HP Digital Entertainment Center
A wireless keyboard with a built-in trackball is about the only indication that HP's z556 Digital Entertainment Center (DEC) might be the offspring of office equipment. With its DVD player buttons across the front of its sleek black case, front-panel A/V inputs under a flip plate, and the TV channel or movie title of whatever you're watching crawling across its text display, the DEC really does look like it belongs in a home theater instead of on a desk. Unlike HP's other Media Center PCs, the DEC is designed for horizontal placement. It could fit in a stack of A/V gear, but since it's meant to replace most of your other components, it would be a pretty short stack. And it was quiet enough to slip in unnoticed.
• 3.0-GHz Pentium 4; 512 MB RAM; 250-GB hard drive (additional 400-GB Personal Media Drive, $350)
• DVD Super Multi Drive with LightScribe disc labeling
• Free TV program guide
• FM tuner with pause and replay
• A/V inputs digital and analog RF/antenna; composite- and 2 S-video; 3 stereo audio; FM antenna; microphone
• A/V outputs DVI-D; VGA; component-, composite-, and S-video; 7.1-channel RCA surround sound; optical and coaxial digital audio; headphone
• Other I/O 6 USB; 2 FireWire (4-pin, 6-pin); Ethernet; Wi-Fi antenna; 9-in-1 Flash Media Card Reader; 2 IR emitters for cable/satellite control; wireless keyboard; remote control
• 17 x 4.5 x 16.5 in, 25 lbs
The DEC isn't just a TV junkie's dream; it's a system even an HDTV fan can love. For starters, it has three tuners - two for conventional TV and one for digital TV. You can record three channels at the same time, one of them HDTV, even while you watch a fourth show that was recorded earlier. There's also an FM tuner that lets you pause and replay off-air radio.
After downloading the program guide, which can include listings for both off-air and cable channels, I set the DEC to record high-def shows from the major networks, including Lost and Monday Night Football from ABC, Shrek from NBC, and Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones from Fox. The HP's 250-gigabyte (GB) hard drive can store 25.5 hours of HDTV or up to 180 hours of standard-def TV. And you can easily expand that capacity by popping a 400-GB Personal Media Drive ($350) into the front panel. (A more expensive version of the z556 DEC, the $2,200 z558 DEC includes the Personal Media Drive, twice the RAM, and a slightly faster processor.) When I recorded Attack of the Clones, the system went to the Internet and collected movie artwork and information for its menus, and even downloaded a mini-review. Played off the hard drive, the dub looked noticeably sharper and more detailed than the DVD release.
The DEC makes it easy to transfer an HDTV show to a recordable DVD to free up space on the hard drive. The system's DVD Super Multi Drive is compatible with DVD+RW, -RW, +R DL (dual-layer), and -RAM discs - it even directly labels recordable discs that are LightScribe-ready. Using a DVD+R DL blank (which, unfortunately, is not LightScribe-compatible), I copied an episode of Lost in all its pristine 720p and 5.1-channel glory in 40 minutes. With 8.4 GB of storage, each DVD+R DL disc can hold about an hour of HDTV. Though not all computers (and no DVD players) can play these high-definition discs, I was able to watch the Lost episode later on an Acer notebook using Windows Media Player, with no apparent loss in quality.
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