It's getting hard for me to remain objective about HP's MediaSmart Server products. Indeed, as a matter of full disclosure, I'm on a (unpaid) HP advisory board for the MediaSmart product line, so if you're worried that my opinion in such matters is skewed, please feel free to move on. But I would remind you first that I actually use an HP MediaSmart Server as the backbone of my home network and it stores and protects several years' worth of documents, personal photos, and other data as well as my entire music and video collections. I'm not being swayed by corporate influence. I'm being swayed by the fact that I use this stuff every day and it just works. I recommend it because it's excellent. Indeed, the only reason I agreed to advise HP on future versions of the product is that I'm an unabashed fan.

With the chicken and egg stuff out of the way, let's get down to the business at hand: HP, again, has upgraded their line of Windows Home Server (WHS)-based MediaSmart Servers. Now in their third generation, these wonderful solutions have reached an apex of sorts for what's possible with Microsoft's first generation of WHS software. No company, to my knowledge, has done as much as HP to extend the capabilities of Microsoft's basic home server OS.

It all started with their first generation servers (see my review), which came in the now-familiar and innovative MediaSmart Server enclosure while building on the solid WHS core and adding unique and useful features like web-based photo sharing and an iTunes server. In its second generation products (see my review), HP addressed the shortcomings of the original by bulking up the hardware (with a faster processor and much more RAM) and significantly improved the functionality of the server with Mac compatibility, a photo publisher, a media collector, online (S3-based) backup, TwonkeyMedia sharing, better power management, and further improvements to the management UI.

For the third generation version, HP has made further improvements to the hardware as well as the bundled software capabilities. What it all adds up to, naturally, is the best MediaSmart Server yet. No, nix that. It's the best Windows Home Server yet. Period.

Here's what's new.

Hardware improvements

Encased in the same tiny form factor as its predecessors, the new HP MediaSmart Servers don't look like something new. But underneath are new CPUs and, thanks to advances in hard drive storage space, new scalability possibilities. HP has upped the model numbers as well, to EX490 and EX495. The EX490 features a 2.2 GHz Intel Celeron processor (64-bit) and single 1 TB hard drive, while the EX495 includes a 2.5 GHz Intel Pentium Dual Core (also 64-bit) with a single 1.5 TB hard drive. As before, both include 3 internal drive bays and external eSATA (1) and USB 2.0 (4) ports for expansion.

To better understand how HP has evolved the MediaSmart Server line over the past couple of years, consider the following:

Model: EX470
Release date: November 2007
Microprocessor: 1.8 GHz AMD Sempron
RAM: 512 MB
Bundled HDD(s):  1 x 512 GB

Model: EX475
Release date: November 2007
Microprocessor: 1.8 GHz AMD Sempron
RAM: 512 MB
Bundled HDD(s): 1 x 512 GB

Model: EX485
Release date: January 2009
Microprocessor: 2 GHz Intel Celeron
RAM: 2 GB
Bundled HDD(s): 1 x 750 GB

Model: EX487
Release date: January 2009
Microprocessor: 2 GHz Intel Celeron
RAM: 2 GB
Bundled HDD(s): 2 x 750 GB

Model: EX490
Release date: September 2009
Microprocessor: 2.2 GHz Intel Celeron
RAM: 2 GB
Bundled HDD(s): 1 x 1 TB

Model: EX495
Release date: September 2009
Microprocessor: 2.5 GHz Intel Celeron
RAM: 2 GB
Bundled HDD(s): 1 x 1.5 TB

And here we see the one (and perhaps only failing) of the new lineup. While the storage allotment has indeed risen again year over year, for the first time, HP is bundling only a single hard drive in the high-end version of the server. That's a mistake, in my opinion, because it robs users of one of WHS's best features (data duplication). My advice is here is the same as ever: If you're going to use any WHS-based home server, be sure to get two or more hard drives and take advantage of data duplication. (On the flipside, the high-end EX495 is a bit less expensive, at $700, than its predecessor, the EX487, which retailed for $750.)

Beyond the improved processors and storage, little else has changed. But I'm OK with that: The HP MediaSmart Server enclosure is as beautiful and elegant as it was two years ago. This is one great-looking piece of hardware.

Software improvements

Looking beyond the enclosure, HP's MediaSmart Servers have always differentiated themselves from the core WHS OS as well as the competition with a welcome suite of additional functionality and a simpler UI. And with the new models, both have been improved yet again. Here are some of the more interesting software achievements in this release.

Improved management user interface

While the basic WHS management interface is dated and tired, HP has again improved things for MediaSmart Server owners by offering a custom MediaSmart Server tab in the UI. This tab provides a friendly front-end to all the unique HP features, and the version we see in the third generation servers is an evolved version of the excellent UI that appeared earlier this year in gen 2.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
HP spiffs up its management UI in the 3rd gen MediaSmart Servers.

