The scoop: HP MediaSmart Server, by HP, starts at US$600 (AU$687) (costs vary depending on storage capacity chosen).
What it is: The MediaSmart Server is a network-attached storage (NAS) device with multiple hard drives that can be connected via Ethernet cable to a home router. The device includes another layer, however, with the addition of Microsoft's Windows Home Server software. This allows for features like media streaming (including iTunes support), automatic backup and remote access from across the Internet.
If you have multiple PCs within your home network that have digital media files (photos, music and videos), centralizing the content on one device can help when trying to locate specific files, as well as provide for additional backup in case those files disappear from the original PC (although I'd also recommend online or off-site storage for extra protection).
Why it's cool: If you're already familiar with NAS devices, the MediaSmart Server seems like just another NAS drive, with some fancy software on top to make configuration a bit easier. If you haven't added one to your network yet, the Windows Home Server and HP software is appreciated, giving newbies a good way to get introduced to NAS without feeling like they need an advanced degree in networking or storage.
The additional features were also impressive, including the iTunes Media Server sharing capabilities (the device automatically copies music from PCs with iTunes on it, as long as sharing is enabled) and an HP Webshare site that allows users to create photo albums for sharing with friends and relatives. The remote access feature, which lets authorized users access the server over any Internet-enabled Web browser, was also easy to set up (HP has a deal with TZO.com for a free domain name for a year) and use.
Physical setup of the MediaSmart Server involved plugging in a power cord, connecting the supplied Ethernet cable to a port on my router (HP recommends a wired connection, although in theory you could use a wireless bridge), and pressing the power button. Further configuration is required through software installation on a Windows XP or higher PC, which also should be connected to the network via an Ethernet cable.
Some caveats: The initial setup and software configuration were tedious at times; as with all things Microsoft there were several update checks that needed to occur (it helps if your PC is updated with the latest Windows Installer and .Net components).
Remote access configuration requires strong passwords for all accounts (lowercase letters, uppercase letters and numbers), which is good for security purposes but making it mandatory is annoying. I also needed to upgrade my router's firmware in order to support the latest Universal Plug N Play protocols in order to configure remote access, and this required a complete reboot of the network.
Macintosh systems are not supported through the HP software, which can be a pain for homes with a "mixed" network. While Mac users can use the remote access feature through their browser to view or download content from the server, uploading media content in this way (vs. mass copying through PCs) is time-consuming and improbable.
Bottom line: For all-PC home networks that haven't gotten into the NAS game yet, the MediaSmart Server can be a good way to centralize digital content, stream media across the network, perform automatic backups and allow remote access from the Internet.
Grade: 4 stars (out of five).