HP holds the distinction as the only mainstream PC vendor with a full-fledged, living room component-style computer. Its Digital Entertainment Center z560 is the most recent update to HP's DEC line of Media Center PCs, and although its specs are out-of-date for a regular desktop, its capabilities and value are unmatched by so-called home theater PCs from most other vendors. You'll find a few other companies with VCR-looking PCs in the DEC z560's $1,799 ballpark, but none of those are as fully functional as this one. Conversely, you can find higher-end media PCs with Blu-ray or HD-DVD drives, but those are also more expensive. We still don't believe there's a perfect home theater PC out there at any price point, but because the DEC z560 strikes such an attractive balance between affordability and features, we recommend it, especially if you're willing to put off picking a side in the HD-movie war.
The exterior of the HP Digital Entertainment Center Z560 hasn't changed from the z555 we reviewed last summer. It still has the same slick, black brushed-metal case with glossy black-plastic accents. The DEC z560 doesn't come with a traditional mouse, instead it has a wireless keyboard with a trackball. Scrolling around the Windows screen with the trackball will definitely take some getting used to, but it's not terrible. We found the keys, the media play buttons, and the cursor movement all very responsive. HP also includes a standard-issue Windows Media Center remote, if you'd rather minimize your coffee table hardware even further.
The front of the DEC z560 is unchanged from that of the z555, for better or for worse. We love the Personal Media Drive storage bay, which can accept HP's portable, removable hard drives (the drive itself is not included). The Personal Media Drive should not be confused with HP's newly released Pocket Media Drive, a smaller, more expensive model that's easier to carry around than the Personal version but also has less storage capacity.
We also like the front panel the 9-in-1 media card reader and the front panel inputs. HP smartly places plug-ins for S-Video, composite video, and standard headphones, as well as mini FireWire and two USB 2.0 jacks, right up front for easy access. What we don't like is that one of our complaints about the z555 went unheeded. The front-panel LCD is great because it shows mode-appropriate information, be it the current TV channel, the artist and album info, or the chapter of the DVD you're watching. The problem is that you can barely see what's on the screen because the output is so dim. The flipside is that at least the DEC z560 has a front panel display. The last component-style PC we reviewed, the VidaBox Slim, not only didn't have a mini LCD but the configuration we reviewed back in August also cost $1,000 more.
Because it comes with such a variety of audio and video inputs and outputs, the DEC z560 will connect seamlessly to most modern televisions. Its custom GeForce 7600 GS graphics card provides an HDMI video output, and HP is kind enough to throw in an HDMI cable, as well as a DVI adapter. The graphics card also has full HDCP support, so you can be sure it will output at true HD resolutions. Between the HDMI and the component and VGA outputs, you get a broad selection of display options. Equally, HP gives you a number of audio output choices as well, with a full array of analog 7.1 outputs, as well as coaxial and optical digital outs.
The computing components of the DEC z560 leave room for improvement, but they should be adequate for watching standard-definition DVDs and video content, flipping through photo slide shows, or managing your iTunes library. The key specs include a Pentium D 925 processor, 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM, a 300GB hard drive, and the GeForce 7600 GS graphics card we mentioned earlier. The hard drive is big enough, and the graphics card is powerful enough, but you might want more memory, especially if you plan to upgrade to Windows Vista. Upgrading most of the hardware in the z560 is difficult due to the tightly cramped interior and the custom parts. You do have room for two more memory sticks if you want to add them, though.
Our biggest gripe is the CPU. The Pentium D 925 is a generation-old dual-core chip that's known for running hot. It's not like you need a superfast chip for day-to-day media playback, but as you can see from our performance tests, the DEC z560 doesn't exactly shine while performing basic digital media editing. Still, it's not terrible, and we imagine that the case and the custom components aren't cheap, so opting for an older chip likely helps HP keep the price down.
We actually don't think it's the worst thing in the world that the z560 has only a standard-definition DVD drive in it (complete with dual-layer burning and LightScribe capabilities). Adding either an HD-DVD, which you'll find in HP's Pavilion Media Center m7690n desktop, or a Blu-Ray drive to this system would undoubtedly drive up the cost, and we're not that excited about the idea of shelling out for a particular standard only to find that it has become this century's Betamax. Perhaps a drive in the winning format and a more modern dual-core CPU will come in the next update to the DEC.
We've come to consider wireless networking a key feature of a home theater PC, and we're glad to see that HP includes an 802.11a/b/g adapter in the DEC z560. Going wireless limits the number of other wires and devices cluttering up your living room. You also get a Gigabit Ethernet jack for wired network connections. We should also add that HP has done a great job with the variety of ports on the back of the unit, labeling everything clearly. Even better, HP threw in several different manuals that explain in understandable terms how to connect the DEC z560 to a variety of different TVs and audio systems. Adding a PC to your home theater can be complicated, and HP has done its part to minimize the confusion.
The last major feature we'll talk about is the TV tuners. The DEC z560 has three of them, two analog and one over-the-air HD. We haven't seen a TV tuner in a PC that we can say we truly like. Your TV and your cable box work just fine together, and the image quality they produce is generally much better than what you get from a PC-based tuner card. The benefit of running your TV signal to your PC is essentially free digital video recording, but in most cases you can't program your PC to record TV ahead of time because of the encrypted cable signal. And over-the-air HD is still an inferior experience to cable-based HD, both contentwise and in reception reliability. If you're going to add tuners, you might as well go all out like HP has here. With three of them, you can actually record multiple shows at once, which, presuming you have the time to get through all of that content, can be pretty useful.
Support for the HP DEC z560 is comparable to that of HP's Pavilion desktops. You get one year of standard parts-and-labor coverage, as well as 24/7 phone support. HP's Web site has a complete set of resources for the system, including all of the manuals, plus FAQs and other resources. You'll want to refer directly to HP's support page for graphics card drivers as well, because HP customizes Nvidia's standard ForceWare drivers with specific color temperature settings to benefit video quality. The regular ForceWare drivers on Nvidia's Web site will override those settings.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)