As you might expect, there are far more options available from the MediaSmart Server tab, and most are digital media related. Some, like the new System Status UI, are going to appeal to the IT crowd, while others, like the improved Mac capabilities (see below) will be more broadly appreciated.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
System Status lets you know how the server is doing. Here, utilization is high because it's converting a video.

Web media streaming

In addition to the Apple device streaming described below, you can also stream music, photos, and videos via the nicely redesigned MediaSmart Server web site that's associated with your server. Again, performance wasn't the greatest, especially with video, but it's certainly better than nothing.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
You can stream media from your home server's private web site using a much nicer looking interface.

Improved media collector

HP first included a media collector in its generation 2 MediaSmart Servers, but the version found here is improved dramatically by giving you better control over which media is collected. Previously, the collector was either on or off, and you could include any connected PC in that collection. But with the new version, you can also independently determine which media is collected on each connected PC. So for photos, music, and videos, collection is either on or off, per-PC, and you can even specify which folders are included in collection.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
The improved media collector lets you configure exactly which media is collected from each connected PC.

Improved Mac compatibility

The gen 2 MediaSmart Servers added basic Mac compatibility in the form of Time Machine file backup. But now in gen 3, this capability is taken to the next level with full disc recovery capabilities, making the HP MediaSmart Server a complete Mac solution. (Requiring Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard and up.) Mac users can also take advantage of the new, more fine-grained media collection capabilities. And they can now administer the server via a new version of Microsoft's Remote Desktop Connection client, though it should be noted that you will need at least one Windows PC to complete the initial setup of the server.

iPhone and iPod touch streaming

HP's embrace of popular Apple technology extends to the iPhone (and iPod touch) in this version as well. After configuring a bewildering number of other features and downloading the free iStream application from the Apple Apps Store, and then configuring it for your server, you're good to go: Just launch the app, select from the list of shared media, and stream away.

Performance varies greatly, of course, depending on your location and the quality of the network you're using. But even in the house and connected via Wi-Fi, there's some lag each time you start new content playing. And unlike with the iTunes/iPod software on your iPhone/iPod touch, you can't do other things while playing music; exit the application and playback stops.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
Playing streamed music via iStream.

Photo viewing exhibits the same lag, and unlike with the built-in iPhone/iPod touch Photos app, there's no way to apply a viewed photo as the device wallpaper.

Video playback, of course, is slowest of all. I noticed long wait times each time I started video playback, though to be fair my video rips are high quality. And once playback starts, it continues without hiccups and looks fantastic. Within the confines of Apple's devices, this functionality actually works really well.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
Streamed videos look great but take a while to start playing.

Video converter

New to the latest HP MediaSmart Servers is a video converter, which can convert videos automatically in the background into various H.264-based formats. By default, the converter includes Full and Mobile profiles, so each converted video will be transcoded into two formats. But you can edit these profiles and make your own, though the steps required might be a bit bewildering for the average user.

Basically, you specify one or more shared folders that will be monitored for videos. When videos are copied to those folders, they will be converted into new formats, according to the profiles you've configured. It works with DVD-style VIDEO_TS folder structures (which I've not yet tested), which could prove useful for those who wish to use their home server as a host for non-compressed DVD backups. And there are logical and useful output presets like iPod/Zune, PSP, iPhone, and HD 720 that cover the basics. Those who wish more fine-grained control over conversion can enable advanced controls, where you specify the video width and height, FPS, and audio and video bit rates.

HP MediaSmart Server (Late 2009)
The new video converter will turn almost any video into iPod/Zune/Xbox 360-friendly H.264.

I used the built-in Full profile as well as a modified Mobile profile (changed to the iPhone output preset) to convert an H.264 DVD rip and see how things fared. Conversion is slow, but then it would be slow regardless of the PC, and at least the new HPs have enough processing and RAM overhead to enable this functionality. (You could never make this work on a first-gen MediaSmart Server.)

The results were mostly OK. Since I'm generally starting with H.264 files, I mostly experimented with the iPhone-based Mobile conversion. For the most part, the resulting videos are watchable, but with some jittery effects. I didn't see any issues with the audio becoming unsynchronized from the video, which is common to video converters.

Final thoughts

I use and recommend HP's MediaSmart Servers, and have since the first version appeared two years ago. This year's models are the best yet, and combine excellent processor, RAM, and storage choices, though again you will want to beef up any MediaSmart Server with at least one more hard drive. (The more the better.) From a functional perspective, the EX490 and 495 offer a wide range of consumer-friendly features, and if you're looking for a central location in which to store all of your important documents and digital media files, I can't think of a better product, and that's especially true for homes that mix PCs, Macs, and iPhones/iPod touches. The HP MediaSmart Server may just be the ultimate value-add.

Highly recommended? You could say that. I wouldn't use anything else.