Although home servers can be very convenient for managing files and backups, they are still not ubiquitous in homes and small businesses. The main reasons for that: home servers can sometimes be a pain to setup and manage. They have also been PC-centric, which is a turn off for a growing number of Mac users. For the past couple of years, HP has been working really hard to make things easier, and the MediaSmart Server EX485 is a good example of that. But with the MediaSmart Server EX495, HP has improved quite a few things, including better Mac support, faster processing and better control over media collection. Let’s take a quick tour…
The setup wizard will guide you during the initial installation
Setting up a MediaSmart Server (MSS) is easy, and doesn’t require any knowledge other than plugging a cable. Once connected, the user just has to launch the setup software on the CD. The installation will find the server and will start to install the background services and administration interface (you need a Windows computer for this). If you know how to share a folder in Windows, then you should be able to use the HP MediaSmart Server, it’s that simple. Note that it is possible to have several MSS on the same network, but each computer can only be paired with one.
Data Storage highlights
Windows Home Server is a Microsoft Operating System
I won’t enter in a lengthy explanation of what Windows Home Server (WHS) is, but there are a few things that you should know about it. It’s the operating system inside the MediaSmart Server box. It looks like Windows 2000, but the storage management system is different. It will merge additional hard drives and treat the combined storage (17TB max) capacity as one large drive, with native data duplication (in case a disk goes belly-up). Finally, if the same file is in different locations or different computer (let’s say that you have the same song on all your computers), WHS will not store duplicate copies to save on storage space. This is really cool, especially if you are a bit sloppy with your file organization (aren’t we all, at least a little?).
Administration Interface (Easier)
HP has done a good job of improving the UI from the previous version
The administration interface is a little app that basically does a “remote desktop” on the MediaSmart Server (MSS). The server does not have a monitor output, but the admin interface basically shows you what you would see on a monitor connected to the MSS. Once logged-in, you can check on the status of the device, setup folders, users and do many more things. If you simply use the MSS as a storage device, there’s not much to configure other than user access rights and create a few folders. The admin interface homepage has been redesigned and is more readable than before, at least in my opinion. There is much less visual clutter. When it comes to user interface (UI), sometimes less is more and HP is certainly making progress there.
Doing a backup is great, but making sure that you can restore is critical
For Windows users, the backup is straightforward. After installing the MediaSmart Server client, backups should happen automatically, unless you want to start one manually. By default, the Backup will ignore large unused files like the memory swap files, or shadow copies (windows backups) of files. This can lead to significant space savings, but you just have to understand that this is not an exact copy of your drive. On a clean installation of Windows 7, it took only 10mn to perform the first backup. Subsequent backups are supposed to be incremental, so they should be relatively fast.
Restore (you have to test it!)
The restore Wizard in action. Have your network adapter drivers handy!
Backups are always the easy part, but you should know that a good backup setup should also include restore tests from time to time. Even large enterprises have snafus when restoring data, so don’t simply believe that there is a working backup before you have tried to restore the data. Now, restoring a bunch of files is usually easy, so the first thing that you should try is to restore files on a spare disk and see if they are OK.
If you don’t have the CD, Microsoft has an .iso file that you can download
The second restore option is a “metal restore”. That means restoring a whole drive, including the operating system and the installed applications. You might need this if you quickly want to get back to work after a catastrophic event (your hard disk got nuked). Fortunately, MediaSmart Server can perform such a metal restore. I tried it for you and Nuked one of my drives to see how that would work. The procedure consists in using a restore CD (provided by HP, or downloadable from Microsoft. You will probably have to have your network card drivers (for the motherboard or PCI card) ready. The Wizard is pretty simple and it took me less than 30 minutes to restore a drive from a MSS backup.
If you’re paranoid with your data (like I am), you can also use a disk imaging software (like Acronis TrueImage) to backup your drives to another disk. If you need to restore a full disk, I usually find that option to be handy. Again, test the restoration process (on a spare drive!) to be 100% sure that it works.
Data collection (More control)
Not being stuck to using MyDocuments is great
If you want to gather media files (music, video, photos) from the many computers in your home to a central location, the connector software can do it. You will have to tell it which folders need to be searched for content. The MediaSmart Server software 3.0 is more flexible than its predecessor: with the previous version, data had to be loca
ted in the default Windows folders for music, photos and videos (also called Libraries on Windows 7). That was easy for many users, but it’s not so great if you like to have your data on a different drive, for example. Version 3.0 lets you decide from which folder(s) each type of files should come from. You can finally manage your content your way.
There is now a Windows Media Center connector that makes it possible sync recorded TV show to your MediaSmart Server for storage, but also for conversion to .mp4. This allows you to stream smaller files to a computer or a handheld device over the web. There is also a 10-foot interface to check on the status and storage capacity of your MediaSmart Server from within Windows Media Center.
Video conversion (Faster)
2X faster video conversion is a must for Windows Media Center users
Having mediasmart server pull movies (or recorded TV) and compress them without any intervention is a great idea. And with its beefier processor, the MediaSmart Server EX497 compresses faster than its predecessor. In my tests, the high-quality compression (high-qual .wmv 162MB) was 2X faster than the MediaSmart Server EX487. The mobile format conversion version wasn’t much faster however. It is possible to convert recorded TV Shows from Media Center (.dvr-ms), but I’ve had some corrupted files in the end. It’s too bad, because this is really the stuff that you want to stream out on a laptop when you’re far away from home. I have not been able to figure out what the problem was. I hope to post an update later.
