Qnap's TS-453 Pro proved to be a stellar NAS when it went under the spotlight back in December, but there was a improbable sticking point that we didn't really consider: is it pretty enough? You wouldn't normally associate network-attached storage with prized aesthetic design, however today's multimedia units are designed such that NAS boxes are making their way out of the understairs cupboard and into the living room.
If that's the case, and your next NAS is going to take pride of place alongside your big-screen TV, you'll want something a little easier on the eye. Enter the new TS-453mini. Priced from £380 and described as a "quiet and stylish vertical NAS," this four-bay addition to Qnap's portfolio offers something a little different to the company's traditional business-like enclosures.
Measuring 210mm (H) x 151mm (W) x 200mm (D) in size, the TS-453mini is 15 per cent smaller than the TS-453 Pro in terms of volume, yet still manages to squeeze in four 2.5/3.5in drive bays and the same processor, a 2.0GHz Intel Celeron J1900.
The smaller footprint bodes well for appearance, and in hiding the external bays, Qnap has paved the way for a stylish exterior. Soft rounded edges combine with a glossy-black casing to provide the box with an elegant look and feel, while the angular lid provides an extra bit of interest.
We wouldn't go as far as to call it sexy - it's still a black box, after all - but it is more attractive than your typical NAS, and Qnap has made available some useful features that work well with this particular form factor. The first is a series of 'smart' status LEDs at the front of the box that can be dimmed in brightness, turned off entirely or disabled via a user-defined schedule. Handy if you don't want various lights blinking away during your next Netflix marathon.
Keeping things sensible, the front of the unit sports a power button, an IR receiver and a solitary USB 3.0 port with one-touch copy functionality. The bulk of the connectivity options are tucked neatly around back and include HDMI output, four more USB ports (two of the 3.0 variety), dual Gigabit Ethernet with support for failover and trunking, and a connector for the external 90W power supply.
It would have been easy to favour form over function, yet Qnap has done well to maintain a good level of configurability. Popping the box on its side reveals a small access panel at its base, and undoing a simple screw allows access to the two available DDR3 memory slots.
As is the case with most recent Qnap NAS solutions, two variants of the TS-453mini are to be available at launch. The standard model, priced at £380, will include a single 2GB stick of RAM. Alternatively, and for those planning more demanding usage scenarios such as virtualisation, the TS-453mini-8G (pictured) offers 8GB of memory at a cost of £490. Both quoted prices are for diskless models, and it's the latter that Qnap has sent in for evaluation.
Sourcing your own drives shouldn't be too difficult - Qnap's official compatibility list for 3.5in and 2.5in hard disks, or indeed SSDs, is about as wide ranging as they come and installing the drives is painless. The TS-453mini's top panel is held in place using magnets and lifts away with ease, revealing four trays that pull out vertically. 3.5in drives can be installed without tools while 2.5in drives need to be screwed in, however if you're accustomed to Qnap's business solutions, you may lament the fact that the bays are neither numbered nor lockable.
From a usability point of view, the TS-453mini differs from the existing TS-453 Pro in a handful of ways. The number of LAN ports has been cut from four to two, the drive bays have been downgraded from metal to plastic, there's no LCD status display, and the power supply has been swapped from internal to external. No major sacrifice if you must have a smaller, more stylish enclosure, and the same processor and RAM options suggest that performance will be practically identical. Better still, there's no premium for the mini, as Qnap's more compact NAS is £10 cheaper than the traditional Pro at the time of writing.
What's most important, of course, is that the TS-453mini runs the full-fat QTS software. Currently at version 4.1, QTS is one of the best NAS operating systems available (second only to Synology's DiskStation in our estimation) and offers a huge array of features.
Knowing where to start might be the biggest challenge facing would-be buyers. Centralised storage is just the tip of the iceberg, as QTS offers advanced features such as remote access via myQnapCloud, simultaneous real-time video transcoding, an integrated Kodi-based media player (formerly XBMC), a wide range of useful mobile apps and, with the aid of Virtualisation Station, can double as a fully-fledged computer running your operating system of choice.
We've got to the stage now where the likes of backup, surveillance and FTP can be considered NAS basics. The risk of having such an abundance of usage scenarios is that the software can become bogged down, however Qnap has done well to organise its user interface in an intuitive manner. A live demo is available via the official Qnap website, but in a nutshell QTS is simple to use and quick to get around, and if you have plans to use it as a media centre, you'll appreciate the fact that an IR remote control (model RM-IR002) is included in the box.
Considering that this is for all intents and purposes a TS-453 Pro in a slimmer, sleeker profile, we should be looking at a good mix of style and substance. Let's see if the benchmarks agree.