Over the past 10 months or so since HP released the EX485 and EX487 MediaSmart Servers, we’ve seen offerings from many other manufacturers entering the market. While most of these other manufacturers are releasing their first Home Server, HP has two generations of the EX-series as well as the LX195 under their belt, and undeniably the most experience making Windows Home Server based devices. We’ve seen the evolution from the original EX47x series, to the upgraded hardware and improved software of the EX48x series.
Today HP is continuing that evolution with the third generation of the EX series and have announced the upcoming release of the MediaSmart Server EX490 and EX495. I’ve been fortunate enough to have spent the last couple of weeks using and evaluating the EX495 model running the new 3.0 version of the MediaSmart Server software, and I’m ready to give you a tour of what you can expect from the new MediaSmart Server.
The focus of this review will be on the HP MediaSmart Server, if you’re not familiar with Windows Home Server I suggest you start here and then visit our forums to ask any specific questions you might have.
In previous generations of the MediaSmart Server there were two possible configurations that the customer could purchase. The lower cost model contained a single hard drive while the more expensive model contained two hard drives in order to allow duplication to be enabled so that files are protected in the event of a hard drive failure.
With the new EX490 and EX495, HP has made the change to more broadly differentiate the two models. Both feature Intel processors that are faster than previous servers, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, and more storage capacity. The EX490 model comes with an Intel Celeron 2.2GHz processor, a single 1.0TB hard drive, and will retail for $549. The EX495 model comes with an Intel Pentium 2.5GHz Dual Core processor, a single 1.5TB hard drive, and will retail for $699.
Here’s a full table of the specifications as provided by HP.
|Processor||Intel Celeron 450 Single-Core||Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5200|
|Internal Drive||1.0 TB SATA 7200 RPM||1.5 TB SATA 7200 RPM|
|Network||10/100/1000 RJ45 gigabit ethernet|
|Expandability||3 Serial ATA expansion bays
4 USB 2.0 ports
1 eSATA port
|Dimensions||Width: 14cm (5.5″)
Height: 25cm (9.8″)
Depth: 23cm (base) – 25cm (top) (9.2″-9.5″)
|Weight||5.0 kg (11.0 lb)||5.1 kg (11.24 lb)|
My view on this change is that HP built the EX495 to meet the needs of customers that want a powerful processor and plenty of storage to really provide a high performance server solution. The EX490 keeps in line with the previous generations of servers, providing solid performance with reduced power consumption and a lower price point, yet still providing the same expandability to ensure your server continues to meet your storage needs for a long time.
I’ve got mixed feelings about the loss of the 2 hard drive SKU from the server lineup. On the one hand many customers didn’t want the 2 drive models due to the package cost often being higher than the additional cost of a user purchasing a drive. The other perspective is that there are a set of customers who want duplication enabled out of the box, they trust HP to provide the right solution, and are willing to pay a small premium in order to have that confidence. In the end, I believe more customers will be pleased with the option to purchase a server with a more powerful CPU and increased storage than customers who would prefer a 2 drive model. Do keep in mind that you’ll need to manually enable Duplication on all your shared folders that you wish to protect when you add an additional hard drive down the road.
New and Improved packaging
I’ll be honest, I don’t usually give too much thought to the packaging of electronic products as long as they arrive safe and sound from their journey to my home (except for the atrocious plastic clamshell packaging). However, when the EX495 arrived, I was interested to see the new style of packaging that the server arrived in. The box is a little smaller than previous generations and still safely protected with foam inserts, with the significant change made to how the packaging opens. The user simply has to open the front flap and find the box of accessories right on top, with the server underneath. This results in a device that is much simpler to remove and is a more subtle example of the attention to detail that HP put into the product.
The accessories box contains the Setup Poster, power cord, ethernet cable, Server Recovery DVD, Client Connector Install CD, and PC Restore CD.
I’ll be giving you a more in-depth look at the hardware in the EX495 in another article, but want to touch on the highlights. Hacking and modifying the MediaSmart Server is a favorite pass-time around here, and so I asked HP about the potential for upgrading the processor in the EX490 to a dual-core model, and this was their reply.
The motherboards and BIOS are the same between the EX490 and EX495. Obviously they have different processors and heat sinks, and the BIOS can sense the different processors and use a new and improved fan control / cooling system to cool the processors.
