NAS stands for “Network-Attached Storage.” Basically, it’s a way to attach a hard drive to your network and make it accessible to all your devices for centralized file-sharing and backups.
You could also use your NAS to make your files available to you over the Internet, using it as a remote file server you can access from anywhere.
Dedicated NAS Devices
The most obvious — though not necessarily best — way to get a NAS is just to buy a pre-made, ready-to-use NAS device. Head to a website like Amazon and perform a search for “NAS” and you’ll find a bunch of devices marketed as a home file or media servers. Essentially, these devices have built-in hard drives and some basic server software that can connect to your Wi-Fi or wired network and provide a NAS file server. They’re all-in-one solutions so you can just grab a box, plug it in, and start using it.
Generally, such devices can be controlled via a web interface, like your router can be. You can then access the files using a variety of different applications and even run different bits of software on the NAS itself, such as media-server solutions for streaming media and BitTorrent clients for downloading directly on the device. Many types of back-up software can back up directly to the network storage.
Routers With Built-in Hard Drives
Rather than getting a dedicated NAS device and tacking it on to all your other devices, you can actually buy higher-end Wi-Fi routers that come with built-in hard drives. These devices function as your typical network router, but they also have all that fancy NAS server software and a built-in hard drive so you can get a NAS without adding yet another device to your household.
For Apple users, Apple’s AirPort Time Capsule is a wireless router with built-in network storage that Macs can easily back up to and use for network file-sharing. This may be the most well-known type of router with a built-in hard drive, but there are many similar routers available to those not interested in Apple products, too.
Editor’s Note: At the How-To Geek office we use (and recommend) the 3TB AirPort Time Capsule to backup our Macs and the 802.11ac Wi-Fi access is blazing fast everywhere. It’s compatible with Windows as well, although you’ll need to download the Airport utility software to manage it or access the hard drive. Because the hard drive is internal, you don’t have to deal with the slow USB 2.0 speeds that you might get connecting an external drive to another router.
Of course, if you’re happy with your existing router, you shouldn’t need to grab an entirely new one. But upgrading can be a smart idea if your router is older and doesn’t support the latest-and-greatest Wi-Fi networking standards and their faster speeds and lower Wi-Fi interference.
Routers With USB Ports
Many routers don’t include built-in hard drives, but they do offer something almost as good. Quite a few routers — especially higher-end ones — include USB ports. Plug an external hard drive or even a USB flash drive (preferably not a flash drive if you intend on using it heavily) into the USB port. The router has built-in NAS software that can do the rest, exposing it to the network as a NAS. You can enable the NAS server from your router’s web interface and set everything up.
For Apple users, the standard AirPort Extreme wireless router works this way, offering a USB port you can connect external drives to you. Many, many routers — especially the higher-end ones, as the low-end, bottom-of-the-barrel ones don’t want to splurge on USB hardware and the extra software — include USB ports so they can function as a NAS in this way.
This is often a pretty good option, although it may be a bit slow if you’re using USB 2.0 drives — especially compared to internal drives. You can get much faster speeds if you use a USB 3.0 external drive along with a router with a USB 3.0 port, though. External hard drives can get a much larger speed improvement from USB 3.0 than typical USB flash drives can.
Network-Attached Drive Enclosures
Rather than buying a pre-made NAS or attempting to use your router as a NAS, you can always buy a network-attached drive enclosure. These are dedicated NAS devices with the appropriate server software, designed to be connected to a network. They generally don’t come with any built-in drives. You’ll need to buy an appropriate hard drive (or multiple hard drives) separately and insert them into the NAS to get the storage you’ll need to use it.
These can potentially be cheaper if you can get a decent deal on the hard drives. Or, if you already have some old internal hard drives lying around, you can easily turn them into NAS storage without spending too much. But they’re particularly convenient if you want to insert more than one hard drive into your NAS and get a much larger amount of storage.
Old PCs, Repurposed
Why buy a new device when you can repurpose some old hardware you have lying around? Well, there are definitely some reasons to leave your old PC in the closet — a modern NAS device will consume much less power and be quieter and smaller than that old Pentium 4 you have in the closet.
But, if you’d like to repurpose old hardware you have lying around, you can use a software solution like the popular FreeNAS to turn an old computer into a home file server. This option isn’t for everyone — it’s not even for most people — but this is How-To Geek, and it’s an interesting option for geeks. Heck, you could even turn an old laptop (like that old netbook sitting in a drawer) into a home NAS if you really wanted to!
NAS Devices Built From Scratch
Better yet, you could even build your own NAS if you’d like to do something geeky. We’ve covered how to turn a low-power Raspberry Pi into a dedicated NAS for your home network. It’s a bit like turning a general-purpose PC into a NAS, but it’s a better option because it’s smaller, quieter, and will use much less power. Raspberry Pi devices are pretty cheap as well, so this could be a good option if you want a little project to take on. You’ll need to provide the storage, of course. But you’ll save money in electricity costs over using an old PC!
Not everyone needs a home NAS. If you don’t feel a need for a centralized home file share or backup location, you don’t need to buy a bunch of hardware.
If you do go this route, be sure to always have backups of your important data so you don’t lose it if your NAS bursts into flames.