HP’s Media Smart Servers are designed to backup, store, and share media files and important data on your home network. HP recently loaned us one to try out recently and immediately turned it over to Tech Savvy Daddy to run a full battery of tests and test it with both Macs and PCs in our home. In short, he loved it and it passed all tests! Here’s what he had to say….
So you may be asking… A home server? What do I need that for? Well, lots of things. Just a few off the bat:
- Backing up your computers
- A place to store huge files, like videos
- As a central repository for all of your media: photos, music, videos
- A gateway to accessing your computer from on the road.
- A server to automatically publish your photos to Snapfish, Facebook, or other photo sharing sites.
- Server for streaming media to your TV, XBox, or PlayStation 3
If you’re more visual, here’s a good overview picture from Amazon’s product page:
The HP Media Smart Platform is built upon Microsoft’s Windows Home Server platform. This immediately got me thinking it wouldn’t work with Macs. Wrong. The server was designed to work with both Windows and Mac computers in the house. We used it with both systems and were quite pleased with the functionality offered.
There are several HP MediaSmart servers to choose from. The LX195 system is the entry-level model, containing a 640GB hard drive and an Intel Atom processor. Any storage expansion would be done with external USB hard drives and the system’s 4 USB ports. With a list price of $399 (available online for much less), it’s a good system to get started with if you’re not totally sold on the Home Server concept.
The EX series of servers contain beefier processors and most importantly, 4 easy-access internal SATA hard drive bays. The demo unit received was the top of the line EX495 system with a 2.5GHZ 64-bit dual core processor, 2 GB of RAM, and a 1.5TB hard drive. The other 3 hard drive bays are open for future expansion. If somehow that isn’t enough storage, you can add even more storage by adding external USB hard drives. I had wondered if the EX series would blow hot air and make a lot of noise. I was pleasantly surprised at how quiet it is. I stashed it in the closet of the basement guest room (where the house wiring connects) and forgot about it. It’s very quiet and cool. It even has a feature to dim or shutoff the front panel lights.
All of the models feature a 10/100/1000 Ethernet jack for high-speed networking. Gigabit Ethernet is a cheap upgrade to your home network. If you are trying to push Gigs and Gigs of music and photos around the home network, it’s well worth the investment. I bought some Gigabit switches online for about $40, and didn’t spend a dime to upgrade my home wiring or cables. Despite what I had heard about Gigabit Ethernet being picky, it just works.
As I unboxed the system, I noticed the lack of keyboard and monitor jacks. Huh, this should be interesting. I plugged in the Ethernet and turned it on. The server detects the Ethernet port, registers on the network, and is immediately available for use.
The next step is to go to your home computers and install the Client software. There is an installer for Windows, and another one for Macs. The first-time configuration of the HP MediaSmart server must be done from a PC. After that, you can manage it from either type of machine. When you get into the server, it immediately goes out to HP and looks for any last-minute software upgrades. It downloaded new server software and client software and automatically updates my system.
The way you manage it is via Windows Remote Desktop. If you haven’t used this before, it’s available on both PCs and Macs, gives you a remote connection into the computer allowing you to see the screen, drive the mouse, and essentially pretend you’re sitting in front of a remote computer. The Mac version of Remote Desktop didn’t give me any problems and worked great.
As part of the client installation, you can setup your computer to back itself up to the MediaSmart server. I configured an HP Mini 110 Netbook to it and backed it up over my home Wi-Fi network. It took a fair amount of time, but completed successfully
On the Mac side, the MediaSmart server pretends to be a Time Machine Disk, allowing it to run with Apple’s built-in backup system. It was a piece of cake. I selected the drive and clicked go. In a few hours (with Gigabit Ethernet), it had successfully backed up a couple hundred GB of data. It didn’t timeout, choke on Mac filenames, or have any issues. It just worked.
For those who are only mildly paranoid, this is sufficient backup protection. But the MediaSmart server is capable of much more.
Storage & Redundancy
With 4 internal hard drive bays, I wondered if the MediaSmart server could be configured to run RAID, and it can’t. But as one of HP’s very helpful tech support guys explained it to me, you may not want to keep two copies of everything on the MediaSmart server. For the backup directories, those are already the backup copies. The main copies live on your other computers. The MediaSmart server can perform selective, automatic folder duplication, allowing you to mirror important data on the MediaSmart server to another drive, and keep only a single copy of things you have backed up elsewhere.
For example, you could run folder duplication to keep two copies of your photo library or music library on the MediaSmart server, and keep only one backup copy of the stuff from your PC. Seems logical. For those who are more paranoid, you could keep two copies of everything. But the MediaSmart server is capable of much more. None of the MediaSmart servers ship with two drives, so you need to add another drive on your own to use the folder duplication feature.
For the ultra paranoid people who believe in full data protection including off-site storage, the MediaSmart server can mirror the data on Amazon’s S3 cloud computing service. Now, even if your house burns down, you still have your data. Nice.
Since it’s a Windows Based server connected to the Internet, virus protection is something you need to deal with on the MediaSmart server. The server comes with free 7-month free trial of McAfee Total Protection software. It’s a customized version of McAfee which is tailored to work specifically with the MediaSmart server interface. It puts warnings and messages into the MediaSmart’s normal screens and displays. You can install it via a single click on the MediaSmart server. One advantage to the MediaSmart server over buying a lower-end Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive is that the server can scan its volumes locally for viruses. This runs faster since it doesn’t need to pull the data over the network to check it, and it also offloads the processing from your desktop/laptop computer.
