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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Once your server is accessible over the Internet, you can browse the server and download files to any Net-connected computer. (You will, of course, need the correct username and password to access private files.) If the remote device is Media Connect-enabled and uses a high-speed connection, you can even view or listen to media files streamed from your server.

Browsing shared folders from the Web.
 

Browsing shared folders from the Web.

(Click image to see larger view)

Finally, you can use the Home Server's Remote Access to Computers function to access the full capabilities of your PC remotely. This gives you most of the functionality of services like GoToMyPC without the monthly cost. However, there is a catch: Your home PC must be running either Windows XP Professional or Vista in order to be controlled remotely.

Accessing your computers remotely.
 

Accessing your computers remotely.

(Click image to see larger view)

While normal PC browsers can access the Home Server over the Internet without any problem, I was disappointed to find that my Cingular Blackjack running Microsoft Windows Mobile 5 couldn't find it -- the mobile browser never displayed a login screen or even an error. I subsequently found out that Microsoft doesn't expect to be able to deliver mobile access in Version 1 of Home Server but is looking to add it for the next revision.

Requirements and limitations

Windows Home Server sounds on the surface to be nirvana for home networks, and it well could be -- that is, if you have the right parts and pieces in place to take advantage of all its services. Many homes with multiple PCs, some of which have been "migrated" through the family hierarchy, will be disappointed when they attempt to use all the facilities of Home Server.

The most significant issue is that the Connector application will only work on Windows XP and Vista. Those old PCs running Windows 2000, ME or 98 -- or, for that matter, Mac OS X or Linux -- may be able to browse the shared folders, but they won't be backed up and monitored. That limitation in itself may be a deal-breaker for a large number of households.

Another requirement is that the server must be connected to the network router or switch with a wired Ethernet connection of at least 100MB/sec. The router and other PCs can be wireless, but that primary wired connection is needed in order to get the performance necessary to stream multimedia content to the other computers. Fortunately, 100MB and even Gigabit Ethernet switches are relatively inexpensive and may not pose much of a disincentive to buyers.

Other requirements are less important because the system will be delivered preconfigured with the required processing power (at least 1GHz), memory capacity (at least 512MB) and Ethernet port.

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