3D printers, networking/storage devices, and also writes about other topics from online security to new gadgets and how technology impacts the life of people around the world.

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13 min read

The DiskStation DS213Air is the fourth dual-bay NAS server I've reviewed from Synology and it most resembles the first one, the DS209+, which came out more than three years ago, at least in terms of drive-bay design, in that you have to open its chassis to install or replace the two internal hard drives.

Synology DiskStation DS213air
8.1

Synology DiskStation DS213Air

The Good

The <b>Synology DiskStation DS213Air</b> offers fast data performance, tons of features, and built-in support for Wi-Fi.

The Bad

The DS213Air isn't as fast as other dual-bay NAS servers, and its Wi-Fi feature and drive-bay design need some improvement.

The Bottom Line

The Synology DiskStation DS213Air is a great network storage device for home users, especially those who also want to extend their Wi-Fi network.

Other than that, this new server shares all the features you've seen in other Synology dual-bay servers since it uses the latest version of the DiskStation Manager (DSM) operating system, version 4.1, which most other existing servers can upgrade to.

The DS213Air does have a feature of its own, however: it's the first from Synology that comes with built-in support for Wireless-N Wi-Fi. In addition to being a NAS server, it can also work as a Wi-Fi access point or even a wireless router.

The server did comparatively well in my testing, though it was slower than most of its cousins. But it's also the most affordable one -- $330 with no storage included. If you're looking for a budget-priced yet full-featured NAS server for your home, the DiskStation DS213Air makes an excellent investment. If you want something that offers better performance, more storage space, or both, I'd also recommend Synology's DS712+, DS412+, or DS1511+, or the QNAP TS-469.

Design and setup
As I mentioned above, the DiskStation DS213Air's design is, in a way, a step backward, compared with recent servers from Synology: it doesn't offer an easy way to install and replace its hard drives. Instead, as with the DS209+, you will need to open its casing for this job. While this process isn't as hard as it sounds -- half of the server's cover slides off very easily once the two screws in the back have been undone -- it's rather inconvenient and means that you can't hot-swap drives. For most home environments, however, where it's generally OK to power off the server for a while, this is not really a big deal.

The DS213Air requires that you open its case to install or replace its hard drives.
The DS213Air requires that you open its case to install or replace its hard drives. Dong Ngo/CNET

On the back, the DS213Air has just two USB ports and one Gigabit Ethernet port. This is rather limited; the DS712+, for example, also comes with an eSATA port and has two Gigabit Ethernet ports. To make up for this, the DS213Air's USB ports are both USB 3.0-compatible, offering much faster speed than those of the DS712+. You can use these two ports to host printers or other storage devices. When a USB printer is connected, the DS213Air will also make it compatible with both Apple AirPrint and Google Cloud Print, even when the printer by itself is not compatible with these services.

On the front, the DS213Air has nothing but the power button and an array of LEDs that show the status of the server's power, the wireless network, and the two internal hard drives.

As with other dual-bay servers from Synology, the DS213Air's two internal hard drives can be configured using all the possible RAID setups available for a set of two hard drives. On top of that it supports Synology Hybrid RAID, which makes it possible to dynamically scale up the number of drives in the RAID, increasing the RAID's storage capacity without having to rebuild the RAID from scratch. With Hybrid RAID you can also use hard drives of different capacities, as along as you only replace the existing hard drives with drives of the same or larger capacity, and make sure there's at least one hard drive being used as redundancy for data safety. In the particular case of the DS213Air, since the server supports a maximum of two hard drives, Hybrid RAID is very similar to a RAID 1 configuration.

As with other NAS servers from Synology, savvy users should have no trouble getting the DS213Air up and running. Even the part that takes the longest, which is the RAID building, was very fast in my testing -- just a few minutes with two 1TB hard drives.

