The Windows 7 beta test was notable--notorious, really--for a number of reasons. Chief among these is that those on the technical beta only received the same two public milestone builds--the Beta and Release Candidate (RC)--as did the general public. This led some testers to complain--fairly, I think--that they were afterthoughts to Microsoft and not able to supply the same level of feedback as they had on previous Windows betas. (Microsoft responded to this complaint by highlighting a ton most inconsequential changes it made to Windows 7 in the wake of feedback from the Beta release.)

But I'd point to another bit of misdirection that I find more damning. Throughout the Windows 7 beta test, representatives of Microsoft held semi-regular chats with testers, each of which targeted a specific Windows 7 feature. One of these chats, oddly enough, concerned Windows Home Server. And testers were told, quite explicitly, that Windows Home Server would not be updated to accommodate Windows 7 features like libraries, backup and restore, and Windows Search.

This wouldn't be a huge problem per se--after all, Windows Home Server (WHS) in its current Power Pack 2 (PP2) configuration works just fine with Windows 7, and it's not hard to configure the OS to use WHS-based network locations in Windows 7 libraries, or to ignore Windows 7 Backup notifications because you prefer to use the superior tools in WHS. The problem, put simply, is that Microsoft was so explicit in explaining to testers that Windows 7/Windows Home Server integration was not happening. Maybe it would happen in 2010, when the next major WHS version is expected.

On Friday, July 17, 2009, Microsoft quietly revealed via the Windows Home Server blog something quite to the contrary. It would indeed be supporting Windows 7 features natively in the current version of WHS, via a new and previously unrevealed Power Pack 3 (PP3) update. This update, which will be made available for free to all existing WHS users, will ship in time for the October 22, 2009 general availability date for Windows 7. That, too, is surprising, given that PP1 and PP2 both took almost a year to come to market. Now, in just a few months, Microsoft will ship a major, surprise update to WHS.

For WHS users interested in Windows 7, that's great news. But if you were a Windows 7 beta tester, you get my regrets. In case it's somehow still not obvious, you just got screwed again.

In any event, WHS PP3 is a big deal. Here's what Microsoft is adding in this important update.

Windows 7 Libraries support

With PP3 installed, WHS will add its shared Music, Photos, and Videos folders automatically to the Windows 7 Music, Pictures, and Videos shares (respectively). This change will let media applications such as Windows Media Player (WMP) and Windows Media Center discover server-based content automatically.

Windows Home Server PP3

With PP3, Home Server-based media shares are automatically exposed in Windows 7 libraries.

Windows 7 Backup and Recovery support

Because WHS includes superior, image-based backup capabilities, those capabilities should be used instead of Windows 7's native backup and recovery tools. With PP3 installed, WHS will suppress Windows 7 notifications to enable Windows 7's backup and recovery functionality.

Windows Search integration

PP3 includes Windows Search 4.0, which improves server-based searches performed from Windows 7-based PCs.

Netbook support

PP3 modifies the WHS administrative console so that it will display correctly on the 1024 x 600 screens common on netbook computers.

Windows Media Center enhancements

PP3 includes Windows Media Center Connector software, improving the experience of accessing server-based media content from WHS. The PP3 version of this software adds TV archiving support, so you can move recorded TV content from the PC to the server, then re-encode it so that it will work properly on portable devices or in its original resolution. There's also a Console Quick View add-on for Windows Media Center that lets you view certain WHS configuration items from the Windows Media Center software.

Availability and timing

As with previous Power Packs, PP3 will be a free update for existing WHS users. The final version will be delivered via Windows Update, but if you're interested in testing it early, you can apply for the beta on Microsoft Connect.

Final thoughts

I'm really excited about Windows Home Server Power Pack 3, though again, I think a little heads-up would have been nice. That said, I installed the beta version on my HP MediaSmart before heading out for vacation and it works exactly as expected. I'll have more to say about this excellent new WHS update by the time of the final release.