Review of Synology DS120j

whitestar_999

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First of all, thanks to Synology in collaboration with Digit magazine for providing me an opportunity to get my hands on a Synology NAS for review. The review below is based solely on my own experience & not to be taken as a definitive conclusion.

A few weeks ago I received Synology DS120j & a seagate 1TB 7200rpm hdd. This was my first time actually using a NAS though I have read quite a lot about NAS earlier because of my interest in networking field & I have always wanted to test a Synology NAS which is generally considered as the best NAS money can buy.

So what exactly is a NAS. It is network attached storage which in simpler terms means it is basically a mini-PC running an operating system to which you can attach hard disk(one or multiple depending on no. of bays in NAS model) & then can connect to it via various means over lan & internet. Its main use is to save space & electricity consumption by replacing the need to run a full fledged PC system which can also achieve same objective of accessing your data over lan & internet albeit at a cost of installing & configuring various software running 24*7.

Coming to the NAS, I received DS120j in a properly packed box & received HDD in a separate package.

Pics of DS120j unboxing:
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Nitpick 1: While initially installing the hdd in NAS I found out that only 4 out of 6 screws were required so I assumed the remaining 2 screws must be for the NAS unit back panel. Soon though I found out that was not the case & then I remembered another small pouch with 2 thin screws in it which turned out to be the correct screws for the unit back panel. A small suggestion to Synology here to please label the pouch containing the HDD screws as HDD/disk screws.

Setting up the unit(Ethernet mode):

Now here is one thing which many of us might be quite familiar with. Usually the wireless router in home is located in an area where it isn't possible to place a NAS alongside it for fear of knocking down of unit by childrens or pets. In my case the wifi router was located at a small shelf in the corner of another room where there is no space to place a NAS safely. For me the best location to place NAS was on my PC table which also meant that for the first time setup of NAS I ended up connecting the unit directly to my PC via ethernet/lan.

As I wanted to setup the unit first I ended up downloading the latest DSM(Disk Station Manager, the default operating system for Synology NAS units) version from Synology site on my PC. Then I just needed to open the "find.synology.com" in web browser & then proceeded to install the downloaded DSM file as per onscreen instruction which are quite simple to follow. The installation was done in around 10 minutes after which the NAS unit was up & running.

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Above info regarding privacy policy looks a bit concerning considering usage of the words "browsing history" so requesting Synology to clarify this in an otherwise fine privacy policy.
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Now came the most important part, to get internet connectivity on my NAS unit. Had the NAS been connected to my wifi router it would have been a piece of cake but alas my case was different. Despite my somewhat good knowledge about networking I ended up spending around 1 hour to finally figure out how to bridge my desktop internet connection over usb wifi dongle to my desktop ethernet connection to NAS unit.

Nitpick 2: Synology should incl(in DSM help section) or provide a small tutorial on their website to setup bridge connection for such scenarios where NAS unit is connected via ethernet to a desktop/laptop instead of a router.

After getting the internet connectivity on NAS I started installing the packages(or apps if you like) which were offered by default after the install of DSM while setting up the unit. I did however noticed the processor struggling a bit while installing the apps but other than maybe an extra minute or two of delay it was alright. I started testing by uploading a file via File Station app to test transfer speeds over ethernet.

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Max speeds achieved over ethernet was around 54MB/s which is slower than expected considering a 7200rpm HDD most likely because of processor struggling as evident in above pics.
 

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whitestar_999

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Comparison of 1000mbps(aka 1gbps) & 100mbps ethernet file transfer performance.

I decided to again switch to my setup of directly connecting NAS unit to my desktop via gigabit lan to start transferring some more video files for a more thorough testing.
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As it can be seen having a gigabit lan for transferring large video files is taxing on processor even though it does save quite a bit of time.


Next I decided to connect the NAS unit to much more commonly found 100mbps ethernet port on routers to test its performance.
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As you can see, the processor load is on an avg around half of 1gbps connection transfer but similarly the time required is also much more.


Setting up the unit(wifi mode):

After setting the unit in ethernet mode with net connectivity I still felt that having wifi connectivity would have been better. I then started searching on google to see how people setup wifi connectivity on their Synology NAS assuming mine was incapable of it because of being the lower end model. To my surprise I discovered that most synology units supports compatible wifi usb adapter. I immediately tried with usb wifi adapters available with me & it worked!

