When the MediaSmart Server was first released, it didn’t take long for limitations and areas of improvement to be discussed amongst the Home Server community. One of the first improvements was to upgrade the memory from the stock 512MB, usually to 2GB. More adventurous users began looking to increase horsepower through higher clocked or multi-core CPU upgrades. We found ways to increase the functionality of our servers through add-ins, hacks, and additional software installations. None of this was unexpected for a new product launch, especially for a whole new product category launch — the Home Server, and we all believed that a follow-on product had to be in the works.
Ever since we heard the first mention of Encore 6 months ago, there has been much speculation about what the next-generation MediaSmart Server would look like. The most commonly requested feature improvements from the MediaSmartServer.net community were hardware upgrades, more and improved media sharing options, capacity for more internal hard drives, better Mac integration, and Media Center-like functionality. Today we get our first look at the EX485 and EX487, and while not all of our wishes have been met the new MediaSmart Server is a tremendous step forward for the Home Server platform, reaffirming that HP is leading the way for all Home Server vendors.
I’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to test both beta and final production versions of the new MediaSmart Server. In late October I was asked by HP to review and provide feedback on the Beta version of the EX487 (the EX485 is the single drive version and is identical to the EX487 in all other respects). Through mid November I spent a couple of weeks using the EX487 as my primary Home Server, exploring the new functionality and providing feedback to HP with some issues I encountered and new features that I really enjoyed. I’ve also been exercising the final production version of the EX487 for the past few days, and while I’ve noticed improvements in some of the problem areas there are still some issues with which I have real concerns, but we will talk about those later in this review.
I am expecting that most readers will have a basic understanding of Windows Home Server, and I will be delivering the review in large part as a compare and contrast with the EX470. If you’re new to Windows Home Server or the MediaSmart Server, I recommend you visit our forums, do a little reading, and ask any questions you may have.
Specifications and New Features
The EX487 specifications read much like those of the original EX475, with the only notable differences being the switch to Intel platform, 2GB memory (yay!), and increase of HDD size from 500GB to 750GB.
- Intel Celeron 2.0GHZ 64-bit Processor
- 2GB DDR2 Memory
- 10/100/1000(Gigabit) RJ45 Ethernet
- 4 USB 2.0 ports (1 front, 3 back)
- 1 eSATA port (back)
- 1 SATA 7200 RPM, 750GB hard disk drive for EX485
- 2 SATA 7200 RPM, 1.5TB (2 x 750GB) hard disk drives for EX487
- 5.5”(W) x 9.8”(H) x 9.2”(D) (approx.) 14 cm (W) x 25 cm (H) x 23 cm (D) (approx.)
- One year limited warranty
- EX485: $649
- EX487: $799
- Available in early 2009
There are several new features included with the EX487 which I will cover in further detail later in this review, but for you impatient readers here’s a quick summary.
- Simplified photo sharing tool, including integration with Snapfish, Facebook, Flickr, and Picasa Web Albums
- Media Collector for aggregating content from the client PCs to the Server
- Updated Twonky media streamer, including Remote Media Streaming
- Apple Mac integration, including the Control Center and a Time Machine backup drive solution
- Amazon S3 integration for online backups
There are also several features that have largely stayed the same from the EX470 but are worth mentioning to show the entire value proposition of the MediaSmart Server.
- iTunes streaming provided by the Firefly Media Server
- Dynamic DNS services provided by TZO
- Server Recovery DVD to restore your server in the event of system disk failure or corruption of the OS
- All the usual Windows Home Server features, including integrated PC backup and restore, Remote Access to files as well as computers that support Remote Desktop, Folder Duplication to preserve data in the event of a hard drive failure, and the extensible Add-In architecture to support 3rd-party developers.
Setup and Installation
A number of you will be pleased to hear that I performed the initial setup of the EX487 from my Vista Ultimate 64bit desktop, removing the previous limitation of requiring a 32bit system for the initial setup. The process was uneventful and familiar to anyone owning a MediaSmart Server, with one notable change being that the aqua LEDs “pulse” in brightness when the server is ready to be set up, rather than the previous purple color indication. The update download process was very quick which means HP has included into the base OS image all the previous updates to Windows Home Server.
