Don't be fooled by the simple exterior: a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive is more than just a hard drive connected to your network for ease of access.
Depending on your budget, you can share media files directly from the drive, set up BitTorrent connections independent of your PC and expand your NAS drive further by attaching various USB devices.
Pick the right device
If you're interested in boosting the versatility of your network but your budget is tight then £30 will buy you a basic NAS drive enclosure. You'll have to provide the drive itself mind, so make sure that you pick one that supports the type of drive (SATA or PATA, 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch) you have.
For this price you'll only get basic functionality, but that's more than enough to share files over your network or the Internet (typically via FTP), or provide a convenient and central back-up location for your entire household.
If your budget stretches that bit further then you can enjoy additional functionality. NAS drives with 500MB drives cost as little as £80 and should come with back-up software to help protect your family's data. Shell out another £20, though, and things really start to take off: at this price you'll find drives boasting media servers.
One of these enables your drive to do far more than simply act as a central repository for music, photos and videos; it can stream them directly to compatible media streaming devices as well as PCs.
LaCie's new Network Space drive (£120) has all of this, and boasts a USB port that enables you to plug in additional storage or a USB printer to share directly with the network.
If you're a heavy BitTorrent user then a compatible NAS drive will enable you to schedule downloads for the middle of the night without leaving your main PC on. Drives offering this functionality also typically come with twin drive bays, making it possible for you to set up RAID arrays to add a level of protection to your data.
You have two choices here: if you have a SATA drive handy then check out the Icy Box IB-NAS4220-B drive enclosure for around £95; if not, Netgear's ReadyNAS Duo weighs in at a hefty £294, but that includes a 500GB drive and more functional USB ports, with support for UPS devices (to initiate a controlled shutdown during power failure) and even wireless network adaptors.
Setting it up
Once you've purchased your NAS drive, you should find that the setup procedure is refreshingly simple.
In most cases you plug in the drive to a spare power socket, connect it to a spare Ethernet port on your router and then switch it on. It'll immediately appear on your network, ready for access, enabling you to use it just like any other hard drive.
Most NAS drives come with software for more advanced settings. Alternatively, you can access the drive's configuration tools directly through your web browser by entering its IP address.
If a set-up wizard is available then it's worth running this to have basic settings sorted out. These include changing the default administrator password (a must, particularly if you intend to access the drive over the internet via FTP), setting the drive's name and workgroup, and creating users to give everyone access to their own private storage space.
Access it online
You might also want to assign a static IP address to the NAS drive. This is vital if you need to configure port forwarding through your router for FTP or BitTorrent access. Once set up, you can connect to your NAS drive using a FTP client or your browser.
When it comes to accessing your NAS drive through a browser, access will depend on whether the drive supports FTP only (like the LaCie Network Space) or both HTTP/HTTPS and FTP (the ReadyNAS Duo). Check your drive's manual for instructions.
Share your media
If your NAS drive comes with a built-in media server then the sky's the limit when it comes to watching movies on your TV or listening to your music collection through your home stereo.
All you need is a compatible streaming device such as Netgear's EVA700 or something from Pinnacle's ShowCenter range (you can expect to pay between £100 and £120), and it'll be able to pull media files directly from your NAS drive, enabling you to leave your PC switched off.
If you're regularly downloading files from BitTorrent then you'll find Netgear's ReadyNAS Duo drive makes life a lot simpler, particularly when you need to download large files.
Follow the final walkthrough to discover how to configure the device to get on with the job in the background without disrupting your PC or the rest of your home network.
Access a drive remotely
1.Open up FTP
We're using a LaCie drive here. Right-click the LaCie Ethernet Agent icon in the Taskbar and choose Web access. Log on, select Support from the left-hand menu and click Enable next to FTP Service.
2.Change user details
By default, a user called ftp (with the same password) is created; change this by selecting Configuration and clicking Modify. Choose a more secure username and password.
Once set up (check out the quick tip if you have a router) enter your home IP address (www.whatismyip.com), username and password into your FTP app or browser to connect remotely.
Synchronise data between different PCs
Synchronising files between two or more PCs just got a whole lot easier thanks to your NAS device. By using it as an intermediary, you can keep your files and documents up to date without having to connect the PCs directly to each other. And if you connect to your NAS via FTP, you can even stay up to date when you're on the road.
You'll find the perfect tool on the cover disc in the form of Allway Sync, which can be configured to check for changes at regular intervals of up to a minute, ensuring that your data is refreshed constantly.
Boost the storage capacity of your NAS device
Now that you've invested in a NAS device, make sure that you don't have to replace it a few months down the line when the drive runs out of space, by purchasing a future-proofed option.
Look for a model that has a removable enclosure, which makes it easy to upgrade the internal drive when you start to run out of storage capacity. In addition, consider a drive that comes with two drive bays fitted.
Although such as device is typically designed for RAID functionality, you can usually install a second drive as a standalone drive to boost storage.
Finally, check for a USB port or two, because at a stroke this will enable you to plug in external storage devices to further expand your NAS's capacity.