|Hewlett-Packard z556 Digital Entertainment Center|
|Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs|
|Written by Adrienne Maxwell|
|Thursday, 01 June 2006|
Behind HDTV, “convergence” is one of the most bandied-about buzzwords in the consumer electronics industry. Companies large and small have deluged the market with products designed to meld the PC and A/V environments, from tuner cards that turn your computer into a DVR to media players that let you play your MP3 collection through your A/V system to standalone Internet-video players that connect directly to your TV. If you’ve already got a computer that you’re quite fond of, buying all of these separate devices might be the way to go. However, if you’re starting from scratch or looking to upgrade, why not purchase one product that does it all? And trust me, Hewlett-Packard’s z556 Digital Entertainment Center is just such a product.
The poster child for converged entertainment, $1,499 z556 incorporates HDTV tuning, a DVR, a DVD/CD recorder, an FM radio, a wireless router, and a Windows XP PC into one 24-and-a-half-pound box that can sit in your equipment rack. To support all of that functionality, the system uses an Intel Pentium 4 3.0-gigahertz processor, the Intel High Definition Audio sound card, the NVIDIA GeForce 6600 graphics card, 512 megabytes of DDR SDRAM and a 250-gigabyte hard drive. To increase storage capacity, HP sells separate, pull-out Personal Media Drives, starting at 160 GB for $190. A remote control and wireless keyboard are included.
You’ve heard of sensory overload? Prepare to experience owner’s manual overload when you first open the z556’s box and are faced with a 188-page user’s guide, a 145-page software guide, a TV/Display set-up guide, a warranty and support guide, a wireless LAN installation guide and a “Start Here” set-up guide. Don’t worry, HP is just covering its bases. Should you need an explanation of just about any function, you will find it in one of these books, but the “Start Here” booklet provides the basics to get up and running quickly. Initial hookup isn’t too different from any other A/V device. Begin by choosing which video and audio connections you want to run to your TV, computer monitor and/or receiver. On the video end, the back panel sports one of each: DVI, VGA, component video, S-video and composite video. Audio options include one optical digital, one coaxial digital and a set of 7.1-channel analog outputs. HP supplies DVI, S-video, coaxial digital audio and analog RCA cables. Next, attach your HDTV antenna to the clearly labeled RF input on the back panel; there’s a second RF input for cable signals, or you can use the A/V inputs and control your cable/satellite box via the two IR blaster ports (cable included). The back panel also houses a stereo analog input, four additional USB 2.0 ports, a six-pin FireWire port and an FM antenna input.
At first glance, the z556’s front panel appears to consist of nothing more than a large LCD display, some transport controls and a lot of brushed-aluminum black space. That’s because the real meat is hidden behind several flip-down panels. Above the row of transport controls sits the drawer for the DVD SuperMulti drive, which can play back and record in the +R/RW and –R/RW formats. To the sides are various ports for connecting peripheral devices: a set of A/V inputs, a four-pin FireWire port, headphone and microphone jacks, two USB 2.0 ports and four memory card slots to accommodate the Secure Digital, xD, Smart Media, MMC, Compact Flash, Microdrive and Memory Stick formats. A final slot sits ready to accommodate one of those Personal Media Drives I mentioned.
The first time you power up the unit, it takes almost two minutes for the computer to initialize itself and launch a series of easy-to-follow wizards to set up the XP operating system, video output and finally the Media Center itself. The NVIDIA video set-up is a new addition to the current round of Digital Entertainment Centers – and it’s a good one. It asks you to select an output resolution (480i, 480p, 720p, or 1080i), then automatically senses the type of cable you connected. I used DVI. If you select 720p or 1080i output, the wizard lets you expand or contract the frame to perfectly fill your screen. About midway through the set-up process, you’re asked to configure the Internet connection; while it’s not necessary to connect the z556 to the Internet, a high-speed connection will help you exploit its full potential. Your options include direct connection to a modem or router via Ethernet, wireless 802.11b/g connection to an existing network, or by turning your new Media Center PC into a wireless access point using the supplied CD and set-up manual.
