Last week, HP unveiled the most living room-friendly PC we've ever seen. The $1,900 HP z545 Digital Entertainment Center looks like the old VCR you cast aside when you made the switch to DVD, with a horizontal, black, brushed-aluminum case that should mix easily into your home-theater setup. This Intel-based system runs Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and features dual TV tuners, a double-layer DVD burner, and more A/V ports than you'll know what to do with.
Upside: Aside from looking the part, the z545 also sounds like a home-theater component. With its large cooling fan, which can move the same amount of air inside as smaller fans while spinning more slowly (and quietly), you won't feel the need to crank up the volume to hear dialogue over the hum of the system. The z545 also comes equipped with HP's innovative Personal Media Drive--a 160GB removable hard drive that debuted on the Pavilion m1050y Media Center. Along with a standard 200GB hard drive, this system serves up plenty of TV-archiving storage space. The small but useful wireless keyboard includes a scrollwheel and right and left mouse buttons, and you can also use the bundled Media Center remote control to access the media files on the PC. In a smart design move, the receiver for both the keyboard and the remote is integrated into the front of the case. On the back panel, there's VGA, DVI, composite, component, and S-Video ports in addition to support for 7.1 surround sound and S/PDIF digital audio.
Downside: At nearly $2,000, the z545 is an expensive addition to your home theater, even after you factor in avoiding TiVo's subscription costs. Although its budget ATI graphics card is more than up to the task for Media Center functions, graphics artists and gamers will find the graphics subsystem lacking. You also have room for only one optical drive, though the multiformat, double-layer DVD-recordable drive should suit your needs. And if you don't plan on connecting the z545 to your TV and speaker system, the addition of a monitor and speakers quickly raises the price over the $2,000 mark.
Outlook: Upon first glance, we're impressed by the HP z545 Digital Entertainment Center's acoustics and sleek design. Though it appears that it has the power and features to support Media Center functions, you should also expect to get a fine PC for close to $2,000. Check back here soon for our full review, where we'll be able to share more details about the system and how it performed on CNET Labs' performance tests.