The 3rd generation servers are also coming with a new power supply that is smaller and quieter, and the power supply fan has been relocated to the rear of the server. The noise from the power supply was probably the only real (and relatively infrequent) complaint heard from users when they first received their server, and the new MediaSmart Server is extremely quiet which I believe will appeal to many of you. Also, previous generations of the server seemed to blast the fans to full speed when the server was first powered on and then would slow down to a moderate level after a few seconds. The EX495 starts with the fans at a very quiet level, if you didn’t see the LED’s on the front you might not know you’ve powered it on. Kudos to HP for listening to their customers and making this welcomed change. It should also be noted that the power supply is an auto-switching type offering 100-240 VAC, 5.0A, 50-60Hz and so should be compatible in many regions.
Finally, I’m very pleased to report that HP has also listened to the highly vocal massive storage enthusiasts and returned Port Multiplier support over eSATA to the EX490 and EX495 servers. The servers feature a Silicon Image SiL3531 chipset that has support for Port Multipliers with FIS-based switching. The SiL3531 enables the EX49x to go one better than the 1st generation servers and support 5 drives via eSATA port multiplication where the 1st generation servers only supported 4 drives. Here’s a screen shot where I’ve connected 5 drives via my Sans Digital TR5M-B storage enclosure.
I was able to hot-swap drives in and out of the enclosure with no issues encountered, the SiL3531 chip in the EX490/EX495 servers appears to work quite well from my initial testing. The most hardcore amongst you will likely be disappointed with the single eSATA connection, but I expect this will only be a small set of users that truly need the additional storage capacity a second eSATA port would provide and you might be better off with one of the massive storage solutions in our DIY forum.
Setup and Installation
I inserted the Client Connector Install CD into my Vista Ultimate 64 bit desktop, and began the install process. One of the first things I noticed is that HP changed the default name of the server from the previous “hpserver” to “hpstorage”. I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that, please feel free to speculate in the comments (I’ll mail a few WHS stickers and a “Mommy” book to whoever comes up with the best reason ).
It was nice to see that HP built the Windows Home Server operating system image with the most recently available patches and updates already installed, so the infamous 14% and 34% hangs during the install process were not encountered. This may again become an issue once Windows Home Server Power Pack 3 or other large updates are released, but for now the process only takes a few minutes versus the hour or more that could previously occur.
The HP MediaSmart Server tab of the Home Server Console has been completely redesigned in order to be simpler to use, with each feature existing on it’s own sub-tab and having integrated configuration popup dialogs instead of navigating you to the Server Console Settings tab. The simplified interface works well and looks great, though I hope you like the color blue!
The Tour tab is interactive and provides helpful tooltip style informational dialogs with more details about each feature of the server.
There is also a new “System Status” tab that lets you quickly view the server’s status metrics, such as health notifications, updates, Add-Ins, Remote Access status, power management, storage capacity, and memory/network/CPU utilization. The tab does take a few moments to initialize and gather all the metrics, and then periodically refreshes. This is a very cool feature that provides a ton of info at a quick glance.
The Server Console also has several tabs describing and allowing configuration of the Media Sharing capabilities of the server. These include diagrams of how the Server can fit into your networked home, how it can be accessed remotely, and how to configure the Twonky and iTunes streaming features. I’ll be discussing these features in more detail later on in the review.
Overall I found the Server Console more appealing and easier to use than previous versions. The interface was always very responsive; there was no delay switching between tabs and adding new users is almost instantaneous. This is definitely the fastest Server Console I’ve used, which I attribute most likely to the dual-core processor and plenty of RAM.
HP Media Collector
The Media Collector runs on the client PCs in your home, it scans your computer for music, image, and video files and copies them to the server. Media Collector allows you to choose the schedule of collection, where to look for files, and some limited options on how to organize the files on the server.
HP states that the Media Collector has been optimized to work in the background and relies less on the computer’s processor. There have also been improvements to the information fed back to the user on the Media Collector’s status, with “Pending Files” and “Files Not Needed” views added to show more detail into the collection process.
The Media Collector had been a bit of a problem point for some users in previous versions, and I’m pleased to see the improvements HP has made to make this feature more robust and easier to debug.
