|Introduction & Specifications|
Windows Home Server is quite possibly one of Microsoft's most unheralded operating systems. Many speak longingly of Windows XP, jokingly of Windows ME, disappointedly of Windows Vista, and hopefully of Windows 7. But seldom discussed is the little-known and little-used operating system designed to be installed on a home server and act as a central depository for serving media and other files, as well as a place to backup your home systems' files. For those who have used it, many praise Windows Home Server's functionality and performance--especially since Microsoft has made some significant updates to the OS recently. (Windows Home Server is actually based on Microsoft's Windows Server 2003.)
It is possible to purchase the Windows Home Server OS and install it yourself on your own rig: you can download or order a free 120-day trial of the OS from Microsoft here. Many users, however, choose to buy home servers with the Windows Home Server OS already installed. Hewlett-Packard (HP) was the first such vendor to provide a system with Windows Home Server pre-installed, with its MediaSmart Server series. HP was soon joined by a short list of other system vendors, including Niveus and Velocity Micro. A number of the existing Windows Home Server offerings are moderately priced, with several selling for well below $1,000. However, before HP's just-launched, $399.99 (MSRP) HP MediaSmart Server LX195, none of them filtered down to a mainstream budget price point.
HP presently offers three different HP MediaSmart Server options (its older models have been phased out). The two top models, the HP MediaSmart Server EX485 ($599.99 MSRP) and EX487 ($749.99 MSRP) both come with a total of four user-serviceable drive bays--these two models are identical to each other, with the exception that the EX485 comes with a single 750GB hard drive and the EX487 comes with two 750GB drives (for 1.5TB total storage). The LX195 uses a less-powerful processor, less RAM, only one (non-user-serviceable) drive bay with a 640GB hard drive, and a smaller form-factor than the EX series (the EX series also includes an eSATA port, which the LX195 lacks). The installed version of the software is also a bit different between the EX series and LX195--with the EX series having a bit more functionality than the LX195 (more on this a later).
The LX195 is fairly easy to setup and use, but the potential gotchas and myriad of configuration options are numerous. The included two-page MediaSmart Server Setup Poster provides minimal directions, with most of the setup conducted by the software installation wizard. While a 230-page, HP MediaSmart Server User's Guide exists, oddly it is not included on the installation CD; but you can download it from HP's site here (PDF).
|Design & Build Quality|
It might be difficult to judge the size of the HP MediaSmart Server LX195 from photographs, but it's actually a relatively small device, sitting only 8.2-inches high, 8.0-inches deep, and 3.9-inches wide--it shouldn't take up too much room wherever you decide to place it. As it only requires power and an Ethernet connection, the options for where it will reside are plentiful--although the LX195 is a headless device (you don't attach a keyboard, mouse, or display to it), you'll still want to make sure it is placed in a well-ventilated area.
The entire chassis is made of plastic with a flat-black, matte finish. The front of the device includes three status lights, product labels, and a "recessed Status/Recovery button," which is accessed with the end of a paper clip. The three status lights are for power, hard drive, and health. As long as the device is operating as expected, all three lights glow green; if there are problems, the respective status lights will glow red.
The sides of the unit have a serrated look to them. The back of the server has an RJ-45 Ethernet jack, four USB 2.0 ports, the power input jack (the power supply is housed a small external power brick), the power button, and a Kensington Security Slot. The bottom of the unit includes the device's serial number and the OS product key--we were disappointed that the device's MAC address was not printed anywhere on the device.
Before you can start using the HP MediaSmart Server LX195, it needs to first be configured via a Windows-based system on your home network. As soon as you insert the software installation disc in your system, a Web browser page opens with some guidelines to follow to get the server properly set up. Inserting the disc also launches the Windows Home Server Connector Setup routine, which tries to find the server on your network and download the installation software from the server to your system. This is where we ran into our first problem; while the Windows Home Server Connector Setup routine found the server, it couldn't download the required software and therefore we couldn't get the server up and running.
It turns out that because we used OpenDNS's DNS instead of the default DNS provided by our ISP, the install routine couldn't resolve the internal IP address of the server. As soon as we switched our network's DNS settings back to that from our ISP, the problem went away. While this issue is not likely to pop up with most installations, it should serve as an example that non-standard network set-ups can impact the effectiveness of some network devices and applications.
With that momentary problem out of the way, the rest of the installation went smooth. The installation process requires that you give the server a name; setup an Admin password; and decide whether to enable automatic downloads and Windows Error Reporting, and participate in Microsoft’s Customer Experience Improvement Program. Part of the installation routine downloads and installs any available Microsoft updates.
