REVIEW: HP MediaSmart EX487

For the longest time, I backed up stuff in my house simply by copying files from computers to USB drives. I did it all manually and it was obviously a pain in the ass. I’ve always run servers at home for testing, but I never really used them as file servers as they were never big enough for RAID5 or anything like that. So, I’ve been wanting some network attached storage of some sort for awhile. I wanted file redundancy (RAID5 or similar), easy expansion and it had to be somewhat affordable. Here’s my environment:

  • 1 XP Home laptop
  • 1 iMac 24″
  • 1 Vista desktop (used as my Domino server)
  • Sonos music distribution system
  • I also wanted to back up my in-laws Vista laptop whenever I connected it to my network

I wanted to be able to back up the Windows boxes (maybe even the Mac), use it as a file server (with redundancy of files) serve up my music to Sonos, and stream stuff to my Xbox 360. Well, the HP MediaSmart EX487 completely fit the bill.

The EX487 is built on the Microsoft Windows Home Server platform. It’s a server that’s meant for up to ten user accounts in a person’s home. It comes with four drive bays, and two of them are filled with 750GB drives. It doesn’t use RAID, but rather it takes your important files and makes sure they are copied to two different drives. This allows for redundancy, but can be done more cheaply. I can add disks to the other two drive bays to expand storage, or I can also add via USB ports or eSata on the back of the machine. So down the road I can add additional storage rather easily.

The hardware also comes with gigabit ethernet and is headless. That means there is no mouse, keyboard or monitor connection. All you do is plug in your ethernet connection and turn it on. You then have to install software on your Windows or Mac in order to connect and manage the server.

After you install the software on Windows, you can connect to the admin application. It seems to be based on a customized version of terminal services, and thus you cannot manage the box from a Mac, which is a bit of a drawback. But if you have a Windows box, the connection is really easy. Once you login, you can configure all of the features of the box. You can set up file shares, backups, and media sharing. Let’s look at backups first.

Backups for windows machines are taken on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Daily backups are incremental, and weekly and monthly are full backups. You can also set how long you want to retain the backups in the system. These backups are full windows backups. So, if my wife’s XP laptop’s hard drive fails, all I have to do is install a new drive, boot up with the HP recovery disk, and the machine will be restored to where it was prior to the hard drive crash. You can do this backup on up to ten machines in your network, which should be enough for most ‘home’ users.

On the Mac side, the server can be used as your Time Machine target. So you can install the HP software on the Mac and then configure Time Machine to use the Windows Home Server. Now there is one caveat, and it’s a big one. It’s not full backup of the OS like you get with Time Machine on a USB drive. This means that if your Mac dies, you have to reinstall Leopard FIRST and then you can restore files from the server. So it’s not rebuilding your Mac with all of the user accounts and everything already set up. That will be manual on your part AFTER you reinstall the OS. So to me, it’s not quite good enough. I applaud MS for putting in the Time Machine support, and it might be enough for some users, but I want the full backup.

Another thing the box can do is act as file shares. There are defaults for Music, Pictures, Video, Software, Public, Mac, and individual user folders for each user. You can set those up to save files on multiple internal drives too. So everything is still redundant. One thing I’ve done was move my iTunes library from my Mac to the Music share.

Basically I told iTunes to move my library to the home server instead of the hard drive. It copied everything over and made all the references point to the server now. I still use iTunes like I always did before, but the music isn’t local on my machine, it’s on the server. This backs it up, makes it redundant, and it’s available there for my Sonos to stream from. You can turn on the default music sharing, and you can even use the built-in Twonky Media server to serve it up to anything else on the network. For example Twonky Media can be seen by my XBox 360 AND my PS3, so I can stream to either of those or the Sonos. And now it’s always available and I don’t have to leave the Mac on all the time.

You can do the same thing with Pictures and Video. Putting files in those default shares makes them available if you have the sharing turned on. The server also has a media collection agent (Windows only for now) that will scan folders on your computer at set intervals and then copy any new files to the shares on the server. So, you could turn on the agent and tell it to watch a folder on your local hard drive, and any time you put new files in that folder, the server will copy them and make them available. It’s a nice addition to the auto backups.

The server also has some additional capabilities around media that are nice. You can basically set up the server to stream music, photos and videos to the internet. You can turn on internet sharing and then set up a website where you can get to all of the media (and files) remotely from anywhere with an internet connection. So if you NEED remote access to your stuff, this is a great way to be able to do it. And in a nice twist, you can have your photos automatically uploaded to services like flickr and Facebook. So, you can turn on the capability and make sure everything is posted to those sites without lifting a finger. It’s a very nice way to integrate with the cloud.

Your server can also backup up itself to the Amazon S3 storage service. The ability is built-in and you can set it up so all of your files are backed up to Amazon’s service across the internet. So, you can always add that layer of extra protection if you need it. Of course the Amazon service is a little pricey, but if you want automatic offsite backup, it’s really easy to do.

One last thing you can do is install Add-Ons to do all sorts of things. You can either do it as a sanctioned Add-On, or you can simply use a Terminal Services client to remote into the box and install a program locally. I know people that have done this with many things including PlayOn, the streaming software that allows Netflix and Hulu integration to the PS3 and Xbox. I haven’t tried VMWare or Domino, although who knows, they may run just fine.

Needless to say, I love this box. It was inexpensive compared to full-on RAID-5 Terra Stations, and much more feature-rich than the Drobo. It’s easy to upgrade capacity, backs up all my windows machines, acts as a file server, stores my music library, streams to my 360, PS3 and Sonos and allows me to reach everything remotely. I can even have it shut down automatically overnight and restart in the morning to save electricity. I don’t think I could do better for the money.

I’ll point to a few additional reviews here so you can get more info:

Carl Tyler: Drobo vs. Windows Home Server Review: HP MediaSmart Server EX487
We Got Served: Hands On: MediaSmart Server EX487
Slash Gear HP MediaSmart EX487 Home Server Review