Upon completion of the initial client install and setup of the server, the user is presented with the main MediaSmart Server tab of the Home Server Console. This has had a major update, utilizing a tabbed interface to offer a vast assortment of both high level and detailed information all from one central location. Of particular interest is the Server Summary section, which at a glance gives the user overview of the hardware health, Add-Ins, storage status, and software update status.
One item that caught my attention and concerned me at first was the fact that in the Server Console my Health indicator was red (due to no anti-virus software on my client PC), yet the Health LED on the server was not indicating any problem, it was still aqua and not red as I would expect. Some investigation showed that the default config has disabled the option to show server health on the front LED. After enabling that feature, the health LED turned red as expected. I would have expected and recommend this to be enabled by default, with the mindset that many users will “set it and forget it”, and not realize when their server has a problem until it is too late.
There are also many more options available for choosing when health notifications should be issued by the HP software, which can resolve the issue many users had with the HP 1.3 update that would nag you about Add-Ins available for installation.
The HP Control Center is a client application that primarily provides shortcuts to many Windows Home Server and MediaSmart Server resources, and is delivered at install time. With the EX475 this application was a 3-tab GUI with a few configuration options. HP has simplified this interface to a simple 3 row black “widget”-style GUI.
While the interface has a new look and feel, much of the functionality is the same as it existed for the EX470 except for the new “Wake Server” button. There is no real configuration to be performed in this application as the Media Collector config occurs in the Server Console. This is definitely a needed application on the client side to provide the end user with centralized access to the Server’s functionality, help files, and support links. However I would prefer to see this encompassed in a tool bar, sidebar widget, system tray icon, or some other less intrusive yet easily accessible way. Even making the GUI resizable and letting the user choose which icons are displayed would go a long way to making this feature more appealing.
The first change we notice with the new MediaSmart server is updated packaging, showcasing the latest trends in HP branding and presentations of the new feature set available with the EX487. When first removing the server from its packaging, it is obviously of the same form factor as the first generation MediaSmart Server. The top has been changed to an attractive glossy dark gray color, and the drive trays now have a red button which make the use of the trays a little more intuitive and easier to operate. Also, all of the LED’s have been changed from blue to the new HP “aqua” color.
One nice touch that shows HP has been listening to the MediaSmart Server community is the “beefing up” of the tiny screws used to mount the inside lower grill which were so easily stripped when removed to perform the memory or CPU upgrade. While I imagine HP recommends against users taking apart the server, it’s good they made the process a little easier and less error prone.
The Hardware Status area has had the output of a few sensors removed, presumably to avoid the situations we’ve seen where the system thermal probe would occasionally malfunction.
Power savings is an area that many people have an interest in these days, and HP has taken steps to address this important issue. In my home, the MediaSmart Server always being on and accessible allows me to standby or suspend the PCs in my home yet still allow me to access all my files stored on the server, thus saving a significant amount of power. Some users will want their server to go to sleep after performing the nightly backups or while at work to save even more power, and HP has provided a Power Management setting to enable this feature which they claim consumes only 1 watt of power while in sleep mode.
In testing this feature I found that the server does indeed consume only 1 watt while in sleep mode, and after sending the Wake command from the client Control Center software the server was awake and available in approximately 15 seconds. Even more cool is that I was able to wake the server via the Wake On Lan feature of my router running the Tomato firmware and could wake the server while at work or on the road without needing the Wake utility of the Control Center.
HP also claims to have improved the power consumption of the server while it is on, with the base EX487 consuming 60 watts under full load with two drives in the system versus the EX475 which consumed 73 watts under full load with two drives in the system. Unfortunately my testing with the Kill-A-Watt P3 and using Prime95 to put the system under a high CPU load showed the EX487 consuming 72 watts, so I’ll be following up with HP on this to try to get an explanation for the discrepency I observed.
The EX487 comes with an eSATA port just like the EX475, however my testing uncovered that at this time the eSATA port is NOT port multiplier aware! This means that those of you with external eSATA enclosures will only be able to see a single drive, and can significantly reduce the potential storage capacity of your MediaSmart Server. Here’s the info I have from HP on this issue.
