In my review of Windows Home Server--which you'll need to read first in order to understand what's going on with this product--I highlighted the feature set and pros and cons of Microsoft's new home-based server software. While enthusiasts and prosumers are welcome to purchase Windows Home Server in software-only form from online retailers such as NewEgg.com and Buy.com, you'll get a better experience--along with more innovative hardware--if you purchase the software preinstalled on a specially-made home server. There are a number of choices shipping in the next few months and into 2008, but the first out of the gate in the US, and the nicest, from what I can tell, is HP's MediaSmart Server.

From a software standpoint, MediaSmart offers a superset of the stock Windows Home Server (WHS) experience: Everything that Microsoft provides is available here as well, as you'd expect. But HP goes the extra mile by dramatically improving the out of box experience, one of the issues I highlighted in my WHS review, and adding a number of other useful features that will be valuable to enthusiasts and regular consumers alike. The end result is a server that provides all of the goodness of WHS in a package that is far more accessible to typical consumers. Let's take a look.

Think outside the box

Setting up the MediaSmart Server is simple if time consuming. In the box, you'll find just a few pieces: The server itself, which is disarmingly small and about the size of a six-pack of coke, a power cable for the server, an Ethernet cable, some documentation, and three setup DVDs and CDs. The server itself is a thing of beauty and worth discussing briefly: Aside from being almost comically small, it features an elegant swing out door on the front, providing easy access to its four internal drive bays. Depending on the MediaSmart configuration you purchased, two or three of these bays will be open for expansion, and you can actually hot-swap new SATA drives into the device. Yes, you can do so while it's running. Tres elegance.

To get going, you just connect the server to your home network via the Ethernet cable--as with other WHS devices, the HP must be connected to the network via wired, not wireless, networking--plug in the power cable and connect it to the wall jack, and turn on the device. After about a minute, the server will be up and running normally, and you can proceed with the setup procedure. Note that there are a number of blue and red status lights on the device; in normal operation these will all be colored blue, but you might see a red light on first boot or when there's a problem. These are visual additions to the software-based notifications WHS offers.

Because the server doesn't include a monitor port, you can't actually sit in front of it and configure things. This is by design, as WHS can be set up and configured remotely from one of the 32-bit Windows XP or Windows Vista-based PCs on your home network (x64 support is coming from Microsoft in the first half of 2008). To continue setting up the server, then, you'll need to insert the Software Installation Disc CD into one of the PCs attached to your home network (wired or wireless) and run the Setup application that should appear automatically. Note that you will need administrative privileges to run this application, though you can run as a standard user after that and still have WHS functionality.

HP's custom installation program walks you through the process of setting up and configuring the server from a client PC. It will install the Microsoft .NET Framework 2.0 if not already present and then an HP Update. Then, Microsoft's standard Windows Home Server Connector Setup Wizard begins. This wizard installs some new services on the PC, looks for and finds your home server, and then proceeds so you can configure the server for the first time.

During this process, you provide a network friendly name for the server (HOME-SERVER or whatever), create a strong password and password hint, and configure automatic updates, the Customer Experience Improvement Program (CEIP), and Windows Error Reporting. (I recommend enabling all of these.) Then, the wizard will download and install any applicable updates from Microsoft Update. Once that completes, you can click the prominent Start button, logon, and access the management console for the first time.

If you're familiar with the WHS management console, you'll quickly see that HP has made a number of improvements to the stock interface. We'll discuss the new software features HP added below, but the most important new functionality appears up front and center, the first time you use the console, and it dramatically changes how you initially configure the server.

In a stock WHS install, you actually need to follow a fairly convoluted path to fully configure the server and enable all of its features. This requires some in-depth knowledge about how the server works and where features can be found. For example, while Microsoft provides prominent tabs for Computers & Backup, User Accounts, Shared Folders, and Server Storage, most of which should be fairly obvious, you'll need to locate the Remote Access section of the busy Windows Home Server Settings dialog in order to enable and configure two of WHS' coolest features, remote access and Web site connectivity.