The final steps in the set-up process fall under the category of Optional Set-up – an interesting label, since it includes a few mildly important items like setting the audio output to match your system, tuning in over-the-air HDTV and/or cable channels and downloading program-guide information. Who’s going to purchase this and not opt to use the internal TV and DVR functions? With my Terk HDTVi indoor antenna attached, the z556 tuned in 24 local DTV stations, including all of the major networks. It also tuned in my digital cable channels 2 through 99 without a box. Checking HDTV signal strength and deleting unwanted channels are easy to do through the Media Center interface, although the system froze several times in this particular menu. I noticed the same problem with the previous z555 unit and I must say that, while I accept the occasional crash in the computer realm, I’m not crazy about having to reboot my home theater system.
Navigating the Media Center
The Media Center launches automatically each time you start up or wake up the z556. Through menus labeled My TV, My Music, My Pictures and Play DVD, the interface provides a straightforward, non-computer-like way to perform entertainment functions, such as watching and recording TV, listening to and ripping CDs, or importing and viewing photos. Content is neatly organized, with thumbnail images and lists to guide you at every turn. Enter My Music, for instance, and you’ll see album covers for every CD you’ve imported, as well as the one you just popped into the disc drive. The system retrieves song and artist info almost instantaneously via the Internet. Photos are automatically grouped into folders by the date you imported them, with thumbnails to remind you what’s in each folder. You can perform most basic tasks without ever having to leave the Media Center, including editing photos and creating movies through the muvee AutoProducer. Behind the scenes, the z556 is organizing all of the music, photos and video files into the appropriate PC folders, which makes it easier for more advanced users to edit content directly through Windows XP using pre-loaded software like Windows Movie Maker and Sonic MyDVD.
As easy as the Media Center interface is to navigate, I liked the fact that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time wading through menus. That’s because the system responds automatically when you insert a disc or connect a peripheral device. Insert a store-bought CD or DVD into the drive and an onscreen icon appears, asking if you want to play it. Insert a blank disc and the icon asks if you want to create a CD/DVD, directing you to a menu from which to select the content you want to burn. Connect your camera to a USB port, and a View Pictures icon appears. The remote further simplifies the process with buttons that take you directly to various activities like TV, DVD and Pictures. Unfortunately, it isn’t backlit and uses a lot of identically-shaped dark buttons on a black base, making it a challenge to use in the dark. The remote is primarily intended for use with the Media Center, while the wireless keyboard allows you to jump quickly from PC to Media Center and back again.
Minimize the Media Center and you’re left with a well-endowed Windows XP computer. All of the content you added via the My menus, as I like to call them – My TV, My Music, My Pictures – is automatically added to the Windows Media Player. If you download protected music to the player, it will show up in Media Center as well. For those of you who use iTunes instead of Windows Media, the z556 comes pre-loaded with the iTunes software; you can access your iTunes library through the Media Center via a menu called HP Tunes.
Television and Movies
The My TV interface is well conceived, with easy access to live TV, recorded TV and the 14-day program guide. Again, the remote includes dedicated buttons for these functions to expedite the navigation process, as well as transport controls like play and pause to time-shift live TV. I especially like the program guide: it groups the HDTV channels together, provides episode information for any program you highlight and keeps the live TV show in a window at the bottom left of the screen. Click on any program in the guide and you’re given the option to record the show once or repeatedly, with multiple start/stop time options and quality settings (except for HDTV programs, which are obviously only available at the highest quality and thus take up more space on the hard drive). The entire DVR process rivals the ever-popular TiVo interface in its ease of use.
Out of the box, the z556 renders an exaggerated image, with oversaturated colors. The Media Center set-up menu offers tests patterns that help you adjust your TV to suit this source (the same ones found on the HDTV Calibration Wizard DVD). I opted to use the test patterns on my trusted Video Essentials DVD instead and was able to adjust color, contrast and brightness to produce a more natural-looking picture that benefits both TV and DVD signals. However, the tests also revealed that the z556 crushes blacks and whites, which means you won’t see all of the detail in images that are either very dark or very bright. The overall resolution is very good. InterVideo’s WinDVD is the DVD engine for the Media Center; within the InterVideo software, you can change the processing mode (film, video, smart and auto) and reconfigure the audio settings. The default processing mode is auto, which did the best job with both film- and video-based material, rendering a mostly clean picture with only a few deinterlacing artifacts.