HP Video Converter
The Video Converter is a feature that was very well received when it launched in the 2.5 Software Update for the EX48x series servers, but it required some hacks and modifications in order to get more configuration options and better file support. HP has made some very welcome changes to the Video Converter that make it for a much improved experience. You can now define profiles to control how your videos are converted by selecting the device your video will be played on or manually specifying your own settings.
The DVD settings allow you to choose how a DVD folder is processed. You can choose to convert only the longest title from amongst the .vob files, break apart each title into a separate file, or append all the titles into one file. You’ll need to remove the .vob and .ifo files from your DVD to one the input directories you’ve configured, and the server will not convert protected content. I tried connecting a DVD drive with an unprotected home DVD, but was unsuccessful with my brief attempts to have it automatically convert the video. I’m sure more investigation will continue into this.
The possible predefined file output targets are iPod/Zune, PSP, iPhone, and HD720. Note that you’re not limited to streaming these videos, you can copy them onto your mobile device and take them with you for entertainment during that long flight.
A feature suggestion to HP would be to consider adding an informational dialog during the Profile editing process to show an estimated file size due to be output at the chosen settings, in order to give the user some idea about how bitrate, framerate, audio rate, and resolution impact file size. This could be displayed as megabytes per hour of video, or similar.
The Status page for the Video Converter has also been improved and now shows the Source and Destination folders for each file and each profile, as well as a detailed error message when a conversion fails.
The dual-core processor held up very well under Video Converter load, though the system was definitely impacted it remained responsive throughout conversions. I also was able to stream music over the Remote Streaming interface with no observed issues from the ongoing conversions.
The Video Converter is a great feature that really helps take away some of the complexity of making your media accessible, both at home and outside the home via your mobile devices or remote access. It is not a flawless system, as the dvr-ms files created by my Vista Media Center PC are still not able to be converted apparently due to a driver/encoding conflict, the Converter doesn’t support .wtv files produced by Windows 7, and some file types are still not able to be converted.
HP Photo Publisher/Photo Viewer
The HP Photo Publisher and Photo Viewer features remain largely unchanged from the 2.5 software on the EX48x servers. The Photo Publisher allows you to publish photos from your server to your favorite photo sharing sites such as Picasa, Snapfish, flickr, and Facebook. Utilizing these services is as simple as entering your authentication information and then selecting the images you’d like to upload.
You can also use the Photo Publisher to create albums that are stored on your MediaSmart Server and can be shared with family and friends using the Photo Viewer. When you create an album in the Photo Viewer you can decide if it should be Public or Private, which allows the administrator to make an album private, while allowing access to friends and family that know the URL of the album. When your visitors visit your Photo Viewer album, they can view the photos in a filmstrip mode or slideshow mode. The Photo Viewer also supports the addition of captions to images if you want to add them.
I didn’t notice any significant changes to these features from the previous versions in the 2.5 software, and they both worked well both inside and outside the home for publishing and viewing photos. I personally tend to not use this feature much, as I don’t want friend and family consuming my home bandwidth when I might be gaming, downloading files, or using my VOIP phone. However I do think this is a nice option to have available for users that prefer having their photos on their own server and not on the more general internet.
Twonky has been delivered with the MediaSmart Server since the product was first introduced, billed as an improved media streaming alternative to the default Windows Media Connect 2.0 that ships with Windows Home Server. Twonky serves as the default media streamer for the MediaSmart Server and Windows Media Connect is disabled. The Twonky version included with the 3.0 software is 5.1.09 RC WHS, while the version in the 2.5 software is 5.0.56 WHS. Readers that were frustrated with the loss of the “Browse by folder” feature will be happy to learn that this has returned in the version of Twonky included.
In addition to streaming within the home, Twonky also provides Remote Media Streaming which is accessible via both a web browser and the iStream App for the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch. This feature allows you to view your music, photos, and videos either in a browser or on your iPhone when you’re away from home. At the time of this review there is no update for the iStream software, so you can read my hands-on review of the iStream application for more details into this functionality. I had a very positive experience using iStream on my iPod Touch via wifi from outside the home during the course of my testing.
The browser interface for the Remote Media Streaming is a Flash application that allows you to access your content in many different ways. Music can be displayed by Album, Artist, Playlist, or by their folder structure on the server.
