I picked up a copy of Windows Home Server a couple of weeks back, saw it on Overclockers and ordered it with a new 500GB hard drive, I was originally going to have this finished a day or two after installing, but things got in the way.

Microsoft announced Windows Home Server back at the CES in January, it was very well received and I managed to get onto the beta program a couple of months later, so I come at this review having used it for 6 months or so already.

Windows Home Server is aimed towards people with 2 of more PCs (a maximum of 10 clients are officially supported). Its main three features I would say are:

1) Network storage, it exposes standard network shares for file storage, you can create your own, change which users have permissions etc. If you have multiple hard drives you can set it to duplicate all of your files to protect against a hard disk failure. From an end user perspective all the hard disks will appear as one headless drive, and Windows Home Server will manage things in the background.

2) Backup, with the Connector software you can backup your computers to Home Server (which actually uses surprisingly little space as its cluster based backup not file based). By default it will backup the entire machine, so in the case of drive failure you can simply restore the whole image to a new hard drive.

3) Online access to your files, being a stripped down version of SBS 2003, it's got IIS and it does get used to provide a web front end to access all the files on the network shares. You can also use remote desktop to connect to the Home Server itself, or any PC on the network (Home Server will forward the packets to get around NATs). It supports uPnP, so if your router supports it too it can set all this up automatically. You even get a sub domain name to help locate your machine so you don't need to remember your IP address.

It also supports a number of other things, media sharing like WMP11 or Windows Media Connect, you can stream media to another device like an Xbox 360.

Also it allows 3rd parties to develop add-ons which can provide more functionality. There are already plenty of them released; one for example uses the web front end to make a public or private photo gallery. Another is a bit torrent client.

To read more about what Home Server does, check out the Microsoft's website.

On with my experiences...

It was installed on my server machine in the cupboard, which was formally running the beta version of Windows Home Server, and prior to that Windows XP and Windows 2000.

The specs are as follows, 1.4Ghz Athlon Thunderbird, clocked at 1.0Ghz (at 1.4Ghz it crashes due to the 180 watt PSU), with 1GB of RAM, an 11 year old 2MB video card and a bunch of hard drives.

This is also the machine which runs Windows SBS 2003 in a Virtual Machine, which I use to handle my e-mail, which I wrote about in detail here. So although the machine does have 1GB of RAM, half of that is set aside for SBS 2003.

There were no problems encountered using Virtual Server on the final version of Windows Home Server. So although this product looks simple and is geared towards anybody using it, you can still log on to the desktop and do some really powerful things with it.

The OEM package that I had came with three discs, 1 DVD being the actual install disc, and 2 CDs one containing the Connector software for the clients, and 1 containing a bootable disc that you can use to recover a machine from a backup.

Installing it was simple enough, it uses the same installer as Windows XP and Server 2003, although it does have some new swishy Vista style graphics. It took may be a little over an hour on my machine in total.

Once installed, you need to give it a password, this is used to login to the client-side control panel provided by the Connector application, dubbed the Windows Home Server Console.

Using this, you can setup individual machines, create new user accounts - typically these should match usernames and passwords on the client machines. Create shared folders, and see the storage pool to add or remove hard drives to the machine.

Under settings we find more advanced options.

We can alter almost everything from here, what time backups start and end, required password strengths, and setting up remote access. Speaking of which this is the webpage you're greeted with when attempting to login.

Once logged in, you can access any of your files stored on the server. You can upload and download files over the web front end, open the Console over remote desktop, or connect to the server's desktop, or any other machines on your network.

It also supports instance search so you can quickly find anything you're looking for, this also works locally on the network using Vista's search functionality.

Pros: It's simple and does what it says without any hassle. Yet if you're more of a power user and want to install an FTP client, or DHCP server - although it isn't an officially supported scenario you can go ahead and do that.

Plenty of good addons released so far, no doubt with plenty more under development.

System requirements are low, and work on 5 year old hardware easily.

Cons: No Connector support for 64-bit Windows yet, so you lose the fancy backup features and the ability to access the Console. But the network shares still work fine, and if you really need to, you can use remote desktop to connect to the server and access the Console from there. There are some ways around this, but I hear this is currently under development.

Considering all of that, I give Windows Home Server 5 out of 5. Highly recommended to anybody who wants a backup solution for multiple PCs, or who wants an uber-network attached storage device. You can buy it in both OEM form for hardware you've already got or you can buy it on machines like the HP Media SmartServer.