updated 03:30 pm EST, Fri January 2, 2009
FL: HP MediaSmart Server
Many people own multiple computers, such as a notebook and a desktop, or a a Mac and a PC. The problem with multiple systems is backing up data from all of them -- while backing up a single computer is easy with an external hard drive, buying separate disks for several computers can become cumbersome and expensive. In the corporate world, businesses can back up multiple machines to a single server; HP's MediaSmart Server makes this option available at a reasonable cost to individuals, as well as small businesses.
Essentially, the server is a dedicated computer with its own processor (a 1.8GHz AMD Sempron), RAM (512MB of DDR2) and operating system (Microsoft Windows Home Server). Packed in a case 5.5 inches wide, 9.8 inches tall and 9.2 inches deep, the MediaSmart includes bays for holding up to four SATA hard drives. Depending on the model you buy, you'll get either one or two 500GB, 7200rpm disks by default. Other hardware can access the server through a router's wired or wireless connection, or by plugging into the back of the unit via its eSATA and three USB ports.
Since the server is essentially a Windows PC, it inherits the problems of relying on Windows. First there's the need for security software, such as an anti-virus program and a firewall. More importantly, another Windows system is needed for setup. Although the company promotes the server as Windows and Mac OS X compatible, it's really designed for anyone who either has all Windows PCs, or a mixed collection of PCs and Macs. If you only have Macs, you'll either have to buy a separate PC to perform setup and maintenance, or you'll have to avoid the product altogether.
To actually use the server, you'll need both the router and a high-speed Internet connection. After you plug the server into the router, any computer connected to the latter can access the former.
Whenever you set up an account, you'll have the option of enabling remote access for a user. This allows users to tap into their computers from anywhere in the world, granting complete access to all files. Such access runs in a browser and is noticeably slower, but it is at least functional.
The main and most useful feature of the server is in simply backing up data from multiple computers to a single location. Any Mac with Leopard can use Time Machine for this purpose, though you can also manually copy selected files such as photos, videos or music.
Besides just storing photos, the server includes HP Photo Publisher, an app which lets you organize pictures much as in iPhoto. Publisher also lets you send pictures directly to photo-sharing sites, like Facebook, Snapfish or Flickr.
Anyone with a particularly large music collection can store their files centrally; using iTunes, they can stream these songs to any other computer on a network. Connected users just have load iTunes, then click on the server icon in the left pane of the main window. Note that music streaming is only supported through iTunes, which means that you'll need to download the app for any PCs.
At a beginning price of $500 or $800 (for the 500GB or 1TB models), the MediaSmart Server can be handy for backups of multiple computers, allowing remote access to a system while traveling, or merely streaming music. Just be aware that its reliance on Windows Home Server puts you at the mercy of all of Windows' quirks and flaws. If you want to avoid Windows entirely, you'll probably want to skip the product. If you have a PC however, you'll find the MediaSmart to be a reliable and useful addition to any small network.