- Easily expandable
- 2GB RAM
- WHS connector can be finicky
- Mysterious 'i' is vague
While the concept of servers is definitely not new, using them within the confines of the home definitely is. A couple of years ago, Microsoft released Windows Home Server, a consumer-oriented file server based on the same codebase as their successful Windows Server 2003 operating system. Acer’s new easyStore H340 packages WHS in an attractive, inexpensive format, but does it actually work? Read on for our full review.
The Acer Aspire easyStore H340 offers the following specifications:
- Processor: Intel Atom 230 @ 1.6GHz
- Memory: 2GB DDR2 RAM
- Hard drives: One 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 RPM drive
- Drive connectivity: Four hot-swappable SATA II ports
- Expandability: Five USB2.0 ports (one front, four rear), one eSATA port
- Networking: Gigabit Ethernet port
- Power supply: internal 200 watts
- File system: NTFS with dynamic storage pools
- Remote access: Microsoft RDP, Windows Home Server Console
- Dimensions: 7.87 x 7.09 x 8.35 inches (H x V x D)
- Fully compatible with Windows XP, Windows Vista and Windows 7
- Warranty: One-year limited parts and labor warranty
The H340 has a suggested retail price of $399, though some retailers offered it as low as $349 at the time of this writing.
Build and Design
Acer’s easyStore H340 is an interesting mix of characteristics. While it’s definitely designed for storage, with four SATA bays for hard drives, it has a very traditional PC underpinning. Inside of the easyStore H340 is a single core Intel Atom 230, similar to many of the low-cost nettops that have been coming out on the market over the past year. In addition to the Atom 230 is a full two gigabytes of RAM, ensuring that the server has more than enough memory to run WHS with a few add-ins. Low memory was a problem that plagued some of the first home servers put out by competitors, so it’s nice to see that Acer made sure it wouldn’t be a problem with their H340.
The Acer Aspire easyStore H340 is fairly compact, measuring only seven to eight inches on its sides. A little black cube, there’s not much in the way of wasted space. The unit is constructed of metal on five of its six sides, giving it a quality feel without adding too much weight. The front of the machine has a hinged door that provides access to the drive bays. Acer designed the bays to be easily accessible; they’re almost identical to the drive bays in the Seagate BlackArmor NAS that we recently reviewed. To remove (or insert) a drive, the orange tab is depressed, letting the panel swing to the right, where the whole bay slides out.
Acer helpfully added a label to the drive that the H340 comes with, warning users that it contains the Windows Home Server operating system and shouldn’t be removed while the system is powered on. While sage advice, it does point out an area in which Acer could improve the easyStore line. Instead of installing the operating system onto one of the included drives, putting it on a flash chip or small hard drive that isn’t easily user accessible would allow the use of all four drive bays for maximum storage. Moreover, users would be able to swap the hard drives as they please without worrying about taking the system down or corrupting the operating system install. Still, as criticisms go, it’s fairly minor.
The easyStore, like more traditional servers, is designed to run as a headless box. In this context, headless means that it doesn’t have any monitor attached; everything is done remotely. Since there’s no display showing status alerts or other issues, Acer was forced to be a little more creative in informing users of problems with the server or network as a whole. To this end there are a series of eight multicolor status LEDs on the front of the server. One is set next to each drive bay to show off the health of the drive in that particular section. The other four are on the left of the machine and give the status for power, network activity and hard drive access. There’s also a mysterious and hard to decipher lowercase ‘i’.
Most of the time these LEDs are blue. When the ‘i’ turns red, however, something’s wrong. What could it be? Well, almost anything, really. There could be a hardware failure, a software failure or even a computer on the server’s network that doesn’t have a virus scanner installed. You can go into the server console and tell it to ignore things like “J.R.’s computer doesn’t have a virus scanner installed THE SKY IS FALLING RUN FOR YOUR LIVES” and the ‘i’ will turn blue again. This isn’t permanent, however, and if the power is cut or the home server rebooted, you’ll need to go in and do it again.
The left and right of the easyStore have vents to bring in cool air across the drives. The Atom generally runs pretty cool, which is important considering that hot hard drives don’t last very long. There are a couple of small outtake vents in the rear of the machine, but the design robust basically means that the H340 can be put up pretty close to a wall or other backdrop without fear of the machine overheating. As long as there’s access to the side vents, the server should remain pretty cool.
Setup and Features
As stated earlier, Windows Home Server is based on Microsoft’s robust Windows Server 2003 operating system. This means that it’s got some pretty powerful underpinnings but thankfully Microsoft put a pretty consumer-friendly face on it. Setup is relatively easy, but can be finicky if there’s any unusual DNS or DHCP settings (read: it’s probably best to avoid trying to set this up on a work network if you want to avoid the wrath of your IT department or pulling out all of your hair).
