Synology DS218 Play

Synology DS218 Play review: The everyman’s NAS

We all have our favourite online services. Myself? I can’t go a day without streaming from my Google Play Music playlists, and when I do feel like watching some television I’ll tune into ShowMax.

However, if you – like me – grew up in the waning years of physical media, you’re probably quite attached to your own vinyl, CD, and DVD/Blu-Ray collection. During the years when iTunes was a slightly more cumbersome beast, I meticulously curated my CD collection into a digital jukebox of media files – so much so that I still fire up iTunes and enjoy my personal collection around the house rather than turn to my trusty Google Home or Play Music.

Streaming services are convenient, and they’re a great option for most consumers. However, they don’t necessarily tick all the right boxes.

For one, I feel the biggest pain point is – quite simply put – the fact that most streaming platforms aren’t interoperable; meaning that should you get started with one and then move to another, re-establishing your profile and catalogue must be manually restarted each time. Vendors (understandably) lock their clients into their services; shuttering vast gardens of music and other digital media behind locked doors that are only unlocked by the swipe of a credit card.

Just as one solution is to pick a service and stick to it, another is to abandon streaming services altogether and rather curate one’s own media on a device. That, again, comes with the complication of access – the simplicity of each streaming service allows people to access digital media regardless of their device, while platforms such as iTunes are now more or less focussed on touting paid subscription plans than they are beaming music around your home or in-between your devices.

The solution? Become your own streaming service – and thanks to NAS drives, it’s not as difficult as you might think.

Hold up. What’s a ‘NAS’?

I’m glad you asked. Network Attached Storage devices have become slightly obscure in recent years, but they’re still an attractive option for those looking for the ultimate home media set up.

Let’s preface the idea this way. Your computer stores files on a hard drive or solid-state (flash) drive, which it retrieves and handles when you go about your business with a Word document, music file, or even a video. Unless you’ve gone through the procedure of opening your computer up to a local network, your files exist in a ‘silo’ and are not typically extendable unless you store them online.

Storing files online typically means using someone else’s cloud (say, OneDrive, Google Drive, or iCloud) or sharing them through a peer-to-peer service. The missing ‘link’ in the middle is a storage medium that can reach all of your devices through your home ADSL or Wi-Fi network.

That’s where NAS comes into play. A NAS is typically constituted by a hard drive or two, a casing, and a direct input into your home ADSL or fibre router. Essentially, this is a kind of storage platform that is uniquely accessible to all of your smart devices, and laptop or desktop computers. While at home or on the go, you can leverage your home’s internet connection to directly interface, place, or retrieve files on this drive – essentially making it your own personal ‘cloud’. If you’ve ever been able to insert a flash drive into your home router, you’ve toyed with this same concept.

Thing is, however, flash drives are typically small and don’t offer the necessary file speeds to play high-definition media. Hence, if you’re looking to set up your own digital jukebox, a NAS is where you should turn to.

Synology DS218 Play

 

Enter Synology

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been fortunate to have had the opportunity to review the Synology DS218 Play – a NAS operated by the Synology DiskStation Manager (DSM) OS that presents a simple and graphical way to organize one’s digital media.

Out of the box, the Synology DS218 Play arrives as a casing with the DSM OS installed from the get-go. A power brick and accompanying screws to close the unit are all included, meaning that one only needs to either purchase or install their own 2.5” or 3.5” drives to power the setup.

Once put together, the DS218 Play sits as a compact bay silo that can sit snugly next to one’s ADSL router. Setup is quite simple, as one only needs to visit the OS through an IP address, correctly format their drives, and then determine how they’d best prefer to use their shiny new toy.
Synology DS218 Play

Synology DS218 Play: A jack of all trades

Fortunately, Synology’s expertise here means that the DS218 Play isn’t just designed to cater for music – the station comes ready with distinct packages through which one can stream or access their media.

The DS128 Play’s DSM OS is pleasing, and brings with it a similar interface to what might one expect from Windows devices of yore. That’s a good thing, as I imagine it makes for a comfortable transition for less tech-savvy users. Certain settings are laid out oddly, however – for example, DSM OS doesn’t directly let users tamper with hard disks from its control panel, and instead requires users to install the Storage Manager application to fulfill this task.

In terms of software, the DS218Play offers Photo Station, Audio Station, and Video Station –  suites where one can manage their photos, music, as well as their favourite TV shows or films. Each suite corresponds with a mobile app found on Android, iOS and Windows Phone – meaning that one doesn’t need to hunt for files within the NAS, and can simply stream media like they would from Google Play Music or ShowMax wherever they are. The benefit, of course, is that consuming one’s own media on the same local network doesn’t incur data charges.

