So far, network storage devices have solved the storage problem but are not actual servers. The real McCoy, HP's MediaSmart Server EX745, is more than just a place to put your files. This toaster-sized appliance offers multimedia streaming, near-unlimited expandability, and ease of use that takes servers out of the realm of IT departments. It's an intelligent storage device that will likely usher in an age of better home automation by serving as a central brain for your home network.
What's a Home Server?
The $709 MediaSmart is four products in one: a network drive, user account manager, remote access terminal, and true home server. The device itself looks like a squished-down version of a desktop server, complete with flashing lights and a door that hides the swappable drives. Its weight depends on how many drives you insert; fully loaded, it weighs more than a desktop PC. Inside, you'll find enough guts to rival a desktop computer sans graphics capability or a VGA port.
Setting up the MediaSmart Server
The hardware setup is easy: Plug an Ethernet cable into the back of the unit and into your router (we used the D-Link DIR-655, but we recommend any wireless router with a Gigabit Ethernet port). Then turn on the MediaSmart Server. Installing the software is equally fast. With a networked Windows Vista or Windows XP PC, Windows Home Server (WHS) takes a few minutes to install and configures the MediaSmart folders (one each for music, photos, video, and add-ons) and walks you through a few options, such as configuring remote access.
Our MediaSmart Server came with two 500GB drives for 1TB of total capacity--more than enough to get started with high-def videos and a vast photo and music collection. We saved about 20 movies at 2GB each, 100GB of very high-resolution photos, plus another 50GB of music saved in an uncompressed MP3 format, and we had tons of room to spare. You can add more SATA drives in one of the four extra drive bays, at about $200 each, or an external eSATA drive. The total storage capacity is a mouth-watering 4TB if you fill all four bays and add four USB drives at 500GB each, although there's no limit to the size of the drives you can install.
Based on Windows Server 2003, WHS forgoes the pomp and circumstance of Windows Vista for a simplified interface. Most options are presented in one clear console view. The MediaSmart autoconfigures most popular routers, enabling port-forwarding and UPnP and making the whole process intuitive.
Fast and Easy Backups
The software supports up to ten user accounts, and you can easily set read/write access for each. To configure a backup for another computer on the network, you first install WHS on that PC and click a few options to start the automated archive, which works over Wi-Fi. You can configure the MediaSmart to skip superfluous files such as your Internet cache.
The server's Gigabit Ethernet connection is capable of 100-MBps speeds--about twice as fast as a traditional network storage drive that doesn't use Gigabit. An 800MB file transfer over a Gigabit wired connection took 45 seconds--about 15 seconds less than the Netgear ReadyNAS RND4450 and the fastest wired transfer we've seen. Meanwhile, 802.11n access to the MediaSmart also hit about 100 MBps when we used a powerful and fast D-Link DIR-655 router.
Accessing the MediaSmart Server Remotely
One of the most powerful features is remote access: It's like getting a free lifetime subscription for GoToMyPC. On our tests, remote access worked flawlessly and allowed us to access a video and music collection in just a few clicks. We noticed that even iTunes popped up with the HP MediaSmart shared music folder without us having to configure anything. Streaming quality from the server depends on the quality of your connection.
Songs stuttered along at Starbucks over a 1-Mbps Wi-Fi connection. But at a campus library with a 10-Mbps feed, songs streamed so well it was as if the server was sitting right next to us. Once you turn on the media-sharing options on the software console--which is also easy to do--you may never need to touch the server again for media streaming.
HP also added a Photo Webshare option that essentially makes the MediaServer a Web site where friends and family can access the MediaSmart photo drive remotely using any browser. It too, was simple to use and akin to posting images on Flickr.
Adding More Apps
The MediaSmart is an impressive value when you consider how extensible it is: In addition to adding more storage capacity, you can also add software such as a free agent that streams your music to a TiVo directly from the MediaSmart, or Diskeeper 2008 Homeserver ($69.95), which offers defragging not available with HP.
Unfortunately, some of these add-ons are made by other end users and are not always easy to install and operate. Remember to copy the installation files to the server disk and then install the application from the Windows Home Server console.
HP MediaSmart Verdict
Minor quibbles aside, the simple setup and impressive technical prowess of the HP MediaSmart Server EX475 are compelling, even at the high price of $709. It's easily one of the best and most powerful digital home appliances ever made.