Network Attached Storage (NAS) units provide remote access to all your files and are a popular Plex Media Server solution. While they might seem intimidating and expensive, NAS devices are actually one of the easiest home-streaming solutions and are well worth the money. Here’s why a NAS unit may suit your needs better than the alternatives.
Table of Contents
- Dedicated NAS Devices Are Purpose-Built for Home Streaming
- Alternatives Exist, and You Can Combine Them with a NAS Unit
- Whatever You Do, Don’t Forget the Hard Drives!
Dedicated NAS Devices Are Purpose-Built for Home Streaming
Dedicated NAS devices connect several hard drives to your home internet, allowing you to remotely access their contents from any device. In other words, they’re like cloud servers for your home. You can use your NAS unit to wirelessly back up files from your computer, phone, or tablet, or even download the files from your NAS without plugging a hard drive into your device. And much like the Dropbox and OneDrive cloud services, you can even access your NAS unit when you’re away from home.
Because NAS devices are intended for everyday consumers, they make the server setup process as straightforward as possible and feature multiple easy-to-access drive bays. They also use RAID to “combine” hard drives for increased performance and file redundancy, a form of real-time data backup. Adding new drives to your NAS device is incredibly easy, and depending on how you set up your raid array RAID, you might never need to worry about losing data if a drive needs to be replaced. (File redundancy is always a tradeoff for usable storage space, and some people may opt for less redundancy to avoid spending a ton of money on hard drives.)
All of these features make NAS devices an ideal candidate for Plex, especially if you’re inexperienced with drive arrays, servers, and home streaming. That’s not to say that dedicated NAS units are the only solution for network-attached storage and home streaming—there are several alternatives, and we’ll get to them in a minute. The thing that’s important to understand right now is that, unlike the alternatives, dedicated NAS devices are actually intended for server applications. They’re power efficient, they don’t take up any more room than they should, and they help you breeze through things like Plex installation and the RAID setup process.
Picking a NAS unit for home streaming is fairly easy thanks to the bustling Plex community. Generally speaking, any popular NAS unit like the Synology DS220+ or the TerraMaster F2-221 will be able to stream 4K video or transcode multiple video streams simultaneously (transcoding happens when your server needs to change a video’s file type or resolution, or add subtitles to the stream). That said, NAS units that are powerful enough to transcode multiple high-res files are a bit expensive. You can avoid a lot of transcoding by converting videos to the “universal” MP4 format and only streaming within your own home, but if you hope to beam 4K video to a ton of devices at once, you have to decide whether to buy an expensive NAS unit like the QNAP TVS-872N-i3-8G or go with a cheaper alternative. (You can also pair your NAS unit with another device.)
While a two-bay NAS unit will work for most people, you should seriously consider buying a NAS device with three or more drive bays to maximize usable storage space and ensure proper file redundancy with RAID (especially if you plan to store over 8TB of data). Everyone has different needs, but Synology’s handy RAID Calculator can help you visualize how different NAS and storage configurations will work with your home streaming server.
At $300, the Synology DS220+ is a fantastic NAS unit for Plex streaming. It’s incredibly compact, fast, and easy to set up
Synology 4 bay NAS DiskStation DS920+ (Diskless), 4-bay; 4GB DDR4
Synology's DS920 NAS unit has 4 drive bays and more than enough horsepower for the toughest streaming situations. If you're in it for the long run, this is the NAS device to buy.
Alternatives Exist, and You Can Combine Them with a NAS Unit
If you’re intimidated by the almighty NAS device or don’t want to spend a fortune on a NAS unit that can transcode 4K video, you can still put together a good home-streaming setup with a PC, a Mac, a Raspberry Pi, or an NVIDIA Shield streaming stick.
These alternatives come with some drawbacks, but they offer more power than a NAS unit at a lower price, and in some cases, they’re easier to set up than a NAS device. Keep in mind that you can combine these alternatives with a cheap NAS unit, allowing the PC, NVIDIA Shield, or Raspberry Pi to handle all the transcoding and processing while the NAS unit optimizes and manages the hard drives.
Fully Featured: Repurpose a Desktop or Laptop
Technically speaking, any desktop or laptop computer can work as a home media server with network attached storage and RAID capabilities. If you have an old computer lying around and don’t mind leaving it on 24/7, you shouldn’t have much trouble using it as a Plex server, though you will probably notice an impact on your electric bill. Some people opt for small, more power-efficient computers like the Intel NUC, though these small PCs cost way more than a typical NAS device and don’t come with RAM or a preinstalled OS.
