Hands-On: HP MediaSmart Home Server

If you're like me, your digital photos, music, and video are starting to overwhelm you. Hewlett-Packard hopes to help multimedia enthusiasts manage their digital lives with its new MediaSmart Home Server. This handy piece of hardware is a massive storage device intended to serve the average PC household as a digital hub. It's meant to connect Windows-based PCs in a seamless network that requires little effort or expertise to configure and manage.

HP's MediaSmart Home Server.
The brains behind the MediaSmart Home Server is Microsofta??s Windows Home Server operating system--a variant of Windows Server 2003. But HP has customized the Microsoft OS with a set of unique multimedia applications and management utilities designed to get even more out of the server.

Microsoft has worked with HP and nearly a dozen other hardware partners to build home servers under various brands. HP has said that it intends to be the first major hardware manufacturer to bring a Windows Home Server-based device to market. I've been testing a preproduction version of its MediaSmart Home Server for several weeks.

HP had originally intended for the version of the MediaSmart device I've been working with to be the shipping model. But Microsoft decided to introduce some last-minute tweaks to the OS late last month, and HP responsed by rescheduling its planned release of the MediaSmart Home Server from September to "sometime this fall," according to HP.

Microsoft says that its last-minute updates include adjustments that fine-tune the out-of-box experience, such as added prompts and dialog boxes to guide consumers through the setup process. Among the other improvements are more-reliable remote server access, tools for automatically setting routers and firewalls, and enhancements to synchronization features.

Nevertheless, the absence of these enhancements didn't diminish my overall experience in testing the HP MediaSmart Home Server.

Using the MediaSmart

HP's MediaSmart Home Server: another view.
Overall I like Windows Home Server as a platform. I've used network-attached storage devices in the past for backup and multimedia sharing. But by adding smarts to what is essentially a NAS device, Microsoft makes common tasks like setup, media sharing, remote access, and PC backup and recovery as easy as pie.

I also think that HP has done a great job of putting together its handsome hardware package of unique software tools that make this device a useful tool for multi-PC households.

The MediaSmart Home Server will be sold in two models: The $599 server contains 500GB of storage space, while the $749 unit offers 1TB. Otherwise, they're identical.

Both servers will be powered by a 1.8-GHz Sempron processor, and will have four SATA drive bays for accommodating internal storage and four USB 2.0 ports for connecting additional external drives. The 500GB model will come with only one bay occupied, while the 1TB system will have two of them filled.

Core Software Features

To appreciate the unique features of HP's MediaSmart Home Server, you have to understand Microsoft's contribution to the product. The Windows Home Server OS features centralized storage, media sharing, automated data backup, and remote access to PC desktops similar to the access offered by services like LogMeIn and GoToMyPC. Note that only the Windows XP Pro and Windows Vista Ultimate operating systems support remote access.

Microsoft promises and delivers an easy setup experience. To get started, I simply plugged the home server into an empty ethernet port on my Linksys router. Next I installed a small Windows Connector application on each home PC that I wanted to connect to the server. After I rebooted the PCs, each one recognized the MediaSmart server, and I was up and running.

Microsoft fully supports up to ten PCs running the Connector software per home server. Any PC beyond the maximum of ten can link to your HP MediaSmart Home Server to upload and download files; however, if it doesn't have the Connector application running, it can't take advantage of advanced functions such as automatic backup, access to server maintenance tools, and remote desktop access.

HP's MediaSmart Server console tab simplifies the task of tweaking the Windows Home Server OS.
HP's MediaSmart Server console tab simplifies the task of tweaking the Windows Home Server OS.
You use the Windows Home Media Server Console application to set up and manage the server, tweak PC backups, and create shared or private network folders. The server itself is "headless," meaning that it doesn't support a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. Configuring the box is like configuring a router--you do it remotely from a connected PC. The Windows Home Media Server Console program is accessible through any PC running the Connector application.

Microsoft provides an adequate set of tools for monitoring how much server storage space is available, creating user accounts, and performing other server management tasks. But HP adds tools that do far more than Microsoft's can.

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