The HP MediaSmart Home Server is a handy piece of hardware - a massive storage device intended to serve the average PC household as a digital hub. It's meant to connect Windows-based PCs in a seamless network that requires little effort or expertise to configure and manage.

The brains behind the MediaSmart Home Server is Microsoft's Windows Home Server operating system - a variant of Windows Server 2003. But HP has customised the Microsoft OS with a set of unique multimedia applications and management utilities designed to get even more out of the HP MediaSmart Home Server.

Microsoft has worked with HP and nearly a dozen other hardware partners to build home servers under various brands. HP has said that it intends to be the first major hardware manufacturer to bring a Windows Home Server-based device to market. We've been testing a preproduction version of its MediaSmart Home Server for several weeks.

HP had originally intended for the version of the MediaSmart device we've been working with to be the shipping model. But Microsoft decided to introduce some last-minute tweaks to the OS in August 2007, and HP responsed by rescheduling its planned release of the MediaSmart Home Server from September to later on in the year, according to HP.

Microsoft says that its last-minute updates include adjustments that fine-tune the out-of-box experience, such as added prompts and dialog boxes to guide consumers through the setup process. Among the other improvements are more-reliable remote server access, tools for automatically setting routers and firewalls, and enhancements to synchronisation features.

Nevertheless, the absence of these enhancements didn't diminish our overall experience in testing the HP MediaSmart Home Server.

Using the MediaSmart

Overall we like Windows Home Server as a platform. we've used network-attached storage devices in the past for backup and multimedia sharing. But by adding smarts to what is in essence an NAS device, Microsoft makes common tasks such as setup, media sharing, remote access and PC backup and recovery as easy as pie.

We also think that HP has done a great job of putting together its handsome hardware package of unique software tools that make the HP MediaSmart Home Server a useful tool for multi-PC households.

The HP MediaSmart Home Server will be sold in two models: The $599 (about £300) server contains 500GB of storage space, while the $749 (£375) unit offers 1TB. Otherwise, they're identical. We don't yet have UK pricing for the HP MediaSmart Home Server.

Both HP MediaSmart Home Servers will be powered by a 1.8GHz Sempron processor, and will have four SATA drive bays for accommodating internal storage and four USB 2.0 ports for connecting additional external drives. The 500GB model will come with only one bay occupied, while the 1TB system will have two of them filled.

Core software features

To appreciate the unique features of HP's MediaSmart Home Server, you have to understand Microsoft's contribution to the product. The Windows Home Server OS features centralised storage, media sharing, automated data backup, and remote access to PC desktops similar to the access offered by services like LogMeIn and GoToMyPC. Note that only the Windows XP Pro and Windows Vista Ultimate operating systems support remote access.

Microsoft promises and delivers an easy setup experience. To get started, we simply plugged the home server into an empty ethernet port on a Linksys router. Next we installed a small Windows Connector application on each home PC that we wanted to connect to the server. After we rebooted the PCs, each one recognized the HP MediaSmart Home Server, and we were up and running.

Microsoft fully supports up to 10 PCs running the Connector software per home server. Any PC beyond the maximum of 10 can link to your HP MediaSmart Home Server to upload and download files; however, if it doesn't have the Connector application running, it can't take advantage of advanced functions such as automatic backup, access to server maintenance tools, and remote desktop access.

You use the Windows Home Media Server Console application to set up and manage the server, tweak PC backups, and create shared or private network folders. The server itself is "headless" meaning that it doesn't support a monitor, keyboard or mouse. Configuring the box is like configuring a router - you do it remotely from a connected PC. The Windows Home Media Server Console program is accessible through any PC running the Connector application.

Microsoft provides an adequate set of tools for monitoring how much server storage space is available, creating user accounts, and performing other server management tasks. But HP adds tools that do far more than Microsoft's can.

Customising MediaSmart software

At setup, HP presents you with a Suggested Configuration Steps tab that guides you through customising the HP MediaSmart Home Server once you've connected it to your network. Here you set up user accounts, thereby restricting or permitting access to the server.

HP also steps you through setting up remote access to the HP MediaSmart Home Server from outside your home network. This remote-access feature enables you to connect remotely to your home server so that you can upload and download files, or access other PCs on the network via a built-in remote-desktop application.

A tool in the MediaSmart Server Console helps you assign your server a common name, either by using the HP Customizable Domain service or by going to Windows Live Custom Domains, where you can assign your server a domain name such as YourName.hpmediasmart.com or YourName.homeserver.com. Both Microsoft and HP offer the service for free.