We did not have this functionality available to us in the storage driver we were using with the Intel chipset. We don’t see this as a major issue when looked at from the perspective of the majority of our customers. We do however continue to investigate this and it may be possible to develop a new storage driver and BIOS to include eSATA multi-port support in future versions of the product.
While perhaps not an issue for most MediaSmart Server customers, I do believe this is an issue for a significant portion of MediaSmartServer.net members, many who have huge storage needs and strong technical tendencies. I have asked HP to clarify if a storage driver and BIOS update is feasible after the EX487 ships or if it would only be possible for future revisions of the product, but at this time I have not heard back.
The Media Collector is a tremendous step forward from the Media Aggregator functionality found in the EX470. Instead of simply copying iTunes playlists to the server, the Media Collector is now cable of scanning your client computers for photos, music, and videos and storing them on the server in the corresponding shared folder.
As a test, I configured the Media Collector to search in my Music folder in my home directory which corresponds to my CD rip settings in Windows Media Player, and copy any music found and store it on the server by PC folder structure. I then ripped a CD, and in about an hour the Media Collector found it and copied it to the server, mostly as expected. I also configured the Media Collector to gather up my Photos and Videos from the default user home directory locations, and this performed similarly to the Music experience.
This feature seems to work as designed, though it will result in some wasted storage space if you don’t stay on top cleaning up content on the client after it has been copied to the server. My only real complaint with this feature is the lack of customization options for client source and server destinations. I’d like to be able to specify custom source directories rather than “My Music” or All Folders. I’d also prefer more flexibility for where and how the files end up on the server. The previous Media Aggregator would organize by each client PC, whereas the Media Collector dumps them into a directory named after the Client User in the top level of each folder share (for example, the CD I ripped ended up in \\hpserver\Music\akuretz\). If you’re willing to work within these constraints and reorganize your shared folders, the Media Collector can be a great time saving feature.
I do have a concern that HP is “strongly recommending” that users provide the Guest account full access to the Photos, Videos, and Music shares, especially when no warning is given about the potential risks of doing this. With so many homes still running unsecured wireless networks, this seems like it could be a dangerous thing to recommend. I had no issues with the Media Collector in my brief testing with the Guest account disabled and access controlled by my configured user account.
Media Streaming on the MediaSmart Server originally was limited to Windows Media Connect 2.0, and the Firefly Media Server for sharing iTunes libraries. The 1.3 update from HP delivered Packet Video (aka Twonky) which provided a more rich media streaming experience by supporting more file types and displaying album art.
The EX487 still includes Windows Media Connect 2.0 (the Windows Home Server delivered solution which is fairly out of date), however it is now disabled in favor of an updated TwonkyMedia streaming software. Media streaming appears to be a fairly straight forward application, with file support being the most common differentiator.
Unfortunately I had some significant issues with the Twonky software and file playback compatibility. I had numerous files that would play on my Xbox 360 and MediaSmart Connect with no issues through Windows Media Connect, yet would be reported as “Unsupported Format” when streamed through the new TwonkyMedia and often had incorrect meta data displayed, such as file durations of thousands of minutes. Some of these files were H264 encoded .MP4 home videos recorded on my Sanyo HD camcorder, and some would play and some would error, all recorded on the same camera. The worst part was that these same files all played successfully via the older PacketVideo software on my EX475. I also had issues with various downloaded xVid encoded avi files.
I also experienced some very strange behaviors while attempting to stream via Windows Media Player 11 on my client PC, such as missing track listings in album mode, missing or incorrect album art, and just strange layouts that performed correctly when streamed via Windows Media Connect. I’ve read reports of these types of issues before, and unfortunately this experience has really soured my impression of the Twonky software.
The Remote Access abilities of the EX487 remain similar to the EX475, with a very notable addition being the Remote Media Streaming feature of the new TwonkyMedia software. The default Remote landing page contains links to the Windows Home Server remote pages, the Photo Publisher, Photo Viewer, and Web Media Streamer pages. One detail that has bothered me about the MediaSmart Server is it’s lack of single sign-on between the HP and Microsoft authenticated Remote web pages. HP uses the Windows Home Server user information to verify the identity of remote users, yet fails to pass those credentials on to the WHS specific pages, and it is very frustrating to see that continue with the EX487.