Even though a screen then informed us that the server was ready to use, this was not exactly the case. As soon as we logged into the server the first time, the HP MediaSmart software update routine kicked in and walked us through installing additional updates. HP adds a number of additional features on top of those that are built-into the Windows Home Server OS.
It was only after the HP updates were installed and the server rebooted, that we were finally able to start using the server. The reason why the server must be first setup on a Windows system has to do with how the LX195's configuration settings are accessed. In order to administer the server, you have to use the Windows Home Server Console, which is a Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RPD) application--essentially whenever you access the server's user interface, you are actually doing so via a remote connection.
The install routine also placed shortcuts on the system's desktop for Shared Folders on Server and HP MediaSmart Server. The Shared Folders on Server shortcut does exactly what its name indicates; it opens up a window providing access to all of the server's shared folders. The second shortcut opens up a Control Center window that provides a number of options for ways to access the server (see the screenshot above); we'll get into what the features are and what they do shortly.
Once the Windows Home Server Console software is installed on the first system, you do not necessarily have to install it on any more systems. However, there are some features that will only be available to systems that have the software installed, such as automated backups and the Media Collector feature.
There is even a Mac version of the client software, which when installed on a Mac running Leopard (OS X 10.5), can use the LX195 as a networked Time Machine backup--the only other product that supports Time Machine backups over a network connection is Apple's own Time Capsule NAS device (albeit, it is fairly easy to implement a hack in the Mac OS X 10.5 OS to enable Time Machine support to virtually any NAS device, but this is an unsupported feature).
You cannot administer the LX195 from the Mac OS, because the Mac OS cannot run the Windows Home Server Console. You could, however, access the Windows Home Server Console from a Mac that is running Windows either in a Boot Camp partition or as a virtual machine. In fact, we successfully ran the Windows Home Server Console on a Windows 7 RC (x32) virtual machine running in VMWare Fusion on a Mac. All the server's features worked flawlessly with this Windows 7 install.
|Configuration & Features|
Just because the server was now operational and the Windows Home Server Console software was installed on at least one client system, did not necessarily mean that we were done setting up the HP MediaSmart LX 195--far from it, in fact. We still needed to do things such as create user accounts and setup automated backups.
Before we even got to that, however, we noticed an alert that advised us that the McAfee Total Protection Service was ready to install. HP ships the LX195 with a 7-month trial to the McAfee Total Protection Service security software add-in for the Windows Home Server OS, but the add-in does not come pre-installed. Installing the security add-in, however, was quick and easy. The Windows Home Server Console next informed us that additional Home Server updates were ready to be installed. It was only after this round of updates, that we were finally read to start configuring the server.
The first thing we did was to create user accounts--the LX195 supports up to 10 user accounts. Creating a user account is straightforward: you provide a first and last name, a logon name, choose whether to enable remote access for the user, assign a password, and set the user's access (full, read, or none) to the existing shared folders. When a user is created, a folder share with the respective username is automatically created.
The user account creation wizard suggests that logon names and passwords for the LX195 be the same as the respective logon names and passwords that users use on their systems. Doing so makes it much easier to access the LX195's shared folders and seamlessly provides access to the folder shares the users are supposed to have access to. We created users whose names and passwords matched on the server and on their client machines, as well as usernames that didn't match. Needless to say, we found that the advice the wizard offers is sound--having matching usernames and passwords makes accessing the server's folder a much smoother process.
In addition to adding new user accounts, you can delete users as well as edit the properties of existing accounts--doing things such as changing passwords, disabling accounts, and changing shared folder access. The server includes a Guest account, which is disabled by default. You can assign shared folder access to the Guest account and choose whether or not to require a password--you cannot, however, enable remote access or delete the Guest account (but you can disable it).
In the Windows Home Server Console's Shared Folders section you can create or delete shared folders, as well as edit user access to the individual folders and enable Folder Duplication. You can connect up to four external hard drives to the LX195's USB ports and configure the server to use these drives as additional storage. If you have additional drives connected to the server, you can enable any of the shared folders to have their contents duplicated on the additional drives. This will double the amount of storage space consumed of any duplicated folder, but it also means that if a drive fails, all of the files in the duplicated folder are still intact and retrievable. The LX195 includes Music, Photos, Public, Recorded TV, Software, and Video folders, which cannot be deleted--but you still have full control over what kind of access each user (including the Guest account) has on each of the folders.
When you connect an external hard drive to the LX195, you can set the drive up as additional storage or as a backup destination for files that are stored on the server. When drives are added as additional storage, they get added to the server's storage capacity, and all drives are combined so as to appear to users as a single volume.
