Windows Home Server (WHS, see my review) is one of those transformational technological products, where you don't realize how badly you need something until you get it. If WHS has a problem, though, it's that it's a bit too complex for the average person, with a number of post-Setup tasks that you need to complete before the server is 100 percent functional. Hewlett-Packard (HP), one of Microsoft's WHS OEM partners, makes what I think is the nicest WHS-based solution, and as I noted a bit over a year ago in my review of the first generation of the HP MediaSmart Server, the HP's success is two-fold. First, the form factor is jaw-droppingly wonderful, offering four hot-swappable SATA drive bays in a compact package that is so cute, and so disarming, that you'll want to leave it on your desk rather than shuttle it off to the closet. Second, HP makes it obvious what tasks you need to complete to have a fully-functioning home server, something that's missing in a default WHS install. As a superset of the core WHS product, the MediaSmart Servers of last year were, I feel, the best of the lot. And I'm happy to report that that's even more true now that the new models are becoming available.

Last year, HP sold two MediaSmart Server products, the ex470, and the ex475. These machines featured mostly identical specs, a fairly pedestrian 1.8 GHz AMD Sempron processor, 512 MB of RAM, and either one or two 500 GB internal hard drives, depending on which version you got. My recommendation was--and is--to go with at least two physical drives in any WHS setup because you can then take advantage of the system's unique and desirable data duplication functionality, ensuring that a hard drive crash won't take down all of your important documents and other data.

This year, HP is selling two new MediaSmart models, the ex485 and ex487. As with last year, the two are identical aside from the storage. This time around, however, everything's been bumped up, and quite a bit. The processor has been changed to a more capable 2.0 GHz Intel Celeron. The bundled RAM is up dramatically to 2 GB. And the storage allotment is improved to one or two 750 GB internal hard drives, depending on which version you choose.

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
Something old, something new. The 2009 MediaSmart Servers are almost visually indistinguishable from their predecessors.

These changes are important, but they're not just about steadily upping specs as time marches on. The issue is that WHS, in its current version, is still very much a 1.0 product. What we've discovered in the past year is that one of the system's best features, its extensibility through add-ons, can also be its Achilles Heel in a low-RAM situation. So while 512 MB of RAM may be enough for the core WHS OS and one or maybe two add-ons, it's woefully short of what you'll need if you decide to install more than that. By pushing the RAM all the way up to 2 GB, you have a server that will stand the test of time. (This is doubly important because the tiny HP form factor makes it hard to manually upgrade the RAM yourself.)

OK, so the new MediaSmart Servers are future-proof, or at least as future-proof as you can be in this rapidly improving market. Aside from that, the core product hasn't changed much. The form factor is roughly identical, with the same drive bays, ports, and other hardware features. And the core OS is the same, WHS 1.0 with the excellent PowerPack 1 (PP1, see my review) update pre-installed. So you're probably wondering: What's the big deal? Sure, the RAM, processor, and storage upgrades are nice, even necessary. But it's still running the same WHS we all know and love. Is this really that important of an upgrade?

Oh my, yes. As always with HP, the value that they add to WHS comes not in the repackaging of what Microsoft provides, but in the software and services they add to the mix. And this time around, what HP is done is better than ever. And I think these additions put the new MediaSmart Servers over the top.

Looking back on HP's value-add

As I noted in my review of the first generation MediaSmart Server, HP's contributions to WHS take different forms. The company customizes the install process, providing a nice Setup Assistant that takes the guesswork out of what features need to be customized before setup is complete. They modify the client software, providing a friendly interface to their server than the default Microsoft utilities. They heavily modify the WHS management console, again putting a friendlier face on what is otherwise a fairly confusing UI. And they add a number of add-ons to the system, extending the core capabilities of WHS in very useful ways.

In the first generation MediaSmart Servers, HP added a nice MediaSmart Server tab to the WHS management console. This provides a friendly front-end to commonly-needed server tasks, like remote access and add-in management, as well as HP-specific tools, and even an LED brightness control for the box's external lights. (Nice touch, that.)

The company also provided a number of unique WHS add-ons, extending the functionality of the server and giving HP's products a leg up on the competition. These included a Photo Webshare server, which you could use to share WHS-based photos on the Web; and an iTunes Server aggregating content from iTunes collections on your home network onto the WHS. HP also shipped a Control Center application for desktops that connected to the server; this software provided a three-pane view to virtually all of the server's features.