To set things up, the easyStore H340 is plugged in and connected to a switch or router. Acer includes all the configuration software on three discs; the setup disc is inserted in a computer connected to the same network. It’s worth noting here that there are a few posts on the internet suggesting that Windows 7 clients may have a bit of trouble connecting to home servers; the server has to be setup and configured with a Windows XP or Vista client, then Windows 7 can be setup and configured normally. I’m not certain if that’s what happened with our review unit, but after setting it up normally on a computer with Windows Vista, the computer with Windows 7 could access it normally.
All of the administration for Windows Home Server is done through the Windows Home Server Console, a specialized remote desktop application. The console software is run on the server itself and accessed via a networked computer. Users can remote into the home server with a more traditional remote access application, but WHS will throw up a dire warning, letting you know that it’s possible to permanently corrupt the software (requiring a reinstall).
Inside of the console, consumers can set up backup policies and schedules. One nice aspect is that you can put computers on the network to sleep, and the easyStore will wake them up at a predetermined time, back them up and then try and put them back to sleep. This makes backups pretty painless, keeping them completely automated when you’re sleeping. Regular networked storage can handle that, however, and the easyStore H340 runs Windows Home Server, which means it can a lot more. In addition to handling the backups, WHS offers some aspects that traditional server-managed computers provide. There are a number of virus protection systems that can be run on the server and protect both the server and manage scanning and protection on WHS-connected computers. Acer includes special McAfee Total Protection, for example, as well as a six-month subscription. The McAfee software was what kept turning the ‘i’ red on the front of our server.
There are a large number of add-ins available that users across the internet have written themselves. Microsoft maintains a site listing a few of the popular ones and several communities have sprung up around the idea. The plug-in architecture does an excellent job of expanding the functionality of Windows Home Server in much the same way that Mozilla’s Firefox web browser uses community-derived extensions. Add-ins are available for uTorrent, a popular BitTorrent client, UPS administration, disk defragmentation tools, home automation clients and more. This expandability is where the real power of WHS lies.
Should something go wrong with your networked computers, discs are available to recover your system backups over the network from the home server. Likewise, a disc is included to rebuild the WHS if something goes wrong on its end. One of the best parts about Windows Home Server is the fashion in which it stores data. Microsoft implemented a system of dynamic storage pools that can be resized at whim, letting users choose between a lot of storage space and a little redundant storage, or a lot of secure redundant storage with less overall space. Moreover, all files are stored clearly in NTFS. If something goes catastrophically bad with the Windows Home Server, there’s no proprietary RAID file system blocking users from recovering their files. The hard drives can be removed, installed in a working computer, and accessed like normal drives, including the ability to just copy entire files onto a second drive.
Benchmarking networked drives can be difficult, since many standard programs, like HDTune or Atto, suffer from caching problems. This means that read and write speeds can be drastically overreported, going past even the theoretical limits of the network. Utilities like IOZone do a much better job, though even they are a little unrealistic, given their very small overhead compared to the typical windows file copy dialog. To that end, since 99%+ of users will be using this server with traditional Windows, we ran file copy tests using standard Explorer. Performance was up there among the fastest NAS units we’ve had in for review so far, with write speeds clocking in around 35MB/s and read speeds over 38MB/s. This is more than enough to use the easyStore as an HD media server, streaming it to devices like Media Center HTPCs or Xbox360s.
Power, Heat and Noise
One of the advantages of a Windows Home Server is that it allows users to back up a large amount of storage without keeping power hungry desktops running 24 hours a day. In our tests, the Acer Aspire easyStore H340 pulled down between 35 and 38 watts of electricity on average and still drew one watt when powered off. This is more than typical strict NAS units, but less than the average full desktop computer, which is about where the easyStore lies in terms of functionality. The unit ran very cool, without putting out much heat; this might change when several more drives are added. Fans run pretty much constantly, though quietly. The noise is unobtrusive, certainly, but it would be noticeably if a room were otherwise completely silent.
Reading around the internet, reception of Microsoft’s Windows Home Server is favorable overall, with some users going so far as to say that it’s the best product they’ve put out next to Windows itself. Frankly, I’m inclined to agree. The software is pretty easy to use (though complete novices may have some trouble and confusion in setting things up for the first time) and after it’s configuration is basically forgettable. Shares appear as network accessible drives, and user accounts prevent unauthorized persons from gaining access to specific files. WHS actually recommends setting your username and password to be the same on your client computer as on your server, since the shares become completely transparent, without needing to constantly put account information in.
The Acer Aspire easyStore H340 is one of the best implementations of Windows Home Server we’ve seen. Running off of Intel’s nigh-ubiquitous low-power Atom processor, the system is attractive and sleek, easy to service and easy to expand. Four drive bays allow for several terabytes of storage, while extra USB and eSATA ports allow users to expand and even backup the server itself for extreme redundancy. At somewhere close to $400 it may seem pricey for one terabyte of storage. It’s features, expandability and ease of use, however, mean that it’s still a bargain. If you’re looking for more storage at home, the H340 is hard to pass up.
- Easily expandable
- 2GB RAM
- WHS connector can be finicky
- Mysterious ‘i’ is vague