The idea extends to media players, PCs, or even to gaming consoles – meaning that it’s quite easy to access a collection of titles and media files on one’s devices around the house.

Perhaps my favourite feature was Download Station, which enables users to queue downloads to their NAS remotely. The feature supports BitTorrent, meaning that if you do download media through torrent files (play nicely!) you’ll have a great storage option at hand.

The DS218Play also comes with access to a plug-and-play media server to enable other devices to find it on one’s network, as well as features dubbed Hyper Backup and Cloud Station Server which allows one to back up the contents of their PC or Mac.

You might expect that the whirring of a hard drive and the intensity of streaming a feature film might cause the DS218Play to become hot under the collar. Far from it – the unit features a 92mm cooling fan which users can tailor to their preference in the DSM that ranges from near-silent, to cool (introducing a subtle noise) or full speed for rapid cooling.

During my review, I struggled to find the DS128 Play’s fault point – the unit sat quietly next to my home router, and only when I manually engaged the fan from the DSM did any noise become distracting. The unit itself can become as warm as a conventional PC tower, meaning that placing it in an open space is advantageous so that it can operate in near-silence.

The verdict

With a simple and powerful operating system, superb remote file access, and an easy setup, the Synology DS218Play is a great addition to anyone’s home media setup.

If you’re looking to break the stranglehold of your favourite streaming service or want to provide a cutting-edge home for your curated media, this is an excellent NAS to go for.

Disclosure: I was allowed to keep the DS218Play after my review.


5 common smartphone frustrations, and how to fix them

Bryan Smith joins Expresso Show to discuss ways to resolve five common smartphone frustrations that frequently plague users!

During my time at Bandwidth Blog, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances regularly expressed common threads when it comes to smartphone frustrations. While new mobile hardware becomes more advanced all the time, it can be difficult to see the fruits of any improvement while locked into a two-year contract.

While common problems do plague us all, there are quick steps one can take to improve the longevity and usefulness of their mobile device. I sat down with Katlego Maboe on SABC 3’s Expresso Show to dive in!

Poor battery life

Perhaps the most common smartphone frustration, there’s simply nothing worse than trying to get to grips with one’s phone when its battery pails with a death rattle half-way through a working day.

Lithium-ion batteries are tricky beasts, and their nature isn’t helped by the fact that misconception has surrounded the use and maintenance of such cells since their debut on the market.

To increase – or maintain – the health of one’s mobile battery, charge whenever possible; whether cabled or wirelessly, and have no fear of charging throughout the night. Rather than close running apps, be sure not to use extraneous system processes (more latterly on Android) when connecting to a wearable – and if all else fails, remember that it is usually possible to opt for a new battery than a new smartphone. Android phones with removable batteries, despite their rarity these days, offer greater longevity in this regard.

Managing storage space

While Apple’s notorious storage policies and restrictive iCloud plans can be frustrating for Apple enthusiasts, a common escape for both iOS and Android junkees is the cloud. By using one of my favourite services, Google Photos, one nets 100GB of free online storage space for high-quality imagery.

If your phone accommodates an SD card port, one can always consider purchasing a larger card for all things media.

Scratches, scrapes, and bumps

Listen – smartphones, like cars, attract scratches. The good thing is that they’re usually far easier to live with, and in this regard prevention is better than cure.

A tempered glass screen protector can do a fantastic job of safeguarding one’s touch display, while for those of us who hate bulky cases a vinyl skin can add an extra bit of style to one’s device while also offering rudimentary protection.

Lag

All smartphones tend to lag as they get older, thanks to the fact that older hardware is expected to keep up with newer software.

While one should always update to keep abreast of security patches, refreshing one’s device to factory settings can provide a much-needed mid-life boost. Further, removing apps one doesn’t use can also free up much-needed storage space.

Smarter lock screens

If you’re like me and perpetually dial the wrong person through their pocket, a great way to prevent pocket calls is to set a fingerprint or pattern lock on your smartphone. Failing that, Android offers some fantastic third-party lock screens with various settings and sensitivities. My favourite is Microsoft’s Next lock screen.

Have your say!

What are your thoughts? Do you have any hot tips you’d like to share? Get in touch with me @bryansmithSA!


