Synology's DS214play offers all of the standard NAS functionality (including mobile device access and RAID configuration), plus the company's powerful DSM operating system and the ability to download apps that expand the unit's versatility. But the icing on the cake is audio/video transcoding, which is made possible by a dual-core processor and hardware-acceleration. Typically, trying to play something that your playback device can't handle will reward you with stubborn rejection or even a crash. The DS214play sidesteps this by converting, on-the-fly, the selected file into something that your player can cope with.
Its two drive-bays can accept 2.5in or 3.5in SATA hard drives. The Synology also boasts an SD card slot for direct copying of photos/video, plus USB/eSATA ports that facilitate the connection of external drives (for backup), Bluetooth dongles and digital TV tuners.
When transcoding, video resolutions of up to 1080p are covered. Sadly, material with DTS audio (disc-originated, usually) refuses to stream outright. Licensing issues are to blame, apparently.
A free script that converts DTS tracks into compatible ones is available, though. An alternative is to use traditional network file access, as supported by many modern streamers. This will enable direct playback of content on such kit, with DTS soundtracks passed through to AV systems unchanged. It's probably worth using this when you can, as the DS214play transcodes even compatible soundtracks (e.g., Dolby Digital 5.1) into stereo MP3! ISO disc images, menus and all, would also be possible.
Streaming to an Android 'phone via the free DS Video app was problem-free; transcoded video looked crisp and lacked glitches or lip-sync issues. However, transcoding didn't work with some of my networked players, including a Pinnacle ShowCenter (sound but no pictures) and one built into a 2009-era Samsung smart TV (pictures but no sound).
Nor could I get it to stream video to a Windows 7 PC running Media Player. Although content was listed, selecting a file for playback had no effect. Using Cyberlink's DLNA-capable PowerDVD 13 Ultra software proved more successful – I was able to confirm that a 'ripped' BD file was being converted from just under 30Mbps to a network-friendlier 6Mbps, with surprisingly minimal loss of visual quality.
The DS214play works exceptionally well as a NAS. It's versatile, well-connected and offers fast data throughput, and even caters for the proprietary iTunes and Squeezebox protocols. However, my experience shows there's no guarantee that the transcoding function will work with older players. When it does work, though, performance is excellent.
Price: £285 Approx
Highs: Incredible app-based versatility; cloud and internet functionality; wizard-driven web interface for ease of configuration
Lows: Transcoding compatibility a bit hit-and-miss; some codecs (e.g., DTS) not supported; conversion anathema to purists
HDD: Not included. Supports up to two 2.5in or 3.5in drives – capacities up to 5TB each
Connections: SD slot; USB 2.0; Ethernet; 2 x USB 3.0; eSATA
Dimensions: 108(w) x 165(h) x 233.2(d)mm
Weight: 1.3kg (without HDDs)
Features: On-the-fly hardware-accelerated Full HD video transcoding (H.264 (AVC), MPEG-4 Part 2, MPEG-2, VC-1); Synology DSM (DiskStation Manager) operating system with support for feature-software 'plugins'; DLNA-certified media server; dual-core Intel Atom CPU; 1GB RAM; transfer speeds of 111Mbps (reading) and 101Mbps (write); screwless drive-bay design; hot-swappable drive support
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