When Microsoft shipped WHS PP1, HP again went the value-add route and supplied their own MediaSmart-specific updates to customers. (This, of course, was when the 512 MB of RAM in these systems was suddenly revealed to be a liability.) These included PVConnect Media Server, which made the media sharing capabilities of WHS compliant with the DLNA standard and, thus, more compatible with media sharing devices on the home network; and the McAfee Total Protection Service, which adds server-based anti-virus and anti-malware protection.

What you get with the 2009 MediaSmart Servers

As we look at the new generation of MediaSmart Servers, what we see is more of the same: HP continues to add value to WHS and further differentiate its products from the competition. Here are the HP-specific features you get in the 2009-model MediaSmart Servers.

Mac compatibility

Responding to the recent surge in Mac usage with consumers, HP has added fairly pervasive Mac compatibility to the new MediaSmart Servers. This functionality takes many forms, but the most heavily marketed is the product's compatibility with the Time Machine backup feature in Mac OS X Leopard (see my review), the most recent version Mac operating system. Basically, Leopard-based Macs see the WHS box as a Time Capsule, which is Apple's single disk NAS solution. This provides automated file backup, or about 50 percent of Time Machine's functionality. What it doesn't provide is image-based system backup and restore, so if the Mac happens to go south, you can't use a MediaSmart Server to restore it (as you can with Time Capsule). That said, my wife's been using this feature since October on our test server and it works as advertised.

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
On the Mac, Time Machine sees the MediaSmart Server as compatible attached storage for file backups.

The MediaSmart's compatibility with Macs extends beyond Time Machine, however. You can of course stream digital music, digital photos, or digital video from the server to a Leopard-based Mac, as you can from any Windows-centric machine on the home network. If you're connected to the server remotely--i.e. from outside your house--you can stream music and photos to the Mac as well. And HP's iTunes Server has been extended to work with Mac-based iTunes collections this time around, so you can aggregate that content on the server too.

Aside from the lack of a true disaster recovery solution, HP's support for the Mac in such a Windows-centric product is notable, I think. Note, however, that only Leopard is supported.

Welcome tab

As it did with its first generation product, HP has created a custom HP MediaSmart Server Welcome tab for the new products, and this page provides a handy menu for all of the HP-specific features we've mentioned previously as well as a few core WHS features like remote access. It's no longer a single page, as with the first version, because of the sheer number of additions, but it's still easier to navigate and use than any of the stock WHS stuff. Nicely done, as always.

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
As always, HP makes Windows Home Server more approachable.

HP Photo Publisher

Where the Photo Webshare feature from the first generation MediaSmart Server allowed you to host a personal photo-sharing Web site directly on the server, in version 2 we get a new HP Photo Publisher utility that publishes photos from your HP-based photo library to your favorite Internet-based photo sharing service (assuming that service is HP Snapfish, Flickr, Google Picasa Web Albums, or Facebook). You can also publish to the Photo Webshare replacement, now called HP Photo Publisher, directly on your home server.

This functionality is exposed via a Web application running on the home server's Web server. It's a little slow, especially if you're hitting a service with multiple albums (as I do), but it does work well, and it's not a bad way of publishing content to the Web if you've bought into the concept of using the home server to store all of your most important content. (And I suspect this will be true of many WHS users.)

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
HP Photo Publisher takes the pain out of publishing your photos online.

HP Media collector

While the first generation MediaSmart Server provided just an iTunes Server for automatic aggregation of digital media content, the new version takes it a big step further by including a more generic media collector feature. Aside from not requiring you to run iTunes, the nice thing about this feature is that it's automatic, scheduled, and far more Windows friendly than iTunes Server. You can configure which PCs are scanned for content and how often they're checked. You can also independently configure how or if the collector scans for music, photos, and videos. Content is store, as you'd expect, in the corresponding shared folders on the server (Music, Photos, and Videos, respectively)

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
Media Collector can automatically aggregate digital media content from PCs and copy it to the home server.

Server for iTunes

HP still bundles its iTunes content aggregation service, and if you're a diehard iTunes user, this is the one you'll want to use. By aggregating the content from one or more iTunes libraries to the server, you will have a single location from which to stream content, negating the need to move music and video libraries from machine to machine. This feature appears to work identically to the version HP shipped in the previous MediaSmart Server products.

