U.S. consumers have been limited to two choices when it comes to deploying a Windows Home Server machine: They could roll their own (from scratch or by repurposing an existing computer) or they could buy one of HP’s MediaSmart models. Now there’s a compelling third choice on the market: Acer’s Aspire easyStore H340.
The server is housed in an attractive cube-shaped enclosure measuring 7.9 inches wide by 7.1 inches deep by 8.3 inches high. A large power button, several blue LEDs, and a USB port protrude from the left corner, with four blue drive-bay LEDs on the right.
The front door swings open to expose four hot-swappable 3.5-inch drive bays, the bottom of which is occupied by a 1TB SATA hard drive. Drives can be added or removed without ever having to power down the server; you just pull out a tray, attach the drive, and slide it back into the bay. There are four additional USB ports in the back, along with one eSATA port and a gigabit LAN interface. You can back up the entire server by plugging a portable hard drive into the front USB port and touching one button.
The server is powered by Intel’s Atom 230 CPU, which is outfitted with 512KB of L2 cache. This chip has a core clock speed of 1.6GHz and a front-side bus speed of 533MHz. Atom processors draw very little electrical power and run very cool—the Atom 230 has a thermal design profile of just four watts—because Intel ostensibly designed them for mobile PCs that frequently run on batteries and have limited capacity for dissipating heat. We measured the server’s power consumption using a Kill-a-Watt power meter, which reported the server drawing just 45 watts at idle—which was about 120 watts less than the home-grown Windows Home Server machine we used for our benchmark comparisons. (That machine is based on a 2.6GHz dual-core AMD Athlon FX-60 desktop CPU.) And since the Acer doesn’t need a lot of fans to keep it cool, it operated in near silence.
The Atom 230 has a 64-bit instruction set, which is important because it’s widely expected that the next version of Windows Home Server, codenamed Vail, will require a 64-bit CPU. HP uses this same processor for its MediaSmart LX195, which sells for the same price as the Aspire easyStore ($399), but the LX195 has just one internal drive bay, which is occupied by a 640GB hard drive. HP’s MediaSmart EX485 ($599) and EX487 ($749), by comparison, both operate on Intel’s single-core Celeron 440 processors, which boast more than twice as many transistors (105 million to the Atom’s 47 million) and higher core and front-side bus speeds (2.0GHz and 800MHz, respectively). On the other hand, the Celeron has a thermal design profile of 35 watts and requires considerably more cooling.
Running Add-in Software
The Aspire easyStore is outfitted with 2GB of DDR2 memory, so it should be capable of running several add-in programs simultaneously (there are dozens of free and commercial add-in software programs available for Windows Home Server, with more in development). Acer includes a few basic programs, including Digital Media Server (a DLNA-compatible program for playing music and video and displaying photos stored on the server, which supplements the Windows Media Connect server that comes with the operating system); an iTunes server (so you can share music stored on the server with your iTunes client); Lights Out (a utility that allows you to manage the server’s power state, so you can create a schedule for putting it into sleep mode—and wake it up over your LAN); and a utility that enables you to monitor the server’s CPU and motherboard temperatures, CPU and memory utilization, fan speed, and voltages. The hardware monitor can be configured to send out email alerts if its readings indicate that something has gone awry.
Acer also includes a sixty day trial to McAfee Total Protection, which includes anti-virus/anti-spyware security suite. We happen to prefer Avast Windows Home Server Edition for anti-virus protection, because it comes with licenses for up to 10 client PCs and you can manage each client from within the Windows Home Server console. Anyone who wants to build their own home server won’t have a problem finding similar solutions—many of which are free—but add-in software is one area in which HP enjoys a commanding advantage. Acer would be smart to add a photo suite that makes it easier to upload photos stored on the server to photo-sharing sites like Flickr and social networks such as Facebook. And HP remains the only game in town if you want to use Windows Home Server to back up your Macintosh (not that you’d care if you don’t own a Mac).
We didn’t have a MediaSmart server that we could use for benchmark comparisons, so we used our home-grown server, instead. As we mentioned earlier, that system is based on an AMD 2.6GHz dual-core Athlon FX-60 desktop CPU. It has 2GB of DDR2 memory, a gigabit Ethernet interface, and three hard drives (two 750GB drives and one 1.5TB drive). Having outlived its usefulness as a gaming machine, it has made a terrific media and file server (albeit a power-hungry and slightly noisy one).
We prepared two folders and timed how long it took to copy each folder from the server to a client on the network (consider this a read test); we then timed how long it took to copy each folder from the client back to the server (consider this is a write test). One folder contained a single large file: an MPEG-4 movie ripped from DVD (the film was Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights and the size of the folder was 1.8GB); the other folder contained dozens of small files: utility programs, documents, JPEGs, device drivers, device drivers, and the like. That folder was 751MB.
Our home-grown server proved to be considerably faster on both write tests, copying the large file to the server in 46 seconds, compared to 100 seconds for the Acer, and copying the batch of small files in 57 seconds, compared to the Acer’s 85 seconds. The results of our read tests were just the opposite: The Acer needed only 53 seconds to copy the large file to the client, compared to 87 seconds for the home-grown server. The Acer copied the batch of small files to the client in just 28 seconds, compared to the home-grown server’s 37 seconds.
Given the presence of the Atom processor, we were very curious to see how the Acer would perform while streaming media, so we pressed into service every streaming client we had at hand using our wired gigabit Ethernet network: We wound up simultaneously streaming different losslessly compressed FLAC audio tracks to each of two Sonos Zone Players, one desktop PC, and one notebook PC; losslessly compressed WMA audio files to two other notebook PCs; and 320Mb/sec MP3 files to a Linksys Director and another desktop PC. The Atom—and the Acer in general—never broke a sweat, with CPU utilization peaking at about 10 percent. We then proceeded to stream the MPEG-4 version of Boogie Nights from five different folders to each of our five PCs, using QuickTime for playback. Here again, the Acer didn’t as much as hiccup.
Acer’s Aspire easyStore H340 doesn’t have all the polish and bells and whistles you’ll find on HP’s MediaSmart 400-series servers, and it’s not the right choice at all if you’re looking for a server that can back up Macs as well as PCs. But it carries the same price tag as HP’s budget-oriented MediaSmart LX195, which has half as much memory and can accommodate only one internal hard drive.
The Aspire easyStore is plenty fast for most home applications, and its one-touch back-up feature is an excellent feature we’d like to see implemented on more servers. If you need to back up multiple PCs or just need a reliable server for a media-center extender, gaming console, or music-streaming system, we highly recommend you give this one a look.
- Large hard drive
- Three available hot-swappable drive bays
- Low power consumption
- DLNA and iTunes media servers
- Not compatible with Macs
- Not as polished as HP’s MediaSmart servers