Nitpick(major) 3: Please Synology, at least put a picture of usb wifi adapter somewhere on package box or put a small wifi icon(similar like the one used on debit/credit cards) somewhere on NAS or at least print it alongside "lan" indicator led on the front side.

I had with me two usb wifi adapters, one a typical 2.4GHz adapter while another a 5GHz AC wifi adapter. The first one was a small form factor adapter so didn't face any issue in plugging it into the usb port on the backside of unit but finding the speeds inadequate I switched to my AC wifi usb adapter which has a typical flash drive form factor & this is where I faced another big hurdle, plugging it in!

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As you can see it was really difficult to insert the usb wifi adapter & after plugging it in I couldn't use the other usb port at all.

Nitpick(major) 4: Synology should really look into the placement of usb ports keeping in mind the typical flash drive form factor of usb devices.

Let's take a look at the wifi performance of the unit.

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Uploading a big video file from laptop to NAS unit over AC wifi in same room.

After uploading some video files to NAS I started trying to play them via file station/video station & then I encountered this:
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Currently the Synology NAS don't support playback of DTS & AC-3 audio codecs which is a significant loss in functionality at least on non-android devices. Why I said non-android devices, well that's because such files can still be played in your android phone with the help of DS Video app which relies on good old MX Player app to support playback of almost any video file.

Playing above video file on android device using DS Video app which was basically running MX player app installed in my phone to play the video file I found out playback was not smooth as shown in below pics.
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Later though I couldn't reproduce the above issue so marking it as one time odd error.
 
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whitestar_999

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Being not happy with limited playback support provided by NAS unit I once again turned to my trusted google search & voila I found a pretty simple solution.
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Turned out you can also install third party packages for extra functionality & one such package was ffmpeg(for those who don't know it is basically an audio video codec pack which supports playback of all popular audio & video formats). Using this pack I finally manage to achieve AC3 audio playback on my NAS.

This is the mediainfo of video file 1 played:
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Performance of playback of above video file while playing on android mobile inside chrome mobile browser using video station.
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Playback was overall smooth but above pics also indicates it is the limit of performance of this NAS model. Still above video file is not what is typically used by an avg person so from that viewpoint DS120j performance is fine for majority of users.


A major feature of NAS is their playback capability over internet so I decided to try it by enabling Quick Connect option in DSM setting. I got a friend of mine in another state to test this feature & made a guest acc for him to access a shared videos folder.

Video 2 mediainfo.
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Friend played the above video file in another state by using QuickConnect feature & playing the file in chrome browser in pc. The playback was smooth with no issues.
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However the playback of video file 1(mentioned earlier) over internet by friend using quick connect was not smooth with lots of stuttering.
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I am not sure what was the issue other than connection speed but both me & my friend were using 50mbps broadband connection because the other video file 2(smaller in size as well as bitrate) played smoothly. Maybe Synology can look into implementing some sort of calculator which gives warning based on video file bitrate & connection speed that connection speed not enough for smooth playback.

Nitpick 5: Initially I couldn't setup the guest account correctly to access NAS using quick connect feature getting "cannot login as guest" error. I finally figured out that you have to add the user to "http" group if you want to give access to shared content in NAS over internet using quick connect feature. Synology should change the description of http group a bit saying something like "system default group for web services & remote sharing over internet".
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I was happy to thought that this solution of installing ffmpeg is all I needed but unfortunately I was proved wrong when I got the same "failed to play video because audio track is not supported error" again for video files with DTS audio track. I searched on google & came across posts on Synology forum from which I came to know that latest versions of video station don't support DTS audio playback even with ffmpeg package installed & you can't install the last version of video station which supported DTS audio playback with ffmped installed on latest versions of DSM(like my case). This is a major deal breaker & synology should at least allow video station to have such audio video codec compatibility via third party packages at least if they cannot give it officially because of licensing issues.
 
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whitestar_999

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In my search for finding a solution to playback all major audio video formats on this NAS I finally found out about plex server. Though I already have a read a lot about Plex server but I never though it was available for synology NAS too. Anyway once I found out about it I decided to give it a try & installed it. Again I couldn't get it to work initially as I was unable to get Plex to read the media files inside the default folder path I added. After spending almost half an hour searching on google I finally found out that you need to create a new shared folder via Control Panel & then add that folder path to Plex to make it work.
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Nitpick(major) 6: Synology should clearly mention it somewhere in their help section or some hint/tip in Shared folder setting that "create shared folder to use apps like plex".