Server Online Backup

This feature is, perhaps, the one I'm most excited about: It allows you to automatically back up specific shared folders on the home server to Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3)-based online storage (i.e. cloud-based storage). I'd be using the Jungle Disk WHS add-on for this exact purpose on the first generation MediaSmart, but now that's it built-into the new version and supported by HP, it's even better.

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
My favorite feature: Amazon S3 cloud storage integration

Setting up an Amazon S3 account, alas, is somewhat daunting. But once you've got that done, and have entered the appropriate passcode information (an access key and secret key) into WHS, you're good to go: You can select the shared folders you want backed up and schedule the times during which you'd like your server-based content backed up to the cloud.

In a year of using Amazon S3 in this fashion, I can say that the service is incredibly thrifty. I saw an initial monthly bill of $30 or so the first month I used it because of all the traffic. But since then it's settled into a nice $3 to $7 a month, depending on the traffic. For example, August 2008 was $4.93, while December was $12.54, due to some photo consolidation.

You can find out more about Amazon S3 on the company's Web site. They also have a calculator for figuring out how much you could spend. But this is a great feature: For all of the data duplication magic in WHS, the one thing you don't get is off-site backup. And that's exactly what this provides.

TwonkyMedia

While the current version of WHS uses a Windows Connect-based media sharing technology that is, shall we say, only partially compliant with the DLNA specification, HP enhances it with the TwonkyMedia add-on, which provides much better compatibility with connected devices. (This add-on replaces the PVConnect Media Server from HP's PP1 update.) There's not much to say about it: You can configure which content folders (Music, Photos, Videos) are shared, as well as the types of media you'll share from each. The only confusion here is that, depending on the device or software (these shares also appear in Windows Media Player on Windows-based PCs, for example), you might see two entries, one for the stock home server and one for TwonkyMedia.

Smart power management

While future versions of Windows Server include advanced power management functionality aimed at cutting down on electrical costs, WHS is based on Windows Server 2003 and thus doesn't include any such functionality. So HP has added its own power management utility, accessed via the WHS Settings dialog, where you can configure the server to sleep and wake up at specific times of the day, potentially saving energy costs. It's sort of a brute force approach to power management, but if you know that the server won't be needed at certain times, it's better than nothing.

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
It's not much, but you can manually configure your home server to sleep at specific intervals.

Control Center

Also as before, HP supplies a Control Center PC application that's installed on PCs that are configured to use the MediaSmart Server. This handy front-end to MediaSmart functionality is much nicer than its predecessor, and best of all, it no longer uses a tab based interface but rather arrays its options in a simple grid. Again, nicely done.

HP MediaSmart Server (2009)
The new Control Center application makes it easy to access server functionality from your PC.

Questions about upgrading

If you're an existing MediaSmart Server customer, you may be wondering what HP's policy is about providing you with at least some of the custom functionality that it includes with the new servers. Here's the story: Existing MediaSmart Server customers will be able to download the Mac compatibility and Server Online Backup features at no charge sometime in the near future. The RAM limitations in the first generation devices would make installing and supporting the other add-ons untenable.

Pricing and availability

The second generation MediaSmart Servers are available for order now and will ship in February 2009. As noted before, there are two models, the ex485, which provides a single 750 GB hard drive for $599, and the ex487, which provides 1.5 TB of storage over two disks for $749. I strongly recommend going with the two-disk version, or at least getting a second HDD if you opt for the ex485. Both are heavily discounted, so be sure to shop around.

Final thoughts

While Windows Home Server remains a somewhat complicated product with a lengthy one-time setup, the 2009 HP MediaSmart Servers again make this process as simple as possible and then reward the customer with a sweeping set of useful add-ons. With its improved CPU, RAM, and storage capacities, these new devices offer dramatically better performance and overhead than their predecessors, and the new software functionality is almost universally excellent. I think that Windows Home Server is an excellent addition to any connected home, and if you're going to go this route, I recommend the HP MediaSmart Server over competing pre-built servers and home-brew options. Indeed, I use a 2009 HP MediaSmart Server to store and protect all of my personal and professional data, and it's the hub of my digital media collection on the home network. And that's about as strong a recommendation as anyone can give. Highly recommended.