Last year, we reviewed Synology’s DS107+, which earned our Editors’ Choice award for its vast amount of features, great expandability, and top-notch user interface. The DS209+ impressed us even more by offering those aforementioned attributes, plus RAID configurations and unprecedented throughput speed. The unit unfortunately lacks what the DS107+ also lacked: an easy-to-use interface for the novice user. If you don’t know much about computers and just want something that you can plug in and use, you might want to try something else, such as the Western Digital My Book World Edition. On the other hand, when money is not an issue and if you’re comfortable tinkering with networking device settings, the DS209+ is absolutely a great choice. It offers nearly all you could ever need in a NAS server.

Setup and ease of use
The Synology DS209+ review unit we received comes with two 500GB hard drives; however, Synology does not sell the DS209+ with any hard drives and you will be required to install your own. (Most NAS servers that we’ve reviewed at this price, or even cheaper, come with storage.) Fortunately, the device supports SATA hard drives of all sizes from any vendors. If you want to use a RAID solution, it’s recommended that you get two identical hard drives.

Unlike most NAS servers we’ve reviewed, the DS209+ will require a Phillips head screwdriver to install hard drives. Other than that, this process is fairly easy and straight forward.

Since we had some previous experience setting up the similar DS107+, connecting the DS209+ to our network was painless. While the process is fairly self-explanatory, the uninitiated may need to refer to the instructions included. The device also comes with a software CD that contains Synology Assistant, which detects the NAS on the network, helps map network drives, installs a printer (if you want to connect a USB printer to the NAS server), and launches the Web interface to manage the server.

Out of the box, the DS209+ isn’t set up with any shared folders or any of its features turned on. The server’s Web interface (an Ajax-based application), works just like a desktop application. Once a share folder is created, you can use the Synology Assistant software to create a network drive, which makes it available as a drive letter when you double-click on My Computer. Or you can access the folder just as you would a normal shared folder from another computer in the network via Windows Explorer. This is possible because the DS209+ is fully compatible with the Windows SMB system, so you won’t need to install anything on other computers in the network before they can access the DS209+.

Once launched, all features and functions of the DS209+ are listed in a well-organized menu on the left of the interface. Most of the setup section is handled by a wizard that guides you. For example, when we clicked on “Share Folder” and then clicked “Create,” a wizard launches to walk us through all the steps involved in making a new share folder, assigning user access to that folder, etc.

The review unit comes with RAID 1 preinstalled; however, it was easy to switch between the RAID configurations, using the wizard in the “Volume Management” section. The DS209+ supports a quick mode to set up the RAID array where it skips the disk check. This helps to significantly reduce the RAID build time to about 30 minutes, down from hours, if done in normal mode.

Design
Other than the black color and the width, which is doubled, the DS209+ shares a similar design with the DS107+, with two USB ports, a Gigabit Ethernet port, and a reset button on the back. On the front, it features a slick panel with blue LED indicators that show the status of the hard drive, network activity, and the power status. There’s also another USB port, an eSATA port, a power button, and a USB copy button. This button copies the entire contents of a USB drive into a designated folder of the NAS’ internal hard drive, making for a quick solution for backing up your thumb drive.

We don’t like the eSATA port on the front; this space is reserved for a semipermanent connection, therefore having the port in the back would reduce cable clutter. Like the DS107+, the DS209+ can support three USB devices at the same time, as long as the amount of printers connected is limited to one.

Features
We didn’t delve deeply into all of the features the DS209+ has to offer, however, we were impressed with what we did try.

The DS209+’s surveillance station now supports up to 10 cameras (up from 6 in the DS107+). Unfortunately, only one camera license is included; you’ll have to pay $49 per additional license. So, if you want to use it as a surveillance system, you’d be paying an additional $450 just for the camera licenses (apart from the cost of the cameras themselves). We tried the NAS server with the Panasonic BL-C1 camera and found that it had an even better response time than when we used the same camera on the DS107+. This is most likely because of the DS209+’s improved CPU speed and amount of RAM.