HP removes the randomness of this interface by overlaying a Setup Assistant over the console the first time you run it, and this Assistant stays in place until you manually turn it off or complete the six tasks you need to perform in order to completely set up and configure the server. Sure, it's a little time-consuming, but you only need to do it once, and after you've completed the steps, you can be sure that you are completely taking advantage of everything the MediaSmart offers. What a great idea.

The six tasks include, in order:

Configure HP's automatic updates. In addition to the Automatic Updates service provided by Microsoft, HP offers its own Software Update service that provides MediaSmart-specific updates. This can be configured to automatically download and install updates (recommended), or automatically download but not install updates until you're notified. Or, you can disable the feature entirely.

Create user accounts. While it's possible to backup the PCs on your network with configuring user accounts, this feature is necessary to grant access rights to shared folders on the server. These user accounts can map to user accounts on your PCs or not, your choice, though obviously you'll have an easier time accessing WHS shares if the PC you're using is logged on with an account that exists on the server as well.

Configure remote access. Hidden in the default WHS UI, this is one of the coolest WHS features. There are three pieces here. The first is Web site connectivity, which allows you to hit your WHS resources via a Web interface on your home network (or, with remote access configured, via the Internet.) The second is router configuration, which, as noted in my WHS review, can be somewhat daunting. Assuming you have a fairly modern UPnP-compatible router, WHS should be able to automatically configure it for remote access. Otherwise, expect some pain. The third piece is your domain name: Microsoft is offering free something.homeserver.com Web addresses to all WHS users. Or you can go the HP route and configure your domain name through TZO.com instead. This will give you a something.hpshare.net or an even easier something.com type domain name (though you'll have to purchase or own your own domain already, in the latter case).

You can also configure whether your home server Web page defaults to Microsoft's version or HP's. Its sort of a toss-up about which is "better," but both are attractive and usable.

Setup HP Photo Webshare. Here, you configure one of HP's unique software add-ons for Windows Home Server. I will discuss this feature in the next section.

Enable media sharing. WHS is a standard MediaConnect client, so in addition to file shares, you can also opt to share digital photos, music, and videos stored on the server with other users running Windows Media Player on XP- and Vista-based PCs, or other compatible devices, such as the Xbox 360. Media sharing is disabled in WHS by default for some reason.

Read the user's guide. In the last step, HP recommends checking out its printed user's guide, which at almost 200 pages in length is surprisingly thorough.

And that's it. After completing these six tasks, Setup is complete and you can close the Assistant. It's available later via an Assistant link in the right side of the console UI, so if you choose to finish some of these tasks later you can find the Assistant later easily. That said, I recommend trying to complete all six tasks in the first sitting if you can.

New software features

In addition to its thoughtfully designed Setup Assistant, HP adds several major new software features to WHS in the MediaSmart Server. We'll examine those features here.

MediaSmart Server console

HP adds a MediaSmart tab to the WHS management console that provides a handy front-end to HP-specific features like HP MediaSmart software updates, Photo WebShare (see below), and iTunes Server (see below), as well as the brightness of the lights on the front of the device. That means you can completely dim the lights or crank them up, depending on your needs. Neat.

HP Photo WebShare

HP Photo WebShare is a custom WHS add-on that provides a way to publish photos to your WHS Web site so that you can share them with others securely. This is an interesting option for people who'd like to share family photos with others close to them but not do so out on the public Web where anyone could look in. The service works in tandem with the Web access functionality provided by WHS and incurs no fee above the cost of a domain name if you go through route. (Remember that something.hpshare.net and something.homeserver.com addresses are available to MediaSmart users for free.) It is easily the richest feature HP has added to WHS.

To use Photo WebShare, you need to enable remote access and configure at least one WHS user as a WebShare Manager; you accomplish the latter through the Photo WebShare settings link in the MediaSmart Server console.

