There are good reasons to make the files you store on your home computers available on the Web; If you're at work and you need a file stored back at home, if you're traveling with a laptop and want to listen to a music file someone else in your house has, if you want to share your photos or videos with friends or family.
These are all easy to do, if your home network is visible from the Internet.
Of course, there are security issues. You don't want your entire hard disk laid bare on the open Web, the equivalent of leaving your front door unlocked and putting a big "rob me" sign in your window.
But there are easy ways to put your content on the Web so you can access it yourself or share it with others. Two relatively new products showcase the extremes of this. First, there's the new PogoPlug (review), a drop-dead simple way to make any old hard disk Web-accessible. Second, there's HP's line of Microsoft-powered MediaSmart Servers, recently updated with new software, that will put your files online in several different ways at once.
Let's look at the simple, low-cost, easy-to-set-up solution first: The PogoPlug. This is a $99 device into which you plug in your own USB hard drive or memory stick. It also connects to your home network. You put software on your PCs or Macs to make the drive appear just like it's plugged directly into your system. This new drive also gets its own Web address, and on that site you get a nice interface where you can see all the files you've put on it. The Web site automatically gives you links to show just your photos (in a nice slideshow), you movies, or your music (which you can play directly from the site). It also lets you view media on your iPhone (more devices to come).
Big advantages to using PogoPlug include the capability to put any hard drive, even one that's already got tons of photos or music on it, on the Web just by plugging it in. Putting new files on the system can be done as fast as your local home network allows, which is generally much faster than uploading images to a typical Web-based storage or sharing service. Likewise, you can take your files off the Web by unplugging your drive -- something you cannot do with assurance on a Web sharing service.
PogoPlug doesn't come with much in the way of utility software, though. If you want to use it as a backup drive, you'll need to provide your own software. For PC users, I recommend SyncBack SE.
Compared to the PogoPlug, which is the Zodiac inflatable boat of online storage solutions, the HP MediaSmart server is a battleship. It costs more (models start at $599 list with 750GB of easily-expandable storage), does more, and takes more time to learn how to use. But considering what it does, it's approachable and remarkably flexible if you want to make your home network useful to you from anywhere in the world.
The MediaSmart server line started out in 2007 as a system for backing up your home computers, which it still does extremely well. Just plug it in, install the software on your home PCs, and every night they will get backed up to the machine. The product can even be used to recover a Windows computer from a catastrophic failure, the so-called "bare-metal restore." I had a hard drive failure on my home PC a few weeks ago and used my MediaSmart server for just this purpose after I put a new hard drive in it. It worked exactly as it should have.
But today's version of the MediaSmart does a lot more than backup. There's a collection of utilities on the device that help you manage your media files so you can see them from anywhere.
If you've got multiple Windows computers on your home network, the HP's Media Collector service may be a godsend. It scans all your computers regularly, copies over their media files, and sorts them all into folders by media type, while removing duplicates. So if your wife (I'm looking at you, Jennifer) is always on your case about where the latest photo of the kid is that you took on your camera, not hers, you can just point her at the MediaSmart directory and relax.
The server does a similar thing with music. It will collect all your music, and it acts as an iTunes server, which means any computer on your home network that has iTunes will be able to play the tracks directly. In my house, we use this feature to give the kitchen computer (an old laptop) access to all the music we've recorded on my big desktop PC and assorted other laptops.
A media streamer service also gives your server its own Web address from which you can view any of your files even if you're not on your local network. It works for any computer with a browser, and Windows Mobile smartphones. A related service on the server, the Video Converter, crawls all the video files on your device regularly and when necessary makes versions of them that can play on non-PC devices, like game consoles and mobile phones. The server can also automatically update online photo sharing services like Flickr and Picasa Web Albums with photos from your library.
The services all work as advertised, but they work differently and they overlap, which makes configuring a MediaSmart frustrating. Which do you use? Which do you ignore? You really do need to be a geek to take advantage of everything this box offers. I own the previous version of the MediaSmart server and even I got lost in the options.
(One big plus with the new models of the MediaSmart line is that they now back up Macs over the network. The previous versions didn't. However, they won't do a bare-metal Mac restore; you can recover any files but if your computer crashes you'll have to get it up and running yourself before you can get the data back from the server. Only Apple's own Time Capsule can do that over a home network. Also, none of the HP's media aggregation technologies work on Mac content.)
There are products between the extremes these devices represent, such as the $229 Western Digital My Book, that give you both local and over-the-Web access to files. But if you want to put a hard drive on the Web as well as on your local network, nothing beats the PogoPlug for ease of use. If you also want your shared storage hardware to do more work for you, the HP MediaSmart will likely do everything you want, and then some.
By Rafe Needleman