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A File Your Living Room?

By Burt Helm Want to watch movies, control your stereo's music, and back up your computer files from any PC in the house? A cheap server computer, a scaled-down version of the pricey machines locked away in corporate data centers, might be the best way to manage your family's files while keeping them safe.

Don't laugh, those of you accustomed to the old-fashioned, $5,000 office servers that usually require constant care and feeding from tech managers. In an age where mom and dad have laptops for work and the kids use another computer to share music and video files, families now have tons of data to manage at home.

A special kind of server has a new role outside of the office. Techies call them network-attached storage (NAS) devices. They're really nothing more than a trimmed-down server dedicated to storing files. They've been used at the workplace for several years, but more affordable versions ideal for home networks are just now starting to hit the market. They're also good for small businesses that can't afford to build swanky computer networks.

PLENTY OF OPTIONS. Several NAS devices are now available. Iomega (IOM), for example, sells two different versions of its NAS 100d. The $499 server comes with 160 gigabytes of storage capacity -- enough to hold 40,000 songs. A $599 version adds an additional 90 gb. Since it has its own microprocessor, up to 30 people can access files on the server at once with no sacrifice in speed, according to Iomega. Snap, a subsidiary of Adaptec (ADPT), a Silicon Valley company that specializes in data-storage equipment, sells an 80-gb home server for $499.

NAS machines are supposed to make life easier for the home digerati or tech-savvy small business. Households with multiple computers can load all their important files -- digital music and video, or spreadsheet and word-processing documents -- to a centralized hard drive that can be accessed and run by any computer in the house. That frees hard-drive space on the regular computers and makes file organization simple.

With a little more technical savvy, someone using Snap's server can set up remote Internet access, allowing them to get to files even when they're away from the house.

ONE DRIVE FOR ALL. The nicest part is the flexibility these machines can provide. They allow any type of computer, running Windows, Macintosh, or Linux as its operating system, to access files at the same time. And they should ease the minds of people worried about computer viruses attacking Windows-based systems because they run on their own special operating systems.

Of course, if a family that's swimming in data is just looking to back up important files, a server isn't entirely necessary. A simple "network" external hard drive, small enough to fit into a coat pocket, can get the job done at half the price. Iomega offers a 160-gb high-speed network hard drive for $249.

Four to six people can connect to the same network drive and share its storage space. It can be connected wirelessly or through a simple Ethernet cable, like the one that runs from a cable modem to your computer. The new drive appears immediately as a lettered drive on each user's computer, and it comes with software that can automatically back up every computer on the network.

A MOVIE IN EVERY ROOM. But the servers really add horsepower to the home network. Once the basics are conquered, these machines allow for serious multimedia integration. For example, Microsoft'sMSFT) new Windows XP Media Center Edition, which hit the market on Oct. 12, provides a TiVo-like interface that can work with a PC to record and store live TV and video. For $300 more, Microsoft's Media Center Extender can also connect right to a regular or digital TV.

By loading the recorded video files directly onto the network server, family members can view any show on any computer display in the house. They can even watch different parts of the same show from different rooms, all while someone else accesses the server to run other files. While that may not do much for family bonding, it certainly adds more flexibility to a home network.

On the music side, a server works nicely with Apple Computer's (AAPL) AirPort Express, which costs $129. A device no bigger than an electrical adapter, the AirPort Express allows you to plug any normal stereo into a home wireless network and control it through Apple's iTunes software on a PC or Macintosh.

MAKE MINE NEIL. By loading digital tunes onto the server, anybody can access all of that music and control what plays on the stereo -- all through any computer in the house. If you're a baby boomer and you can't stand the kids' hip hop, that could come in handy when all you really want to do is listen to some old Neil Young tunes.

The combination gives each computer equal control over data, movies, and music. Best of all, you don't need the Geek Squad to do it. Helm is a reporter for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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