When it comes to network storage, I’d recommend a NAS server. But a good server can be expensive; plus, not everyone wants or has time to configure all the features. So the second-best option is to make use of what you likely already have: a Wi-Fi router USB port.
There are many routers on the market that can simultaneously deliver both Wi-Fi and storage space for your entire home.
This post, among other things, talks about the storage-related use of a USB-ready Wi-Fi router. You’ll also find here my recommendation list, and tips on how to best set up a router as a NAS server.
What’s the use of a Wi-Fi router USB port?
Not all Wi-Fi router has a USB port, but if yours happens to have one, chances are you can use it for (at least one of) the followings:
Host that (old) printer
Print serving is the original function of a USB port on a router. Connect a USB printer to this port, and it’s now available to the entire network. There’s no need to buy a printer for each person anymore.
Five or six years ago, this feature was a big deal since printers at the time were mostly USB-only. Nowadays, those with built-in network port or Wi-Fi are commonplace. With that, some new Wi-Fi routers don’t offer the print serving feature anymore, though many still do.
This feature allows the router to host a cellular USB modem and share the mobile Internet to the entire network. A cellular connection is a great way to have a backup Internet when your broadband service, like DSL or cable, is down.
Note that a router with this feature only supports specific cellular modems. Make sure you check the manual to know which one to get.
Network-attached storage (NAS) server
This feature is, by far, the most common and useful. Similar to the case of printing, plugging an external hard drive into the router’s USB port can also make its storage available to the entire network.
On top of that, you can use that public storage space for other applications, such as a backup destination (including Time Machine backup, in some cases,) PC-less downloading, or even a personal cloud.
How to best set up a router as a NAS server
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about using a router as a NAS server.
Set the right expectation
The first and most important thing to remember is a router’s primary function is to host your network. For this reason, even a high-end router tends to have limited processing power for non-networking tasks. So naturally, a router is not as capable as a dedicated NAS server when it comes to hosting storage space.
Also, just because the router supports a few functions with its USB port — like NAS, printing, or cellular modem, and so on — doesn’t mean you should expect to use all of them at the same time.
One of the reasons is there’s only so much power a USB hub can deliver. If a router has multiple USB ports, chances are they all share a single USB hub. So, you can’t use more than one bus-powered devices with it.
Security can also be a concern. For example, some routers still use SMBv1, which is the original and ancient version of the popular Server Message Block protocol used in the Windows environment for network file and printer sharing.
Due to security holes, for about a decade now, SMBv1 has been replaced by SMBv2 and newer versions and recently even disabled by default in most modern operating systems. That doesn’t mean using SMBv1 will get you in trouble immediately, but it sure is not ideal.
The bottom line is, if you want to do a lot of things with your network storage, it’s a good idea to get a real dedicated NAS server. But if you only wish to use some casual network storage, it’s quite fun and sensible to get even more use out of our router.
Get a good external drive
If you want the fastest possible speed, get a fast SSD-based portable drive, such as the My Passport SSD or the Sandisk Extreme. However, keep in mind, the performance depends on the network connection or the power of the router itself.
That said, a fast drive doesn’t always translate into better performance. In most cases, a typical affordable portable drive, like the WD My Passport or the G-Tech Mobile, will do. Generally, the USB port of any router will have enough juice to power one bus-powered drive.
Regarding storage space, the more, the better, so get the drive of the capacity that fits your needs. If you’re serious about your data, you can also choose an external drive with redundancy. In this case, a dual-drive RAID 1 external storage device, like the WD My Book Duo, is more suitable.
Get the right router
Not all routers are equal, especially when it comes to raw power. That said, get a router has a lot of processing power. Generally, the higher the specs, the better.
Also, make sure you get a router that supports USB 3.2 Gen 1, a.k.a USB 3.0, or faster. Some router also has an eSATA or USB-C port. So, find one that suits your needs. And finally, get the router that includes the storage features you want, such as the support for Time Machine backup.
Use the correct settings
By default, many routers — especially those from Asus and Synology — automatically set the connected drive to work in USB 2.0 mode, which is quite slow. The reason is the much faster USB 3.2 Gen 1 mode can adversely affect the router’s 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band.
If you want to get the most out of the router’s storage, you’ll need to enable the faster USB mode manually — we use mostly the 5GHz band these days anyway.