Photos can be displayed by Date, Folder, or Playlist, and features a full-screen Slideshow mode.
The Videos tab gives you the option of viewing just the Converted Mobile version, the Converted Full size version, or All video files, as well as by Folder Structure and Playlists.
Unfortunately there are some issues with the Remote Media Streaming implementation in the 3.0 software. On numerous occasions I experienced the abrupt stopping of the music I was listening to while listening at work. This appeared to be a failure in the Flash application and not server related, as the song was fully cached and playback stopped about 3/4 of the way into playback. At this point it was impossible to resume playback on that track and I had to select a different track in order to listen to more music. I attempted to listen to more than a dozen albums over the course of my testing, and if asked to guess I would say that probably 80% of the albums I played would stop at some point during playback. I’ve been using this same feature on my EX487 running the 2.5 software for many months with no such issue. Interestingly, I was able to listen to several full albums via the iStream software on my iPod Touch over a wifi connection at work, and had zero stoppages of playback.
I also had significant issues with Video playback. Converted Mobile videos that were short in duration worked well enough, but I had no luck playing back a full length movie. In one case the video buffered and played for 40 minutes and then just stopped. Even streaming on my gigabit LAN connection took extremely long to buffer the mobile quality videos. Complicating the issue is the inconsistent feedback provided by the player. When you first click a video, the words “Loading” appear in the player window, and the video title and duration also appear. Shortly after the “Loading” words disappear but there is no apparent buffering occurring. High CPU load is the only evidence that something may be occurring, but there are no guaranties that your video will play back. I was unsuccessful in almost every attempt at playing anything but the shortest clips.
The Remote Media Streaming feature is one that I’ve used extensively on my EX487, even though I primarily use it to listen to music and have only rarely used the photos or videos feature. I’m hopeful that HP will be able to find the cause of the issues I encountered and get a fix out in the near future.
Server for iTunes
The Firefly iTunes streaming server is present in the 3.0 software, and is the same version svn-1737 that was included in the 2.5 software update. The Server for iTunes allows you to stream your music and playlists to computers that are running iTunes or compatible devices.
The configuration options are available on the MediaSmart Server tab of the Server Console, and allow you configure a password, set the scan frequency, name the iTunes server, and enable or disable it.
If you’re having issues with the Remote Media Streaming application, you might consider trying the excellent FirePlay for WHS Add-In developed by resident Windows Home Server MVP Nigel Wilks. This only provides access to the music on your server, but is a viable alternative when you want to stream your music via web browser when you’re away from home.
Mac Features and Compatibility
HP has done a lot of work to expand the features available to Apple Mac users in the 3.0 software release. My wife has been wanting her Macbook backed up onto the Home Server for a while, and I took this opportunity to install the latest version of the Mac Client Connector software and get her backing up to the EX495.
During the install process, a MediaSmart Server menubar item is created on the Mac that provides quick access to the Preferences and features delivered in the 3.0 software. The feature shortcuts allow you to Open the MediaSmart Server Home Page in your web browser (discussed later in this review), Launch the Home Server Console via the included Remote Desktop Connection software, Wake On Lan to wake the server when it is asleep, and Open the Recovery Assistant.
One of the complaints with the previous Time Machine integration was that the MediaSmart Server was only able to perform file restores, and was not capable of performing a full hard drive image restore. That has now changed in the 3.0 software, and full Mac hard drive recovery support is available.
You’ll need to use the included Recovery Assistant to create a bootable USB flash drive in order to boot your Mac. The USB flash key is used in the Mac OS X Installer environment to make the backup disks available in the Mac OS X Installer Restore assistant. I have not tried this restore feature, but know that it will be a welcome feature addition for Mac owners.
There is now a new Media Collector feature for the Mac that will copy your iPhoto, iTunes, and iMovie libraries to the server. After installing the client software on my wife’s Mac, it showed up as able to be configured in the Media Collector settings of the Server Console.
I do have one complaint about the way the Mac software works. During install the user is required to enter the hostname of the server and the password used during initial server setup, the Admin password. I can see this being used to create the Backup disk on the server, however the password also seemed to be used to automatically authenticate the user into the Server Console. During my testing I was not prompted to enter the Home Server Console Admin password when launching it on the Mac. This is an unacceptable situation for me, and I’ll be asking HP if this is the intended functionality.
