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 its Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 OS 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 Shuttle XPC G5 8300mc, it lagged a behind HP's other media powerhouse, the Media Center m7070n Photosmart PC, and Gateway's 832GM, 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 GeForce 6600 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 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.