Home users may find the server harder to set up, however. The NAS server comes with a desktop application called Synology Assistant to help with initial setup and installation of the operating system if you buy a diskless unit and install the hard drives yourself. In this case the Synology Assistant will download and install the server's firmware directly from Synology's Web site, saving you from having to manually download it on a computer first. While this step makes life a little easier, the Synology Assistant generally doesn't provide enough information on what it does, giving the wrong impression that the server is hard to use and doesn't have much to offer. To find out how untrue this is, you'll need to use Synology Assistant to launch the server's Web interface (by the way, the default log-in credentials are admin for the username and the password is blank). Now an entirely new world opens up.

Features
Like Synology's other NAS servers, the DiskStation DS213Air uses the DiskStation Manager (DSM) operating system, which is currently at version 4.1, and therefore shares all the features this OS has to offer for a dual-bay server.

This means its features are very similar to those of the DS412+, the DS712+, and the DS1511+. But as I mentioned previously, the DS213Air does have a feature of its own: it's the first from Synology I've seen that comes with built-in Wi-Fi functionality, and can work as either a Wi-Fi client, a Wi-Fi access point, or even a Wi-Fi router. The DS213Air supports a single band (2.4GHz) of the Wireless-N standard (802.11n).

Built-in support for Wi-Fi is the only feature that's currently unique to the DS213Air among Synology NAS servers.
The built-in support for Wi-Fi is the only feature that's currently unique to the DS213Air among Synology NAS servers. Dong Ngo/CNET

Since the server has only one network port, when working as a Wi-Fi router it can only host a network made up of wireless clients; in other words, you won't be able to connect a wired client, such as a desktop computer, to the network. The server worked well as a Wi-Fi client, in my testing, allowing itself to connect to an existing Wi-Fi network. In my opinion, it's not a good idea to use the router this way, however, because the data performance of the router is limited to that of its Wi-Fi, which is Wireless-N. Wireless-N is generally not fast enough if you want to serve data to multiple connected devices, which is the main purpose of a server.

The best way to use the router's Wi-Fi is as an access point. In my testing, though this function worked well, Wi-Fi clients connected to the server's wireless network were separated from the local network to which the server was connected. The server creates a network of its own, on top of the existing network.

All in all, the DiskStation DS213Air's Wi-Fi support needs some work and would be better if it supported dual-band and even the upcoming 802.11ac standard. For now, however, it will serve well enough if you just want to bring Wi-Fi to a far corner of the house where you want to stash the server.

Now let's move on to the server's other features, which it shares with the rest of Synology's NAS servers and are controlled via its Web interface.

The server's Web interface -- which resides within the window of a browser, such as Internet Explorer or Firefox, that you use to open it -- is very similar to the GUI of a native operating system like Windows. You can open multiple windows and resize them, move them around, and so on, all from within the Web page. There's also a control panel where you can customize server settings; each has its own icon. There's a taskbar that displays a button for each window being opened, a package center where you can add and remove packages (aka applications), and a Start button that pulls up icons linked to installed applications. All in all, everything is very well-organized and intuitive and is a delight for savvy users.

From within the Web page of the server's Web interface, you can manage multiple things at a time, such as adding new users or new share folders, or searching for a particular file, and so on, in separate windows. There are even fading effects as you move from one item to another, and you can change the background photo. In fact, when opening the server's Web interface in a browser's full-screen mode, you can easily mistake the server's Web interface for the GUI of a Linux desktop, as though you were working with a computer directly. And while all that's already really cool, it's still the least interesting part of what the server has to offer.

The server comes with built-in features (aka settings, accessible via the Control Panel) and features that can be added via packages. It would take too long to list all these settings, but the server basically supports everything you can imagine for both home and business environments, including really advanced functions such as iSCSI, support for Active Directory, a VPN server, and virtualization. I actually tried most of these settings out, and they were all well-designed and easy to use. For example, when you choose to add a new user, you'll be prompted to set that user's access to the existing share folders (full access, read-only, or no access), and assign which applications that user will have control over. And when you create a new shared folder, you'll be prompted to determine existing users' access to it. All of that can easily be done with a few clicks. All of the router's settings offer a great level of depth and integration. Consider what I mention in this review to be the tip of the iceberg.

