Networks looking for a more practical way of storing user data can turn to NAS devices to ease up the loads of their oft overworked hard drives. Home networks in particular can use these gadgets for an all-in-one storage solution that is to set up and manage. Current releases in the market even provide added functionalities in the form of multimedia server capabilities and remote accessing to complement their primary use as storage devices.While manufacturers are constantly looking for ways to further improve their NAS products, one constant found in these devices is their use of a simplified version of the Linux OS. HP has defied this practice by having its offerings run using Windows Home Server OS, and even added a bit of improvements to the default capabilities of the said operating system. The result is a series of NAS devices that oozes multiple functionalities in addition to impressive storage capacity and options for expanding this capacity further.
Two of the newest members of this HP family of devices are models EX490 and EX495 of the HP MediaSmart Server NAS device series. These two both measure a sleek 9.75 x 5.5 x 9.9 inches in a glossy-black plastic casing. The EX490 is backed by a 2.2GHz Intel Celeron and 1TB of storage in a single drive. On the other hand, the EX495 comes with a 2.5GHz Pentium Dual Core E5200 processor, also by Intel, paired with a single 1.5TB hard drive. Both operate with a 2GB memory. The EX490 is priced at just a cent shy of 550 dollars, while the higher-spec EX495 can be had for one cent below 700.
The EX495’s front is covered by a swing-out grille door over a quartet of removable SATA drive bays. The one nearest the bottom of the unit contains the single 1.5TB drive, and the three others provide spaces for slotting in extra drives that the user may purchase separately. Four additional ports stand ready to receive USB 2.0 external drives, with another port to plug in an eSATA drive complement the already huge storage option provided by the three SATA-ready bays. These auxiliary ports may also be used as conduits to transfer the files within the server onto external drives. Completing the lot is a Gigabit Ethernet port, plus a slot for toggling security.
The usual NAS device installation is a cakewalk which begins with connecting the units to networks and pressing the power button, then doing a little configuring, which in itself is mostly done automatically. Unfortunately, with the EX495 this is not the case. The requisite connecting and booting up are but the first steps. For the setup to complete an app must be run from the accompanying installation CD which performs a long series of tasks that starts with getting initialized on the server, then installing the pertinent software to the networked PCs, and finally ends with update downloads and subsequent installation to the server platform. The entire process is a bit longish, punctuated by several server reboots.
One major problem with this is the risk of an interruption happening anytime within the unusually long setup like, for example, the server stalling during the update download stage. When this occurs the only alternative to starting the process over is to manually do the updates to the server. Aside from this, any other problem will require that the routine be restarted from the beginning. A software crash is one of these. Much to the chagrin of first-time users, this is a randomly occurring event during the process and entails the added bother of having to reroll the unit back to its factory settings, before starting over the entire setup process. Given that a reset takes about an hour or so, and the routine becomes downright frustrating.
Should the user finally manage to finish the setup, he or she will be rewarded with a Windows-based system that is sparsely-populated with software features. These include the Home Server Connector, which does automatic client-to-server backups, enables folder sharing within the server, settings adjustments, and status and security monitoring for both client PCs and the server. The shared folders are not recognized in the server as drive letters by default, but a desktop shortcut will appear on the desktop for accessing them easily. Media files such as photos and videos can be accessed only if the Windows Media Center Connector app is installed as well.
A manufacturer recommendation is that users have the Media Center app installed to all the networked PCs. This is not obligatory since the shared folders per se do not require the app to be accessed. The only real use for the app is the ability it gives client PCs to do backups to the server, in addition to configuring it. An app that runs in Macs OS X duplicate this function for Mac clients using the platform’s Time Machine utility.
The next order of business after all the software components are installed is to configure the server. This is accomplished by calling up the Windows Home Server Console from the system tray. Here individual user accounts can be created that are able to access the shared folders in the server, an iTunes server, and TwonkyMedia. Remote access can also be granted to each account. The TwonkyMedia server contains a so-called Media Collector feature for copying all the media files from each client PC and Mac computer that has TwonkyMedia installed onto the server. This precludes manually doing the task.
