The HP MediaSmart EX490 and EX495 are the new top-of-the-line Windows Home Servers from HP, which are good enough to pretty much be the de-facto Windows Home Servers on the market now. These new units keep up the tradition.
What it still does
HP's Windows Home Servers are exceptional because they take the standard Home Server build and add a bunch of extras on top of it. For example, HP was the first one to introduce support for Apple's Time Machine, which has been improved here so that you can do a complete restore in the event that you have to start your Mac up from scratch.
They've also still got the media streaming (DLNA compliant), web/iPhone streaming and iTunes server built in, as well as a media collector that sucks in media from all your regular machines on the network into one place on the server. All of this stuff is just improved.
What it does even better now
The greatest group of improvements is how the EX495 now works with Macs. Time Machine functionality was there before, but ran into problems when your Mac went down and you tried to do a fresh restore directly off the network. Now you get a separate disc to use so you can treat the Time Machine backup on the server as a standard Time Machine backup for restores.
But the most important feature on a day-to-day basis is the fact that the Home Server console works natively on Macs — even though it's just a remote desktop connection to the server anyway. You can now do on your Mac all the management actions you could on the PC, like setup new users, update your Home Server, perform diagnostics or configure video conversions.
Then there is the added ability to do media collecting on Macs, basically sucking off any videos or music you've accumulated into one network-accessible place so other machines can access it. It beats having to remember to manually place those things on the server yourself.
Of course, Macs can also access the web interface for Home Server management just like PCs can.
More power, more storage and better processing
Shoving a Dual Core 2.5GHz or a 2.2GHz Celeron processor and 2GB of RAM on these machines might seem like overkill for something that's just used to hold stuff and stream it around the network, but HP puts that to good use.
In our tests, the EX495 was able to convert a DVD movie into a full resolution h.264 and a phone-streamable 300MB movie in about an hour and a half, give or take. Very useful for not sucking up your main machine's horsepower to convert videos when you can just vomit them onto the network and have it be done by a slave machine.
The improved processor is very noticeable from just using the remote console. Clicking around to set up the photo publisher, or the media server, or adding BitTorrent plugins were much faster than the previous generation EX485 and EX487 machines. It's not even comparable to the LX195 budget versions.
At $US700 and $US550 respectively ($899 and $599 in Australia), the MediaSmart Servers definitely aren't cheap. If you've got an older version, like the 485/487 series, the improvements probably won't be enough to warrant you spending so much for another machine that has similar functionality. If you're new to the Windows Home Server realm, this has pretty much everything a PC or a Mac user would want to hold their data, stream their media and backup their information. [HP EX495 and HP EX490]