The server can run many applications at the same time. In fact there's no limit to how many it can handle, but, like any computer, the more you have it running, the slower it'll get. For that reason, the server comes with few built-in apps. These apps as well as others can be removed or installed via the Package Center. Since I can't review all these apps (at the time of the review there were about 40 apps available for download), I'm only discussing here those that I feel most users would appreciate: the Download Station, Cloud Station, Surveillance Station, and Photo Station.

The Download Station enables the server to download files from the Internet by itself, from any FTP and HTTP site, including sites that require authentication, such as RapidShare. It's also the best BitTorrent application I've seen that lets you search for what you need and and download it with a double-click. There's no need to download the torrent file from a separate Web page and load it, even though you can also do that with the Download Station. You can tailor the Download Station to use a certain amount of bandwidth and to avoid certain types of content, such as those that could pose a copyright infringement violation. There are also many other ways to customize the way it works.

The Cloud Station is one of the best personal online storage options.
The Cloud Station is one of the best personal online storage options. Dong Ngo/CNET

The Cloud Station works similarly to the Dropbox service but much better. Once the application is run, you'll be given an EzCloud ID (you can choose your own as long as it's still available). This ID needs to be unique for each server. After that, you can download and install the Synology Cloud Station on your PC (running Windows XP or later) or Mac (running Mac OS 10.6.8 or later), run it, and enter the EzCloud ID and the user name and password for your account on the server. After that you can sync data from the computer, no matter where it is as long as it's connected to the Internet, with your DS213Air server at home. The Cloud Station feature is also available for iOS and Android mobile devices via the DS File mobile app.

The only limits to how much data you can sync with the server are the available space on the server and the quota of the account, and, individually, files can't be larger than 5GB. There are no other limitations in terms of how much you can sync between computers.

Note that each user has his or her own folder for the Cloud feature, meaning that multiple users can sync their own data without affecting one another. They can also sync shared folders in case they want to share the same synced contents. The DS412+'s Cloud Station supports up to eight accounts; more than enough to support every member of an average household. Think of the Cloud Station feature as the Dropbox service but without the limited storage space and the monthly cost.

The Surveillance Station supports up to eight IP (Internet protocol) cameras. This means you can use the NAS server as a video recorder and management station of a very comprehensive surveillance system -- again, possibly the best I've seen. I tried the server with multiple IP cameras from Canon and Trendnet, and they all worked very well, individually or together. I could record images based on scheduling or motion detection. When multiple cameras were used, I could even synchronize the playback to see what happened at different cameras at a given time. The Surveillance Station supports all features of the camera, such as night vision, pan, tilt, zoom, and audio. The server doesn't support every IP camera on the market, however, so make sure you check the supported list before getting yours. There's also a free DS Cam mobile app for iOS and Android devices that people can use to monitor and manage their Surveillance Station while on the go. The mobile app worked excellently in my trials.

Unfortunately, most users can't make multiple cameras work together right from the start. This is not because the Surveillance Station is hard to set up -- it's actually very easy and automatically finds and adds supported cameras to the network for you -- but because there's only one camera license included with the server. To use more than one camera, you'll need to buy additional camera licenses that cost about $50 each. This potentially makes the DS213Air a lot more expensive if you wish to use it as a surveillance system.Compared with other, similarly advanced surveillance options on the market, however, the DS213Air is still a lot more affordable.

The Photo Station lets you easily organize photos into albums. Once activated, a share folder called Photo will be created. Photos stored in this shared folder will be automatically placed in well-organized, customizable albums, one for each subfolder. You can then browse the album via a Web browser, like a Google Picasa Web album, and very easily add captions and comments to each photo or album. The Photo Station also offers a complete blogging engine for those who want to chronicle their lives with photos and text. And like the Surveillance Station, the Photo Station comes with a mobile app called DS Photo for both iOS and Android platforms. In my testing, the Photo Station took a rather long time to generate photo thumbnails, which would be a problem if you wanted to add a large number of photos at a time. You won't notice the wait if you want to add fewer than 100 photos at a time.

