Taming the Wild Home Network

Home networks are getting a lot more complicated. Not long ago, most homes made do with a single shared computer. Now there's likely to be a desktop and a laptop or two—perhaps a combination of Windows PCs and Macs. There may also be an Xbox, a PlayStation 3, and/or an Apple (AAPL) TV box, any of which can send video or photos stored on a computer to a big-screen TV. Consumers who have accumulated such devices are learning that they need help managing the network.

I looked at a couple of new products that can serve as central repositories for all of a household's entertainment content. In the process, they simplify the sharing of files among computers, provide data backup for all of them, and even enable remote access to the network through the Web. While pitched mainly to consumers, these devices are also ideal for small businesses that aren't ready for the cost and complexity of Microsoft's (MSFT)Windows Small Business Server.

The makers of these content-management systems haven't quite figured out what to call them. Microsoft offers a software platform called Windows Home Server. (To its credit, the company has also published a self-mocking comic book called Mommy, Why Is There a Server in the House?) Using this software, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) has just released the Media­Smart Server, an improved second edition of a computer system it introduced in late 2007. With a starting price of $599 for a 750-gigabyte model, it's far more costly than the mostly Linux-based competition, but the extra money buys both usefulness and simplicity.

Searching Everywhere

MediaSmart is especially attractive if you have Windows machines and Macs under one roof. It's the only network storage system other than Apple's Time Capsule that backs up your data using OS X's Time Machine program. On Windows, the backup software is nearly as easy to set up and use as Time Machine—a rarity in the Windows world. After you install the MediaSmart software on each computer you want to connect to the server, it quietly and invisibly moves copies of your data to the server. And for folks who want both belt and suspenders, MediaSmart makes it easy to deposit yet another copy of your content on Amazon.com (AMZN)'s Simple Storage Service.

MediaSmart can also search all of your computers for music, videos, and photos and add them to its collection. When you later save new content to a computer, it, too, is automatically added to the server collection. This can be a major con­venience if your collections are stored in bits and pieces on different computers around the house.

Storage on the Media­Smart server, as on most products of its type, is effectively unlimited. It has room for four internal 1-terabyte drives, and if that's not enough, there are ports to add external disks.

For those on a tighter budget, Cisco (CSCO) offers a less expensive alternative to the HP server: the LinksysMedia Hub. Prices start at $350 for a model with one 500-gigabyte drive and room for another. It offers many of the same features as MediaSmart, but you'll have to work harder to use them. For example, the included NTI Shadow backup software is scaled down from a service designed for large enterprises. It's reliable but far from user-friendly.

Home networks are evolving quickly, with more machines in the mix, some of which travel back and forth between home and office or school. Media player programs on your machines also connect to the same networks. Keeping everything working together and all of your valuable content safe is a growing challenge that these new servers, whatever you call them, go a long way toward meeting.

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