Once again, HP has retooled the MediaSmart Server EX490 and EX495 with new capabilities, including faster hardware and better MAC support. That makes it all the better to connect to your home network to serve as your personal backup center and media server. Additionally, HP changed the Windows Home Server (WHS) styled user interface (UI) available on the MediaSmart Server EX487 and EX470 to a Web style UI logon. HP could have done a better job improving the software before launch, as bugs were encountered, even with the new Windows 7. So, while the $699.99 MediaSmart EX495 is an improvement over previous generations, it’s still not perfect.

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Design and Setup
With the EX495, HP kept the MediaSmart enclosure identical to the two-year-old models. If it wasn’t for a slightly different hue of the front LEDs at the bottom of the case, you couldn’t tell them apart. On the back of the enclosure are the same e-SATA, Ethernet and USB ports in the same spots. There’s still a USB port tucked under the front grill next to the status LEDs.
Although the enclosure has remained a fixture, HP upgraded the internal hardware. HP has moved away from the Celeron and gone with an Intel Pentium Dual Core E5200, 2GB RAM, and 1.5 TB of storage. The single hard drive is allocated to storage and the Windows Home Server (WHS) software, the same as with previous MediaSmart servers.

Installing and configuring the WHS Console client hasn’t changed. During the setup, for instance, you can allow WHS to backup your computer while in hibernation or in sleep mode. The rest of the WHS installation differs only slightly.

I used the included WHS Connector Setup software to connect to the MediaSmart Server and to switch to another WHS server I was reviewing on the same network, the Lenovo IdeaCentre D400 Home Server. However, switching back and forth between WHS consoles never worked right. It’s probably best not to run two WHS boxes on the same network.

System management got a great makeover in the new start up page created by HP. If you find that the MediaSmart server is performing too slowly, a look of the performance indicators on the System Status page could help you figure out if the problem is in the Server or the network. It also displays storage utilization, remote access connectivity and general server status alerts. To modify any of the server settings, however, you still have to use the Settings Window, which hasn’t changed at all. Using that, I changed the remote and backup settings, and tested the media settings.

I was disappointed to see that some network settings were removed in this version. For example, you can’t change the DHCP settings to static IP. Instead, HP provides a TZO dynamic DNS client account which is free for one year with a “yourname.hphome.com” domain, or a life-time free Windows Live Custom Domains client. Either one can be activated when accessing MediaSmart over the Web with a domain name. With the Windows Live Custom Domain service, you have to settle with the “.homeserver.com” name. TZO also lets you use your own domain if you pay $59.95 a year.

Features
HP chose a black background with blue banners and small fonts in white for it’s new UI. The new design has its pluses and minuses. You get a smooth experience as you navigate between the new features. However, the entire environment is still based on WHS, so many of the features are only accessible in the old UI anyway. HP couldn’t hide all the WHS, so users have to settle for this odd mix of UIs. As I played with the new features, I found a couple of errors in both UIs. Some of the panes were blank or took a long time to come up. I also found encountered a port access error when accessing User Accounts. The only solution was to reboot the server to clear it away.

The improvements (specifically features like the Media Collector, Web/iPhone Streaming, and HP Video Converter) are more than touch ups. Media Collector gathers files from computers on your network and organizes them based by dates or by folders. The internal file conversion is done automatically, except with videos, which you can select and reconvert the files for use on computers or mobile devices and many media devices. The Apple media files require that you download a free iStream app from the Apple App Store. When I tested this on Windows 7, I got an incompatible connection status.

Resetting the collection database or rebooting the server did not fix the error, nor was a fix easily found on HP’s Web site or in the help files. When I tried with Windows XP, the Media Collector was able to scan and copy the files to the server. Once the files were collected, the file conversion, publishing and streaming worked well. We talked to HP about it, but they couldn’t get the Media Collector to work with Windows 7 either, though the regular network access worked fine. HP says the issue comes from Windows Media Player 12, that it works fine with the older WMP 11 and there’s a workaround.

The EX495 Video Converter can transcode DIVX, FLV, M2TS, MOV, MP3 and many other media file formats, even non-copy protected DVDs from remote computers. Setting up a DVD so that the converter can access the file requires a couple of manual steps, but nothing that a novice can’t manage.

Accessing folders on the MediaSmart from computers on your home network or the Web also requires a few manual steps. The older and more stable access features of WHS such as User Account, Shared Folders and Backup haven’t changed. I found that the User Guide can help with many of the networking steps.

Performance
HP spruced up the performance of the EX495, so I ran a couple of quick tests by uploading a 1 TB file to the MediaSmart over a Gigabit Ethernet network. The EX495 averaged 22 Megabytes per second (MBps) with a single drive. Our last WHS Editor’s Choice winner, the Western Digital WD ShareSpace managed only 11.2 MBps with a slightly larger file. However, ShareSpace was configured with RAID 5, and this reduces the hard drive access speed quite a bit.

Bottom Line
No doubt, HP has put a lot of effort in improving usability, but it would have been nice to eradicate the infrequent UI errors before releasing the EX495 to market. Despite some of the problems I encountered, MediaSmart is still leading the pack among home servers by supporting many features that are not available in other network storage devices. It’s far from perfect, but definitely still leads the WHS product market.

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