One of the features on the MediaSmart server is the Media Collector. It is a background process that gathers all of your media (photos, music, video) from the other computers in your house and then can share them. You can configure which home computers are scanned, and what kinds of files to look for, and whether to scan the entire computer or only certain directories. I set this up on both a Mac and a PC and it seemed to work pretty well. It operates as a background process, trying to not intervene with your normal work on the client computer. Because of this, don’t expect miracles immediately after enabling it.
With the click of a button, you can turn on the iTunes Streaming Server on the MediaSmart. The server will show up in iTunes as a shared library. You have instant access to all music on the MediaServer. It was as responsive as a local disk when clicking on a song to play, and when flipping between tracks. I put about 80 new songs into my Music directory on one of the client PCs, and then set up the media collector to watch that folder. The media collector gathered the music from the laptop, and then soon afterwards, they were available via the iTunes server. Piece of cake.
Unfortunately, there are no playlists, so your 10 million music tracks will all be in one big long list. There may be some way to do playlists on the Media Server, but I didn’t look exactly how it would work. Any album artwork stored in the music files will be there, but artwork stored in the iTunes library artwork DB won’t show up. There are tools that can copy the artwork into the songs en-mass in case that’s a showstopper for you.
I suppose another possibility would be to actually put your iTunes music library onto the server as a shared volume, and then all machines could use the same library. I’ve played around with similar ideas in the past, and it takes some work to fool the local computer into looking on a mounted volume for the iTunes library.
You can use the Media Collector to gather up the photos from different computers in the house, and then publish them. You can use the PhotoPublisher to share pictures in any of five different places:
- The MediaSmart Server’s built in web server (right there in your house).
Once choosing where you want to put the photos, you can selectively pick and choose what to upload. The screenshot below shows you the server’s built-in web server photo viewer. It’s a very nice interface.
One intriguing feature of the MediaSmart server is called “Remote Access.” The idea behind it is this: You can access your MediaSmart server (and even your other home computers) from any computer connected to the Internet. There are some neat things you could do with this, such as access files on your home computers, or run a server so that your family/friends can view your pictures and videos directly without having do deal with disk space issues.
The server has a point-and-click button to turn on Remote Access, including what appears to be a domain name and dynamic DNS service. This would allow you to have a URL (like MyFamilyServer.com) which points to the HP MediaSmart server in your house. There are technical hurdles to making that happen, and the server seems like it may take care of them for you. First, your DSL or CableModem provider doesn’t give you a permanent IP address, and some of them block incoming http requests. The MediaSmart server, in conjunction with a partner ‘TZO.com’
I am a very technical person, and also quite security conscious. I was not willing to turn on this feature without a better explanation of exactly what it does and how it works. The HP documentation that I could find was quite good at telling me how to turn on remote access, but it didn’t even start to explain several things:
- What exactly that was going to do, like which ports would be opened up, to whom, and what would be accessible.
- What precautions I should take to keep my stuff private and my server secure.
- Would I need to do inbound port mapping on my router, or would some feature of the dynamic-dns / TZO.com service keep the NAT holes open on my router? Is the server using UPNP or Microsoft protocol to mess with my home router?
I would think that HP has done its homework here and that the Remote Access feature is rather secure and won’t open up my home network to bad guys. But I want more information before taking the plunge. I didn’t have the time to look into it more, but I’m sure I could find info on the web about it. I said it earlier, but HP’s technical Support guys on this product were really good. I should have run this past them as well.
There is a vibrant and active community of people with the HP MediaSmart servers on the web. There are several different Websites and blogs where you can get more information, ask questions, and discuss possible uses for the HP MediaSmart server. The two main ones that kept popping up in Google searches were http://www.mediasmartserver.net/ and http://www.mediasmarthome.com/
There are additional features in the MediaSmart server that I didn’t have time to try. One thing it can do is stream music, photos, or videos to your mobile device such as an iPhone. For videos, the server will downscale the videos to fit over a mobile network and to be appropriately sized for your mobile device’s screen. The server performs these conversions for you, doing the processing on the MediaSmart server so that your PC doesn’t have to break a sweat.
The server is also compatible with Windows Media Center so that your MediaCenter can access the content stored on the MediaSmart box. You might have your MediaCenter in your living room, and your HP MediaSmart server in your basement with a boatload of hard drive space.
There are also add-ons designed for Windows Home Server (which is the underlying architecture of the HP server). I found a bunch of them available on this Microsoft site.
The small size, quiet operation, and monitor/keyboard free nature of the server make it ideal for stashing behind your TV cabinet, in the wiring closet, or just about anywhere in the house. The server just plugs into the Ethernet and is ready to go. It even has remote temperature and fan sensors like you would find on commercial-grade servers.
The HP MediaSmart server is a useful addition to your home network. It can single handedly take care of your backup needs for the entire house and allow you to gather your media files in a common place so they are available at every device in the house.
HP MediaSmart Servers: MSRP $399 to $699, street prices are less at your favorite online retailers. For more information, click here.
HP loaned me a HP MediaSmart Server EX495 to review which was returned per our initial agreement. No compensation was received for testing the product or writing this review. All opinions are my own.
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Original post by Tech Savvy Mama