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HP MediaSmart Server

At a Glance
Product HP MediaSmart Server (EX470 / EX475)
Summary Server appliance running Windows Home Server aimed at non-networking savvy consumers.
Pros • High performance
• Flexible storage expansion
• Selective folder backup
• Tight integration into Windows
Cons • Tight integration into Windows
• No Print server
• 10 User limit
• No server backup
• Limited control of client backup

Microsoft and HP spent a lot of time and energy at the January 2007 Consumer Electronics Show getting people pumped up about their entry into the "home server" market. Microsoft handled the software end, extolling the wonders of its Windows Home Server (WHS), while the HP troops let people ooh and aah over the sexy design of its MediaSmart Server (MSS).

Well, as many of us learned from Christmases long past, anticipation is one thing, but reality is often quite another. And so it would seem for the MSS. I had the opportunity to spend a few weeks with the product back in August, having received a pre-production model in advance of a big September product launch.

But HP pulled the plug on the launch at the last minute and recalled all review samples back to the mother ship, citing the need to rework the MSS software to make it more user-friendly to general consumers. And so, I put the review aside until HP finally decided to unleash the product. That unleashing appeared to happen last week, with the product quietly appearing for pre-order from Amazon, Best Buy and other retailers.

After doing some checking to see how much the product had really changed (hardware hasn't; software incorporates the WHS September update), I decided to not wait for my number to come up in the review sample queue and finish this review. It's based on the August review unit, so there may be minor differences between what I describe here and what is in the product that will ship at the end of this month.

But since the product hasn't been significantly tweaked, I think that what you'll in this review to be a fair representation of what some of you may be placing (or thinking about placing) pre-orders for. I'll handle any major changes that I find once I receive my review unit with a follow-on article.

One more point before I start. While it may irk the HP and Microsoft marketeers, I'll often refer to the MSS as a NAS in this review. See this for my reasons why.

The MSS definitely wins the prize for best-looking NAS, ensconced in a case with glossy-black plastic sides and a black metal fine mesh front. Although it's a mini-PC, the MSS is smaller than many of the four-drive NASes that I've seen. It's about the same height as the latest Harry Potter tome, about twice as wide and a third again as deep. The case's top is a little over an inch longer than the bottom and the cover is tapered accordingly, giving the product a forward-leaning profile. In all, it is a handsome package the oozes style and elegance.

The front panel / door is accented with plastic "light-bars", which you can see in the product "beauty shot" above, that are actually light pipes that turn the little drive status LEDs into an aesthetic design feature. The light-bars can assume one of three colors: blue, purple or red, depending on drive status. Unfortunately, for those of us with red-green color blindness, the difference between purple and blue is hard to tell. The good news is that you won't see purple very often since it indicates an uninitialized drive.

There are three additional indicators—Power, Network and Health—on the lower front panel (Figure 1), along with a recessed Status/Recovery button and USB 2.0 port. Only the Health LED is bi-color, turning solid or blinking red when the MSS is feeling poorly.

MSS Status indicators

Figure 1: MSS Status indicators

Note that neither the light bars nor the Network light blink to indicate drive or network activity. This design "feature" is probably intended to make the MSS not be a visual distraction when it is parked in your living or media room. You can even dim or shut off the front panel lights if you like.

The two variable-speed fans are pretty quiet, as is the small power supply fan. However, the review MSS that HP sent had only two drives. Previous experience with four-drive NASes tells me that when the MSS is fully populated and under heavy use, you would want it tucked away from your media listening/viewing area.

Figure 2 shows the MSS rear panel with power switch and connectors, which include power, three USB 2.0 ports, one 10/100/1000 Ethernet and one eSATA port.

MSS Rear panel

Figure 2: MSS Rear panel

The USB and eSATA ports can be used to add additional storage to the MSS (more about that shortly). But forget attaching printers or flash drives, since the MSS has no built-in print server and only supports flash drives for BIOS recovery.

Check out the slideshow See the slideshow for more admin screens and internal details.

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