Amid the buzz around Windows 7, Windows Home Server has largely dropped off the radar - not that it was ever more than a faint blip for most people. But we've always hoped that HP's MediaSmart range would make an appearance in Australia, after its success overseas. And it finally has, in the form of the HP MediaSmart EX490.
From the outside, the micro-tower case remains discreet enough to hide away yet tasteful enough to leave on display, with gently coloured LED panels showing power and error states.
At the front, a door swings open to reveal the four drawer-style screwless SATA drive bays, the bottom one populated with a 1TB Seagate 7200.12 hard disk. And there are four USB 2 connectors and an eSATA port, yielding support for up to nine drives.
System RAM is 2GB of DDR2, and the processor is a 2.2GHz Intel Celeron 450. That's a very lightweight processor, but it's more than ample for everyday server duties and it contributes to a low power draw of just 35W while idle, rising to 50W under load.
And when it comes to software there's plenty here. Naturally, you get all the standard features of Windows Home Server with Power Pack 2, including support for shared folders and automated backup.
You can install drives of any size and type and they'll all be merged into a big storage pool, with specific files optionally mirrored across multiple drives for insurance against drive failure. Home Server's remote access gateway lets you access your files from afar.
Beyond this, the MediaSmart EX490 has a predictable focus on managing and sharing media files. HP has iTunes and TwonkyMedia server plugins, and added custom features that occupy a whole submenu within the Home Server Connector.
The key is the HP media collector, which can automatically copy songs, photos and movies on client PCs to the server, creating and maintaining a central library for all your media. The streaming server can pipe these audio and video files to devices both on your network and, via web access, beyond.
To help with the streaming, HP also provides an automatic video converter that monitors new videos and DVD dumps arriving on the server, and quietly generates H.264 MPEG4 versions that will play on most video receivers.
You can control the frame size, frame rate and bit-rate, but be warned that the EX490's Celeron processor can make high-quality conversions a slow process. We found it took around half an hour to convert a two-minute 1080p WMV9 file to a full-resolution MP4.
Another neat feature is the ability to publish your photos directly to Flickr, Facebook, Picasa Web Albums and HP's Snapfish service from within the MediaSmart interface. It's a rudimentary browser-based wizard, but it gets the job done with minimal fuss.
Considering this is a Windows appliance at heart, HP has achieved an impressive degree of Mac compatibility: the MediaSmart server can serve files and music to OS X clients and be used as a Time Machine backup device.
Add in a user-defined sleep schedule and remote hardware monitoring and the EX490 is the most persuasive home server we've seen. But we do have two reservations.
The first is with HP's notion of the home server acting as a media hub. There's nothing wrong with the idea in principle, and if you already have a front-room PC or a selection of receivers, the MediaSmart EX490 could be the jigsaw piece that completes the puzzle.
But the marriage of server and media features is imperfect because, in accordance with Microsoft's Home Server specifications, the EX490 has no video or audio connectors of its own.
To get the full benefit you'll need the sort of additional devices described above. Despite the name, what comes in the box is only half of a media system.
The second is the price. A LaCie 1TB NAS box can be had for around $230, you'll have to be wedded to the niceties of Windows Home Server to pay nearly $900 for an appliance of the same capacity. The EX490 adds a lot of software and features for that money, but ifbudget is a consideration, it's hard to overlook that difference.
So, while the MediaSmart EX490 gets a definite thumbs-up, we suggest you take stock of your needs first. For basic home server duties a cheaper, simpler option may work just as well. But if the sophistications of the EX490 fit your home and budget then go for it: it's a capable and excellently designed little server.