The idea of having a Windows server in your home might not fill you with joy, however HP and Microsoft hope they can change your mind with the MediaSmart Server, a server designed specifically for the home. So can it? We pretend to be IT support for the day.
Before we get started, let me give you my vision for a connected home: in the future we will all have a server in the "under the stairs" cupboard. It will allow you to stream content around the home and connect all your computers together. It will manage your internet connection, your music, your films, probably your home security and eventually connect to other non-PC devices like your fridge, washing machine and the such like. It will be the digital hub of your house and like the boiler come with the house.
Ahead of that vision is the HP MediaSmart Server, a 1TB hard drive that runs Windows Home Server operating system and that promises to, in part, connect your home on the PC front at least.
So what can it do? Well aside from acting as a central drive (available in 500GB or 1TB models) you get to use it to backup Windows XP and Windows Vista computers in a central place, you can also access the home server from virtually anywhere around the world via an internet connection. You can use it to stream media to other devices in the home, such as Xbox 360, allowing you to consume digital music, photos and videos on your television.
In practice you get a smallish box around half the size of a regular PC tower. Buttons and connections are kept to a minimum and the front opens up to reveal a rack of swap out drives. The cassette approach means you can add more drives as you go or take them out to put in a safe overnight as the unit itself isn’t fire retardant. You can do all this on the fly while the unit is on, formatting drives as you go.
Connection to the MediaSmart Server is via Ethernet or Wireless, although the manual suggests that to get it all going, a hard-wired connection is best and setup is long (around an hour) but this is mainly due to linking everything together on your machine/machines. With no monitor, keyboard or mouse options you will have to have a network already installed and a PC connected to it.
Once you’re setup, that’s it, you’re like a mini corporate office in your house although disappointingly there isn’t an "IT Department" badge in the box. Moving forward you can dump the server in a cupboard and forget about it as everything is managed via a software console on your PC.
Every machine in your network that you want to have control over the server has to have the Windows Home Server software installed and although you can access the contents of the server on a Mac you will need a PC to get started.
The console on your PC gives you the chance to manage a number of different areas and is broken down into two main areas MediaShare and Tools.
Tools as you might imagine allows you to manage and configure your server, and your backups as well as the ability to manage and copy your iTunes library so you can share it around the home.
Instead of creating multiple versions of Vista for the backup, the software takes a similar approach to most backup solutions by only backing up what you need rather than the same thing five times for example. The end result means that you won’t burn through that 1TB drive as fast as you thought you might leaving more space for music and video files.
The MediaShare area lets you manage and access your photos, music, videos, the storage drives for any other file type as well as manage the PhotoShare option that allows you to create galleries to share with friends around the world.
Just as any IT administrator will tell you (you might have to talk to them though) it’s all about access control and here you can manage the system to give people the access they need and the power on the server they have. Of course in a home environment it’s probably not essential and luckily you can bypass this, but if you were planning on using the HP MediaSmart in an office environment it means you could manage which employee has access to which file, which would be very handy indeed.
As for performance we can’t fault it. Obviously it will depend on your wireless connection, the distance to and from your PC and whether or not you’ve simply opted for a wired connection, but in our use the setup was simple and the overall management easy, although we would warn that the manual comes with a whopping 35 pages of troubleshooting (over half the manual in fact) suggesting that if this goes wrong it goes wrong in a big way.
While the HP MediaSmart doesn’t fully complete our futuristic vision if you’re a Windows Vista user with multiple PCs in the home, this will allow you to connect them all together in a shared experience. The 1TB drive is big enough that you can use it as a media streamer without forcing you to run out of space on your own computer and we love the ability to access stuff remotely with an internet connection (as long as you’ve put it in the right folder).