The Web Media Streamer feature provides access from anywhere outside the home to all the music and photos stored on your server. I’ve spent many hours over the past few weeks at work listening to music streaming off my home server, and really like this feature.
It can be directly compared to Fireplay, a Flash based web interface for Remote Media Streaming that many users have manually implemented to work with the Firefly Media Server delivered on the EX470. I really wanted to prefer this solution over Fireplay, as it provides some advantages, such as better playlist support, folder based browsing of music stored on the server, and streaming of photos stored on the server.
I did find some oddities and strange behavior with the Web Media Streamer software. Track counts were incorrect for most albums, often showing duplicated counts (for example, an album with 11 tracks would have a track count of 22), my best guess being that the software was combining the “All” and individual album track counts. I also found that longer tracks (6+ minutes in duration) would frequently stop playing and skip to the next track while streaming to where I was listening at my place of work. I have not yet been able to attribute this to a TwonkyMedia issue, router issue, or work firewall issue, but my suspicion is that the Twonky software is to blame as a Wireshark trace shows a server RST connection sent to terminate the connection as well as the fact that the same files play their full duration via Fireplay. The most annoying issue is the lack of preservation of track order. When playing an album, I like to listen to it in the order which the artist chose to create it, however the Twonky Web Media Streaming software lists tracks in a totally indecipherable order, not based on ID3 tags, file names, or track numbers. An example of both the track listing and track count issue is shown below, which is the CD I ripped in the Media Collector test scenario.
This experience basically has left me torn between using my old stand-by of Fireplay, which has limitations on playlists, does not support folder browsing, and does not support photos, and the new Twonky Web Media Streamer which supports all that Fireplay lacks, but won’t play songs over 6 minutes in duration, and plays albums with their tracks out of order.
Photo Viewer and Photo Publisher
The EX475 included the Photo Webshare application, which by most accounts was a relatively clumsy application. The Webshare manager was forced to create user accounts with no mechanism to import address books, albums could only be created from photos on the client system and not those already stored on the server, and the original release was plagued by poor quality resized images due to the compression algorithm used by the server upon image upload.
With the EX487, HP decided to simplify and at the same time expand the options for sharing photos from the MediaSmart Server. The new Photo Publisher application allows the user to upload only photos stored on the server, and utilizes a Flash interface so is compatible with more browsers than the previous ActiveX control used in the EX475. This worked pretty well for me, though I had some strange errors occur when attempting to create albums via a remote connection that I attribute to timeout errors. Selecting photos to add to an album is as easy as click a checkbox next to an individual photo or a directory from the tree on the left.
Once an album is created and photos added, the Photo Publisher process is complete and any users is able to access your shared albums if you have Remote Access enabled, there is no longer any password protection for these albums. I did find a few limitations with this package. For one, I could find no way to rotate photos added to the album, so the Photo Viewer is anticipating that any photos stored on your server are already rotated correctly. Also, the software fails to add any default caption (often in other software packages the image file name is used), which forces the user to manually add a caption to each photo if they want additional info displayed. Finally, the Slideshow feature was quite nice and the resized photos retained high quality, however the slideshow controls and captions remained in the foreground on top of the images, obscuring the picture even when the window was not in focus.
Overall I think the Photo Publisher and Photo Viewer applications, while not “best in class” do a good job at making it easy to share photos with remote family and friends, plus it supported IE7, FireFox3, and Chrome browsers (I was unable to test Safari but suspect it would be fine) for upload and viewing. For improvements I would recommend that HP provide a mechanism to rotate pictures in the albums, as well as default captioning of photos to contain the image name.
In addition to the Photo Viewer, users can upload pictures to various online photo sharing sites via the Photo Publisher. Supported online services include Snapfish, Flickr, Facebook, and Picasa Web Albums.
The photo upload experience is the same, however the user is prompted to authenticate with the online service and any available online albums able to used as the destination target for photos uploaded from the server.
For many users, just having all their systems and important data backed up and duplicated on the MediaSmart Server is a huge step towards protecting their valuable photos, music, and documents. However in the event of a catastrophic event such as fire or flood, the server and all that data could be lost. With the EX487, HP is offering an Online Backup feature which allows the user to back up select shares to the Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3). Note that this is not a free service, see the Amazon link for pricing information.
