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Quick Take: HP MediaSmart Server LX195

I've been an unabashed fan of HP's MediaSmart Servers since the first one appeared a few years back and I use their latest server here as the center of my own network, and recommend it to others. HP's take on Windows Home Server hits all the right notes, and they've done a fantastic job of taking the solid foundation of WHS and extending it with their own, smarter, out of box setup experience, an accomplished collection of add-ins, and some of the best-looking hardware I've ever seen.

What the MediaSmart Server line lacked, until fairly recently, however, was a sub-$500 entry that would appeal to the budget conscious crowd. At this writing, the company offers two mainstream MediaSmart Servers, the single-HDD EX485 at $600 and the dual-HDD EX487, for $750. These are fine machines, with decent 2 GHz processors, enough RAM (2 GB) to handle a slew of add-ins, and internal expansion for up to 4 HDDs. But they're kind of expensive, especially in this day and age. And when you consider that just explaining a home server to the typical consumer is an uphill battle--go ahead, you try to do it in just a few short sentences--HP, like other WHS vendors, hits a wall of sorts.

Enter the LX195. This is a completely new MediaSmart Server, with a brand new, attractive styling that, to me, visually resembles the monolith from "2001, A Space Odyssey." While I would have went with something a little more akin to the other MediaSmart models, the LX195 is certainly nice looking and will appeal to techies and non-techies alike. Even more appealing is its price, $400. And I'm pretty sure that was exactly the point.

HP MediaSmart Server LX195

The HP MediaSmart Server LX195 is small, attractive, and nicely-appointed. But it lacks the ability to add a second internal drive.

In keeping with its even smaller form factor, the LX195 strays a bit from the rest of the MediaSmart line, and in many ways you might consider this the "netbook of home servers." It features a 1.6 GHz Atom processor, 1 GB of RAM, and a single 640 GB hard drive. For expansion, there are 4 USB 2.0 ports.

Add that all up and you can see where HP cut corners in order to cut costs. A single drive solution is not adequate, in my book, because you can't take advantage of WHS's excellent and desirable drive duplication functionality. But the only way to add a drive is to do so externally, and then only via USB. (The other MediaSmart Servers feature four internal SATA bays, with elegant hot-swap capabilities, as well as an external eSATA port, plus 4 USB 2.0 ports, like the LX195).

HP MediaSmart Server LX195

The HP MediaSmart Server LX195 compared to its bigger and more capacious siblings.

The Atom processor proved up to the task of serving up shared files and handling interactive management via WHS' somewhat ponderous admin console (which displays, weirdly, via RDP and can't be resized; this is Microsoft's fault, not HP's). And 1 GB of RAM is certainly fine for several WHS add-ons. But an eSATA port, and some form of optional external storage chassis would have made a big difference from an expansion perspective. But it also would have raised the price. Certainly, LX195 users can cheaply add USB storage to this device, and they should.

Setup is simple: Plug the LX195 into your home network via Ethernet and then connect the power, and you'll be up and running fairly quickly. As with other WHS-based solutions, the LX195 is headless and thus includes no way to connect a display. So you interact with the server remotely via the bundled Connector software. HP, as always, does a much better job of getting into the server the first time than does Microsoft, and this time around there's even some web page-based Setup help too. After initializing the server, you provide it with a network name, a password, configure a few features, and download any late-breaking software updates. Then you can access the console, configure PCs and user accounts, and so on.

HP MediaSmart Server LX195

HP's WHS add-ins and other software are huge improvements over the stock Microsoft install.

As always, HP's bundled add-ins are one of the key advantages of going the MediaSmart Server route. Because of the hardware constraints of the LX195, you don't get the processor-intensive HP Video Converter found in the higher-end models, but you do get everything else, including Online Backup (via Amazon S3), TwonkyMedia Server, McAffee Total Protection, an iTunes Server, a media collector (for Windows Media-based media aggregation from all connected PCs), a web-based photo publisher, and of course HP's famous Mac compatibility, which lets Mac-based users utilize the server for backup via Time Machine. It's a big collection of useful stuff, and over and above all the good stuff you get natively with any WHS-based solution.

Final thoughts

The HP MediaSmart Server LX195 is an attractive, compact, and nearly silent Windows Home Server solution with a great price, an amazing collection of useful add-ins, and the usual HP attention to detail. But I'm no fan of single-server WHS boxes, and this is ultimately the big issue I have with this particular model: Anyone using this really should get at least one more drive for data duplication purposes. And unfortunately that drive will have to be external, which takes away from the elegance of the server itself. That said, if you have modest storage needs and are going to tuck this away in a closet or in the cellar anyway, go for it. I'm happy with the EX models, but the inexpensive, cute, and surprisingly peppy little LX195 will surely win some fans of its own.

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