Bryan Smith South African Technology Journalist Four tech terms you need to know about

Four tech terms you need to know about in 2018

I joined SABC 3’s Expresso Show to unpack four major tech terms you need to know about in 2018 – from blockchain to virtual reality!

We’re on the cusp of a fascinating year in technology, with several trends threatening to upend how we spend our day-to-day and, further, how the world at large works. Our Editor Bryan Smith joined SABC’s 3 Expresso Show to unpack four hot tech terms everyone should know about!

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence denotes software – or a mixture of software or hardware – that can be used to ‘think’ in similar fashion to the human mind.

Where most software programs rely on user input to achieve some kind of function, artificial intelligence can be used to proactively identify shapes and objects in images, synthesize text to speech, or even make certain decision.s

Internet of Things

One can consider the internet the medium through which our smart devices and computers can communicate and exchange information. However, this hasn’t really extended to everyday appliances which are reliant on user input to work.

The term ‘internet of things’ describes appliances or other electronic devices which are internet-enabled and can communicate and receive instruction over the web.

Blockchain

Put simply, the blockchain is a mechanism to scale trust.

Where in the past we’ve relied on institutions or middlemen to exchange value, the blockchain is a peer-to-peer network comprised of computers all around the world. Each computer holds one copy of a publicly distributed ledger, and new transactions are broadcasted and listed on this ledger for all to see.

Transactions are secured and verified by cryptography, through a mathematical proof called hash. This provides each transaction with a unique identity that, when coupled with preceding and proceeding transactions, secures the ledger’s mutability similarly to a fly being encased in layers of amber.

Virtual Reality

Virtual reality describes gaming or other environments where one might don a headset and interact entirely with a digital world; relying on graphics and physical principles to influence and change one’s environment.

Augmented reality describes scenarios where virtual elements are ‘overlayed’ upon the real world, and users can interact with their environment normally with enhanced information or perspective.

Have your say!

Which of the above tech terms do you think will most greatly influence the year ahead of us? Be sure to let me know on Twitter: @bryansmithSA!


why i've grown to love bixby

Why I’ve grown to love Bixby, even though it’s not perfect

Though Bixby is nowhere near perfect, the digital assistant does have a novel use case and some interesting features.

When Bixby first debuted on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 earlier this year, the budding digital assistant was something of a mess.

Without dedicated English voice support and the addition of a barely useful Home screen with Vision services, Bixby seemed at first to be little more than another slice of Samsung bloatware that comes equipped with every new Galaxy smartphone.

Consumers generally didn’t have much reason to believe in the product, and given the months it took Samsung to finally release Bixby’s voice suite, it seems the South Korean company had lost some fervor as well.

However, things changed when Samsung officially launched Bixby Voice in August this year, and finally both consumers and ardent tech enthusiasts were given a full and final glimpse into what Samsung had been cooking up.

I’ll admit it – at first, I wasn’t impressed. Bixby’s heavy reliance on gamification to improve its diction and listening skills was off-putting, and the service felt greatly contrived like S Voice before it – and holding down that irritating Bixby key didn’t help matters.

However, over time I’ve actually come to enjoy using Bixby – and, oddly enough, I find myself summoning the digital assistant far more than I actually rely on Google Assistant.

Context is king

It’s a contrived platitude, but here’s something I don’t do every day – commend Samsung. Apart from releasing two brilliant phones this year – the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8 – the company has stepped out of its typically conservative shell to release a product that is both edgy and novel.

There’s nothing really new about Siri, or Google Assistant – both handle voice queries, can toggle one’s smart home on and off, and are good for reminders, email, messaging and other services – even although the latter seems to significantly outperform the former these days.

Out of the box, Bixby was destined to be something different – relying on context to handle interactions within an app. Sure, users may be able to summon Assistant to fire off a WhatsApp; but how many of us can say we use our digital assistant to send our most recent image in our gallery to that one specific contact on the app?

The use of context helps define Bixby, and shatter a barrier of use most digital assistants have – the ability to bridge information from one application to another. While most digital assistants focus on connecting one’s smartphone with another smart device (say, one’s Pixel to one’s thermostat) Bixby is capable of performing complicated actions by voice.

That’s a really meaningful pursuit, and especially so for hands-free use – imagine a future where we can instruct our phone to attach images to an email and fire off a list of instructions to a colleague while driving. One could almost be forgiven for thinking that this is something more closely tied with Apple’s walled garden, yet Samsung has somehow made it work with the vast and wild woodland that is Android.