What's unique about Photo WebShare is that in addition to providing per-user and visitor access to specific photo collections over the Web, you can configure users and visitors with specific upload limits and notifications, so that they can be alerted when new content is available. Furthermore, the HP Photo WebShare page can be configured as your default WHS home page if you like. I could see this being a popular option.

iTunes Server

This is easily the most shocking feature in HP's MediaSmart Server, and I mean that in an entirely positive way. While a stock WHS server can offer MediaConnect-based sharing that works well with Microsoft-oriented software and devices, it does nothing to help the millions of consumers who use Apple's popular iTunes software instead. This is where HP steps in: Via a WHS add-on, the company provides a nearly-complete iTunes solution that copies the iTunes libraries and playlists from any connected PCs to the server and then provides that content via iTunes' streaming-based sharing functionality.

This feature is configured on a PC-by-PC basis using the HP Control Center that's described below. There are also separate server settings for determining how the shared iTunes library looks to other iTunes clients on the network. Basically, you can enable or disable the feature from the PC, and determine how often the iTunes library is polled for new content. Then, on the server, you can specify a share name (which will appear in all iTunes instances around your house), and, optionally, a password.

The big question about iTunes Server, of course, is whether it works with protected iTunes content, that is, songs and videos purchased from the iTunes Store. It does not. But that's more a limitation of Apple's DRM scheme than it is HP's software.

HP Control Center

While the stock WHS client experience involves a single tray icon with links to activate the WHS management console, backup the PC, and access the shared folders on the server, HP takes this one step further, again, this time with the HP Control Center. This client-based application uses a single window with three tabs. In the default view, MediaSmart, you'll see links for Photo Webshare (for connecting to your Web-based photo sharing site), Server (for accessing the server on the home network; i.e. at \\home-server or whatever), Photos, Music, and Videos (the latter three of which all connect to the appropriate shared folders on the server via Windows Explorer).

The second tab, Tools, provides three links: Home Server Console, for accessing the stock WHS management console; Backup Now, to trigger a manual backup of the PC you're currently using; and Settings for iTunes, to configure whether your iTunes library is synced with the server and, if so, how frequently.

The third tab, Help & Support, provides access to the HP MediaSmart Server user's guide (in Windows Help format), online support, and the HP Home & Home Office online store, in case you need any accessories.

Pricing and availability

The HP MediaSmart Server is available now for preorder in the US and will begin shipping to customers around the end of November. HP expects some online and brick and mortar retailers to stock the server before the end of 2007, but notes that many will in fact wait for a bigger consumer push in January.

There are two versions of the MediaSmart Server, one with a single 500 GB hard drive for $499 and one with two 500 GB hard drives for $749. Otherwise, the units offer identical specs: Both feature the same internals and can be expanded via a total of four internal hot-swap SATA drive bays, four external USB 2.0 ports, and one external SATA (E-SATA) connector. That's a lot of expansion headroom.

Final thoughts

The HP MediaSmart Server provides a superset of the functionality of Microsoft's Windows Home Server environment, and it does so at a reasonable price, though I recommend the dual-disc 1 TB version if you can afford it. (If not, try to add at least one more hard drive to the system as soon as possible in order to take advantage of WHS' desirable data duplication functionality.) HP's software add-ons are a real improvement to the stock WHS software, especially the out of box setup experience, which turns WHS from an enthusiast-only product into one that is far more usable (if still somewhat confusing) for typical consumers.

The MediaSmart Server hardware sells itself, and it should prove equally interesting to enthusiasts and consumers alike, both of whom will enjoy the look and expandability of the device. It's astonishing that a server this compact can be so full-featured and contain so much storage. That you can expand beyond that almost exponentially with external storage is just icing on the cake.

Put simply, the MediaSmart Server makes WHS more accessible to a wider audience, and HP should be applauded for that. WHS is still a fairly technical product, of course, as you might expect of a 1.0 solution. If you're looking at WHS, this is a hugely desirable option. Highly recommended.