With the new features present in the 3.0 software, the Mac has become significantly more integrated into the Windows Home Server environment in a way that only HP is doing at this time. These new features alone will make a very compelling story that may well convince people to purchase a MediaSmart Server that may have been holding out.
The MediaSmart Server has always utilized the extensible nature of Windows Home Server, both by the included HP software enhancements as well as the third party Add-Ins that they have included such as Packet Video/Twonky for media streaming and McAfee for antivirus. With the 3rd generation of servers, HP is still including McAfee as an Add-In that the customer can install, however they are now also developing an “Add Software” feature that links to a web site at HP.com that lists additional third party Add-Ins available for download.
Since the “Add Software” site is fairly sparse at this point, I asked HP for some more details about this feature. They told me that the “Add Software” feature is just starting out and will be built out over time with HP and 3rd party Add-Ins. The store infrastructure is only for the EX490/495 but obviously other customers can access it if they choose to upgrade later this year (for more on this, see the “Updates for previous generations of the MediaSmart Server” section later in this review).
Client Control Center
The Client Control Center has changed from an installed application to a Web Browser shortcut that takes you to the HP MediaSmart Server website where you are presented with rows of icons that are links to all the features of the server. This page is the same for both local and remote access, with the local features being grayed out when logged in remotely, and the remote features grayed out when Remote Access is not enabled on your server.
I understand and actually support the concept of this type of interface as it offers a consistent experience for the user as well as simplified development for the HP team, however the implementation left me frustrated and disappointed. When clicking the icons to access any features local to the client PC, such as launching the Home Server Console, initiating a “Backup Now”, or even opening a Shared Folder, an IE Download window pops up, a file is downloaded to your client PC, and then the action is performed.
The situation goes from distracting to annoying if you have a web browser other than Internet Explorer as your system default. FireFox offers to download, and Chrome automatically downloads the launcher scripts and saves them to your client PC instead of executing them.
On the Mac, upon the first launch of the Home Page I received a certificate warning due to the Mac attempting to connect to the Server’s IP address instead of it’s host name. This concerns me a bit, because if the server’s IP address were to change the Mac would no longer be able to easily and automatically connect to the server.
If you value this feature for home use, then you’ll want to enable the “Always open” feature in Chrome, “Do this automatically” in FireFox, and in IE change the following browser setting: Tools>Options>Main> uncheck “Show the Downloads windows when downloading a file”. As for me, I likely won’t be using this feature and will instead use the WHS provided shortcut to shared folders and the System Tray application for access to the Server Console and Backup Now.
Easter Eggs and Goodies
The ubiquitous “LED Light Show” makes it’s expected appearance in the EX490 and EX495 servers, and I used my Eagle Scout experience to decode the Morse Code credits (actually I used Reflection to peek at the text strings in the HP files ).
Dan Thero, Matt Haines, Jerry McCollom, The Catalina Wine Mixer, Jason Goldman, Matt Fischer, Bryce Wemple, Tharuvai Sundaram Venkateswaran AKA TSV, Eric Peterson, Jim Long, David Lyle, Paul Cesario, Ron Gile, Jack Yang, Bernd Sitzmann, Steve Travis, Greg Lipinski, Fred Thomas, Paul Boerger, Christie Chaney, Jim Anderson, Charlie Radman, Drea Babcock, Nick Jennings, Kim Sipes, Amy Trefethen, Russ Wiechers, Allan Greentree, My Therapy Buddy, Mary Kay Meininger, The Microsoft Windows Home Server Team, and PS, Yes testers, we know that this was a run-on sentence, but we are not fixing it.
The infamous T.P.S Report from the classic tech geek comedy “Office Space” has remained in the 3.0 software, and can still be accessed by holding CTRL-SHIFT-2 keys while logged into the Web Media Streamer.
I also noticed that the HP team photo album that we saw in the EX48x servers also exists in the new EX49x server 3.0 software, however the album is broken when attempting to view it. Along with the fact that I was unable to find any other Easter Eggs (so far, anyway) in the 3.0 software, I’m guessing the HP engineers were very focused on delivering the improvements and didn’t have spare time to add their typical fun components.