In general, the conversion process works well, and I noticed that more video formats were supported. For example a .mkv file that was not recognized at all by the EX487 was successfully converted by the EX497. However, I was less lucky with one of my 16:9 review video that got squished vertically. The video was originally an AVCHD that got converted in a high-quality WMV. Video compatibility and conversion can be challenging as there are many possible combinations. In the grand scheme of things, it looks like it is working well enough and I don’t see a lot of people complaining about the conversion in the various forums that I read. AVCHD files (.mts) do not seem to be recognized at all, and that’s unfortunate because I think that most people would like to keep original HD camcorder footage and watch/stream it in a more manageable (and consumer friendly) format like .mp4.
Remote Access (Could be complex)
With additional security requirements, you can access your MSS from anywhere
Configuring the MediaSmart Server for remote access is probably the only “tech savvy” thing of the whole process. This is when you might have to go into the router’s configuration and setup some port forwarding. Also note that MediaSmart Server has not been designed to have several units accessible from outside your home. Ports 80, 443 and 5125 are used, and I don’t think that you can designate other ports for an eventual secondary unit.
If you have a dynamic IP address, the MSS will set you up with a domain like mydomain.hpshare.net. It is free for a while, but eventually, you will have to pay for the dynamic DNS service ($25/yr?). User accounts will also need to use a “strong” password that is more than 7 characters and that has at least one capital letters and one number. It is also easier if your MSS user account matches your Windows password. That allows for a better user experience (one login to rule them all).
Once all of this has been setup, it is possible to access your private data over the web. That includes streaming music, videos, but also browsing the files and perform uploads/downloads. This can be very useful in a pinch if you need files while on the go.
Music streaming works very well as you can have access to your entire collection of songs stored on the device. The web interface music player has all the basic commands. It is possible to search in many ways (artists, album, playlist, folders…). It would be great if there was a search box as well.
Your content in your pocket over the air – good upload speed recommended
Video streaming behaves in a similar way, except that there is no notion of “artist” or “album” to search. As long as your videos have been compressed properly, and that you have enough upload speed, you should be fine. In my case, I have a somewhat limited 0.6Mbps upload speed, which limits my ability to stream 720p .mp4 files over the web. It is just choppy and not usable. Note that it’s not possible to fast-forward to a section of the movie that has not been downloaded yet. It’s not an issue for short clips, but it might be handy for longer movies.
The remote access feature also lets you take control of a computer remotely. It works, but because the data has to go through the MediaSmart Server it tends to be slower than a direct Remote Desktop session. That said, using the MSS makes it really simple to control several computers without having to setup many port forwarding and static IPs in the router.
Mac users (Time machine support, better admin)
Once it is setup, it works just like a USB drive
With Version 3, Mac users can now administer the server from Mac OSX. However, they still need a Windows machine to do the initial setup (a Virtual Machine would probably do too). I’m pretty sure that down the line, HP *might* make it possible to do everything on a Mac, but we’re not quite there yet.
After installing the program, you will have a MSS utility that shows up in the upper-right of the screen. You can login from there.
The HP MediaSmart Server is one of the few network storage solutions that work with Apple’s Time Machine. It works by creating a virtual drive that you can select as a Time Machine backup destination. The backup then works just as if it was an external drive. I have to admit that I did not nuke my Macbook Pro hard drive to test the restore…
In the MSS user manual page 209, HP describes how to recover a whole disk after a catastrophic event. You can just look at the manual to see all the little details, but basically, you will need to restore the Data after booting with the OS X installation DVD. The USB Key will provide the necessary element to connect to the MSS over Ethernet. A network restore is a bit more convoluted than one from an external drive.
It is possible to resize the storage previously allocated for Time Machine. Unfortunately, this process will erase the previous backup and you will have to restart the backup process from scratch. In some sense, it’s no different than buying an external disk. I don’t know if HP will be able to work around this, but I hope so.
Who’s backuping the backup?
The backup works great, but who’
s backuping the backup? There are USB and eSata connections on the MSS, but single-disk external storage tends to have a smaller capacity than a multi-disk system like the MediaSmart Server. The online option with Amazon is interesting, but not really cost-effective in my opinion. Ideally, you would like to be able to backup a strongly encrypted file in a remote location. That location could be another MediaSmart Server for example. Not only it would be easy to match the storage capacity in the destination server (without headaches), but HP could potentially sell more units, or let users re-purpose older ones… Typically a device like MediaSmart Server will contain ALL your data, so it’s really important to make sure that the data can survive a flood or a fire. Today, it is still a little tricky to ensure this. Of course, another simple solution would to be backup simultaneously to different MSS, but I don’t think that the connector software would let you do that, for now.
HP has managed to make a great networked storage system even better. The HP MediaSmart Server EX495 is an excellent storage device for enthusiasts, but also for small businesses. The support for Mac computers has become fairly complete and covers the most important aspects: huge storage, easy file access and Time Machine compatibility. Beyond the backup and restore, the MediaSmart Server also knows how to entertain: thanks to its beefier processor, it can compress video files twice as fast so that you can stream content to your phone or laptop more comfortably. In the end, the MediaSmart Server series continues to impress and at the moment, this is our network storage device of choice.
I hope that this review was useful. If you have additional questions or remarks, feel free to drop a comment below. If you want to ask for details, I would recommend that you take a look at the user manual (link below) – this is the most complete source of information. If you want to discuss storage or backup strategies, the comments are a great place to do it.
Note that some of the functionalities of the EX495 will be available to older models via a software upgrade.