Zensonic's Z500 is built for people with large digital media libraries of video and music sitting on their home PC who want to playback files in their living room.
The Zensonic Z500 would be considered relatively chunky if it were just a standalone DVD player, but considering the innards of this networked device it seems reasonable for it to be slightly large. Although it has a silver finish, it's not a terribly good looking device. There are a couple of playback controls on the front, a USB 2.0 port and a display that shows status and file information. Protruding from the back of the unit is a rotatable wireless antenna, which detaches easily if you choose to use the Ethernet port for networking instead.
The remote control, which also falls into the jumbo category, has a backlight button down the bottom that illuminates the 34 other keys in bright blue when pressed.
All the video outputs to connect the Z500 to a TV or projector are at the rear of the Z500 and include composite, component, S-Video, SCART and HDMI (with support for HDCP), the last two combining audio and video over a single cable. Standalone audio connections are equally as impressive, with stereo analog, 5.1 analog, optical and coaxial digital connections on board.
In the box we found a standard composite A/V cable, remote control with batteries, CD, wireless network antenna, Ethernet cable and, of course, the Z500.
The Z500 combines the strength of its predecessors, the Zensonic Z400 the Z330, and adds some new features of its own. Its wide range of connectivity options and support for high definition (HD) output and a multitude of multimedia formats is enough to leave any home entertainment enthusiast in awe over its capabilities.
At a bare bones level, Zensonic's Z500 is a DVD player that supports a range of video formats including MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, Xvid and QuickTime with MPEG4 encoding. It can also play files encoded with Microsoft's new high definition format, Windows Media Video 9 HD (WMV9), as well as DivX HD files. Files can be played from regular DVDs or burned discs such as CD-RW, DVDÃƒ,Ã‚Â±RW and dual layer DVDÃƒ,Ã‚Â±RW.
Where the Z500 stands out from the crowd is through its networking and connectivity options. It supports wired gigabit Ethernet and 802.11g Wi-Fi so video and audio files stored on your PC can be streamed to the player. There is also a USB 2.0 port at the front of the unit to play files stored on portable hard drives (including iPods) and USB memory keys.
At first glance, the interface Zensonic has built for the Z500 is somewhat similar to Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition. The main menu is split up into Music, Video, Pictures, Settings and Extras.
The wide range of audio formats supported (see full specs here) includes MP3, WMA, AAC, OGG, WAV, CD audio (with CDDB support) and DVD audio. The Z500 also supports the streaming of Internet radio stations.
During our tests we found the Z500 took a sluggish 35 seconds to boot to the main menu. While the home screen is attractively laid out with large animated icons indicating each option, once you dive into file browsing you are presented with an old-school text-based list that lacks the elegance of more sophisticated interfaces, such as Windows Media Center and Apple's Front Row.
The Z500 played back every type of file format we could throw at it, including AVI, DivX, XviD, WMV, WS, with the exception of a couple of ASF files that didn't play at all.
Similarly, it had no problems with our test WMA, AAC and MP3 files, although it doesn't support DRM-protected content such as songs purchased through iTunes. An album can be played back while you perform other tasks on the Z500 such as viewing photos or checking the Weather through the Extras menu.
During photo slide shows, the Z500 irritatingly displays a Windows-like hourglass on a black screen between shots -- certainly not as visually attractive as the Ken Burns effect on some slide show applications we've seen, which gives life to still photographs by slowly zooming in on subjects and panning from one subject to another. Another downside, music volume cannot be adjusted during a slide show.
Despite our best efforts we simply couldn't get the Z500 to connect to our 802.11b/g wireless LAN with WEP security, which we had to try after finding out the Z500 doesn't support WPA. Turning all security options off we were able to connect to our network, but this isn't something we'd recommend doing for long.
ShoutCast radio streams played back okay, but we're disappointed at the sparse selection of stations supported. Unlike the open source Xbox Media Center application, which downloads hundreds of radio station in a mind-boggling list of genres on-the-fly, the Z500 contains only one to three stations in eight genres, which include Alternative, Country, Funk, Jazz and Metal.
We found a slight sound glitch when hitting play after fast-forwarding through DVDs. On hitting play, the Z500 blasted us with a split second of audio at high volume, before instantly returning to normal volume. The mute button, on the other hand, pleasantly turned the sound down in a smooth decrescendo and crept back in swiftly when pressed again. While the Z500 allows you to scan forward or back at various speeds, we found the picture jerky and uneven. Unlike some of the PVRs and media centres we've seen, there is no on-screen display of your current progress through a recording.
The option navigation joystick in the centre of the remote control could have been taken directly from a Sony Ericsson phone, but we're unsure of why it's been implemented on the Z500 remote control. Directly beneath it is a separate five-way navigation in traditional DVD remote-style layout that does the same trick.
Customisation options available through the settings menu include autoplay, on-screen GUI animations, picture slide show interval and screen saver timeout.
Weather information is downloaded from The Weather Channel and you can edit the default city as well as change units between Celsius and Fahrenheit.
The bundled CD contains a 53-page user manual in PDF format and streaming software called TwonkyVision for Windows, Mac OS X and Linux.
Due to the glitches in the Z500's firmware, we can't recommend it for users looking for plug-in-and-forget-about-it functionality. It is a frustrating box to use and froze up on us four times while playing back video. We seriously hope Zensonic comes up with some stable firmware in the near future for users who have already purchased this unit. While it gets top marks for concept, connectivity and file format support, the implementation is substandard.