I then tested the Plex functionality by deciding to copy that same video file 3 with DTS audio to this newly created shared folder "Movies".
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As you can see the copy speeds reached 66MB/s which is decent & typical for a 7200rpm hdd copying to & from same hdd. It clearly shows that processor is the weak link during 1gbps ethernet transfers & with a more powerful processors it is easy to achieve regular speeds on a 7200rpm hdd.

Mediainfo of video file 3 with DTS audio
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I played the same video file 3 using AC wifi lan in my android mobile using chrome mobile browser as well as using my mobile 4g data connection with same setup.
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Playback over AC wifi lan was smooth but video was practically unwatchable when using 4g mobile data connection. I believe the reason for this was Plex trying to transcode video(in basic terms, converting video to lower resolution/bitrate) while compensating for not so fast & smooth connection & with such a weak processor it was no surprise that plex transcoding would perform so poorly.

To confirm the above here are the performance pics while playing same video file 1 smoothly over AC wifi lan in same mobile connected to AC wifi network in same room(so practically the fastest wifi speeds possible for a typical entry level AC wifi router).
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So Plex is a viable alternative to Video Station for all audio video format support related issues provided you have a fast wifi network. Of course this is assuming that video files bitrate is high enough(see above mediainfo pics for an idea of video files used in this review) but if you are fine with typical low bitrate videos then things will be much easier(& smoother).
 
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whitestar_999

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Photo Station & Moments:

There are two standard apps in Synology official packages for photo relates tasks. Photo Station & Moments. Each have their own pros & cons. For my usage I found out that Photo station is more suitable if you like to create your own folders with default Photos folder for arranging pics in your own way.
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On mobile though I have found that using Moments is better as it integrates more closely with Synology Drive app on mobile. You can create folders using Drive app which can then be seen inside Moments app in which you can then upload your pics from your mobile. Moments by default sort pics by their creation dates(aka when you uploaded pics using Moments) & automatically creates folders within main folder created using Drive app.
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Nitpick 7: Both of these are missing a basic editor with simple functions like cropping. Though there is an option to online edit pics using Pixlr Editor in Photo station While Moments only has rotate pic as editing option but it would be nice to have simple editing functions like cropping in these apps itself without relying on online external access.
 
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whitestar_999

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Some Misc nice surprises:

1. Full fledged S.M.A.R.T. report feature.
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For those who are wondering, yes the drive stats in another screen also shows Temperature & the inbuilt fan does a fine job cooling the HDD. For reference the NAS HDD temps are always 4-5C lower than internal HDDs installed in my desktop.


2. Availability of Synology DDNS free service which gives an auto-renewing ssl certificate signed by Let's Encrypt. Sadly my ISP uses carrier grade NAT so couldn't use this functionality but it is nonetheless nice to have.
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3. Detailed Log Centre with meaningful event details.
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whitestar_999

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As it can be seen I focused more on video playback capabilities of NAS which I believe is the core functionality of NAS for a majority of typical users. It is also evident that it is this core functionality which ended up needing most of my review time in my quest for a solution that could playback all major & popular audio & video formats provided good enough connection speed(& achieving that also took quite some time). So what do I think of Synology DS120j. As an entry level NAS it checks all the boxes at least on surface. As my review shows it does have a weak processor but then my usage is not what I can claim as that of a typical user. However this still does not account for one glaring fact, the lack of documentation in some areas so to say(mentioned in some of my nitpicks). I believe Synology should at least address this issue where user gets stuck only because of lack of proper instructions. Synology could also do with some design changes in this model regarding usb ports.

Overall this entry level NAS from Synology should suffice the need of a typical user wanting to watch their multimedia collection in home or on the go without needing to turn or keep their laptop/pc on. Multitasking is not recommended for this model while watching videos so ideally only one user should access this NAS at a time for multimedia tasks but other than that it shouldn't be an issue for other typical tasks like photo viewing etc.

My overall score: 6.5/10 [0.5 only deducted for my many google searches which helped a lot in finally setting up this NAS to its max potential]

Some pics on an ending note incl an obligatory glowing one in the dark :)
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