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Digitized media and distributed A/V are gaining traction, fast. Where this trend will take us, and which media server technology will dominate are the big questions.
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Denon’s new Blu-ray Media 2TB Server? Alas, no, just one (very imaginative) artists concept rendering of what the future may bring. Are you listening Denon?
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January 04, 2008 by Rebecca Day

Distributing content is one role of a media server. Another emerging role is backup storage. As more and more of our content is digitized—and not stored on CDs, photo paper or even DVDs—we need a way to protect and secure it. Enter Windows Home Server.

HP is the first company to announce servers based on Windows Home Server software. The 500-GB ($599) and 1-terabyte ($749) MediaSmart servers take on several roles, and few of them resemble those of a standard PC. The servers don’t come with a keyboard, monitor or mouse, for instance. They connect to the home network and communicate with the other PCs in the home. The HP servers are smaller than the standard desktop, too, measuring 5.5 (W) x 9.8 (H) x 9.2 (D) inches. “The HP MediaSmart servers look like they belong on a bookshelf, not like they’re nerdy computers,” says Scott Evans, group manager in Microsoft’s E Home division.

Media servers based on Windows Home Server software stay powered 24-7 and automatically back up all data from all of the home’s PCs once a day. “Media Center is the entertainment center, and Home Server is backup, consolidated storage and a remote access gateway for the home,” Evans explains.

Remote access gives you the ability to retrieve your content from outside the home by going to the customized URL for your home server over the Internet. If you’re visiting the grandparents in California, it’s easy to bring up all the photos of the kids over the Internet, but forget about watching those recordings of “Weeds.” Protected content can be accessed on the home network, but you can’t get it from outside of the house.

How do you choose a media server? Start by determining what’s important to you, says Mike Seamons, vice president of marketing at Exceptional Innovation, whose Lifeware software runs on the Windows Vista platform and Media Center PCs. Seamons breaks out media servers into three types. “If you want a rockin’ entertainment system on your TV, then start with an entertainment server,” he says. A Media Center PC can feed content to up to five rooms, he notes. “If you’re not looking at plugging in TVs, and you just want someplace where all your content is living safely, then get a storage server, and you can have all [your] pictures, videos, music and important documents backed up.” The third category adds home control, and that’s where Lifeware makes its mark by providing the hardware connections and software for home control including lighting, thermostats and security.

EI’s entry-level LifeMedia Server 200 ($3,500), which provides entertainment and home control, includes Windows Vista Ultimate and offers 500 GB of storage. In media terms, that translates to roughly 60 DVD movies, 170 hours of standard definition, 80 hours of HDTV, 5,000 CDs or 250,000 photos. The server is the holding pen for TV, movies, music and digital pictures and also manages automation, offering connections for supported lighting systems such as those from Insteon, Lutron and Centralite. Twenty zones of lighting control would be a $1,500 software upgrade, Seamons says.

For peace of mind, you can add a storage server for backup and duplication of data. EI’s 2-terabyte storage server is $6,000 and offers redundant backup. Software licensing fees are part of the Lifeware scenario, too, which is available through dealers only. You buy a one-time server license for Lifeware for $500, and then add $125 to $500 per screen, depending on the functionality of the screen. In addition, license fees apply to each device, such as a lighting module or thermostat, that communicates with the system.

The advantage of going with Lifeware, says Seamons, is the straightforward, unified user interface that combines entertainment and automation under the same menu. There’s also the Microsoft platform compatibility. You don’t have to use EI hardware for Lifeware to work, although the company offers a full line to meet a wide variety of applications. Depending on your needs, you could go with a robust four-tuner Media Center PC system from Niveus or a music-centric PC from Russound or a MediaSmart extender from HP.

The Microsoft field will only get larger as more third-party companies come on board. Evans of Microsoft notes that in its fifth generation, Media Center now boasts 60 million users. “It has enough of a user base that it makes sense for third parties to build more hardware products that work with Media Center directly,” he says. That even includes high-end supplier Crestron, which will deliver its own Media Center PCs in 2008.

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