With the EX495, stored videos can be converted to H.264 format. This feature aims to make the video files more compatible for streaming to such client devices as the PS3, MS Xbox 360, and the iPhone. The Video Converter also allows the creation of profiles for individual users, for a more personalized streaming experience. With each profile, settings can be tweaked according to preference, including those for video screen size, frame rates, and bit rates. Two default presets come with the Converter. These are the Full preset for client computers and gaming consoles, and the Mobile preset which is optimized for mobile gadgets. Popular video formats like AVI, M4V, MOV, MP4, MPG, and WMV can be streamed using the feature, in addition to the AVC, DivX, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, and VC1 codecs. VOB files and VideoTS may also be played with the Video Converter, but not ISO files.
The EX495 is robust enough to multi-task its Media Collector and Video Converter utilities simultaneously, over a server that handles clients with the Windows 7, Vista and Mac OS X platforms in them. It should be noted that while the unit performs smoothly when doing these, it will also register 100-percent CPU utilization from the system tray and has the undesirable effect of slowing down the entire server considerably. Doing these for a period of days may be interrupted by instances of the Media Collector conking out, but thankfully the process can be nudged back to life with a simple server database reset. This tactic may prove useful since it appears that especially large media troves will take days to be copied onto the server.
An experiment using the model’s media server also showed that the EX495 is capable of simultaneous media streams to several clients. With its UPnP and DLNA support, streaming to consoles such as the PS3 and Xbox 360 is a possibility. Over remote access, users can stream media online. An accessory app called the iStream enables the unit to access media files in the iPhone or iPod Touch through Wi-Fi or 3G. Remotely accessing the EX495 from another computer will take the user to the HP Home Page, which is as tricked out with features as any home page can be. The Home Page has an applet for uploading server-based photo files to various known photo-sharing websites.
The multiple functionalities of the EX495 are marred by some buggy aspects. First, the MediaSmart Server will at times notify Mac users of a validation error, even by all appearances the system is working perfectly. Secondly, it would seem that the accompanying iTunes utility needs some fixing, because in testing done none of the networked platforms was able to connect to it. Occasionally the Server Console would not launch from the system tray, or at least one of its control windows. The issue is often resolved by the tried-and-true tactic of shutting down and rebooting the networked computers as well as the server itself as many times as required, but the frequency at which this bug manifests is quite an annoyance.
The first two issues are not as easily resolved, though. Attempts at fixing these showed that a more serious measure in the form of returning the server to factory settings is necessary to make them go away, which will result in all the media collected and videos converted to disappear completely. Worse, there is no guarantee that the same issues will not happen again after doing a fix.
Users are also unable to assign static IP addresses with the EX495. A network administrator would be frustrated with the interface as well, given that server controls are untidily dispersed throughout its various areas, instead of being centralized in one single window or tab. Other items in the gripe sheet are the lack of a print server functionality and built-in FTP support.
Performance-wise, the HP device makes up for its buggy nature with blazing transfer rates. A speed test using a client Intel Q9300 2.5GHz PC with an 8GB DDR2 memory and Windows 7 Ultimate onboard resulted in write speeds of up to 66.1MB per second, and read speeds of up to 45.6MB per second.
The NAS device also consumes an economical 39 to 53 watts in idle mode, while running it full blast results in an impressive 62-watt consumption rate.
As a NAS solution, the EX495 is far more expensive than other products with 2TB storage, which can be usually had for less than 300 dollars. The multiple features are the selling points of the unit, though, including the innovative Media Collector and Video Converter. The question of whether the EX495 is really a good purchase for its steep price tag will come to a head once the errors and the buggy features nag away at the consumer. Perhaps there really is a good reason why most other manufacturers opt for the scaled-down Linux for their NAS products.