HP z555 Digital Entertainment Center
If you like the idea of putting a Media Center PC into your living room but don't want an ugly midtower trashing the decor, you might consider the HP z555 Digital Entertainment Center. Looking more like a traditional home A/V component than a desktop PC, it makes a handsome addition to a high-tech entertainment center. Of course, it does a whole lot more than a stereo receiver or a DVD player, thanks to itsOS and some impressive hardware. The mix includes three TV tuners (one of them HD), a LightScribe DVD-recordable drive, and a powerful graphics card. At $1,999, the z555 isn't cheap, but it's one of the few Media Centers we've tested that can handle high-end gaming chores in addition to its TiVo-like multimedia duties.
Brushed black metal covers the front face of the z555, giving it a decidedly upscale appearance. Below the DVD drive, a two-line LCD screen delivers context-sensitive information, such as TV channel and song name. Unfortunately, the LCD is surprisingly dim, making it hard to read and therefore less useful than it should be. The case also keeps the system extremely quiet, though not totally silent.
Connection options abound on the HP z555 Digital Entertainment Center. In front, a pair of fold-down doors sit on either side of the LCD; one hides a 9-in-1 media-card reader and two USB 2.0 ports; the other hides an S-Video input, composite audio/video inputs, a mini-FireWire connection, and a microphone jack. There's even a full-size quarter-inch headphone jack for plugging in studio-caliber headphones. While the case has dedicated playback and shuttle buttons, it lacks a volume control.
The rear of the case resembles a high-end stereo receiver. HP has packed the z555 with nearly every audio and video option imaginable, including outputs for component video, optical digital audio, 7.1 surround sound, and more. Even better, every single port and media slot is clearly labeled.
There's not an open PCI expansion slot to be found inside the case, however, and don't plan on adding RAM without some fairly major surgery: the slots are blocked by drive cages. This is especially troublesome since HP doesn't offer any configuration options for the z555. If you decide you want more than the included 512MB of RAM, you'll have to go through the trouble of installing it yourself. Alternatively, you can look at the other models in HP's Digital Entertainment Center line.
We occasionally found ourselves wishing for 1GB, as the z555 seemed a bit sluggish at times. Although in benchmark tests it performed on a par with the similarly equipped, it lagged a behind HP's other media powerhouse, the , and , both of which include 600-series Pentium 4 processors. The z555's 3.0GHz Pentium 4 530 seems a bit stingy for a system in this price range. The HP m7070n was 9 percent faster, while the Gateway 832GM beat the z555 by 4 percent.
We can't argue with the rest of the system's specs, which include a 250GB hard drive, an internal bay for HP's optional Personal Media Drive (basically a portable hard drive that you can connect to other PCs via USB 2.0), an 802.11b/g antenna, and a double-layer LightScribe DVD burner. HP's LightScribe technology lets you burn grayscale art directly onto specially coated discs. The LightScribe media isn't cheap, at $13.99 for a 5-pack of DVD+R discs and $6.50 for CD-R discs, but it adds a professional, if time-consuming, touch to your discs.
The z555 uses Nvidia's midrange Half-Life 2 tests, placing it in a statistical tie with the Shuttle XPC G5 8300mc, which has the same card, but way ahead of HP's other Media Center machine, the m7070n, which scores an almost unplayable 18.1fps.PCI Express video card, which provides enough graphics muscle to run even the newest games at decent settings. It pushed 37.7 frames per second in our 1,024x768
The three TV tuners allow you to record two standard-definition shows and one high-definition show simultaneously. One major drawback is that the HD tuner doesn't work with set-top HD boxes. That's currently a limitation of the Windows Media Center OS. Instead, the z555 relies on an antenna, which you'll need to purchase separately, to receive over-the-air high-definition content. As long as you live in a major metropolitan area, you should find good reception and more than a few HD channels being broadcast.