Is it Time for a Home Server?

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been testing three new home servers, two from HP and a potential revolutionary concept called a nano-plug server. This last one uses Marvell technology, comes from a company called CloudEngines, and it is called the Pogoplug. Let’s talk about home servers today, why you may want one, and what makes these particular models stand out.

What Is A Home Server?

A home server is a device that provides data access 24 hours a day. They are typically used for three things: data access, backup, and media storage (think more video than MP3 files). The data access part typically encompasses media extenders like the Sonos music system, the Xbox 360 and PS3, and an increasing number of new TVs and Blu-Ray players. But the ability to act as a media repository is the real reason they are beginning to garner more interest, because video files, particularly HD video files, are large and can really eat up a lot of PC storage. Not to mention: The entertainment experience kind of sucks if you have to run upstairs and boot up a PC before you can watch a recorded movie or TV show.

Sonos Music System; Xbox 360; Playstation 3

Left: Sonos Music System; Center: Xbox 360; Right: Playstation 3

Very few people do backups as they should, and they often have these little panic moments, which can last for weeks, when a hard drive goes out. The sad thing is, that’s when people think about backing up, and it’s generally too late by then. Home servers usually include some kind of backup solution, which you get almost by accident, then are truly happy to have when a drive goes out.

Home servers are on 24/7, and generally have a secure way for you to get access to your stuff, including your media, while you are on the road. This comes in handy if you’ve ever been travelling and forgotten a file, only to realize it is on your home PC, which is off or otherwise unavailable. I’ve always found this feature very useful, though it may have more to do with being able to pull pictures of my pets remotely, than getting access to files that I need. Now let’s look at three products.

Pogoplug

PogoplugThe Pogoplug is potentially a revolutionary device based on Marvell’s Sheeva Plug concept that could potentially revolutionize computing. Currently, we add capability by installing programs, but the Pogoplug heralds a future where we might install applications with their own dedicated hardware. In its initial form, this nano server is a focused, incredibly easy-to-set-up file-access device.

To set it up, you plug it in, add a USB storage device (flash or hard drive), then you go to the Pogoplug website and set up an account. The hardest part is reading and entering the unique number of your Pogoplug. Afterwards, all of your stuff is suddenly available to you on the Pogoplug site. You can even download applications for your PC or iPhone that make it look like the device (when you are on the network) is a drive attached to your PC or iPhone. Set up time is around three to five minutes, but you could probably do it in two if you pushed. And when you’re done, you have access to your stuff anywhere in the world you have Web access.

Cost is $100 for the device, plus the cost of storage. For instance, a very nice Iomega Prestige 1TB drive is about $105 on Amazon at the moment, which gives you a 1TB home file server for around $200.

Now, if you want to use this for backups, you’ll need backup software, and it won’t work with Media extenders at the moment. But future products will embody more capabilities. It also pulls under 10 watts of power, so it is incredibly green.

HP MediaSmart Servers: LX195 and EX

These are full-featured products, priced at $399 for the LX195 and $599 for the EX. You have data access (though it is harder to set up and harder to remember the address than with the Pogoplug), full backup, and full access to media extenders (including Xbox and PS3 offerings). These now automatically scan and collect all of your media files into one place, so even if you don’t back them up on your PC, you’ll have a growing central repository of them.

HP MediaSmart Servers: LX195 and EX

HP MediaSmart Servers:  LX195 and EX

The LX195 comes with 650GB of storage, which you can add to with a number of USB drives. But the result after one would be visibly ugly, and this product lacks what I think is the coolest feature of the current generation of MediaSmart Servers: transcoding.

The one to get, however, is the EX, which is worth the extra $200. With it, you start with two 650GB drives, and two free bays. With terabyte drives selling for $100 each, you can immediately add 2TB for $200, and the time it takes to snap in a drive in the slide-out bay is about 30 seconds. I’m now running a server with 3TB, and it still costs around $800. With all of my media and backup files stored and mirrored, I still have a little over two terabytes left over to stuff TV programming into.

What is particularly cool about the EX is that is has a built in transcoder. This transcoder automatically converts all of your video to play on media extender, MP3 players, or cell phones. If you have a lot of video files in may take a week or so to initially convert all of them, but suddenly you have the ability to watch all you stuff on most any device including an iPod or iPhone.

Wrapping Up

If all you want is to access your stuff from anywhere, the Pogoplug is an amazing and incredibly energy-efficient device. It’s not much to look at, but it provides an amazing amount of capability in a tiny package. If you want a full-on experience, including built-in transcoding, the HP MediaSmart EX is the product for you. And if you like most of the capability, don’t need the capacity or transcoding and want to save $200, then the LX195 is your play (I’d pay the extra $200). In any case, home servers are a category of product that will continue to evolve, and for those of us who want our media everywhere, but don’t want our home PCs on all the time, this may be the category for us.

Keep your eye on this Marvell Sheeva Plug technology. I’m convinced it could revolutionize the way to do computing, and not just for home servers, either.

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