HP MediaSmart Server software and support far from stellar

A couple of weeks ago, after waiting nearly a month, I finally took delivery of HP’s MediaSmart ex475 Server, which I’ve been wanting to try out ever since I heard about it in early 2007.

The system, which is based on Microsoft’s Windows Home Server, comes with a terabyte of storage, a 1.8 GHz processor (an AMD Sempron 64 bit) and 512 MB of RAM. While I’ve found the product to be very useful (centralized data storage, automatic backups, cool add-ins) HP’s software and support has left a lot to be desired.

I had reasonable expectations for the product, and I’ve been mostly happy with it.

What I did not expect, however, was that I would encounter a major error after using the product for only fourteen days.

This morning, while logging in to my Windows Home Server, I was greeted by this error:

Input string was not in a correct format. At system.Number.StringToNumber(String st, NumberStyles options, NumberBuffer & number, NumberFormat.Info.info, Boolean parseDecimal)
At System.Number.ParseInt64(String value, NumberStyles options, NumberFormatInto numfmt)
At HPConfiguration.IniFile.GetLong(String key, Int64 defaultVal)
At MediaSmartUpdate.MediaSmartUpdate.GetiniConfig()
At MediaSmartUpdate.MediaSmartUpdater.GetSettingsValues()
At Microsoft.HomeServer.HomeServerConsoleTab.HPSU. HomeServerSettingsExtender.initializeMembers(IConsoleServices.svc)

The console loaded after I clicked okay, but under “HP MediaSmart Software Updates”, where I’ve previously seen the date of the last update, there were instead six Xs:

MediaSmart Server - HP Update Blanks

It seems the error is a malfunction in HP’s own software, which essentially runs on top of the Windows Home Server platform. The problem seem to be affecting the performance of the operating system, fortunately, but it is certainly annoying.

Thinking I should report the problem, I went to the ex475’s support page, and was surprised to find that email and live chat support for the MediaSmart server are not available:

E-mail HP

Support E-mail not available
ยป E-mail questions before you buy

So I called HP instead – the only provided option for contacting the company in regards to the ex475. The representative that I spoke with had not heard of the problem, and all he could suggest was doing a server recovery, which would result in losing operating system settings, including user accounts. I suggested that HP take the opportunity to investigate the problem, and he fortunately saw the wisdom in that, so I have sent a copy of the error message to HP.

It’s frustrating, though, that HP’s bundled software should just abruptly stop working. I certainly appreciate not having any bloatware on the system (trial offers, third party products, and the like) but why not just ship a clean version of Windows Home Server on a compact and sleek package of hardware, and let customers download the optional extras (like iTunes synchronization across home PCs, or the photo Webshare) only if they want them?

(There are great alternatives to HP’s offerings – if I want to easily share photos, for example, I could install the Windows Home Server Flickr synchronization plugin, and not bother with the Webshare).

My call to HP was the second time I had called the company about the ex475. The first time I called, I was curious to see if HP could tell me how to get into the desktop of my home server. (The ex475 doesn’t come with any peripherals, and the provided console software doesn’t have any kind of shortcut for desktop access).

After going through two people, including what sounded like someone at an outsourced Indian call center, I was told by the third that my simple question was “outside of his support boundary” and that if I wanted an answer, I would have to pay to talk to a product support specialist. Incredulously, I said no thanks. I managed to configure my router to support a Remote Desktop connection to the server on my own. I was able to run the .exe installer for Avast! Windows Home Server edition. (As far as I know, Avast! is the only vendor to be offering a security solution specifically for WHS).

There was of course nothing in the product’s manual that relates to the error I saw, although when I was flipping through, I noticed that HP had failed to properly proof the document before sending it to the printer. Take a look at this excerpt, Table 15 from the “Troubleshooting Tips for DRM” section of the manual:

Question/Issue: Why can I play and stream DRM content [from] my home computer but I can not stream it from my HP MediaSmart Server?

Answer/Resolution: The HP MediaSmart Server includes a media server for streaming iTunes music to PCs running iTunes through[out] the hous. See the section in the User’s Guide on iTunes.

For Windows Media DRM (WMDRM) content (protected .wma music and .wmv videos) the HP MediaSmart server does not support streaming of this content to DMAs at this time [do we want the “at this time”? we will support it after the February update; should we say that?]. Playing (and streaming) of WMDRM protected content requires that the device that is playing the content have a license for that content. When you downloaded the content to your PC, you also received a license to play that content on the PC. If you copy the files to the HP MediaSmart Server, you cannot copy or transfer the license to the server. The server must obtain its own license, and we do not provide for this feature in the current product.

As you can see from the bolded sentence in brackets above – which appears verbatim in the table! – somebody at HP forgot to remove a comment from the draft out of the copy that was sent to the printer. Oops. Pretty funny, too.

Perhaps more importantly, the paragraph above shows one of the fundamental flaws of digital restrictions management (DRM) – crippling a user’s freedom to move and back up their own legally acquired content (like a music library). HP’s MediaSmart Server cannot (yet) play or stream .wmas for people who have faithfully followed the encouragement of Microsoft and the RIAA and paid money for crippled digital music. You’re punished if you do what the record industry executives want you to do…funny how that works. I’m glad my music is DRM free.

Bottom line: if you’re thinking about spending several hundred bucks on a MediaSmart server, you want might want to consider another product preinstalled with the Windows Home Server OS, because HP’s MediaSmart Server software and its technical support have a good likelihood of giving you a headache, unless you’re really patient and enjoy solving computer problems.

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