When it comes to network storage, I'd recommend a real NAS server. But a good server can be expensive; plus, not everyone wants, needs, or has time to configure, all the features.
So the second-best option is to use what you likely already have: the Wi-Fi router USB port. It's a good way to start small with network storage.
Indeed, many routers on the market can simultaneously deliver Wi-Fi and storage space for your entire home. Specifically, they allow you to share files stored on an external drive with the rest of the network.
This post, among other things, talks about the storage-related use of a USB-ready Wi-Fi router. You'll also find the link to my list of recommended routers and tips on setting up one as a NAS server.
Dong's note: I first published this post on September 24, 2019, and updated it on August 12, 2020, to add more relevant information.
What’s the use of a Wi-Fi router USB port?
Not every 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 following:
Host that (old) printer
Print serving is the original function of a router USB port. 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 a built-in network port or Wi-Fi are commonplace. 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 with 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 turn a Wi-Fi router USB port into a NAS server
There are a couple of things to keep in mind about using a router as a NAS server.
Get expectations straight: It’s a router you’re using!
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. And hosting a storage device is considered a non-networking task -- it's not a router's priority.
This feature is intended for those with light network storage needs. You shouldn't count on it as a "real" network storage solution. It's a matter of degree. Among other things, you shouldn't buy a router based on what it can do with its USB port.
Be realistic with those USB ports
Again, a router is not as capable as a dedicated NAS server when hosting storage space.
Also, just because the router USB port or ports support a few functions -- like NAS, printing, cellular modem, and so on -- doesn't mean you should expect to use all of them at the same time, nor should you expect the top performance of each when you use them all together.
And you can't expect to have the same storage performance via Wi-Fi as via a wired connection. In the former, keep in mind that the router has to use its power to broadcast the Wi-Fi signals, which is its primary job, simultaneously.
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 device with it -- each port only has its share of the hub's total bandwidth and power.
You can technically, and physically, use a USB hub to connect multiple USB devices to a single USB port of a host, but you should not do that with a router. As a matter of fact, it's not a good idea to use a USB hub, to begin with, due to the limitation of USB standards -- there are just too many variations that cause the hub to not work the way you might assume.
It's a router you're looking at -- just because there are ports doesn't mean you can use them all at your expected performance. And just because a port can handle a storage device doesn't mean you can expect all storage-related features or speed grades. And finally, just because a router supports a fast USB standard doesn't mean you can expect real USB performance (5Gbps or 10Gbps) out of its port.
Using the USB port of a router to host a storage device is like using a scooter to pull a little trailer. Be realistic!
Security can also be a concern. For example, some routers still use SMBv1, 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 is not ideal.
(Note that many Asus routers might have the warning about enabling SMBv1, but they don't require it to work. In my experience, all Asus Wi-Fi 6 routers can work with newer SMB versions.)
Another security concern is when you use the NAS feature via the Internet. In this case, make sure you create an account for each user's access. But if you're not sure, don't turn on any "cloud" feature or FTP access. Use those only when you know what you're doing.
The bottom line is that if you want to do many 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
Generally, any good external storage device, namely desktop or laptop (portable) USB drives, will work -- you don't need to get a NAS-specific drive --, but things can be a bit complicated.
That's mostly because the USB standard's power output can be a mess. It varies from one router to another. That said, here are the general guidelines:
- If you want the fastest possible speed and lowest power consumption, get an SSD-based portable drive -- any USB options on this list will do. (Ultimately, the data throughputs depend on the network connection or the router's processing power, but a fast drive won't hurt.)
- If you want lots of storage space, go with an external hard drive -- larger is always the better. In this case:
- Get one with a separate power adapter to be safe in terms of power. After that go with one that supports RAID 1, such as the WD My Book Duo. (Note: You will need to configure the hardware RAID setup before plugging it into the router. So do that on a computer first.)
- You can get a bus-powered portable drive, like the WD My Passport or the G-Tech Mobile. But in this case, you might run into a power issue with a certain router. In any case, keep in mind that, generally, a router has enough juice to power one bus-powered device, no matter how many USB ports it has.
- Some (older) router model has a storage cap of below 2TB or lower. Make sure you check the user manual.
Get the right router
Not all routers are equal, especially when it comes to raw power. That said, get a router that 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
Many routers, especially those from Asus and Synology, automatically set the connected drive to work in USB 2.0 mode.
This mode won't affect the router's NAS functionality but has a theoretical cap speed of just 480 Mbps (60 MB/s) -- the real-world rate will be about half that.
The much faster USB 3.2 Gen 1 (formerly USB 3.0) mode, which has a 5Gbps (625 MB/s) cap, can adversely affect the router's 2.4GHz Wi-Fi band. To get the most out of the router's storage feature, you'll need to enable the faster USB mode manually -- we use mostly the 5GHz band these days anyway.
Also, make sure you use the external drive with the right setting. For one, use it in the correct file system that the router supports -- most, if not all routers, support NTFS.
By the way, it's worth noting that you only need to use the file system that the router supports and not the one your computer supports. That's because the file system used by the server has nothing to do with the client.
So, for example, if you use an NTFS (Windows) external drive with your router and share its storage over the network, your Mac will be able to read, write to the shared folder, and use the space for Time Machine backup (if supported) just fine.
Finally, don't turn on the external storage device's security feature if it has one. A router has no mechanism to unlock it.
How to access your router-based NAS server
Once you've connected a storage device to a router and turned on the data sharing feature -- often referred to as Windows-based, or SAMBA (SMB), file sharing -- it's easy to access that share space from any computer within the network.
A couple of things to note here:
- Depending on the router, there might be more features than just data sharing. Another popular option is the media server -- where the router shares video and audio files stored on the connected drive via media streaming protocol. In this case, follow the instruction to turn on the desired feature.
- Here I assume you know how to set up a router, access its web interface, etc. -- enabling the NAS feature is part of working with the router's interface. If not, this post on building a network from scratch will help you with that.
But data sharing is the most useful and popular, and I'll cover it here. It's fairly easy. The only next thing you need to make it work is the router's IP address -- the same one you've used to access its interface.
Alternatively, you can also use the router's network name. But the IP is always the sure way.
For this post, the IP address in question is 192.168.1.1. Chances are your router has a different one -- the table below includes the default IP and login credentials of popular router brands.
If you don't know what your current router's IP address is, this post on IP addresses includes detailed steps to figure that out.
Once you've got the IP address, the steps below are the standard ways to access your newly-minted NAS server from a Windows or Mac computer within your local network hosted by the router.
Accessing your router-based mini NAS server on a Windows computer
1. Open Explorer.
2. On the address bar, type in this command, then press Enter:
(Alternatively, you can also use \\RouterName and the Windows search field under the Start Menu instead of Explorer. Don't forget the \\ (not //) and remember there's no space in the command.)
3. Enter the username and password if prompted. If you haven't set up an account for data sharing or the router doesn't support that, you can use the admin username and password of the router's web interface.
Accessing your router-based mini NAS server on a Mac
1. Click on an empty spot on the desktop, then press Command + K, and the "Connect to Server" window will appear.
2. Under Server address, type in
(Again, you can also substitute the IP address with the router's network name, or click on Browse to view the available servers in the network.)
3. Click on Connect and enter the username and password (of the account you've created or the router's admin account) if prompted.
And that's it. Happy data sharing!
Best USB-enabled routers that can work as a NAS server
Now that you know how to turn a USB-enabled router into a NAS server, you probably wonder which router or routers you should get for the job.
I addressed that big question in this separate, frequently updated post on the best Wi-Fi routers for NAS features. Check it out!