How to set up a NAS and get at your files from anywhere

Uncouple your hard drives from your computers and you can access your files and data from anywhere on the web

There's plenty of talk about the power of the cloud these days - with services like Dropbox, OneDrive and iCloud letting you get at your files from anywhere - but you can also set up your own personal cloud thanks to the magic of Network Attached Storage or NAS.

NAS drives feature standard hard drives, just like the ones inside your computer, but placed inside a separate case with its own connection to your router. That brings a host of useful benefits, and we'll explain how you can set up your own NAS system at home.

The benefits of NAS

If you're not sure whether network attached storage is for you, think about how often you need to access photos, videos and music from one of your computers on another - whether you're connecting from another device at home (like a secondary laptop or tablet) or you need access from a hotel on the other side of the world a NAS drive can help.

Sharing files from your Windows or macOS computer isn't particularly difficult, but your main machine needs to be on all the time for the sharing to work - if you stick them on a NAS instead, with its own web connection and its own power supply, then you've got a lot more flexibility for getting at those files.

A lot of people use a NAS drive as a backup too, and indeed many models include space for two or even more drives, so you can have duplicate disks mirroring the same data - that might sound like a waste of a good hard drive, but it means if one disk fails you can switch to another. Of course, you should still have backups somewhere else too, just in case a fire or flood should sweep through your home.

You've got plenty of great NAS drives to pick from, from the likes of Synology, QNAP, Western Digital, Drobo, Netgear and more, and we've previously rounded up some of our favourite models of this year. Before you go shopping, make sure you know what you want to be able to do with your NAS, and check it has the specs list and feature set to cope.

Setting up a NAS drive

We can't tell you how to set up every make and model of NAS drive out there - but we can talk you through the process for the Synology DiskStation DS418j, a four-bay device suitable for home use, and other models will work along similar lines. Here we're also using two 4TB Toshiba N300 series drives.

Of course your first job is to read the instructions that came with your device to make sure you don't brick it before it's even up and running. It's possible that your NAS will come with disk drives already built in, which is something to look for if you don't want the hassle of fitting them yourself, and don't have a preference when it comes to disk manufacturer.

How you fit the drives will vary depending on the NAS, but you may well need a screwdriver to finish the job off. In the case of the DS418j, the back panel screws off to reveal a hard drive cage - your chosen number of drives simply slot in with a couple of screws to attach them, and as always, handle hard disks carefully and around the edges.

The good news for those of us who don't own a computer repair shop is that the NAS should make it pretty hard to go wrong in terms of disk placement and configuration, and if you haven't fitted the drives properly it should be obvious well before you get to the stage of turning the power on.

Fitting the drives is actually the hardest bit of the job - all you need to do then is connect the power, connect the NAS to your router via the supplied Ethernet cable, and turn it on. Your NAS makes the necessary introductions to your network and gets started with the configuration process.

Again, different drives will have slightly different setup procedures. In the case of the DS418j, you've also got a couple of USB ports around the back of the device - any standard USB hard drives you plug in here can then also be accessed from anywhere on the network or over the web.

Accessing files on a NAS

After a few minutes, while the NAS gets its bearings, you should be able to log on to the device through your web browser and start storing files on there. In the case of our Synology drive, you need to visit in an open browser window, but check the supplied instructions for details on yours.

As we mentioned earlier, you've got lots of options here - you can use the NAS to back up data and mirror it to two drives at once, you can choose to store all your movies and TV shows on there and stream them around the house, and so on. During the setup process you'll be asked how you want to configure the hard disks you've installed.

A lot of people set up a media server like Plex on their NAS to handle the job of streaming files all around the house or around the world, and you can find instructions for that here - it's just a question of installing an app on the NAS itself. If there's a specific app you want to use with your NAS, check compatibility when you're shopping around.

When you configure your NAS for the first time you'll be asked to give it a name and an admin account (a username and password) - these are the details you need to log into the drive from over the web. Once you've created a shared folder, which will again be handled by the configuration app, this appears in the networked locations for the other computers connected to your Wi-Fi.

David Nield

Dave has over 20 years' experience in the tech journalism industry, covering hardware and software across mobile, computing, smart home, home entertainment, wearables, gaming and the web – you can find his writing online, in print, and even in the occasional scientific paper, across major tech titles like T3, TechRadar, Gizmodo and Wired. Outside of work, he enjoys long walks in the countryside, skiing down mountains, watching football matches (as long as his team is winning) and keeping up with the latest movies.