Configuration and scheduling of the Online Backup feature is straight forward, though you will need to sign up for an S3 account and Access Key if you don’t already have one. I would have really preferred to have more granularity for selecting what to back up rather than just at the share level. For example, I’ll happily pay to backup my precious family photos but do not want to online backup all the other miscellaneous pictures in my Photos share. This forces me to reorganize the way I store content on the server and add new shared folders to TwonkyMedia.
I was also able to schedule an Online Backup during the Sleep window with no warnings, which could possibly be problematic. I did not test this thoroughly to see if Health Notifications were generated to inform the user of the conflicted configuration.
Unfortunately I do not have a Mac available to perform testing of these features, so I’ll just have to give an overview of what is available for the Mac user. First is the Client Control Center, which provides easy access to the shared folders on the Server, a link to the Photo Publisher, and the ability to wake the server from Sleep mode.
The second and very exciting feature is the ability use Time Machine to back up your Mac to the MediaSmart Server. My understanding is that this feature creates a virtual disk on the Mac from a network location on the Server, which Time Machine will use as a backup destination. Note that this is not a full OS backup/restore utility such as is provided for Windows PCs with Windows Home Server, as the documentation for this feature states that HP has implemented only a file restore process and not a full OS restore process. This feature does require OSX 10.5 or higher. Also be aware that should you need to change the size of your backup, you will lose all previous backup data.
This is a powerful feature for households that have both Mac and PC systems that need to be backed up, and I believe will be a true differentiator for some customers trying to decide on what to use for their home server needs.
Easter Eggs and Goodies
The MediaSmart Server team has included two Easter Egg features that I have discovered so far. The first is the same Light Show feature found in the EX475, which is accessed by navigating to the “HP MediaSmart Server” Settings Tab, selecting the LEDs tab, holding the CTRL SHIFT and ALT keys and clicking on the server icon. The Brightness slider will change to a feature slider that controls the behavior of the drive LEDs.
I did notice that what they call “purple” appears to be more of a tan/pink or off-white color rather than true purple, due to the aqua LEDs.
The second Easter Egg feature is a hidden album stored in the Photo Viewer application, and contains twelve photos of some members of the MediaSmart Server development team. The only way I found to access the album was by typing in the following URL: https://hpserver/PhotoViewer/HP/index.xml .
It’s good to see that the team was able to add a bit of their humor and personalities into the product.
The new EX487 is a positive progression and natural evolution of the MediaSmart Server. Overall the system is much more polished in presentation and provides a more broad and desirable set of features over the EX475. There are some issues and limitations with the new server, as I have discussed earlier in this review, and users should consider carefully their intended use of the server prior to choosing the EX487 over the EX475. I think almost all users that will find that 2-4TB of storage is adequate, they will want the performance improvement of the 2GB memory, appreciate the larger system drives, and will ultimately find the EX487 to be an excellent solution. For a portion of you, however, if your storage needs demand the use of an eSATA enclosure, for the time being you are out of luck.
- A great looking and performing chassis that if anything has been improved to look even better
- Much more polished and better designed Server Console interface
- 2GB memory and larger stock hard drives
- Mac integration for Time Machine backups
- Improved content aggregation, remote media streaming, and online backup
- TwonkyMedia and Remote Media Streaming software quirky and in need of some polish
- eSATA port not port-multiplier aware
- Still no single sign-on for Remote Access
- Limited ability to customize Media Collector and Online Backup features
Future Tests and Activities
While I believe I’ve performed a fairly thorough test and evaluation of the EX487, there are some further tests and activities I’d like to perform.
- Publish the pictures I’ve taken of the guts of the server
- Perform disk and network I/O performance tests in comparison to the EX475.
- Acquire a Mac suitable for evaluating the Control Center and Time Machine backup feature.
- Do some more exploring of the system for registry and driver info to see if a MSS Fan Control style Add-In would be possible, though my initial investigations have shown that the mechanism for controlling the fans is different from the EX475.
- Investigate if a driver update for the Intel Storage Manager would get the eSATA port working with port multipliers, or if a BIOS update is required.
If you have feedback, a testing request, or questions, feel free to leave a comment or post in this forum topic.