We've been tracking HP's MediaSmart Server and the Microsoft Windows Home Server software that powers it ever since they were both announced back in January. We got to play with an early version of the software this summer. Now we get to take a look at the complete product, by way of the HP MediaSmart Server ex475, a 1-terabyte home server that will cost you $749. In addition to the raw storage space, what you also get for that money is powerful software that's easier to use than anything else of its kind on the market. It lets you automate networkwide system backups, centralize all of your digital media files, stream them out to other devices in your home, and access them from any Windows-based, Web-enabled computer in the world. This HP MediaSmart Server also appears to be the best deal on a 1TB-equipped Home Server product, at least compared to its handful of competitors. We're sure to see other Home Server systems hit the market over the next few months, but for now, if you want to take better control of your data, this is the best solution we've seen.
Just a little thing
The actual hardware of the HP MediaSmart Server is very straightforward. It looks like a very small PC (9.75 inches high, 5.5 inches wide, and 10 inches high, to be exact), and in addition to the hard drives, it also has a processor and memory. But there's nowhere to connect a monitor, and it comes with no mouse or keyboard. Instead, the back-panel simply has a power cable input, a networking jack, and a handful of other ports for expanding your storage capacity with external drives. Once you've plugged in the power and network cables and the system has been recognized by your network, you don't really need to touch it. The vast majority of your interaction with the server will take place via the Windows Home Server software that you need to install on another Windows Vista or Windows XP-based computer on the same network. This hands-off approach gives you the freedom to put the MediaSmart Server completely out of sight in a closet or some other out-of-the-way location, eliminating visual clutter in your house.
With the physical setup out of the way, you then go to any other computer on your network and install the Windows Home Server Console software. The time from the start of the software install to the end of the initial configuration took us roughly 15 minutes. Installation is really no more complicated than a typical software install, with a license agreement and a few "Next" buttons to click. The only additional step is creating a password for the Home Server Console. Once you're in the console software, a setup help utility walks you through a six-step process of configuring your various settings.
This walkthrough is one of the tweaks that HP has made to Windows Home Server to distinguish it from the competition. Anyone familiar with the ins and outs of setting user permissions and establishing a domain name won't rely on the walkthrough too much, but for the rest of us, this kind of tweaking helps this system better embrace its target customer, the mainstream computer user.
Despite the tweaks to ease of use, the basic features of Windows Home Server remain the same since we previewed it earlier this summer. From the Home Server Console, you get a window with a series of tabs, each dealing with different capabilities.
Computers and backup
The Computers & Backup section gives you basic information about all of the systems on your home network. Here you can control the antivirus, firewall, and Windows update status for each system, and also schedule data back-up to the server. This is actually one of the more powerful tools Windows Home Server offers. Rather than create multiple redundant backup copies of files your various systems might have in common, Home Server instead keeps one master image, and then only writes new data for whatever files on a particular system have changed. In other words, you won't waste storage space with five full versions of Windows Vista backed up. Instead you'll have one master version, and then various updated individual files saved for each particular system. You can also turn this feature off for greater redundancy in case a server drive should fail. This is also a powerful tool because you can not only use it to create restore points for every system on your network, you can also apply that restore point from the Home Server Console software itself.
From the User Accounts tab, you determine which users on your network have access to the various shared folders. You can get bogged down at this step, as it encourages you to use the user names and passwords that match those on the client PCs, which assumes you use them to begin with. If your household is less access-controlled, you can simply stick with a Guest account, which grants open access to all of the shared folders on your home network.