I bought my HP MediaSmart Server quite a while ago and I have had a few random posts about it but I wanted to do an official review to let you know what I think of it. In order to successfully review this I am going to break it up into 2 sections: hardware and software.
The hardware is almost identical to HP’s old ex475 MediaSmart servers on the outside but the inside now has a Intel Celeron 2.0 Ghz processor with 2 GB of RAM. That is a pretty big upgrade compared to the old AMD 1.8 Sempron with 512 MB RAM. One of the biggest jumps internally for the ex485/ex487 is the jump to a 64-bit processor. While this currently doesn’t matter to much, Microsoft’s next version of Windows Home Server is going to be built off of Windows Server 2008 R8 which is 64-bit only. This means that the ex480 family can technically run the future software without another hardware upgrade.
Externally, the hardware is great. Four hard drive bays right where they should be, three USB in the back, eSATA, and gigabit ethernet. At first I didn’t even think I would use the front USB port but I find that I use it quite often when copying large amounts of information to the server.
I can’t say much about the hardware except for the fact that it is wonderful. I haven’t had any hardware problems and the device is small enough and quiet enough to leave next to my laser printer and no one knows it’s there. The device is fairly quite, but one of my hard drives is a bit old and I think makes more noise than necessary. I would say I have never heard the device over the TV being on, but when the room is completely silent, the hard drive noise is enough to not let me fall asleep.
Lots of storage options (4 hard drive bays, 4 USB ports, 1 eSATA port)
Plenty of speed
The bays were a little awkard at first
eSATA not replicating (no daisy chaining eSATA devices like you could with the old systems)
First of all, the NAS solutions I have used in the past have always been DIY solutions. Even the Buffalo Linkstation I hacked so that I could load a full Debian Linux install on it for more flexibility. Other than that I have used Ubuntu Server, FreeNAS, Windows, and a few other solutions, and have looked at solutions like unRAID, Linksys, and QNap. So far every single system I have used just seemed pieced together and not a finished product. That was until I used Windows Home Server.
Windows Home Server is built off of Windows Server 2003 and this is a very good thing. Windows Home Server is available as a retail purchase or you can buy it pre-installed on a lot of NAS systems out there. The retail version allows you to build your NAS from the ground up. Everything from the hardware, OS, and add-on software can be customized which is great for people that want a bit more control but don’t want all the headaches of some Linux incompatibilities. Plus if you buy the software retail you can start with cheap hardware and then work your way up as you get small amounts of budget instead of plopping down ~$600 for a all-in-on retail solution.
The key feature of WHS is the folder duplication. It allows you to use any hard drive and adds all the storage to a pool of available space, similar to the Drobo. The reason this kicks the Drobo’s ass is if your WHS machine dies, all of the drives are formatted with NTFS so you can just pull the hard drives and get the information off of a new computer. With the Drobo, if your Drobo dies, so does everything stored on it cause it uses a proprietary format. This type of storage is really the way things are moving because people are finally realizing that RAID is not a backup solution. RAID is for speed and eliminates down time, period.
The software does what you would expect and the configuration is handled in a stupidly simple Home Server Console. I actually dislike the console just because I feel like it makes things too easy. As much as you can do with the console some things just aren’t there yet (such as copying from a local USB drive to a share). But because the system runs Windows Server you can just RDP to the machine and copy things that way. I hope small tasks like this are fixed in future releases and it would also be nice to see some sort of official add-on store/repository or at least a official Microsoft site for them. It gets annoying trying to rummage the internet to find the best add-ons.
Add-ons is one area that I find very feature lacking and yet is something that should be so much better. Where is the add-on to let me ping my DNSomatic account? How about the one that integrates with my webcam for security viewing/recording when there is movement? Home automation? Game server? Heck even some more advanced features like Active Directory would be nice for the power users, and people with more than just 1 computer in the house.
I haven’t tried printer sharing through the system but the good news is, if it works in Windows Server 2003 it will work in Windows Home Server. And that is the main thing that separates Windows Home Server from all of the other DIY and Linux systems I have used. Windows Home Server takes a very successfully platform and strips it down to just what you need, and then they allow anyone to make minor additions to the system using add-ons. The software is the same across all platforms that use Windows Home Server. It doesn’t matter if you build it yourself or buy it from HP, Acer, or Shuttle.