One noticeable change in the DS209+ over the DS107+ is its download station, which is now capable of downloading from Web sites that require authentication. We tried it with a 2GB file from RapidShare and had no problems as long as we used the DS209+’s Web-based interface . When we tried it with the included desktop software, Synology Download Director, we found that it was not compatible with Web sites that have authentication requirements. The DS209+’s Download Station now also fully supports eMule file-sharing service.

Unfortunately, the Download Station doesn’t support keeping track of RSS feeds, which was a useful feature in the Zyxel NSA-220. This is rather disappointing. Since the DS209+ supports iTunes and UPnP media servers, it would be useful if you could keep track of audio and video podcasts and make them available to the rest of the devices connected to the network.

The DS209+ comes with Photo Station 3, which allows you to easily to organize photos into albums and may be the device’s biggest selling point for home users. Once activated, a share folder called Photo will be created on the DS209. One you’ve dragged your photos into this share folder, the DS209+ will take care of the rest and turn each folder of photos into a well-organized, customizable album. You can then browse the album via a Web browser, and like in Google’s Picasa Web album , you can very easily add captions and comment to each photo/album. You can also apply different themes to the albums.

Photo Station includes a blogging function, which allows for writing your own blog linked to the photo album. You can also create user accounts to allow and limit access to the photo album. We tried a folder of 275 photos, and the NAS server took about 10 minutes to generate thumbnails for all of them.

The DS209+ allows for a very flexible way to access the Photo Station feature over the Internet as long as you’re capable of setting it up with a dynamic Domain name system (DDNS) , or if you access the Internet with a static IP. To use this, you will need to know a little about networking, and have the ability to forward certain ports to certain IP addresses, etc. Synology provides rather scant instructions regarding how to set it up, partly because this depends on each router you have. The DS209+ supports four DDNS services, including: 3322.org, NoIP.com, Two-DNS.de, and DYNDNS.org.

Additionally, you can use the DS209+ as multiple types of Web-based servers including a Web server, MySQL server, file station server, and an audio station where you can listen to audio files contained on the DS209+ via USB speakers attached to the device’s USB port.

The DS209+ has a few of backup options that are focused on getting content from the device onto a USB external storage device or a network location. For using the DS209+ as a backup destination, Synology bundles it with its Data Replicator 3 desktop software.

The Data Replicator 3 is a very simple backup application that allows you to quickly copy data–much like copying and pasting using Windows Explorer–from your hard drive to the DS209+. The software, however, does have a nice feature that helps you find and quickly back up e-mail archives, which generally are buried deep in layers of subfolders within a user’s profile. In addition, it also allows for scheduling and keeping track of the backup process via e-mail notification. For more complete backup solution, Synology recommends Acronis.

Performance
We tested the DS209+ in both RAID 1 and RAID 0 configurations, and it did well in both, topping our charts by a remarkably large margin.

In RAID 1, where the hard drives are set up for data redundancy at the expense of throughput performance, the NAS server scored 240Mbps for write speed and 322Mbps for read speed. These are faster than most USB 2.0 external hard drives. For comparison, the second fastest on our NAS server chart is the iOmega StorCenter ix2, with merely an 89.1Mbps and 137Mbps for write and read tests respectively.

This performance is achieved, in part, thanks to the DS209+’s new configuration, including an 800MHz Freescale CPU and 512MB of RAM (compared with the 500MHz Marvell CPU and 128MB of RAM for the DS107+). The specifications for the DS209+ are also higher than most of those used in consumer-grade NAS servers.

Throughout the testing process, the DS209+ performed smoothly and quietly; however, the caveat is that CNET Labs’ level of ambient noise may have affected what we were hearing. Or not hearing, as it were. If you’re using the device in very quiet room, what you hear may be different.

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