General DVD navigation is intuitive, but the remote is missing some buttons that the more-advanced user may want, like top menu, audio and angle. Hey, HP had to sacrifice something to make room for all of those dedicated buttons I previously lauded. I would’ve liked another speed in the forward/reverse functions as well. The first speed moves too slowly, the second too quickly – which is especially frustrating when using the DVR function to forward through commercials. (Oops, did I say that? Who would do such a thing?)
Traditional TV and DVD content isn’t the only video material at your disposal. As content providers make more movies and TV shows available for download, true convergence devices like this one have an advantage. With the z556, you don’t have to view video downloads in a small QuickTime or Windows Media window, nor do you have to take special steps to view the content on a TV. All you have to do is make sure that you place downloaded video in the My Videos folder in Windows. The next time you cue up the Media Center, it will be waiting for you in the menu of the same name. The interface is compatible with Windows Media, MPEG-1/-2 and QuickTime, but unfortunately not the MPEG-4 version that iTunes uses for its video downloads (you can view these videos full-screen through iTunes, though). Although my heart will always belong to the Mac, I was excited to have this Windows XP system in the house, if only because it allowed me to visit a few Windows-only video download sites like CinemaNow.com, which lets you rent or buy movies for download around the same time they’re available on DVD. I also downloaded some WMV HD clips from the Microsoft website. The basic Windows Media file from CinemaNow looked pretty good full-screen, although some compression was visible in solid colors. The WMV HD files looked fantastic.
Don’t forget that the z556’s drive is also a DVD/CD burner, so you can archive recorded TV and downloaded video content to DVD, provided copy restrictions allow for it. (High-definition TV recordings won’t fit on a standard DVD.) LightScribe technology lets you burn customized labels directly onto suitably equipped discs. The interface doesn’t provide a constant indicator of the DVD burner’s progress, but you can pull it up by going directly into the Create CD/DVD menu.
It is difficult to properly configure video output if you use component video output. The NVIDIA setup wizard will let you select 720p or 1080i output; however, because of copy protection, most store-bought DVDs won’t play in high-def through component video. This means you need to set the device for 480i or 480p; unfortunately, both settings display DVDs in the wrong aspect ratio. Directly through the computer interface, you can set component video resolution at either 720 by 480 or 640 by 480. This is fine for an EDTV, but HDTV owners will have to use their TV’s aspect ratio adjustments to show DVD content in the correct shape, which can be tiresome if you watch a lot of movies.
Also in the video department, the z556’s internal HDTV tuner struggles to display a consistently stable over-the-air signal. At times, the signal was perfectly smooth, but it had a greater propensity to stutter and hiccup than other tuner/DVR combos I’ve reviewed, even when the system showed that signal strength was strong. On one occasion, when the tuner was having a lot of trouble with the local ABC channel, I disconnected the Terk antenna and plugged it directly into the HDTV. The TV’s internal tuner was able to display a stable image with the antenna in the same location. I alluded earlier to the system crashes I experienced in the tuner menu. This being a computer (and, more specifically, a Windows) device, the occasional crash, freeze or similar performance quirk was part of the equation.
Despite all of the talk, convergence hasn’t really taken hold with the general consumer. As easy as the Media Center is to use on a daily basis, I suspect many people will be overwhelmed by all it can do. On the other end of the spectrum, performance limitations will likely prevent the hard-core A/V enthusiast from replacing his or her DVD player or HD DVR with the z556. So, for now, HP must be content with a target audience of computer-savvy digital-media enthusiasts. As TV and the Internet grow ever more entwined, this audience may experience a growth spurt and the z556 will be ready to show them an easy way to enjoy their newly-downloaded content.
As for me, well, I’m a digital-media junkie who can spend hours in front of a computer, burning CD mixes, editing photos and surfing the Internet for video downloads. So I had a lot of fun with z556, enough that I was willing to overlook some of its performance oddities. At one point during the review, I was ripping a CD to the hard drive, importing MiniDV footage to edit into a DVD, downloading a movie from the Internet (legally, I promise) and viewing a slide show in My Pictures – all at the same time. That’s what I call multitasking. Maybe I won’t replace my reference home theater equipment with the z556, but I might be willing to buy a larger gear rack to make some more room.