This kind of flexibility makes me very excited for the next release which is based off of Windows Server 2008 R2 (a.k.a. Windows 7). If the next version of Windows Home Server lives up to 1/2 of it’s expectations it will still be a killer system that will be worth every penny for a upgrade.
Add-ons are compatible with any WHS system
Easy to use
The first NAS I don’t manage on a weekly basis
Console can sometimes be too simple
Key Add-ins are missing
Network warnings for stupid things (firewall turned off, updates needed, etc.)
The HP MediaSmart Server came with one other thing that you won’t get on any other WHS system. Custom HP software built just for the MediaSmart servers. When I first bought the MSS the software wasn’t very feature rich for my needs. I don’t use iTunes so I don’t need the iTunes music server, I don’t have a Mac so I don’t need Time Machine backups, I don’t use snapfish, flickr, facebook, or Picasa for my pictures so I don’t need the Photo Publisher, and I don’t want the server collecting all of my media and putting it wherever it wanted to so I don’t want the HP Media Collector. The other features the MSS includes that retail installs of WHS don’t get are Twonky Media Server, Remote Access, HP Media Streamer, and HP Video Converter. Here is why they all suck.
Twonky Media Server is basically why I bought a MSS and didn’t build my own. You can easily buy Twonky from their site for $30 and install it and you are probably better off. HP by default locks me out of a lot of the advanced settings (but there is a way around it), but at the time I thought I might actually use some of the other features HP includes. Also to compare, I had Twonky on my Linkstation Live and it worked wonderfully with my PS3. With the MSS, Twonkey reports that I don’t have any music, photos, or videos stored on my MSS.
Remote Access lets you set up a website so you can access your WHS from anywhere in the world. While this is just fine (and Microsoft allows for free sites using *.homeserver.com), HP wants you to pay for a TZO site at
$30 $10 a year. Not terrible but when free sites like www.dyndns.org and a million others let you do this for free it just seems like a waste. As a matter of fact before the HP 2.5 upgrade there was no option to have a *.homeserver.com site so you had to pay to get access to your server. Unless of course you set that portion up on your router.
HP Photo Viewer is probably the best software out of all the crappy software HP includes in the MSS. Of course first you have to publish all of your pictures locally to the HP Photo Viewer and make sure you put them in albums manually. Once they are “published” you can
password protect them let users order prints download a full album view pictures full screen view the pictures in a small area of your web browser. OK maybe this software does suck. Don’t use it. The only benefit it could possibly have over online sites is you have unlimited storage because it is served locally. But if you need that just buy a domain and set up a gallary2 installation, or pay for flickr, Picasa, etc. At least then you get a off site backup of your pictures at the same time.
So how about the HP Media Streamer and HP Video Converter those at least are worth looking at right? Not for me. The idea is the Video Converter runs in the background and converts your files so that you can share them in the HP Media Streamer and to your iPhone/iPod Touch. The media streamer is supposed to play your music, pictures, and videos to a flash player in your browser wherever you are. The good news is the HP Media Streamer is password protected so at least not just anyone can access your files. The bad news is, ever since I upgraded to the 2.5 version software the HP Media Streamer doesn’t see any of my music or videos. That seems to defeat the purpose. Oh and the video converter converted all of my video files and then seems to have misplaced them because it started to convert all of my video files again, thus overwriting the old video files it just converted. So I just turned it off and forgot the feature was even there. I also have yet to be able to play any music, photos, or video to any of the 3 iPhones I have tested. Every single one either says it cannot connect or there are no files to be played.
A good feature list to compare to other WHS’s on the market
Nothing works the way it is advertised
My next WHS box will probably be a home built system with 8-10 hard drive bays. In the long run that will probably be cheaper and I can make sure only the software I need is installed. I still do like the MSS and if you don’t want to mess with it (or have Apple products) it really is the way to go for mass storage on your network.