The HP MediaSmart Server EX-487 is the second generation MediaSmart Server. It runs on Windows Home Server, a flavor of Windows dedicated to network attached storage. The Ex-487 is in fact a small PC, however, HP made it quite easy to setup and manage and that’s where the added value really is. Windows Home Server has a few basic functions that are very handy: its data store can recognize duplicate files (based on their binary signature, not their names) to save space, storage can be easily extended with a mix of any hard drive, data duplication over several drives is handled. On top of that HP has built some value by building a control center, easy setup for clients and router and web-based media sharing functionalities that are quite advanced. You can not only access your files and computers remotely, but the MediaSmart Server will act as a web server that can share media files or even stream them directly to another computer over the web. So, how does it perform?
The installation Wizard is very easy to use and after exactly 7 minutes, the initial software installation was done. From there, we went on installing software on each client. The client software can be found on the server itself, which should be accessible via a shared folder. The client installation takes about 10 minutes. From that point on, the client is ready for backups as it has been added to the server’s list of clients. The MediaSmart server will also start to complain about stuff like the Firewall being off, or about the lack of anti-virus. You can toggle these warnings off.
Each client that is connected to the MediaSmart Server will be backed-up automatically between 3-6am (by default). It is important to understand that this is a file and folders backup, not an actual image of the whole drive. Also, the PC must be on the local network as there is no Internet backup feature. It is possible to view the files that have been backed-up in a virtual disk. This is convenient to do a quick check or to retrieve files that were backed-up. All in all, the default backup is very easy to use and because WHS has built-in file redundancy avoidance, it can save you quite a bit of space, if you have a lot of duplicate content.
Although MediaSmart Server comes with built-in file duplication, it is also possible to back-up data from the MediaSmart Server onto an external USB drive, or online, via the Amazon S3 service. With the USB option, you can imagine that MediaSmart Server can exceed the capacity of a single USB external drive, but you can always hack something by using RAID or simply select a more important subset of the data to save.
I have not played with the Amazon S3 service because quite frankly, it’s too slow and too expensive for my needs. I love the idea of backuping stuff online, but there are cheaper online solutions and I hope that HP will work with more online storage provider in the future.
With Amazon S3 and for 1TB of data, it would cost you $150/month ($0.15/GB) in storage. It will cost you $100 to upload 1TB and $170 to download 1TB. I’m not even taking into account the daily data uploads (changes) and a 30-day file history that can make this go way up. See Amazon’s S3 pricing
Always consider online/offsite backups as your last line of defense. Ideally, I think that regular folks would like a simple remote storage solution that connects MediaSmart Server to a device located to the home or office of a trusted person. All the data should be strongly encrypted anyway.
The previous version of the MediaSmart Server was PC centric, and even though this one still requires having a PC for administration purposes, it now has a native Mac OS interface and can work with Time Machine. You can create a volume that Time Machine can use as a backup destination, but you won’t be able to extend the size of this volume later on. If you require more space, you will need to create a new backup volume.
This is a serious limitation, but it’s totally transparent to Time Machine and some might find it more convenient to have all the backups in a single MediaSmart Server, especially if it is itself backed up. Also, keep in mind that the backup speed will be much slower than USB or Firewire, especially on the first backup.
If you are curious to see step-by-step instructions on how to use Time Machine with MediaSmart Server, you can head to this page from Andrew Edney.
Other cool features like Remote Desktop don’t work on Mac at the moment.
Within a PC/Mac/Xbox environment, the file sharing works great. You access the files on shared directories and you can also remap directories as network drives. The handling of user account is simple, but yet flexible enough to create limited accounts for friends or guests to use. It is possible to share printers, although we did not test this functionality.
The DLNA file sharing with the PS3 “just worked” out of the box. MediaSmart Server comes loaded with TwonkyMedia, a DLNA media server that works with DLNA compatible boxes, like the PlayStation 3. Accessing photos and music (mp3) files is easy, although the PS3 is quite slow to create the thumbnails. Also, 8-12 Megapixel pictures are slow to load-up, even with a wired network. Videos should be as easy to share, depending on the format that your DLNA box can decode.
MediaSmart Server comes with a built-in web server that handles several web applications like file sharing. music or photo sharing/uploading. The file sharing is very simple and basically lets you browse, download and upload files over the web. It works OK, but we wish that the user interface doesn’t have drag&drops, which makes it a little less comfortable to use when dealing with a lot of files.