Drives connected for server backup are dedicated solely for backing up the contents of the server (which includes additional storage drives) and are not visible as available volumes to connected systems (they can only be accessed via the Windows Home Server Console). We added a 500GB hard drive to be used as backup storage for the server, and we also added a 320GB hard drive as additional storage. Once we added the 320GB drive, the server's reported storage capacity went from 596.16GB up to 894.26GB.
The Windows Home Server Settings feature provides a number of additional detailed configuration options:
Backups: The LX195 can perform automated backups of both Windows and Mac clients. Windows systems need to have the Windows Home Server Console installed, while Mac clients must have the HP MediaSmart Server - Control Center installed. Backups of all Windows system are set up and scheduled via the Windows Home Server Console. Setting up Time Machine backups for Macs are done on the individual systems. We had a little trouble initially getting Time Machine to connect to the server. After a few attempts, it suddenly started working. From that point on, our Mac testbed was backing up to the server via Time machine whether the Mac was connected to the local network via a wired or wireless connection.
We don't want to spend too much time on backups, but we want to be sure to mention that you cannot only restore individual files and folders, but you can actually restore the entire hard disk image of a backed-up system using the included PC Restore CD.
Media Streaming: The LX195 actually has two built-in media streaming engines: one that is designed to stream media to "any supported digital media receiver (DMR), such as an Xbox 360, or to a supported digital media player, such as Windows Media Player 11"; and for less OS-specific devices, the LX195 also includes a built-in TwonkyMedia server as well.
Additionally, the server also includes a built-in iTunes server (which is enabled by default). All music files copied to the server's Music folder are available to client systems on the local network via iTunes. We populated the LX195's Music folder with 6,183 music files (23.5 days worth of music, totaling 52.51GB), and each of our Windows and Mac testbed systems were able to connect to the iTunes server in a mere 7 seconds--by far the speediest such performance we've seen to date for a NAS device with iTunes server support. Unlike some other NAS devices we've seen, the LX195 provides the option of password-protecting its iTunes server.
Windows Media Center: After enabling a feature on the server and installing an additional client app on systems that run Windows Media Center, you can also access any of the server's shared folders through the Media Center user interface. You can also access the server's shared folders from Media Center Extender devices.
Server Online Backup: The LX195 comes with a pre-loaded add-in for backing up the server's contents to the cloud-based, Amazon S3 storage service. If you want to utilize this online backup storage option, you'll need to pay for an Amazon S3 subscription.
Add-ins: There is an active and growing community of developers making additional third-party add-ins for the Windows Home Server OS. We installed the free RemoteAlert add-in, which provides chronological data of when users log on and off the server--a feature that we wish was already included with the LX195. We also installed a download manager add-in, so we could use the server to perform scheduled downloads and free up our client systems from such tasks. Unfortunately, whenever we added a URL for a file download, the Windows Home Server Console would freeze, and the only way we could regain access to it was by rebooting the server. Needless to say, we uninstalled the download manager add-in.
Unfortunately, the LX195 does not support being used as a print server. There is, however, supposedly an unsupported way to hack it in order to enable print server functionality, but we did not try this. Another feature we would have liked to see the LX195 include is the ability to send e-mail alerts when the server is experiencing problems (although, there are add-ins for that too). That said, the Windows Home Server Console does include an alert section that is visible when you have the console open on connected systems, and these same alerts also pop up on the console's taskbar icon on client systems.
|Configuration & Features (Continued)|
As its name indicates, one of the key features of the HP MediaSmart Server LX195 is the ability to act as a media server; and getting the media onto the server couldn't be easier--yes, you can copy the media files directly to the server's media folders, but that is not the only way. The server includes a Media Collector tool that can automatically search client systems for media files and copy them up to the server. In order for a client system to support this feature, it must first have the Windows Home Server Console installed on it. Which is another way of saying that this feature does not work on Mac systems--only on Windows PCs.
Configuring the Media Collector.
Once the Windows Home Server Console is installed on a client system, you instruct the server which systems it is allowed to scan for media. You can set the server to search systems every hour, day, or week. You can also control if the server is looking for photos, music, or videos, and whether it should search just the default Windows media folders (i.e., My Music, My Photos, My Videos), or all folders on a system.
We enabled the server's Media Collector to scan and retrieve media from our Windows Vista testbed system every hour. However, after a number of hours had passed, we noticed that none of the system's media had copied up to the server. It took us a while to figure out why. It turns out that not only had we not matched the system's username and password to that of the server, but we had also disabled the guest account on the server. As a result, the system was unable to login to the server to copy up the files. We enabled the guest account and soon enough the system's media started copying up to the server automatically.
