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Technology

There's No Place Like a Home Server

Automatically back up your family's computers while you sleep and never lose data again.

Wasn't the digital revolution supposed to make life simpler? Then why are the bits and bytes of our lives scattered among a jumble of electronics? Those shots from your Antarctic cruise might be on your desktop -- or your laptop, digital camera, or maybe even that missing memory card. And where are last year's tax return and your complete Tito Puente collection?

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What's called for is a home server, a device that regularly collects and stores every file. These squat, rectangular boxes (smaller than typical desktop computers) plug into a router to back up all the computers on your network automatically. At the least, they can save you from searching all over for a single file. At best, you're covered if a hard drive fries. The cost of this peace of mind: $300 to $700.

If you need immediate help, some good home servers are already on the market. But if you can afford to wait, an improved generation is only months away. This fall Microsoft plans to introduce Windows Home Server, a program that's billed as easier to use than current network-management software. Windows Home Server will come installed on servers from Hewlett-Packard and other vendors.

The home servers we tested are already pretty easy to set up. So if Windows Home Server lives up to its advertising, future devices will be a cinch. Here's what's involved in a typical setup: Connect the home server via Ethernet cable to your router. The server appears as another drive on the network. To schedule a backup, launch the server software and check the boxes beside the files and folders to copy.

More than backup

Having all your data backed up to a single place has advantages beyond organization and safety. You can use your home server as a media center, from which you can stream music and video, and with some models you can access your files remotely via the Web.

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Seagate's Maxtor Shared Storage II ($300 to $700, depending on storage capacity) not only backs up PCs and Macs but also supports streaming media to your TV or stereo. However, you need to buy a digital media receiver, such as the D-Link MediaLounge DSM-520 ($200). Together, they let you transmit media wirelessly from the Maxtor server. Although a digital media receiver works with most PCs and Macs, it's particularly useful with a home server, which holds copies of every song, video, movie and photo on your network. The Maxtor Shared Storage II also has two USB ports, handy for adding a shared network printer or an external drive.

But you probably won't need an extra drive -- at least not for a while. The MSS II has a storage capacity of up to 1 terabyte. That's 1,000 gigabytes, or enough space for 768,000 photos. The cheapest model has a 320GB capacity. But that still holds 252,000 photos, 22 hours of DVD video or 5,300 hours of music.

On the downside, the MSS II doesn't allow remote access to your files and programs via the Web. Other servers, such as the Maxtor Fusion ($640), do. But the Fusion doesn't offer streaming media.

Microsoft and its partners promise that servers with Windows Home Server software will allow both streaming media (with a receiver) and remote Web access. That means you'll be able to upload vacation photos to your server while still on vacation, freeing up your camera's memory for even more shots. You'll also be able to add more drives as needed. And if a PC on the network crashes, the software will be able to restore it to a point when it worked correctly, provided the problem is software-based.

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