Microsoft's Best New OS (Hint: It's Not Vista) Windows Home Server lets you store and stream media files, create backups, and connect remotely via the Web. Plus, it's great on older PCs.
A few years back, when I replaced my aging Athlon XP-based home-built PC with a faster, quieter system, I stored the old one away presuming that someday I'd do something interesting with it. Microsoft's Windows Home Server proved the perfect excuse to do just that. The end result is a highly useful, though sometimes frustratingly simplistic, addition to my home tech lineup.
Windows Home Server is Microsoft's first stab at a consumer server product that sits at the heart of your network where other PCs can access its content. Available now on hardware such as HP's MediaSmart Home Server or as a $180 software package from system-builder sites such as Newegg, Windows Home Server lets you store and stream media files, back up multiple PCs, and connect remotely via the Web. Plus, Microsoft says that add-on features such as video recording and home automation are on the way from third-party vendors.
Windows Home Server requires an ethernet connection between the server and the network (Microsoft deemed wireless networking too flaky). I installed a prerelease copy of the operating system in about 2 hours; the only snag I hit involved enabling the remote Web access features. My router turned out to be the problem, and one I wasn't able to resolve with tech support. To connect client PCs to the server, you install a simple console application on each that also lets you tweak the server's settings.
Soon, I was streaming music, photos, and standard-definition video to my 802.11g-enabled notebook, flawlessly. I experienced some stutters with a high-def test video file, but that's an 802.11g bandwidth issue. Everything streamed cleanly to my ethernet-connected Windows XP Pro PC and my Xbox 360. The 360 connection is great, as it allows me to access media where I most enjoy it: on my couch, in front of my HDTV.
Windows Home Server also lets you back up the entire contents of each connected PC to the server's hard drive, as a compressed file that it updates daily with only the changes that have occurred since the last backup. The backup feature is quite slick, and it illustrates the degree to which Microsoft has successfully simplified an often-complicated process. You can add more hard drives to the server, and even enable data duplication (essentially RAID 1 data mirroring). But the nitty-gritty settings for such features are largely inaccessible, hidden behind basic wizards and check boxes.
Simplicity is great, but I think enthusiasts like me will want access to more knobs and switches. Microsoft might envision a home server in every house, but I'm not sure the average PC user would even know what to do with one (yet). After having lived with the server for a few weeks, though, I can't imagine not having one--a clear sign that it's filling a need in my geek household. Better yet, it let me pull my old workhorse PC out of retirement.