There are a number of different ways to access the media and other files stored on the server. You can access the server's folders directly via shortcuts placed on the desktop, mapped network drive (on Windows systems), network folder aliases (on Mac systems), or by exploring the available network file structures. Loading any file directly from the server (i.e., double-clicking on the file) will open the respective application on the local system to which that file's extension is associated with. For instance, when we double-clicked on a WMV file, it launched Windows Media Player and started playing the video. On our Windows testbed, Windows Media Player actually saw the media stored on the server twice--once from the Windows Home Server's built-in media streamer, and again from the LX195's TwonkyMedia server. All of the server's media folders were also accessible from within Windows Media Center on our Windows Vista testbed.
You can also access the media and files stored on the server through a client system's Web browser. The browser-based interface offers a number of options, including a Web-based file browser and a Web-based media browser. The file browser function worked well enough, but you'd be better of using your system's native file navigation tools, which are more robust and quicker (unless, of course, you are accessing the server's files remotely--more on this below). The Web-based media browser is a fairly intuitive interface that makes it relatively easy to navigate the server's different media folders and play audio or view photos. Unfortunately, the media browser does not support streaming video--this is a feature presently found only in the higher-end EX series devices.
The browser interface also includes an HP Photo Publisher option, which allows you to publish photos directly from the server to a number of photo-sharing sites, including Facebook, Flickr, Picasa, and Snapfish. We tried several times to upload photos to Picasa, but each time we experienced an error. Uploading photos to Snapfish, however, worked well and was quick and easy.
You can also publish photos to the HP Photo Viewer. This creates photo albums, which are stored directly on the LX195--as opposed to a photo-sharing site. Not only can these albums be made viewable to anyone on your local network, but you can even make individual albums available to any viewer over the Internet (as long as you have the server's remote access enabled).
Configuring the LX195 for remote access.
Remote access is enabled via the Windows Home Server Console. When you enable remote access, the console attempts to automatically determine if your router supports the feature. The console was unable to automatically determine if our router was capable, but it walked us through the necessary steps to manually configure the router--which in this case meant setting up a few filters for a couple of ports. Once our router was properly configured, the next step was to setup a Domain Name Provider. There are three to choose from, and what this does is assign a unique URL and IP address to your server so that it can be accessed remotely over the Internet.
When you access the server remotely, it takes you to the very same Web interface screen you see when you access the server's Web interface over your local network. You have the very same access and abilities remotely as you do locally via the Web interface--including browsing the folders of the server; but this also means that you cannot stream video files remotely from the Web interface. You login to the server using your normal username and password.
The Web interface also offers the option of accessing the client PCs remotely. Unfortunately, our Windows Vista testbed didn't support remote access and we couldn't get it to work on our Windows 7 testbed. We could, however, remotely login to the Windows Home Server Console as long as we were using Internet Explorer on the remote client.
In order to test the functionality of the HP MediaSmart Server LX195, we placed it on our Gigabit-Ethernet network and accessed it from a variety of Windows and Mac desktops and laptops. We connected to it via both wired and wireless connections, as well as remotely over the Internet.
To test the device's performance, we conducted a number of data-transfer tests to and from the device over our network using an HP Pavilion Elite m9550f desktop (2.5GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300, 8GB PC2-6400 DDR2 SDRAM, 1TB NTFS 7200RPM SATA hard drive, ATI Radeon HD 4850 512MB, Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit) via a Gigabit-Ethernet connection. We conducted large-file write and read tests where we copied a 1.7GB ISO file between the LX195 and the m9550f. We also conducted small-files write and read tests where we copied a 267MB folder made up of 70 JPGs ranging in size from 2.27MB to 4.38MB between the LX195 and the m9550f. We conducted these tests by dragging-and-dropping the folders and files in Windows. We disabled all backups, media-collection, and remote access, so that there wouldn't be any background data transfers occurring during testing.
We compared the performance of the LX195 against that of a number of NAS devices we've looked at recently, including the WD My Work World Edition, Maxtor Central Axis Business Edition, Linksys by Cisco Media Hub, and the Addonics NAS Adapter. We also repeated all of our tests on an older 500GB Maxtor Shared Storage NAS device--copying files between the Maxtor Shared Storage device and the m9550f. Additionally, we ran our tests on an external hard drive connected directly to a USB 2.0 port on the m9550f; the drive we used was a 320GB Western Digital Caviar Blue drive (7200RPM SATA-II, 16MB cache) placed into an external enclosure and formatted using the NTFS file system.