Finally, make sure you use the external drive with the right setting. For one, use it in the correct file system — most of the time, NTFS is the safest choice. Also, don’t turn on the drive’s security feature, if it has one, because a router has no mechanism to unlock it.
Best Wi-Fi routers with built-in NAS feature
Now that you understand the basics of router-based network storage, below is the NAS performance chart of most USB-enabled routers I’ve used in the past years. I tested each using a wired Gigabit connection. With those that feature a multi-gig port, I also tried that out.
As for storage devices, I’ve always used SSD-based portable drives for the testing. The actual drive used for each router might vary, but they all have much faster speed than the router’s wired network port.
Note that the scores on the chart are in megabyte per second (MB/s), which is 8 times the megabit per second (Mbps) measurement normally used for network connection speed.
Any routers on the chart above will work as a mini NAS server. But you’re on the market for a new USB-enabled router; the following are my recommendations. These are routers that deliver the best performance or have a generous feature set when hosting external storage. I’ve personally used them all.
The RT-AX89X is the latest dual-band Wi-Fi 6 router from Asus, and it’s the very first router on the market that has two 10Gbps network ports.
That plus two USB 3.2 Gen 1 ports means it can deliver high-speed NAS performance. What’s more, it’s also one of the first Asus USB-enabled routers that didn’t require SMBv1 to work in my testing.
Like all Asus router, including the GT-AX11000 below, the RT-AX89X, when coupled with a portable drive, can deliver all storage-related applications you can think of, including the support for Time Machine backup.
Linksys MX5 Velop AX
The Linksys MX5 is the latest member of Belkin’s Linksys Velop mesh family. It’s part of the Linksys MX10 mesh system, but you can also get it as a standalone router.
Unlike some other Wi-Fi 6 routers below, the MX5 doesn’t have a multi-gig port, so its NAS performs caps at 1Gbps. And that was almost the speed it delivered in my testing.
The router’s USB port doesn’t offer anything more than local storage sharing — there’s no personal cloud, streaming features, or Time Machine backup — so it’s only suitable for those with simple network storage needs.
By the way, if you get the MX10 mesh system, keep in mind that you can also use the USB port of the satellite unit, meaning you can host more than one drive in your network.
Netgear Nighthawk RAX120
This router is the latest from Netgear and has the fastest network storage speed, by far, thanks to its 5Gbps port. But even when you use its regular Gigabit connection, the NAS performance is still outstanding.
Like most Netgear routers, when hosting an external drive, the RAX120 is all about sharing that storage. You can share that local or conveniently via the Internet using Netgear’s ReadyShare software. The router also supports local backup for Windows and Mac’s Time Machine.
The GT-AX11000 is the latest tri-band Wi-Fi 6 router from Asus. It’s also a powerful router, and it has everything when it comes to network storage. Its USB ports can host printers, storage devices, or cellular modem. On top of that, it also has a 2.5Gbps network connection to deliver superfast NAS performance.
And when hosting storage, it has all the applications you can imagine. You can share data locally, via the Internet or turn the router into a media streaming host. There’s also a PC-less download app. And the router also supports Time Machine backup.
By the way, the storage-based feature set is the same across all Asus routers released in the past few years. The GT-AX11000 happens to be also a great router, too.
Read its full review of the Asus GT-AX11000 here.
TP-Link Archer C5400X
This massive and ostentatious router is the third on my chart of USB-based NAS performance. Though having no multi-gig network port, the router delivers fast NAS performance via its regular Gigabit ports.
The router supports sharing storage locally as well as over the Internet. It can also work as a media server, casting content to network streamers. Read the TP-Link’s Archer C5400x’s full review here.
The MR2200ac‘s NAS feature isn’t exactly fast, as you can see on the chart above. However, thanks to the advanced firmware, it has, by far, the best NAS feature set, similar to that of a Synology server.
Hopefully, Synology will release a more powerful router in the future. For now, the RT2600ac also offers the same NAS feature set. Other than storage, you can also use the MR2200ac’s USB port to host a cellular modem. Read the Synology MR2200ac’s full review here.
Dong’s note: I first published this post on September 24, 2019, and updated it on January 25, 2020, to add more relevant information.