It is hard not to be seduced by the latest file storage craze. Cloud storage includes offerings from Microsoft OneDrive, Google Drive, DropBox among many others that promise reliable access to all of your documents, music, photos and even videos using a computer, tablet or even a smartphone.
I personally use a few cloud storage solutions… OneDrive became my favourite due to the promised ‘OneDrive Unlimited Storage‘ I received for subscribing to Office 365. I have however been burned by cloud storage recently as with over 1TB of my files sitting on OneDrive for easy access, Microsoft decided that actually ‘unlimited’ storage was impractical to offer, reducing ‘unlimited’ to just 1TB. 1TB is of course a hefty amount of storage space, however having already exceeded this new maximum allocation, it has left me rethinking my overall storage strategy.
It is this unpredictability of cloud storage solutions that leave me a little cold. We are at the mercy of the providers, who can change their terms and conditions as they see fit. So although I will continue to use them, I am certainly now relying more on a much older technology… this is of course NAS (Network-Attached Storage).
As much as I love the cloud storage freedom to view all of my important files and folders from even a web interface, you are always limited by the speed of your internet connection and even when sitting comfortable within your own home environment, performance can be an issue.
NAS basically involves a traditional hard drive connected to a home network with all of your data stored within that acts as a file and media server. There are many solutions for achieving this setup, including the most obvious of purchasing a specifically designed NAS hub, that not only acts as a server so you can use compatible software to access the data, but also features built-in storage.
Let’s take a look how adding a hard drive to your own home network will take advantage of fast speeds, vast storage and even online access. Even better, you are in control of the entire setup and therefore only limited by the hardware you have and not the terms and conditions of any cloud storage provider. Phew!
Although you need some technical knowhow to achieve this scenario, it is certainly fun to experiment. I won’t dive too deeply into this as each router, app and Smart TV can vary wildly, however it will give you an idea of where to start and some of the advantages.
Vast storage for your media in one sharable location
So you have a lot of your own music, photos, home movies and films you wish to be able to access on many of your devices at home. There are quite a few ways of achieving this, but I will focus on one that allows for some customisation and upgradability.
The idea is to be able to use various apps, Smart TVs and HDMI media sticks to view my media collection around my home. Rather than being tied to a physical music CD, DVD movie or Blu-ray film where I specifically need a clumsy and intrusive player attached. This is all about freedom! The freedom to sit at many more TVs around the home to view media content.
So what will I be using…
First I will be using a Wi-Fi router that supports adding external devices via USB. The ASUS RT-N66U features two USB ports and I can use one of these to plug in an external USB hard drive. Not only that, but rather than just being able to access the files from the hard drive through the router, crucially it also acts as a media server, so many compatible devices can also see and stream the content.
Secondly I will use a 3.5″ Seagate 4TB hard drive to store all of the media content. The size of course depends on how much media you wish to store on there and although I have amassed quite a collection over the years, all my of my music only takes 150GB, my own films consume around 1.5GB and photos just 75GB. Trust me, this includes thousands upon thousands of files and I still have plenty of space to play around with. I also for backup purposes use a 1TB external USB hard drive and a more traditional Western Digital NAS.
The 4TB hard drive I am using is typically one you would install within a desktop computer, however I can convert this to an external USB hard drive very easily by using my third item, a 3.5″ hard drive caddy. This essentially converts an internal hard drive into one that can be used externally and by this I mean can be plugged into computers, laptops and in this case a router’s USB port. The caddy encloses the hard drive, providing the connections required for it to work externally.
Lastly, we need a way of viewing all of this content and there are many.. and I mean MANY ways of doing this, however I will share my preferred choice later.
Transferring your media files
When you connect the USB external hard drive to your router, you can transfer your media files over the home network from your computer’s storage to the hard drive directly connected to the router. I have found this to be a fairly slow process, so instead I will often connect the USB external hard drive directly to my computer’s USB port. Within a few hours, all of my media content is transferred onto another drive. It should go without saying, but of course make sure you have a backup of all of your content should anything ever go wrong! Hard drives fail after all!
When you connect the USB external hard drive back into your router, it will automatically begin scanning the content for any media types it can share over your network.
Accessing the content at home
There are a few ways I can access the content, for example using either a smartphone or tablet app. You can also use a Smart TV, however I find the built-in TV apps quite poor in general and instead I prefer to connect a Google Chromecast HDMI dongle (around £30) directly to my TV, which works a treat.
The files need to be in a supported format that the Chromecast understands, however I will cover the basic principles next…
Transferring your movies
For me, this is the most practical aspect of a NAS. I have a pretty vast movie collection on both DVD and Blu-ray. Unfortunately, with Blu-rays in particular, I don’t have a Blu-ray player in every room, in fact hardly in any, so streaming the movies from my NAS I can in theory stream the films to any TV in the house if it has a Chromecast connected. I have gone a little Chromecast mad, with no less than 5 dotted around various rooms connected to TVs of different shapes and sizes, but it works so well it has become a cheap and simple way of turning a relatively ‘dumb’ TV into a much smarter one.
I use software called MakeMKV to transfer films to my hard drive from the original disk and then use another program called HandBrake to convert it to a friendly format the Chromecast understands. The original movie becomes a much smaller file size, handy for streaming and also greatly reducing the dramas of buffering!
Streaming local media to your TV
One of the apps I use for triggering media streaming to the Google Chromecast is LocalCast. Available for both iOS and Android, this handy app allows you to select from your home network (in our case from an external hard drive connected to the router) and then see it played on a TV through the Chromecast.
It really is as simple as selecting which Chromecast connected to a TV I wish to use and the movie and wish to view and within moments I am watching a film on the big screen – all without the need to hunt down a physical disk.
All of this is super convenient, once you get into the habit of ripping your movies as soon as you purchase them. The quality suffers slightly compared to say the original Blu-ray, however the ability to watch it in any room you have a Google Chromecast installed, it is certainly hard to complain and it is perfectly watchable on even the largest of TVs.
Other Streaming Options
You can even listen to music, watch videos and view content using your router’s own streaming app even when away from home. This will greatly depend of course on your router’s capabilities whether this is possible or not and the features on offer, however using my ASUS RT-N66U I can, as long as I have a good internet connection, list to music, view photos and watch a video streamed directly from my home setup.
Using a Google Chromecast you can also stream movies, TV shows and music to your TV. Sky’s NOW TV app works well, however Netflix, Spotify, BBC iPlayer and many others can take advantage of Google’s superb HDMI stick. So, you really don’t need to limit yourself to just your own local media content.
So there you have it. I am sure if you run a Google search, or dare I say “Bing It!” – you will find far more in-depth guides to fulfil your needs, however at the very least I hope I have whet your appetite enough for you to consider other storage options for your files and media, which importantly you control.
A big thank you to Ebuyer for providing the 4TB hard drive and enclosure for testing purposes.