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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Another problem that's growing as the use of digital media explodes is being able to access the media from wherever you want to use it. You might have 50GB of music on one computer, 25 full-length movies on another and thousands of digital images on still another. Making any or all of that entertainment available in the living room is likely to dampen anyone's enthusiasm for the evening's entertainment plans. Putting a Home Server in the network where all the digital media can be stored and accessed is a great solution.

Browsing photos on the server.
 

Browsing photos on the server.

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I was able to simply copy all my photos, music files and videos from my various computers to the public media folders on the Home Server. From there, any PC in the house is able to access them -- although you can limit which media folders are freely accessible. If you have an Xbox 360 or other Windows Media Connect-enabled device, you can stream audio and video content from the Home Server for live viewing, rather than having to download it first, then play it.

Setting shared media permissions.
 

Setting shared media permissions.

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Connecting remotely

Home Server is based on Microsoft Windows Server 2003, so it's a fully capable operating system. The good news for home users is that all the advanced features that Windows Server brings to the business environment are either automatically managed or disabled in Home Server. That leaves the good parts running on autopilot and easy to use.

The Connector software that runs on each PC is necessary only if you want to be able to manage the server, back up your PC and otherwise be an active part of the network. Without the Connector, it's still possible to view the server's public directory structure from a Web browser on your networked PC. That also means that if your server can be accessed from the Internet, you can browse it from a Web browser on any PC via the Internet.

The trick, though, is to make your server accessible via the Internet. To do this right now, you need to use a service like DynDNS or tzo.com to route a Web address to your cable or DSL modem's dynamically assigned IP address.

Before Home Server ships, however, Microsoft expects to offer a service through Windows Live that will let you choose a domain name for your server under the homeserver.com domain. For example, my domain could be "scott.homeserver.com" if I happened to get to it before any other Scotts. This service should be available when the systems appear on store shelves.

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