The Photo sharing application lets you host a photo sharing website directly from your HP MediaSmart Server. This will not replace flickr, but it we found it to be very useful when you needed to share a lot of photos in a more private way (work or family stuff) without having to upload them to a 3rd party service. You can manage the files by copying them directly to the MediaSmart Server over the local network.
There’s also a photo uploader application that helps you publish photos directly from the MediaSmart Server to : Picassa, Flickr, Snapfish and Facebook. We don’t know when more services will be available. This is most convenient if you want to upload photos from the server to a photo sharing site while you are not on the local network, because you don’t have to copy the files.
The web music stream server works very well. In a snap, you can setup a library of music files that can be streamed to a flash-based web interface. That way, you can listen to music from any internet-connected PC. The cool thing about this feature is that non-mp3 files are re-encoded on the fly to mp3 and that’s the main reason why HP went for a beefier processor.
There are two idea behind “remote access”: the first one is Remote File Access. By logging
into the integrated web server for the MediaSmart Server, you can download/upload files from anywhere on the web. This can come in handy, if you have forgotten files or want to do a quick upload from your laptop.
The second thing is Remote Computer Access (Remote Desktop). From the MediaSmart Server web interface, you can take control of any computer that has been setup for Remote Desktop inside your local network. That’s very cool because the alternative is to setup a port forwarding for each PC, which is kind of annoying. Also, routers do have limits in the number of port forwarding that you can setup. Now, it’s important to note that Remote Desktop via the MediaSmart Server is significantly slower than a direct, computer-to-computer remote desktop session. It’s “usable”, but it can quickly test your patience.
Remote access requires the user to setup a dynamic IP domain, which is easy, and possibly tweak some settings in the router. In my case, I also had to assign a static IP to the MediaSmart Server (this can easily be done via Remote Desktop from a PC in the local network). Finally, a strong password must be used if you want to enable remote access – that is to make sure that your device can’t be hacked in.
To use the MediaSmart Server fully, we recommend using a Gigabit Ethernet network. The gap in performance when compared to a 10/100 (or WIFI-G) network is quite appreciable. Backups, and copies will be much faster. This seems obvious, but if you’re currently setup with a 10/100 network, you might want to think twice before installing an NAS to handle Terabytes of data.
Things that could be better
There are not a lot of things to dislike about the MediaSmart Server, but things could be a little better. The first thing that I would like to see is a local access via USB 2.0 (or 3.0!) to transfer terabytes of files at a time.
There’s a limit of 10 users (+1 guest) that we would like to see go. That seems like an artificial market segmentation to avoid having too many small businesses use this, but ultimately if I want to share pieces of storage with a bunch of friends or familly, I would like to be able to do it.
There’s not enough granularity when it comes to granting access. Especially for photos. This might sound like whining, but you might not want someone who has access to your photos have access to ALL your photos. It’d be nice to allow access “per album”. To be fair, it’s not even possible on some commercial popular sites, but it is something that is nonetheless desirable.
There is probably a strong demand for off-site backups and to be fair, online storage is a good answer to that, but we feel like it would be really nice if we could duplicate a MediaSmartServer on another such device, over the web or in a local network. Think about it, the cost of using Amazon’s S3 would quickly equal the cost of buying a second unit after months of use. If HP would allow a MediaSmart Server to backup another one, it would instantly increase their total available market (TAM), and it would make users happy.
Finally, the low-power mode could be better. Right now, when to put the MediaSmart Server to sleep, you can’t access the files. Of course, it consumes much less, but a storage device that is accessible from the web should always be on. Turn the disks off is OK, but we think that the CPU has to be up all the time. May be the next-generation ATOM CPU will help solve this.
The HP MediaSmart is a great storage network that is easy to setup and is very stable. If you don’t use the web sharing or remote desktop capabilities, very little networking knowledge is required. If you do use these features, you might have to setup things like port forwarding, which can be annoying to the novice. We have not nuked one of our system to test the restore capabilities, so we’re assuming that things do restore here. The aspects that we were the most interested about were: backup, remote desktop and remote file access. In all three, the MediaSmart Server excelled at two and was ‘OK’ for one (we would like to see the performance of the remote desktop function improved in the future). The online backup solution via S3 is an interesting idea, but we found it to be expensive and only mildly practical. Note that you could build your own Windows Home Server PC, but we looked into it, and while we might have built something cheaper, it’s hard to come up with something that is so well integrated, silent and as low-power, without forgetting the added-value of the control interface. MediaSmart Server is the coolest consumer-level NAS out there, period.
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