From the User Accounts tab, you determine which users on your network have access to the various shared folders. You can get bogged down at this step, as it encourages you to use the user names and passwords that match those on the client PCs, which assumes you use them to begin with. If your household is less access-controlled, you can simply stick with a Guest account, which grants open access to all of the shared folders on your home network.
The Shared Folders tab is where you manage and create the central location for your media files, or whatever other data you want to access remotely. In addition to the basic dedicated Music, Photos, Videos, etc., each user can also create a personal folder for general storage. You can set permissions granting or restricting different kinds of access per user to each different folder. These folders can also stream content to other media devices on your home network, such as an Xbox 360. You can also access them remotely over the Web. This is another stand-out feature of Windows Home Server, as it essentially lets you get at all of your media and other data from any connected computer in the world. The major drawback is that it requires Internet Explorer, which excludes Firefox users, Macs, and any other non-Microsoft systems from using the remote access capabilities.
The Server Storage tab shows you the amount of space on the various hard drives you have connected to your Home Server. Via the HP MediaSmart Server ex475's USB ports or its single eSATA port, you can expand your storage pool with various kinds of drives, and they'll pop up onscreen. HP also lets you hot-swap the internal hard drives, via an easy-open front panel door. Inside you'll find the same hard-drive sleds that came with the HP Blackbird 002 gaming PC. They require no screws or cables, and pop in and out of the system easily. Each new drive or storage device you connect to the system become part of a single drive partition. The Home Server software will format drives as necessary, and it all works on the fly.
Those four tabs make up the basics of Windows Home Server that should be common to every system that uses the software. But Microsoft is also encouraging third-party software developers to expand on Home Server's capabilities. HP has taken advantage of this out of the gate with a photo sharing application and a small program that organizes and grants access to your iTunes library across the various systems on your network. We're sure anyone who purchases the MediaSmart Server will appreciate those tweaks. Microsoft has also announced other extensions to Home Server, including a media streaming app from SageTV, a blog tool, and video conferencing software, among others. It's similar in concept to Apple's Widgets and Microsoft's own Vista Gadgets, although we don't expect that all of the Home Server programs will be free.
As far as this particular MediaSmart Server ex475, HP gives you two 500GB, 7,200rpm hard drives, for 1TB total. It also offers the 500GB MediaSmart Server ex470, for $599. With four internal slots overall, you can extend the internal storage on either of these systems to 4TB with the current drives on the market. You can also add external drives via the aforementioned USB and eSATA ports. As these are servers and mostly just shuttling data around, they don't need a fast processor or gobs of system memory. The ex475 comes with a lowly 1.8GHz AMD Sempron processor and 512MB of system RAM. Velocity Micro is promising higher-end specs in its Home Server systems, and we'll keep an open mind, but we didn't have any particular performance gripes with the HP. You can also find the Windows Home Server software on sale by itself for around $175. Because of the low-grade hardware requirements, it's easy to imagine repurposing an out-of-date PC into a DIY Home Server box.
The warranty coverage for the MediaSmart Server ex475 is about the same you'd find in a desktop of this price. You get a year of parts and labor coverage, plus 24-7 phone support. There is no standalone support application with this system like you can find on HP's Pavilion desktops, but there are so many links in the Home Server software itself explaining what does what, that you should be well taken care of. The paper manual also provides 192 pages of useful information. You also get server restore disks in case the server software itself become corrupt.