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Friday, November 05, 2004

Media Center 2005 initial impressions

Update:
I have now written a full review of my Media Center. It is avalible here.

This has been a fairly long and laborious week, but now that it's over I'm not going to dwell on it. I have a nice relaxing weekend ahead of me, and I intend to enjoy it. As usual I've managed to snag myself a new toy, and I wanted to share some initial thoughts on it.

HP z545 Media Center imageI finally broke down and got myself a Media Center. I have a good friend; Ian; who works for the Media Center team at Microsoft and he helped steer me in the right direction in terms of hardware. I ended up going for the HP z545 Digital Entertainment Center because it has a great form factor (it looks like a stereo component) and had all the output features that I wanted as well as Windows Media Center 2005 installed.

Ian came over to watch me set it up (he's been wanting to get a geeks setup opinions) and to help me move my entertainment center around. Right out of the box I was impressed with the actual unit. It's fairly large, but black with good looking LED's and a brushed finish on the front. The front has several fold down panels to hide the various ports and sockets (two USB 2.0, CF, SD, Memory Stick, RCA inputs, S-Video in, and a 1394 port) as well as the dual layer DVD-RW drive. The front also sports a small blue two line alpha-numeric florescent display. It's nice to have a clock and something that tells me what is playing, but they made the scrolling very jerky. It would have been much nicer to have a small color (or even gray scale) LCD display that would be capable of more than basic text. If HP offered a setting to disable scrolling on the display I would find that sufficient.

The back of the unit is really the impressive part if you ask me. It's the first PC to offer the number of output options that the HP z545 Digital Entertainment Center offers. The z545 offers full 7.1 out (both RCA pre-amps as well as an optical port for hooking up to powered receivers), S/PDIF, composite video out, S-video out, Component video out, DVI video out, a VGA port, four USB 2.0 ports, and another FireWire port. I'm impressed with the level of thought that went into making this unit integrate seamlessly with modern audio/visual equipment. It's refreshing to see a product with so much industrial design put into it from the ground up.

One neat gimmick that HP added was the “Personal Media” drive. It's basically a USB 2.0 portable hard drive with a docking station inside the front of the z545. It lets me put 160gb of my data on a drive that's contained within the unit, but then take it out easily and bring it over to a friends house to show him my media. It's not the most innovative thing I've ever seen, but still a nice idea.

Once Ian helped me move my entertainment center out I got the thing hooked in. I set up my old sub woofer with it, and used DVI to connect to my HDTV. Eventually I'm going to be getting a 7.1 surround sound receiver and some good speakers but for now I am just using the speakers in my TV.

After hooking up all of the audio/video connections and my cable connection to the two tuners I hit the power button and proceeded through the initial setup. Luckily they have made the entire setup process TV friendly (known as the 10 foot UI) and I was able to do most of it with the included keyboard and remote control. Unfortunately until the setup process is completed the video quality is horrible. Luckily the text is big enough that even with severe interlacing problems and a very low resolution that I was able to make my way through. I think both HP and Microsoft made a grave error in not making the initial setup process more focused on showcasing the fantastic graphical qualities of the Media Center operating system. I fear that a lot of less experienced users would get quite turned off by the poor graphical quality during the initial setup and boot screens

Once the computer has gone through it's initial setup and boot sequences I was able to tweak the graphics card to take care of most of my display problems. The edges of the desktop are still slightly cropped by my TV, but unfortunately that is something I think I will have to live with until the Media Center team figures out a way to dynamically resize the desktop to fit within the display limits of a standard television. The Media Center 10 foot UI (what you use most of the time with the remote) is very slick. I like the updated look and found it quite easy to navigate around. Even though the remote that comes with the z545 has buttons to access most of your media I find it as easy to scroll through the short list of options and use the directional pad and select button to navigate around my media library.

Over all I'm quite impressed with my Media Center so far. I might be posting a more through review in a couple of weeks once I've really had a chance to play with it, but my initial impressions have been very positive.

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Comments

Where were you able to buy this? I've been looking for it for a few weeks.

You are aware that this Media Center has no built-in HDTV tuner, right? HP is supposed to have an updated version of this model available in the first half of 2005 with HDTV tuner support. That being said, the retail list of $1995 for this unit with two tuners seems pricey perhaps?

Personally I think it would be interesting to open up the case and photograph the innards. I have a feeling the system is a PCI Express based LGA775 P4 system. Too bad HP didn't decide to put an Athlon 64 inside yet but I imagine they will do that when they release the HDTV tuner model later on.

The element of media PC reviews that is almost *always* missing is information on fan/drive noise. You're putting this thing into your living room, and you don't want people always asking you if someone's left a hairdryer running.

At first glance the price of this unit striked me has very high. When looking at all the components involved SATA Drives, audio and video cards, etc. it seems more reasonable. Even though, I still think the price should go down substantially before most people, myself included, will get one.

I noticed that you didn't mention the Internet anywhere. Is your Internet access also through the Media Center PC?

I realize that the Extenders aren't available just yet. Were you planning to buy that too, or do you only have media in that one room?

I bought the z540(single tuner and no personal media drive) and to answer some of the above inquiries: I connect to the web through my router using the wireless antena, (provided) connectivity is needed to get the program guide as well. Fan is not loud at all, Only time I notice it is when I am not watching tv or listening to music and even then I have to listen very closely for it.

Does anyone know of a way to copy DVD's to the HDD, in either the HP z545 or any other media center pc. Thanks a lot.

It's trivially easy to copy DVDs to the HDD, using the excellent free program "DVD Shrink," or many other similar tools.

Thanks for the review. Would love to see if you run into any issues while using it. I like the fact that everything is intergrated so nicely. It bother me that I may potentially have to cede so much control over to the vendor. Foe example if microsoft decides to implement broadcast flag restrictions as software rather than letting the hardware decide. Also, I'm worried about upgradability.

Couple of questions. Will the dvd player play dvd-audio or is that just a software issue. When the HD-DVD players come out, do you think you'll be able to swap out the DVD-drive to do the upgrade. Will you be attempting to install and HDTV tuner card.

This is a cry for help and probably has little to do w/ what is written above. I have a Media Center PC (m7060n) and am trying to archive old spoken word cassettes onto my computer for future use. I've been using the stereo line-in inputs on the front of the computer. Yet I cannot even get playback sound, much less any recording options. Anybody familiar with this stuff? email me brett924@yahoo.com. And if this is a waste of space here, then I respectfully submit to your deleting this comment. Thanks.

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