media, windows comments edit

HP EX475 MediaSmart
ServerAfter pondering various options for media center related storage, Jenn and I happened to be walking through Fry’s this weekend and saw they had dropped prices on HP MediaSmart Servers quite a bit so we bit the bullet and got the 1TB model.

So far, I like it quite a bit.

The form factor really surprised me. It’s small. Like, so small we walked right past it in the store and didn’t even notice it. We ended up asking where they were and when we saw it we were surprised by the size. I expected a mini-tower; it’s really only about nine inches tall and five inches wide. The whole package is fairly aesthetically pleasing so if you don’t have a desk to put it under, it’s not going to look bad sitting in plain sight.

Setup went surprisingly smoothly, which is far better than I can say about most of the electronics purchases I make. I always find there’s something “special” about my environment, even though I try not to do anything too out of the ordinary, and it makes things that are supposed to be simple very difficult. The only hitch I ran into during the setup was something they warn you about several times in the guide: your firewall/antivirus software may cause the server not to be found from your network, so you may have to adjust accordingly. I shut it down long enough to connect to the home server and everything is peachy keen. (Of course, the Home Server detected I had the firewall shut down, so for a few minutes I couldn’t figure out why it kept telling me my “network health was critical.” Eventually I got things set up enough that it was able to tell me very clearly that the firewall was down. Putting it back up restored network health to normal.)

The server is headless, so you control it entirely through the “Windows Home Server Console,” a remote desktop style application. It’s very easy to use, not giving you so many thousands of configuration options that you don’t know what to click - it’s clear and concise, which is a huge relief. It removes the burden of finding the checkbox hidden 15 levels deep and “just works.”

Actually, the level of configuration reminded me of a game console. Like when you set up your Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 on the network and configure one or two things - you don’t have to deal with verifying the drivers are set up right, or tweaking the registry to get it to perform, or running command-line programs to register or configure things… it just works. It will even configure your router for you through UPnP if you want to expose your server on the internet so you can get to your media remotely. I’d never seen that before and I wonder why it’s not available in things like the Xbox 360, which requires certain ports to be open to connect to Xbox Live.

The only real complaint I have, if you could call it that, is that it’s so high-level that it doesn’t really reveal what some of the functionality is doing behind the scenes. For example, there’s an iTunes sharing function on it that I’d love to use instead of my multi-user iTunes hack, but I’m not sure how it works so I’m reluctant to start moving things around onto the server before I understand what it’s doing… but there’s nothing in the docs to explain what’s going on beyond explaining how to configure it.

Regardless, this solves my media storage problem, so at the very least I can start ripping DVDs in VIDEO_TS format and saving them here. My laptop has Vista Ultimate on it, and I have another license for it that I can put on my Windows XP desktop (once I’ve migrated the shared data off there - it’s my “file server” right now), so I can try out My Movies on one of those and see how it goes.

Two things happened this weekend from an entertainment perspective.

First, I finished getting all of the “hidden packages” and stunt jumps in Grand Theft Auto 4, taking me to 95% completion. It was a bit confusing why I hadn’t hit the 100% mark, having completed everything else, but then I found this 100% completion checklist and realized I haven’t taken all of my “friends” to do every possible activity. Guess I’ll be doing that this week. (Admittedly, that seems pretty freaking tedious to contribute towards 100%. Come on, Rockstar.)

Second, Jenn and I went with my parents to see Tropic Thunder. It was funny, to be sure, but I’m not sure which was funnier: the movie, or watching my dad nearly fall out of his seat laughing at the movie. There was definitely a lot of random stuff going on in there, and I went in not really knowing anything about it or what to expect, but it was worth the watch. Far and away, Tom Cruise was the greatest thing in that movie, though - so over the top.

I still want to see Death Race, though. I was totally in the mood for mindless action but we ended up hitting Tropic Thunder instead. My craving for destruction has not yet been sated.

media comments edit

A potential storage alternative to Windows Home Server for my media center: Drobo. Looks like a cool, affordable device that has the ability to make several disks appear as one (which is the feature I was really looking for in WHS). They even have an add-on that can turn the whole thing into NAS. Slick.

UPDATE 8/25/08: I ended up getting a Windows Home Server.

media comments edit

I still haven’t solved my media server problem, mostly because I know it’s going to be a time-suck to set it all up and rip all the DVDs and get it to meet the minimum Wife Acceptance Factor. I can imagine eating up a full weekend on it. It’ll be nice when it’s done - if it gets done

  • but the investment is sort of a hurdle.

Anyway, following various Twitter links and surfing around, I’ve found a couple more interesting articles to contribute to the thought pool.

That “death of DVD” article comes closest to what I’m looking for. It even points to Windows Home Server for storage, which is definitely something I’m considering. The only real problem is the number of PCs and the form factor of each that I currently have. I have a desktop and a really under-powered mini-tower that I can use for the HTPC and the file server. The problem is that neither are really suited to sit in my living room. The desktop is too large, and the mini-tower, which is a better size, isn’t nearly powerful enough to be anything but a simple file server. Of course, it’s not powerful enough to run Windows Home Server, either, so if I wanted to go that route, I’d have to allocate the desktop to it and punt entirely on that mini tower.

And there’s the rub.

So now the current plan is (I think), based on budget and time…

  1. Get a 1TB drive from Costco that I can use to start the ripping of the movies.
  2. Get the mini-tower formatted with some sort of OS on it that can work as a file server. Maybe a Linux variant with Samba or something. Jury’s out.
  3. Hook up the 1TB drive to the file server.
  4. Hook up my existing media/archive drive to that, too. (I have iTunes on my laptop running off of that so I can just switch where the network drive gets mapped to and I’m good.)
  5. Rip a couple of movies so I can test it out.
  6. Get Vista Ultimate (I have a license for it just hanging out) on the desktop and get My Movies installed.
  7. Point the desktop to the file share on the mini-tower with the movies and see if the media server will play it reasonably.
  8. Start making decisions:
    • Does the mini tower work reasonably as a file share? Is it fast enough?
    • Can the desktop go out in the living room or is it too big and loud? If it’s too big and loud…
      • Should it be the file server instead so there’s some more power behind it?
      • Do I need a Mac Mini or the like for the living room?
    • When do I get my 1080p TV? (I have 720p now.) Do I want the TV more than the media center? (Probably.)

What my ultimate plan would be to save me time and frustration…

  1. Get a 1TB Windows Home Server ($730).
  2. Get a Mac Mini ($600).
  3. Get a Media Center remote control and receiver for the Mac Mini ($30).
  4. Install my copy of Vista Ultimate on the Mac Mini using Boot Camp.
  5. Install My Movies on the Mac Mini.
  6. Rip DVDs to the Windows Home Server.
  7. Play through Mac Mini/Vista/My Movies.

That sounds simple and doesn’t require any stressful decision making… but it does run $1360 (plus, in some cases, shipping). Is it worth the extra cost for reduced hassle? (It might be.)

UPDATE 8/25/08: I ended up getting a Windows Home Server.