One of the chief benefits of any server is that it establishes a centralised storage location accessible from multiple PCs. In a typical multi-PC home, users want to share multimedia content - as opposed to spreadsheets in an office setting. HP has tools for streamlining content sharing, both from within a network and from beyond it.
An HP utility called Photo Webshare lets you configure your MediaSmart Home Server to share photos hosted on your server with the outside world. To use this feature, you have to sign up for a custom domain and make your server accessible from outside your home network. Using Photo Webshare, you can give specific visitors permission to add their own photos for sharing. Visitors can download full-resolution photos or link to Snapfish for photo printing.
Although we appreciated the Photo Webshare feature, we think that third-party sites such as Flickr do a better job of displaying pictures. They deliver a great slide-show experience, give you flexibility in labelling photos, and make it easy to invite friends to view your photos and leave comments. With Photo Webshare, you lose some functionality, but at least you don't have to upload your photos to a third-party service, which can take a long time.
The HP MediaSmart Home Server shines when it comes to sharing content from within your home network. We easily shared and streamed digital music and video files from any networked PC. One nifty iTunes feature that HP has added enables you to configure the server to synch iTunes libraries on connected PCs to the server, creating a single giant iTunes library that the entire household can connect to and enjoy.
If you have an Xbox 360 or other Windows Media Connect-enabled device, you can stream audio and video content from the Home Server for live viewing, rather than having to download it before playing it.
Easy backup and recovery
The HP MediaSmart Home Server automatically backs up all PCs connected to the server - a key function. As a core feature of the Windows Home Server OS, backups are available on all flavors of devices offered by different companies.
Our HP MediaSmart Home Server permitted me to arrange for backups at predetermined time intervals or not at all. Backups are stored; and if your PC crashes, you can boot it up using a special Windows Home Server disc that connects the impaired PC to your server and restores your system to a previous, undamaged state.
The server stores different images of your desktop so you can pick the oldest image or a newer one to restore to. It also lets you recover files from backup data stored on the server. For example, if you're looking for music files from a PC that has been backed up to the server, you can search the backed-up data on the server for them - whether the target PC is functional or not.
The full-system recovery feature took less than 20 minutes to return a notebook PC that we had intentionally corrupted back to a pristine previous state. We were impressed.
But Windows does more than back up your PC. The Connector software also keeps tabs on the status of firewalls and antivirus software on each PC connected to the server, using a Home Network Health component of the server software.
If you need to update your virus definitions or ratchet up firewall protection on any of the PCs connected to the server, the device pops up a message from the system utility tray with recommendations. This is a great feature for parents who want to ensure that all of the PCs in the house are subject to internet controls. Instead of checking each individual PC, Home Network Health pops up a message alerting you to potential problems.
HP is one of several hardware vendors that will sell servers equipped with the Windows Home Server OS. Others include Fujitsu Siemens Computers, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Iomega, LaCie, and Medio. Each will customise its systems with unique tools and functions. So far, Iomega and HP are the only major manufacturers to have announced that they will have WHS devices available in the US in time for the end-of-year holiday season. For these early entries, our fingers are crossed that Microsoft has successfully completed its prelaunch bug hunting.