Traditionally, servers have been the exclusive domain of offices or bearded men with overactive sweat glands. But times are changing -- HP is hoping to introduce servers to the home with its latest product, the Media Smart Server.
It's aimed at anyone with an abundance of multimedia files and a desire to share said files across multiple computers. It'll let you create backups, stream multimedia and access data from any PC whether you're on your home network or in an Internet cafe in Timbuktu. The HP Media Smart Server can be bought for around £500 from hp.co.uk.
The biggest selling point of the Media Smart Server is the fact it centralises your data, and lets you share it with other devices on your network. Sure, you could use the standard networking features of your operating system to link your laptop to your PC, but what happens when one of these machines lapses into sleep mode, crashes or is switched off? Access to this data is temporarily lost, and if you take your laptop out of the house, the network is basically redundant until you return.
That's where home servers like the Media Smart Server become a good idea. They can be fitted with multiple hard drives -- up to four in the case of the MSS -- and are permanently connected to the network. As a result, you can access your data inside or outside the home, share precious memories with family overseas, and the best part is that it's all done in a very user-friendly fashion.
The Media Smart Server has a lot in common with basic network-attached storage devices. You attach it to your router -- wired or wireless -- add it on your network and within a few minutes you can start using it as a giant dumping ground for your data. Where the Media Smart Server differs is its use of the Windows Home Server operating system. This specially-designed operating system sits on the Media Smart Server box and can be accessed via the Windows Home Server Console software, which you install on your PC. It's also possible to access it via a very user-friendly Web interface.
Usability can make or break a product of this kind, and thankfully the Media Smart Server isn't very difficult to set up. Once you've connected it to a router, plugged it into the mains and run the installation CD, you're basically up and running. HP provides a very user-friendly series of installation wizards to establish a domain name (smithfamily.homeserver.com for example). If this sounds daunting, fear not -- it basically involves hitting the 'next' button a few times and you can always consult the quick start manual if you get stuck.
Four tabs form the core of the Windows Home Server Console experience. The first lets you establish user permissions. If you don't want certain members of your family or friends accessing certain files, this is the section to tweak. If you don't care for passwords, you can simply set up a guest account, which gives access to everything, or a subset of files and services -- it's up to you.
The Computers and Backup tab lets you schedule data backups to the
server. This can create multiple backup images, giving you specific
restore points, or it can create one master image which it updates when new
data arrives or files have changed. This works across multiple
computers on your network, eliminating the need to have several large
images of individual XP or Vista installations.
The Shared Folders tab is probably the most interesting of the bunch. This has a series of pre-created shared folders dedicated to music, photos and videos, for instance. This lets you enjoy these files on your PC, or you can stream multimedia to media devices on your home network, such as a Media Center Extender or Xbox 360 console. HP includes a photo sharing application, a program that lets you share your iTunes collection with other PCs, and we expect other cool apps to arrive on Windows Home Server in due course.
In terms of storage, the Media Smart Server has four internal SATA drive bays, which let you have up to 4TB of storage using today's drives. It also has four USB ports and an eSATA port so you can connect additional storage. Up to 9TB of storage can be handled by the device. Best of all, the storage is dynamic, which means you can remove a drive that's near capacity and replace it with a larger one simply by yanking them in and out of the drive sleds.
Servers are usually noisy, large, unfriendly-looking things, but the Media Smart Server is different -- to an extent. We like the fact it looks like an upturned Shuttle Media Center PC, and the glossy black panel and blue LEDs are nice to look at. But that's only in the daytime. When night falls, the Media Smart Server becomes a bit of a monster.
The bright lights are very distracting, and the internal cooling fans are far too noisy. This could have been helped if the device had a wireless adaptor and could be installed in a loft or basement, but as it stands, the Media Smart Server isn't something we particularly want in our living rooms, let alone our bedrooms.
Most of the world will love the fact you can access the Media Smart Server over the Internet, but Mac and Linux users have cause for concern. It's only possible to do so using Microsoft Internet Explorer. This seems like a very petty limitation on the part of Microsoft -- we doubt Firefox or Safari are incapable of showing the Web-based interface.
Our final gripe concerns the price. The Media Smart Server is expensive compared to an ordinary network-attached storage device. OK, so NAS boxes don't offer as much functionality, but if all you want is a central repository for your files, then you could save yourself a couple of hundred pounds and opt for something like a Buffalo LinkStation Live.
The home server idea is a good one, and it has been implemented well here by HP. It's a great way of making your data accessible to yourself, your friends and family regardless of location, and it's surprisingly easy to use given the fact it's a server product. It's let down slightly by its price and the incessant hum of the cooling fans, but if you're partially deaf or don't mind an extra soundtrack in your house, then this is a fantastic product.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday