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Windows Home Server Power Pack 1 Review

When it comes to Windows Home Server (WHS), I don't just review this stuff, I use it. And I don't just use it, I rely on it, daily, as the center of my home network and the hub of my personal and professional data. For me, WHS is personal. It's important. And it's something I strongly recommend to all readers of this site.

Almost a year into WHS' life cycle, there's little reason to reiterate the many benefits of this useful system. If you're not familiar with WHS, or simply want a refresher, please do refer back to my original WHS review. My review of the HP MediaSmart Server--the WHS-based solution I'm using and also strongly recommend--might also prove helpful, as HP's WHS server adds additional useful functionality and removes some of WHS' rough edges.

In this review, I'll be focusing on the new features and functionality provided to WHS by Power Pack 1 (PP1), the first major update to WHS. Here's what you get.

Major new features

Windows Home Server Power Pack 1 (PP1) is a major functional upgrade to WHS, offering a number of important and major new features.

x64 client compatibility

One of the curiously missing pieces in the original shipping version of WHS is a lack of compatibility with Windows Vista x64 (64-bit) clients. This has been rectified in PP1, and you can now install a native 64-bit WHS Connector client on Windows Vista x64 systems. (Windows XP x64 is not supported.)

Server backup

While it's possible to extend WHS via add-ons (like the excellent and recommended Jungle Disk) to provide off-server backup capabilities, this is a crucial feature that needs to be part of WHS itself. Now it is: Starting with PP1, when you add external USB storage devices to the system and add them via the Server Storage tab in the administrative console, you can now choose whether to make that storage available to the general storage pool or use it as a backup drive. (See my Windows Home Server Power Pack 1 Server Backup Screenshots).

In this context, "backup" refers to the backing up of data stored on the WHS machine, not of backing up the WHS server itself. That is, Server backup provides a facility for duplicating your data to one or more external USB storage devices. It is not something like Complete PC Backup in Windows Vista, and cannot be used to restore your server in the event of a failure. (It can of course be used to restore data.)

Server backup, such as it is, is managed via the Computers & Backup tab in the console. Now, you'll see a new icon for your home server (the imaginatively named HOME-SERVER in my case) as well as its backup status. You can trigger and view backups, but not "configure" them as you can with PCs. Instead, the Backup Now wizard presents a UI for choosing which folder shares you'd like backed up.

Confusingly, server backup doesn't present the same unified storage view offered by the server itself. Instead, you have to actually pick which storage device is used on a folder-by-folder basis. If you're looking for a quick and dirty way to backup the server and then move the backup storage to an offsite location, this will work wonderfully. For others, something a bit more automated and sophisticated would be vastly preferable, but obviously this is better than nothing.

Remote access improvements

While the original WHS release provided a decent Web-based interface for accessing the files stored on the server from a remote location, PP1 takes this a step further and adds a new Views drop-down, from which you can choose between Details (the only available view style previously) and icons, which includes thumbnails for image files (Figure).

Uploading via the Web-based interface is also improved, at least if you're using Internet Explorer: Now, you can drag and drop multiple files directly into an upload pane in the browser to copy files up to the server (Figure). Uploads now include a progress bar and can be canceled.

Downloading, too, has improved. You can choose to download many files simultaneously in a more easily managed single archive (either ZIP or EXE), for example (Figure).

Other changes and improvements

In addition to the major changes outlined in the previous section, PP1 delivers hundreds of other changes and improvements. Some of the more notable include:

Data corruption bug fix. I hate to list a bug fix like this as an improvement, but let's face it, WHS users have been waiting for this fix for months. This fix relates to a long-standing data corruption issue that would only happen in certain conditions when certain data files were accessed directly on the server via certain applications. It's fixed, finally.

Other Connector improvements. In addition to the previously-mentioned x64 compatibility, Microsoft has improved the WHS Connector software in other ways. During install--and yes, a new Connector software version is required on all of your connected PCs after installing PP1--you will now be prompted to determine whether you want WHS to wake up your PC if a scheduled backup is required and the PC is in sleep or hibernation mode. You're also prompted to determine how the Connector software will be updated in the future, either manually or automatically.

Remote access. Now, when a new user is added via the WHS admin console, you're prompted to specify remote access options, specifically whether that user can access the Computers tab, Shared Folders tab, or either, from the Web-based interface.

Home computer backup. PCs running Windows Vista with Service Pack 1 (SP1) are no longer incorrectly identified as "Longhorn Server" in the admin console. Likewise, PCs running Windows XP Media Center edition 2004 or 2005 are now correctly identified. Microsoft has created a new "dual boot" Home Computer Restore CD; one option should be used on PCs with 512 MB of RAM or less, while the other is optimized for PCs with more RAM.

Server storage. WHS finally supports long file name paths of more than 240 characters. Additionally, file copy performance improvements (both to and from WHS over a home network) have been made.

Power management. On new WHS + PP1 server installs, processor power management is now enabled and the Server Balanced Process Power and Performance power scheme is used by default.

What's missing in PP1

While the combination of WHS and PP1 is a potent and useful home server solution, there are a few missing features. Chief among these, of course, is a true WHS backup and restore option that would backup the entire server, similar to the Complete PC Backup feature in Windows Vista. That backup could then be used to restore the entire server in the event of a failure and, in conjunction with subsequent data backups, be used to fully return the server to its last known good state.

Beyond this crucial feature, there are some pie-in-the-sky improvements I'd love to see. Chief among these, of course, is an embedded version of Windows Media Center, if only so you could use living room-based Media Center Extenders with your home server via the superior Media Center experience.

Given the potential complexity of configuring a home router to work properly with WHS, some combination of WHS hardware and a router might be beneficial. That said, this sort of solution would need to come from a PC maker, and not Microsoft, and it's unclear what the market is for such a thing.

The installation experience

Installing and configuring PP1 is relatively straightforward, though it requires you to bypass the headless nature of WHS and access its Windows 2000-like desktop via Remote Desktop. And if you've already installed a pre-release version of PP1, as I did, you'll need to uninstall that first, then reboot, then install the shipping PP1 version, and then reboot again. If you have an HP MediaSmart Server, you'll then need to install an HP update and, if you'd like, install two HP-specific updates, which I'll discuss in just a bit.

This sounds more complex than it is. Basically, you access the Remote Desktop Connection application that ships with all versions of Windows XP and Vista, point it at your home server, and logon with the "administrator" user (and the WHS master password) to access the normally hidden WHS desktop. From here, you run the installation EXE (see the next section), step through a very short wizard, and enjoy a very brief install experience. One reboot later, you're up and running with PP1.

I did notice some odd performance issues after first installing PP1, mostly with the admin console, but these cleared up after about an hour or so. From then on, it's business as usual, though you may want to check out the server backup feature, especially if you've made no previous efforts to duplicate your data and/or perform any kind of off-site backup.

If you're using the HP MediaSmart Server, you can then access HP's unique MediaSmart Server tab in the admin console and click on "Check for updates." This will download a new update package which installs, among other things, two new optional add-ins (don't worry, they're disabled by default):

McAfee Total Protection Service. This is a server-side anti-virus and anti-malware solution that will protect your WHS-based documents and other data. You can also manually run scans as you would with a PC-based AV solution. HP provides 7 months of service free. After that, you'll have to subscribe with McAfee.

PVConnect Media Server. This is a Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA)-certified media sharing solution that enhances the media sharing capabilities of the server by making it compatible with a much wider range of devices.

HP also made improvements to its HP Photo Webshare solution in this update.

Availability and pricing

WHS PP1 is absolutely free, and you can download it now via the Microsoft Download Center. If you'd rather wait, it will hit Windows Updates in August 2008.

Final thoughts

I've been using PP1 in prerelease form for months and the transition from that release to the final version has been seamless and painless. Given its useful new functionality and the fact that it's a free update, I have little reason not to recommend this update. If you're running Windows Home Server, you're going to want to get Power Pack 1 as soon as possible. Highly recommended.

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