In addition to these, there are many other useful and effective applications for the DS213Air, such as Time Backup, which makes backups of data on an external hard drive; a VPN server; Audio Station; a DLNA/UPnP Media Server; a Video Station for recording digital TV and streaming recordings and movies to mobile devices and so on. The server can also run applications developed by third parties and comes with many other mobile apps for both iOS and Android devices.

In most cases, there's practically nothing you could want from a NAS server that the DS213Air doesn't offer.

With third-party packages, the DiskStation DS213Air can offer virtually all you need from a storage server.
With third-party packages, the DiskStation DS213Air can offer virtually all you need from a storage server. Screenshot by Dong Ngo/CNET

Performance
I tested the DS213Air both with Hybrid RAID and RAID 0, and it offered very fast data rates. The server wasn't as fast as other Synology NAS servers, but for a budget home storage device, it was indeed very fast via Gigabit Ethernet.

In Hybrid RAID the server scored 46Mbps and 79Mbps for writing and reading, respectively. These are about the spees of USB 3.0 portable drives. In RAID 0, which is optimized for speed and storage space at the expense of data security, the server did better, at 63Mbps for writing and 85Mbps for reading. Compared with some other higher-end NAS servers, including many from Synology, the DS213Air's performance is about average.

I also tested the server's Wi-Fi. Performance was as expected for a single-band Wireless-N device, registering some 45Mbps at close range (15 feet). When I increased the range to 100 feet, it now scored 23Mbps, also about average.

The DS213Air offers very good performance and worked smoothly during my testing. The server also remained relatively quiet (there was just a minor humming from the ventilation fan) and cool even during heavy loads.

NAS performance (Via wired Gigabit Ethernet connection, measured in Mbps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Read  
Write  

Synology DS412+ (RAID 0)
106.8 
109.9 

QNAP TS-469 Pro (RAID 0)
109.76 
108.1 

Synology DS1511+ (RAID 0)
112.3 
104.9 

QNAP TS-469 Pro (RAID 5)
103.3 
104.8 

Synology DS712+ (RAID 0)
100.3 
97.7 

Synology DS213Air (RAID 0)
85.4 
64.3 

Synology DS213Air (Hybrid RAID)
78.7 
46 

QNAP TS-412 (RAID 0)
80.8 
42.7 

QNAP TS-412 (RAID 5)
59.6 
26.2 

2.4GHz Wireless-N performance (in Mbps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Range  
Throughput  

Cisco Linksys E4200v2
35.8 
148.5 

Trendnet TEW-692GR
31.3 
77.8 

Netgear WNDR4000
23.9 
67.8 

WD My Net N900 HD
16 
58.1 

Asus RT-N66U
45.5 
55 

Netgear R6300
41.6 
51.2 

Belkin N750 DB
26.6 
50 

D-Link DIR-857
29.6 
47.8 

Netgear WNDR4500
31.1 
45.3 

Synology DS213Air
23.3 
44.7 

Asus RT-AC66U
15.2 
36.8 

D-Link DIR-865L
22.1 
36 

Belkin AC 1200 DB
9.6 
33.5 

Service and support
Synology backs the DS213Air with a two-year warranty from the date of purchase, which is the same warranty as the rest of its NAS servers. Phone tech support is available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. PT. Synology's customer support is generally very responsive and helpful. At its Web site, you can find its forum, download software and the latest firmware, and get more information about its products from its wiki page.

Conclusion
While the DS213Air is not the fastest NAS server on the market, it's probably the most affordable one that offers all you'd want from a network storage device and more. Its built-in Wi-Fi, though not perfect, is also a bonus for those who want to extended their wireless network to where the server is located.

Synology DiskStation DS213air
8.1

Synology DiskStation DS213Air

Score Breakdown

Setup 7Features 9Performance 8Support 7
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