Review: Windows Home Server nearly ready for prime time

Currently in beta 2, the all-in-one backup, file-sharing and PC-monitoring device brings simplicity and automation to home networks.

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It's possible to select specific drives to back up, and you can select some folders that you don't want to back up. However, I was able to instruct the backup to skip only a limited set of predetermined folders, including temporary files, the hibernation folder, the recycle bin and a few other system files. It's not possible to skip standard folders. While experienced users may not like this restrictive approach, it's probably the best way to ensure that casual users are completely protected, since the system simply backs up everything on the users' drives.

The server stores files in three different types of folders: regular backups, plus public and private folders. Public folders allow open access from any connected PC; private folders are like private network drives on a business network. They store a user's files and are accessible from any connected PC by any user with the correct username and password.

Shared media and user folders.
 

Shared media and user folders.

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Backup files are collected in their own backup libraries, which are separate and different from user file folders. In fact, the backup process is fairly sophisticated in that it backs up at the block level, only backing up those blocks that have changed. This complexity is completely hidden from users, who see their backups as complete files. An individual file or folder can be selected for restoration, but the file itself may comprise multiple incremental updates made over the life of the file. This keeps the size of the overall backup smaller than it would be if complete files were backed up every time they changed.

I was able to restore files by selecting a backup from three days prior and browsing the files in the backup set. Restoring files is as simple as dragging the required file from the Windows Explorer window to your selected destination. In fact, I was able to view the backups from one of the other computers on my network and restore its backed-up files to my main computer. That means that even if one computer fails completely, its contents can be retrieved immediately. Even private files can be brought back to life as long as you have the login name and password to access the private folders.

Choosing a backup to restore files from.
 

Choosing a backup to restore files from.

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PC monitoring and file sharing

If it did nothing but back up home computers regularly, Home Server would be a great thing. But its Connector software also monitors and announces the status of firewalls and antivirus software on each PC it's installed on, and it reports on the quality of your network connectivity. And that's where Home Server begins to make real sense for the average home PC user.

A pop-up window indicates trouble with a PC on the network.
 
A pop-up window indicates trouble with a PC.
Announcements appear as pop-up messages on each PC running the Connector. I found the pop-up messages telling me "The Den PC's firewall is turned off" a bit annoying since I had turned it off on purpose. On the other hand, that kind of information is good to know.

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