With all these features, large hard drives, and even a dual-core Intel Pentium processor in the EX495, I’m sure some of my readers are asking about the power efficiency of the new servers. Here are the power consumption specs provided by HP, I’ll be sharing my findings with the Kill-A-Watt in the follow-on in-depth hardware review article.
I have to suspect that “Extreme load” refers to the high load produced by Prime95 or a similar application, which is what I use to test.
Ordering and Availability
Retailers will be able to order units from the HP distribution hub beginning today, and I’ve been informed that many of our favorite sites will be taking pre-orders today. Amazon, NewEgg, HP’s Home and Home Office Store, and others will all likely be taking pre-orders.
HP has also informed me that the EX490 and EX495 are planned to be available in Europe beginning in October. I don’t have details on which exact countries are included, but if we make assumptions based off the EX47x availability and the localized resource files in the English EX495 I was provided, then there should be support for at least the UK, Germany, France, and Spain. I’ll be sure to update you as I learn more.
Updates for previous generations of the MediaSmart Server
I asked HP for a schedule check on the previously promised software update for the 1st generation EX47x servers, and while they weren’t able to commit to a delivery date they did confirm that the upgrade path would allow owners of previous generations of the MediaSmart Server to upgrade to the 3.0 version of the software. HP is still targeting the rather broad “fall” timeframe for delivery of this update and wouldn’t commit to anything more specific.
I’m a software tester by trade, and I tend to find issues and bugs in most any software that I use. HP have come a long way with this latest generation MediaSmart Server and the 3.0 software, and I simply had trouble finding many issues to report, much less significant “Cons” to list in the comparison below.
HP has had a head start on the rest of the Home Server field by being involved in Windows Home Server from the very beginning. It’s quite pleasing to see that they’ve not been sitting back and taking advantage of that lead, but have instead been continuing to innovate and drive the product category forward with groundbreaking new features. There just isn’t much not to love about the new EX490 and EX495 running the 3.0 MediaSmart Server software.
- Faster, quieter, more expandable, and cheaper than previous generations
- Attractive, easy to use hardware and software
- Much improved Mac integration
- Better Media Collector and better Video Converter
- Online Backup feature missing (placeholder on “Add Software” page indicates it may be coming)
- Remote Media Streaming issues with music and video playback
Miscellaneous observations and oddities
During the 2 weeks or so I’ve spent with the EX495, I’ve made some observations and encountered a few oddities that I thought warranted mentioning, even though they weren’t directly impacting to the MediaSmart Server experience.
First, I was performing the initial setup of my EX495 late at night, around 11pm, and updates were installed during the setup process. I was later configuring the Remote Access, and browsing through the Server Console when suddenly it shut down and the server LEDs began blinking. Noticing that it was 12:06AM, I quickly realized that the server had downloaded some important WHS updates and was rebooting itself. In all my time (and late nights!) with Windows Home Server I’ve not encountered this behavior, and it would be nice if the server was able to tell that users were active and could delay the reboot to an idle time.
While looking through the Server Console for any other differences that might exist, I noticed a Windows Home Server file version in the Resources tab that was newer than the versions currently running on my EX475 and EX485, both of which have the latest updates installed.
A little digging uncovered KB972421 from Microsoft, which resolves “Issues occur after you recover Windows Home Server by using a server recovery DVD that has Power Pack 2 integrated.” Since Power Pack 2 is integrated into the EX490/EX495 Server Recovery image, it makes sense that this hotfix would be required.
One time my client PC just disappeared from the Media Collector’s status and configuration page apparently due to the Media Collector service dying on the server (I found a .NET exception in the Event Viewer logs that showed a crash resulting from homeserver.dll, a Windows Home Server component). This was resolved by rebooting the server, and I only encountered it once during my testing.
While troubleshooting the failure of the Media Collector service on the server, I discovered that the Application Event Viewer logs were being blasted every two minutes with error messages a “PushClient” application that appears to be related to the Media Collector. This messages appear to be benign, though they make it difficult to look for legitimate errors or warnings while troubleshooting other issues, so I hope HP is able to resolve this in a future patch.
All these items didn’t significantly impact my use of the server, and a less attentive average user may not have encountered many of them. We’ll be sure to document the hacks, issues, and tweaks that the MediaSmartServer.net forum members uncover when we start receiving our new EX490 and EX495 servers.