Of all the consumer-level NAS devices we've looked at recently, the LX195 is (so far) the undisputed performance leader. This is in no small part attributable to the device's Atom processor and 1GB of RAM--essentially, the LX195 is a small, headless PC--it has the same approximate horsepower as a netbook or nettop PC. The LX195 took only 57.8 seconds to write and 42.0 seconds to read a 1.70GB ISO file. We were even surprised to see the LX195 write our large file at a quicker rate than that of the directly-connected USB hard drive. The large-file transfer rates on our tests equate to about 30.1MB/Sec (252.6Mb/Sec) for writing and 41.5MB/Sec (348.1Mb/Sec) for reading.
The LX195 took only 18.5 seconds to write and 10.6 seconds to read a 267MB folder of small files. The server's write performance was only a bit slower than the directly-connected USB hard drive's write time of 14.2 seconds. (We couldn't generate useful numbers for the USB drive's small-files read performance as Windows cached the files in memory and essentially performed instantaneous transfers whenever we repeated the file copy--all of our tests were run multiple times to ensure repeatability). On our tests, the LX195 writes small files at about 14.4MB/Sec (121.1Mb/Sec) and reads small files at around 25.2MB/Sec (211.3Mb/Sec).
As to more anecdotal performance observations, we found the LX195 to be very quick to respond to file queries and copies. We did notice, however, that sometimes the Windows Home Server Console admin interface was slow to respond when we were configuring the server.
The folks at HP told us that the LX195 should be able to support up to three or four simultaneous HD streams (and when doing so, the server would "ratchet down" other resources, such as performing backups). We put this claim to the test by simultaneously streaming a 1080p WMV9 video to a Windows Vista system, a second 1080p WMV9 video to a Windows XP system, and two different 1080p H.264 video clips to two different Macs (all of the clips were looped, so we could run from one system to another to monitor the smoothness of playback). As HP predicted, all four systems played back the HD streams flawlessly; we didn't witness any jerkiness or dropped frames. It should be noted that as far as the LX195 was concerned, it was just streaming the four files--it was not performing any video transcoding--all of the video-processing heavy-lifting took place on the client systems.
We also connected the LX195 to a power meter to get a sense of how much power it consumes. When the device is sitting idle, it uses between 27 and 30-watts of power. Even when under load, its power consumption appears to top out at around 30-watts. When in standby mode, the device sips only about 3 to 4 watts of power.
|Summary & Conclusion|
We were very impressed with the LX195's performance and feature set. Despite having only a single, internal 640GB hard drive, we found it quite easy to add additional storage capacity via USB hard drives. The Media Collector feature worked great (once we resolved the username issue), as did the iTunes server--the LX195 functions quite well as a centralized and consolidated place for serving media over a home network or remotely. We were also very pleased with the LX195's Mac support--especially the ability to backup via Time Machine over a network connection.
We would have loved to see a Mac version of the Media Collector as well; any Mac systems that house lots of media files will need to be copied up to the server's media folders manually. We also would have liked the ability to manage the server from a Mac, and not just from Windows systems. Perhaps our only non-Mac-specific criticisms of the LX195 are the seemingly endless loop of updates we had to go though when initially setting up the device (par for the course, we suppose, for a Windows OS), the time-consuming configuration steps, and the lack of additional features that the April update brought to the EX series (LX195 owners will have to wait a few months to see those features added--and the update process will be onerous).
While the HP MediaSmart Server LX195 can do an awful lot, there are a few things it cannot do that its higher-end EX series siblings can (beyond the obvious that stem from the differences in their hardware configurations, such as the ability to add additional internal hard drives to the EX series devices). At the end of April 2009, HP rolled out an update to the software installed on the EX series devices. This update adds some new features, such as remote video streaming, streaming to iPhones running the HP MediaSmart Server iStream iPhone app, and auto-conversion of videos to formats playable on portable devices (such as the iPhone).
The LX195 does not come with the April 2009 updates, so the LX195 has the functionality of an EX series device prior to the update. HP claims that it will make this update available to the LX195 in the fall of 2009. The update will be offered free to existing users, but it will come with a caveat: You will not be able to apply it simply as a patch or an update; it will require completely re-imaging the server's disks--essentially wiping out all media, files, and settings that have not been backed up elsewhere.
Overall, the HP MediaSmart Server LX195 should more than meet the needs of most home users who are looking for a relatively inexpensive media server option. With street prices that presently fall in the $360 to $400 range, however, the LX195 is far from the least expensive network storage option. Typically at this price point, you can find NAS devices with at least 1TB or more of storage, and which are usually also easier to set up. That said, these other inexpensive NAS devices simply don't have the throughput performance or breadth of configuration options that the LX195 offers.