Using a desktop or laptop for home streaming has its benefits, especially when it comes to computing power and upgradability. A decent PC or Mac is more powerful than a NAS device, which comes in handy when you stream or transcode 4K video for several devices simultaneously. PCs with upgradable components can also grow alongside you, saving you the trouble of setting up a new server every few years. Just keep in mind that a powerful and upgradable PC costs more money and uses more electricity than the average NAS unit.
Affordable and Powerful: Use an NVIDIA Shield Streaming Stick
Turning an NVIDIA Shield TV Pro streaming stick into a Plex server is easier than setting up a NAS unit. You just download the Plex Media Server app from the Google Play store, click through the setup screen, and add videos to your Shield with a SD card or USB drive. You can still use your NVIDIA Shield as an Android TV stick once it’s set up with Plex, which saves you the trouble of buying additional streaming sticks for your home.
While the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro doesn’t have RAID or network-attached storage capabilities, you can actually pair it with a cheap NAS unit for the best of both worlds. Or, you can just enjoy the NVIDIA Shield on its own. It can transcode 4K video and handle simultaneous streams at a much lower price than similarly capable NAS units.
That said, NVIDIA Shield TV Pro devices aren’t that much more expensive than entry-level NAS units. If you don’t plan to stream 4K video all over the place, a clean and simple NAS unit might suit your needs better than an NVIDIA Shield. You could always buy the NVIDIA Shield TV Pro later if you decide that you want 4K video or that you want to stream a lot of content outside your home.
Very Inexpensive: Use a Raspberry Pi 4
Raspberry Pi computers are by far the cheapest Plex Media Server solution, and like PCs, they support RAID and can act as network attached storage devices. They’re also power-efficient, easy to repurpose, and take up very little space.
That said, Raspberry Pi devices aren’t very powerful and require some experience (or patience) to set up. I don’t suggest going down this route if you hope to stream high-resolution video to multiple devices at the same time. But if you plan on streaming to just one device inside your home at 4K or a few devices devices at standard resolution, go ahead and grab a Raspberry Pi 4 starter kit, which costs just under $100.
NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV Pro Streaming Media Player; 4K HDR movies, live sports, Dolby Vision-Atmos, AI-enhanced upscaling, GeForce NOW cloud gaming, Google Assistant Built-In, Works with Alexa
Turning a NVIDIA Shield TV Pro into a Plex Media Server is incredibly easy, though you'll miss out on some of the perks of a NAS unit.
CanaKit Raspberry Pi 4 Basic Kit (8GB RAM)
An affordable Raspberry Pi 4 Plex server can fill some of the roles of a NAS unit, though it isn't idea for simultaneous streaming at a high resolution.
Whatever You Do, Don’t Forget the Hard Drives!
Whether you build your Plex server from a NAS unit or one of the many alternatives, you need to buy some storage devices to hold all your video files. The storage devices you buy may depend on your server setup, but in most cases, you need some good old-fashioned hard drives.
NAS units have multiple drive bays fit for any 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch drive. But I strongly suggest buying a “NAS” hard drive like the Seagate Ironwolf, which is designed for 24/7 operation and comes with a five-year warranty. Plex servers are constantly working and have a high thermal demand, so they chew through regular desktop hard drives like nobody’s business. SSDs are also a poor option, as they’re expensive and won’t increase the streaming performance of your server, though they can slightly improve the speed of your navigation menus.
Choosing a drive size can be a bit confusing because of RAID. With a RAID array, usable storage depends on the smallest drive, so pairing a 4TB and 8TB drive isn’t any different than using two 4TB drives. For this reason, each drive in your NAS device should be the same size (they don’t have to be the same brand). Again, I strongly suggest that you play with Synology’s RAID Calculator to visualize how different drive combinations will provide different amounts of usable storage.
PC and Raspberry Pi-based Plex servers with a RAID array follow the same rules as NAS devices. But if you choose to build a Plex server without RAID, you can mix and match different-sized drives to your heart’s content. You can also store your video files on SD cards or thumb drives, though a NAS drive in an external enclosure will last a lot longer, cost less, and hold more data.
Seagate IronWolf 4TB NAS Internal Hard Drive HDD – CMR 3.5 Inch SATA 6Gb/s 5900 RPM 64MB Cache for RAID Network Attached Storage – Frustration Free Packaging (ST4000VNZ08)
Seagate IronWolf NAS drives are fairly affordable and come with five-year warranties. They're a must-have item for home streaming.