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HP MediaSmart Server ex475 review: HP MediaSmart Server ex475

HP MediaSmart Server ex475

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home | Windows PCs | Cooking (sometimes) | Woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
7 min read

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.


HP MediaSmart Server ex475

The Good

Small enclosure is easily stashed out-of-sight, straightforward hardware and software setup; powerful server software lets you take complete control of the systems on your network as well as the files on them; easy to add storage as needed; expanded features via coming third-party software.

The Bad

$749 isn't cheap; potentially cumbersome account management with the various other systems on your network.

The Bottom Line

Microsoft's Windows Home Server is the best, easiest-to-use answer to backing up and corralling all of the disparate media files in a networked home. And delivered in this petite, relatively affordable MediaSmart Server ex745 from HP, you get plenty of storage in a well-designed hardware package. We recommend this system all the way to anyone looking to take full control of their data.

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.

You'll only need to worry about a few basic ports on the back of your MediaSmart Server.

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.

User accounts
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.

Shared folders
The Shared Folders tab is where you manage and create the central location for your media files, or whatever other data you want to access remotely. In addition to the basic dedicated Music, Photos, Videos, etc., each user can also create a personal folder for general storage. You can set permissions granting or restricting different kinds of access per user to each different folder. These folders can also stream content to other media devices on your home network, such as an Xbox 360. You can also access them remotely over the Web. This is another stand-out feature of Windows Home Server, as it essentially lets you get at all of your media and other data from any connected computer in the world. The major drawback is that it requires Internet Explorer, which excludes Firefox users, Macs, and any other non-Microsoft systems from using the remote access capabilities.

Server storage
The Server Storage tab shows you the amount of space on the various hard drives you have connected to your Home Server. Via the HP MediaSmart Server ex475's USB ports or its single eSATA port, you can expand your storage pool with various kinds of drives, and they'll pop up onscreen. HP also lets you hot-swap the internal hard drives, via an easy-open front panel door. Inside you'll find the same hard-drive sleds that came with the HP Blackbird 002 gaming PC. They require no screws or cables, and pop in and out of the system easily. Each new drive or storage device you connect to the system become part of a single drive partition. The Home Server software will format drives as necessary, and it all works on the fly.

The 1TB model has two drive sleds occupied, and two more to spare for aftermarket expansion.

Those four tabs make up the basics of Windows Home Server that should be common to every system that uses the software. But Microsoft is also encouraging third-party software developers to expand on Home Server's capabilities. HP has taken advantage of this out of the gate with a photo sharing application and a small program that organizes and grants access to your iTunes library across the various systems on your network. We're sure anyone who purchases the MediaSmart Server will appreciate those tweaks. Microsoft has also announced other extensions to Home Server, including a media streaming app from SageTV, a blog tool, and video conferencing software, among others. It's similar in concept to Apple's Widgets and Microsoft's own Vista Gadgets, although we don't expect that all of the Home Server programs will be free.

As far as this particular MediaSmart Server ex475, HP gives you two 500GB, 7,200rpm hard drives, for 1TB total. It also offers the 500GB MediaSmart Server ex470, for $599. With four internal slots overall, you can extend the internal storage on either of these systems to 4TB with the current drives on the market. You can also add external drives via the aforementioned USB and eSATA ports. As these are servers and mostly just shuttling data around, they don't need a fast processor or gobs of system memory. The ex475 comes with a lowly 1.8GHz AMD Sempron processor and 512MB of system RAM. Velocity Micro is promising higher-end specs in its Home Server systems, and we'll keep an open mind, but we didn't have any particular performance gripes with the HP. You can also find the Windows Home Server software on sale by itself for around $175. Because of the low-grade hardware requirements, it's easy to imagine repurposing an out-of-date PC into a DIY Home Server box.

The warranty coverage for the MediaSmart Server ex475 is about the same you'd find in a desktop of this price. You get a year of parts and labor coverage, plus 24-7 phone support. There is no standalone support application with this system like you can find on HP's Pavilion desktops, but there are so many links in the Home Server software itself explaining what does what, that you should be well taken care of. The paper manual also provides 192 pages of useful information. You also get server restore disks in case the server software itself become corrupt.


HP MediaSmart Server ex475

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8