Review: HP MediaSmart Server EX495

HP third gen media server gets new interface and improved Mac support (September 25th, 2009)

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Product Manufacturer: Hewlett Packard

Price: $700

The Good

  • Media Collector automates transfers
  • Video Converter easy to use, configurable
  • Features work on Mac or Windows platforms
  • Backup works cross-platform
  • Expandable to large storage capacities
  • Easy-to-use interface
  • Ships with 1.5TB drive
  • H.264 video encoding

The Bad

  • Requires Windows PC for initial setup
  • Some web-based tools launched in IE by default
  • Media sharing sometimes requires manual configuration of ports

HP has quickly refreshed its MediaSmart servers with the new EX490 and EX495, which have arrived shortly after the second-generation EX485 and EX487. The review covers the flagship EX495 which sports an Intel dual-core CPU running at 2.5GHz, along with a 1.5TB hard drive and 2GB of DDR2 RAM. Aside from the slightly improved specs, the new user interface is a primary highlight of the latest systems.

form and construction

The EX495 carries the same basic form as its predecessor, with four drive bays and the computer components placed inside an attractive gloss-black housing measuring 5.5 x 9.8 x 9.2 inches. Drive status lights and power indicators are illuminated using blue LEDs, with brightness controls available in the configuration settings.



The front and back sides are both constructed of metal mesh, allowing air to easily pass through for improved cooling. The fan and drives are relatively quiet, not completely silent but significantly less noticeable than many dedicated NAS systems.



Both of the new servers offer a variety of expansion options for storage. Three drive bays are left empty, enabling users to bring total capacity up to 6TB just with internal storage. On the backside, HP integrates a 3Gb/s eSATA connection, with support for eSATA multipliers, along with three USB 2.0 connections. A single USB port is located on the front for attaching a flash drive or portable hard drive that might end up back in a computer bag.



The EX495 ships with a Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM drive, while the EX490 model provides a 1TB drive and a single-core Celeron processor running at 2.2GHz. Otherwise, specs appear to be the same. HP chose to offer both versions with a single drive, as opposed to the previous offerings which provided two drives with the high-end model.



The integrated dual-core, 64-bit Pentium E5200 CPU brings hardware performance on par with a variety of desktop computers. The additional processor capabilities would not be necessary if the device was just a storage device, but the speed definitely helps with many of the advanced features such as video conversion.



initial configuration

The MediaSmart Servers have expanded support for Mac systems, although plugging the device into a router and attempting the initial configuration from a Mac quickly leads to the realization that you still need a Windows computer. After setting up the system in Windows, however, the server can be managed from the Home Server Console running on either platform.

Getting the server up and running was a breeze, although enabling the media sharing function required a bit of manual tweaking on a Belkin router. Even though the router supports UPnP, the system had trouble configuring the port settings correctly. The problem was not necessarily the fault of the server, although the router was able to support media sharing functions on other NAS systems without manually adjusting any settings. All of the necessary port information was available on HP's website.

Overall, the new Console is well organized and easy to use. Users can take a quick peek at a Tour menu which provides a basic overview of the various functions. Basic status information shows storage space, software updates, remote access status, power management information, network usage and continuously updated information on the CPU and memory utilization.



Mac support

HP did a great job extending more services to support Macs, especially with the increasing prevalence of mixed-platform homes. The same Console layout is provided for both Mac and Windows systems. Previous MediaSmart servers were fairly limited in their Mac functionality, lacking several important features such as full-system Time Machine backup and Media Collector support.



Mac users will find a HP server icon on the status bar, where they can choose to open the web-based home page, the Console, or the server preferences. The Media Collector feature, which automatically scans for media, listed all of the network-connected Windows and Mac computers without a problem. Users can choose which computers to scan before the system tracks any new media and downloads it locally to the server.



