At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, one of the big watchwords was “convergence.” As you’ll read in our comprehensive show report in the next issue, convergence products were everywhere, including lots of mediacenter PCs. The only problem with most of them is that they are, well, PCs. Who wants to come home after a long day slaving over a hot PC at work only to have to boot up another PC to watch TV or play a movie?
Hewlett-Packard’s solution to this problem is a series of products called Digital Entertainment Centers (DECs), which are PCs encased in consumerelectronics- like enclosures. Also, the HP DECs boot directly into the Windows XP Media Center shell, which isolates users from Windows itself. Of course, you can get to Windows if you need to, but the goal is to minimize that necessity.
For this review, I asked for the z556 DEC ($1500), which is HP’s less-expensive model. Also available is the z558 ($2200), which adds more RAM, a bigger hard drive, a faster processor, a 300GB Personal Media Drive, and so on, but both models share the same basic functionality. I used a SIM2 HTL40 LINK LCD flat panel as the display, which worked well for the most part. As we’ll see, however, the gap between the PC and consumerelectronics worlds has yet to be completely bridged.
The z556 is based on the Intel Pentium 4 processor running at 3GHz with 512MB of RAM (expandable to 2GB) and a 250GB hard disk. Of course, no matter how much hard-disk capacity you have, it’s never enough. So the DEC has a bay in the front to accommodate HP’s Personal Media Drive, a removable, hot-swappable hard disk that is currently available in 300GB ($280) and 400GB ($350) capacities. This is a very cool idea.
The DVD drive is of the SuperMulti variety, meaning it can write to DVD±R/RW as well as CD-R/RW. Not only that, it includes LightScribe technology, which lets it print labels directly onto compatible discs. Unfortunately, it cannot read DVDAudio or SACD discs, nor can it take advantage of HDCD-encoded CDs. Sony is understandably reluctant to allow SACD decoding within a computer, where the digital data could be hijacked. According to HP, some of their home PCs have used a Creative Labs sound card that can decode DVD-Audio discs, but the DEC does not use such a sound card. Interestingly, HD programs can be copied to DVD, during which they are downconverted to standard definition.
Video output is handled by an NVIDIA GeForce 6600 graphics card that can accommodate widescreen HDTV up to 1080p as well as many computer-centric resolutions up to 1920x1200p. The card, together with the software decoder, performs the MPEG decoding, deinterlacing, and scaling computations so the signal is sent to the display at its native resolution. Video outputs include DVI, VGA, and component as well as Svideo and composite (though why you’d want to use the last two is beyond me). DVD playback is upconverted for the DVI and VGA outputs, but not component.
On the audio side of things, the DEC implements Intel’s new High Definition Audio standard, which supports up to eight channels of 192kHz/32-bit audio. Coax and optical digital audio outputs are joined by a 7.1-channel analog-audio output.
One of the DEC’s primary applications is recording television programs on the hard drive, turning it into a digital-video recorder (DVR). To that end, it has one ATSC tuner and two NTSC tuners with separate RF (radio-frequency) inputs, which means the DEC can record up to three different programs simultaneously.
Other rear-panel inputs include two for external A/V sources, one for a 2- channel audio source, and another RF input for FM radio. On the front panel is another A/V input as well as a FireWire input for a camcorder. All of these sources (except FM radio) can be recorded on the hard disk.
Computer connections include four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port, and one Ethernet port. Also onboard is an 802.11a/b/g wireless adapter to facilitate wireless streaming through a home network. A 9-in-1 memory-card slot lets you insert any type of media card to view and copy your photos, video, etc.
As a computer, the DEC includes a full-sized QWERTY keyboard that communicates with the unit wirelessly via RF. When it is first unpacked, it must be linked to the DEC, but there is no indication of how to do this in the “Start Here” documentation. I happened to find a diagram on the bottom of the keyboard that revealed how to do it. The keyboard also includes a small trackball in the upper right and two “mouse” buttons in the upper left as well as a row of dedicated function buttons across the top.
As a consumer-electronics device, the DEC also includes a normal-looking IR (infrared) remote that can be used to navigate and control the Media Center application. The layout is reasonably straightforward, but except for the MEDIA CENTER button— which, logically enough, takes you to the Media Center shell—all the buttons are shades of gray on a black background, and none of them are illuminated, making it difficult if not impossible to operate the remote in the dark.