HP z556 Digital Entertainment Center
Back in the age of acid-wash jeans, my dad brought home our first home computer: a MacPlus with 512 kilobytes of RAM. I would stay up late into the night playing Zork and Planetfall, all the light radiating from its small CRT screen keeping me warm. We kept the beige box in the spare bedroom of my house, far from our TV room. My parents claimed it was so I would not disturb them as they watched the nightly news, but, in my mind, it was just the opposite. For years, the computer and television were in separate rooms so that the use of one would not interfere with the use of the other. Now 512 K has turned into 512 mega-bytes or more, and PCs are begging to be near the TV. Only recently, while reviewing games for www.htgamer.com, have I started integrating my own PC into my home theater. But it is still a rather bulky, unattractive proposition to permanently move my computer to my equipment rack. HP has an aesthetically pleasing solution that can act as the source hub for the home theater of the future.
It's What's Inside That Counts
The innards of the z556 Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) consist of an Intel Pentium 4 processor 630 running at 3 gigahertz with 512 MB of PC3200 DDR SDRAM that is expandable to 2 GB. The 250-GB internal hard drive runs at 7,200 revolutions per minute. There is an internal DVD drive that handles DVD+R, DVD-R, DVD+RW, and DVD-RW. The DVD drive also has LightScribe, which allows you to etch an image on the top of the CD or DVD you just burned. An NVIDIA GeForce 6600 video card displays sharp high-definition resolutions through DVI, VGA, or component connections for high-definition televisions. You can connect a non-HD television using the aforementioned component connections, as well as S-video or RCA. The onboard sound card offers 7.1-channel analog or digital outputs, coaxial outputs, and optical outputs.
The "start here" instructions show exactly how to connect the DEC to your home theater system. Most of the necessary cables are included, save for component or enough RCA cables for the 7.1 hookups. It doesn't take too long to make all of the connections. Even if you have a complex home theater, the included documentation and the clear markings on the back of the unit prevent any potential problems.
It Doesn't Look Like a Computer
HP has designed the z556's case to fit into any home theater system without being an eyesore. With its black exterior and scrolling LCD window, it looks like any other piece of electronics. As with many receivers, there are a few doors that fold down to expose a myriad of empty bays. Along with the obligatory front A/V connections are card-reader slots for Flash memory to transfer your photos (or any other information). The last bay offers the ability to expand the unit's storage space. It accepts the HP Personal Media Drive (PMD), which is a removable hard drive that is hot-swappable. (You can connect and disconnect the PMD while the computer is still on.) They are available in up to 400 gigabytes and are perfect for backing up your information or to save all of your high-definition television recordings.
You read that correctly. The HP z556 DEC picks up and decodes over-the-air high-definition signals (antenna not included) and will record them to its hard drive. There is even the option of setting a timer to record a designated channel and time so you never have to miss Lost in HD again. The DEC will then play back your recorded shows in either 720p or 1080i (the two HD resolutions it offers). All other programming can use the enhanced- or standard-definition resolutions. This does, however, bring up an issue, which is also apparent with DVDs.
There are some DVDs that the DEC will play in 720p or 1080i over component video (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Special Edition for example). For the most part, though, the highest resolution the DEC offers for DVDs is 480p. If you put in a disc, such as the Superbit version of The Fifth Element, the DEC will tell you it is unable to play the DVD. So, whenever you go from watching HDTV to a DVD, chances are you will also have to change the DEC's output resolution. Thanks to Windows Media Center Edition, this is not a foolproof task and will take a small amount of computer savvy. Since there is no apparent way to change the resolution with the Media Center OS, you must minimize out to Windows using the keyboard and then either change the display properties (computer savvy) or run the NVIDIA setup wizard again. Either way, it'll take an extra minute or two. This isn't an issue specific to the HP Digital Entertainment Centers. It is an industry-wide problem with home theater PCs. If you can use DVI, it will negate this upconverting problem.
Windows Media Center does do some things right. The initial setup is easy and quick. The setup wizard walks you through the setup holding your hand the entire way, and, if any questions do come up, the manual is adept at answering them. There is even an optional setup step that helps correct your display's controls, such as brightness, contrast, color, and tint. The display setup, which you will become very familiar with if you need to change the resolution, allows you to select a resolution from 480i to 1080i. Then you can fine-tune the resolution to get rid of any overscan or underscan problems. The menu screen is clearly marked and easy to navigate, although, as I mentioned earlier with the resolution, some aspects are absent. The DEC will recognize CDs when you put them into the drive. If you connect to the Internet through either the built-in Ethernet or wireless cards, the z556 will download track and disc information from the Web. It will even display the cover art.
But It Still Sounds Like a Computer
Overall, HP does an admirable job turning this computer into a viable option for a home theater, but one tell-tale sign that it's a computer still remains. In order for a computer to run at optimal performance, it must stay cool. While fan noise is considerably better than it was with HTPCs from a year or two ago, it is still louder than most pieces in a home theater. If you have a loud projector, the z556's noise will probably not be an issue. If one of your primary concerns is a quiet atmosphere, a home theater PC might not yet be an option.
Personal computers have obviously become incredibly pervasive since the MacPlus. It is inevitable that they will become a staple of the home theater system. For the trendsetters out there, the HP z556 DEC is a great way to delve into the HTPC market. For everyone else, waiting until the bugs are worked out might be a safer bet.
• Storage expandability galore with the HP Personal Media Drive
• Records over-the-air HD television
• LightScribe gives a professional look to your burned DVDs