Media Collector works great on both platforms. A variety of settings are provided, allowing certain types of content to be selectively ignored or added to the server. Users can choose to organize by folder structure or information such as artist/album for music or dates for images. The company has improved the function to work as a background service. As new content is downloaded on a computer, it is quickly copied to the server instead of waiting for the delay between periodic scans. The function works great, especially if the computers are wired to the router or communicating via 802.11n. The Console shows how many files have been transferred, how many are waiting to be migrated, and the number of ignored items.





The Server preferences window allows users to select the partition size to use as a dedicated Time Machine backup on the server. Preparing a 318GB area only took approximately three minutes to complete. Once the backup area has been created, a dialogue pops up to confirm Time Machine backups using the HP server. The rest of the options are available through the standard Time Machine preferences.



Video Converter

HP has made significant changes to the Video Converter feature. Ultimately, this is one of the best selling points about the MediaSmart Server. Once the Media Collector is set up and videos have been copied to the server, the converter allows users to assign several different profiles. If family members find themselves watching video on a computer, HDTV, iPhone, PSP, or streaming over the Internet, the Video Converter provides an easy way to set up profiles for each type of device.



Taking each video file, or even batches, and running them through a dedicated conversion program typically takes a considerable amount of time. After selecting all of the files and creating a profile, running the conversions can also strain the hardware resources on many systems. Making mistakes configuring advanced settings is also frustrating. The HP Video Converter works to eliminates many of these problems.

After creating a profile, the Console provides an interface for adjusting the output settings. Surprisingly, a full list of advanced options are available but the menu layout is very intuitive and definitely not intimidating. Users can quickly see the resolution on a comparative template, along with a color-coded graph which shows the required bandwidth. Adjusting any of the settings will change the bandwidth meter. If someone wants to stream 720p HD videos to their HDTV but they only have a WiFi router capable of 802.11g speeds, the meter clearly shows that the HD720 preset needs additional bandwidth in the 100Mb/s range.



Any content that has already been transferred to the Server hard drive is converted locally and automatically. Primary computers do not need to be turned on and supplying resources to run the video conversions. After ripping a DVD to a computer, the Media Collector quickly grabs it in the background and lets the Video Converter go to work. Without any intervention, the ripped DVD is available to stream remotely or transfer onto a portable media player.

additional features

The device also works as a server for iTunes, which is a great option for users that don't want to clog their primary computers with 200GB of music files. Users accounts can be configured to allow family or friends to access content from any Internet-connected computer. A photo publishing interface can be used to upload images to snapfish, flickr, Picasa, and Facebook, although launching the publisher from the Console brings up Internet Explorer instead of the computer's default browser.



HP has released a free app for the iPhone and iPod touch that enables remote access and streaming. Converted videos stream well on a good connection, and the simple interface provides an easy way to show photos to friends or listen to music directly from the server hard drives.

conclusion

Lacking aesthetic changes, the EX495 appeared to be a minor update to its predecessors. Taking a look at the improved specs even leads to an assumption that the device is simply faster than the earlier models and ships with higher capacity hard drives. While all of these changes are welcome, the most glaring and crucial difference involves the Home Server Console.

Although initial setup encountered a few bumps, which probably would have been prevented with a newer router, the updated software provides considerable improvements over the earlier versions. While capabilities have been expanded, the functions are still easy to work with even for users lacking advanced networking knowledge. The range of features are now supported on Macs, making the MediaSmart Server fit well in homes using both platforms.

For $700, the device is not the cheapest way to dive into home media management and distribution. The dual-core processor does shave time from video conversion, although the Media Collector feature and automated processes might make the difference hard to notice compared to the EX490 model which cuts $150 from the price tag.

The MediaSmart Server is a great choice for households that want to access all of their media content whether they are sitting in the living room, at a friend's house, or taking a walk in the park. The device helps to simplify the entire process by automating time-consuming steps typically required to make media available in so many different ways. At the same time, the system works as a central backup location for several computers. As the market for consumer-level server devices continues to expand, HP has developed a competitive hardware/software combination that does not require advanced knowledge to utilize advanced features.

by Justin King


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