There’s a button

Yes, iPhone users have been long-pressing their Home buttons for years, and now the Pixel 2 accommodates a squeeze to activate feature. But perhaps Samsung actually has it right with a Bixby key that does nothing else besides summon Bixby Home or Bixby Voice – the nature of the button gives consumers an assurance that their phone is designed with the feature in mind, rather than it being a simple afterthought.

I all-too-often summon Google Assistant by long-pressing Android’s Home key, and I hate the fact that pressing in Apple’s Home button to unlock an iDevice can sometimes trigger Siri. Yet with Bixby, I have the knowledge that there’s a specified key for the job, and I can hold it down for as long as I feel like speaking.

“While most digital assistants focus on connecting one’s smartphone with another smart device, Bixby is capable of performing complicated actions by voice.”

Placing a button on the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy Note 8 was a ballsy move, but it’s one that gives consumers some confidence that Bixby isn’t just a flash-in-the-pan – it speaks to a future where the assistant is slightly more evolved and can handle even more complex instructions.

It comes in three flavours

Here’s a thing: Google Assistant (disregarding Now) and Siri are more or less voice interaction panes. Other functionality in either Android or iOS is typically salad dressing with a branded name here or there to make the service look more expansive – my favourite being Siri’s “Suggestions” in iOS.

Bixby, however, comes with three very interesting utilities. There is, of course, the Voice service – but both Home and Vision have expanded gracefully since their jumpy start.

Home may just be a revised quick briefing for some, though I’ve actually come to rely on the feature for a quick, heads-up update as to what’s going on in the world around me – either on my social networks, on my device itself, or in the news.

“Out of the box, Bixby was destined to be something different.”

Secondly, there’s Vision – a system Assistant doesn’t comprise beyond the optional extra that is Google Goggles, and a domain Siri has yet to explore. Perhaps more limited to consumers in the US where one can order whatever fanciful object they choose, Vision enables users to quickly analyze points of interest or retail items – a display of artificial intelligence that some providers (besides Amazon) are now lacking in.

A hope for the future

In the coming months, it’s only likely that Bixby will get better – and that’s because Samsung has been forced to admit the service was less than desirable at the start. With a focus on gamification and input from thousands of users, Bixby should only improve – and given the assistant’s very unique set of capabilities, I can’t wait to get the best out of the service.

Have your say!

What are your thoughts? Do you enjoy using Bixby in your day-to-day, or do you tend to ignore it? Be sure to let me know your opinion in the comments below!

Follow me on Twitter: @bryansmithSA

Piece from Web Native.


Bryan Smith discusses SpaceX's BFR rocket system on SABC 3's Expresso Show

Discussing SpaceX's city-to-city rocket system on SABC 3's Expresso Show

Bryan Smith joins Expresso Show to discuss SpaceX’s plans to debut planet-hopping travel through the use of an interplanetary rocket system.

Though many of Elon Musk’s ideas have centered on sending humankind either into space or onto Mars, the SpaceX and Tesla entrepreneur has announced a new venture that will place human feet back on terra firma in both a figurative and literal sense.

The business mogul revealed plans to leverage SpaceX’s Big F*cking Rocket (BFR, for short) to ferry passengers to any destination on Earth within an hour’s time frame.

I was lucky enough to join SABC 3’s Expresso Show to unpack the plan in full, as well as explore some implications which may make the system unlikely.

For the uninitiated, Musk’s proposal would see passengers board mega-rockets, launch into orbit, and then settle down on floating landing pads in a destination of their choice. Though both the rocket and landing pad are at this stage conceptual, Musk has clarified that construction would begin within the next six to nine months.

SpaceX debuted a video presentation outlining the concept, wherein passengers would board the BFR, launch, and then land in Shanghai within 39 minutes – covering an immense 11,000 kilometers.

The company touched on different destinations, outlining that a proposed trip from Hong Kong to Singapore would theoretically take 22 minutes, while travelers heading from London to New York could expect a 29-minute journey.

As the concept (at this stage) is untested, Musk did not deign to offer specifics – though the entrepreneur did clarify that the BFR would reach a top speed of 18,000 miles per hour (some 28000 kilometers per hour) and would carry passengers akin to how most of us leverage economy air travel.

The announcement is yet another of Musk’s bids to revolutionize travel; another concept presently in the works is that of the Hyperloop, a proposed system of sealed tubes through which a pod would be able to travel through free of air resistance or friction.

What are your thoughts? Would you step aboard the BFR to be ferried to a city of your choice? Tweet me – bryansmithSA!

News piece adapted from Bandwidth Blog.