So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Zensonic Z500 Home Media Player
- Easy to use, Wide range of formats supported including High Definition
- Bug ridden, Lack of H.264 support
An easy to use streamer with the advantage of supporting some HD formats, let down by some extremely irritating bugs.
Price$ 569.00 (AUD)
Many of us have huge numbers of audio and video files sitting on our computers. The trouble is, it sometimes feels a little anticlimactic to watch a movie on a 19 inch screen when there's a whole home theatre system sitting in the living room. There are a range of devices on the market that solve this problem by streaming files from a computer to a television, but Zensonic's Z500 goes one step further than most by offering high definition output via HDMI. It's a good idea, but it needs a little more refinement before it becomes a must-have product.
Zensonic has aimed to make the Z500 one of the most comprehensive media streamers on the market, offering a multitude of supported formats and a wide range of inputs and outputs. The unit has composite, component, S-Video, SCART, Coaxial, optical and HDMI outputs, more than enough for anyone. It can also access files from a USB flash drive, Data CD or DVDs and wired or wireless LAN. These network connections allow the Z500 to stream Internet content, access Windows shared folders or connect to the provided media streaming software. There is certainly no shortage of options when streaming files to the Z500. The unit itself is finished in a plain dark grey, a simplistic colour scheme that will sit unobtrusively in the living room. An LCD adorns the front which helpfully displays the name of the currently selected file. The remote sits in stark contrast, finished in a black and white combination, and is well laid out and easy to use.
Easy to set up
Usually, the more formats a device supports, the harder it is to set up. Many wireless devices are notoriously hard to install without a good technical grasp of networking, so it came as a refreshing surprise to find the Z500 incredibly easy to use. We went through all the various options and each was simple, though perhaps lacking in enough explanation to make novices truly comfortable. The only problems we encountered were with an incompatible USB flash drive (a second drive worked perfectly) and an issue where we had to remove Windows password protection to enable file sharing, which isn't ideal. However, one aspect of the device left us irritated and bemused, and that was the simple act of turning the Z500 on. From pressing the 'on' switch until the system was ready to use took a lethargic 44 seconds, during which the unit went through a confusing cycle of turning the LCD display on and off.
The Z500's interface is clear and easy to use, though its bold colour scheme may not be to everyone's taste. Playback options are split into three basic categories: Music, Video and Pictures. Selecting one of these brings up a menu where the user selects the desired source, e.g. disc drive, USB stick or shared folders. The directory structure can then be browsed and files selected. The Z500 supports an impressive range of formats. For audio all the usual formats are supported (MP3, WMA, AAC), but Zensonic has also included the often requested OGG and FLAC file extensions. This covers almost every mainstream format, and we found they all worked flawlessly. The Z500 also supports playlists, and displays the titles on the television and on the unit's front LCD panel. The Z500 has a similarly wide range of supported image formats, including BMP, GIF, PNG and JPG. We had few problems displaying pictures, except with a couple of greyscale BMP files. Photos look suitably impressive when output to high definition.
The ability to play back a wide range of video formats is one of the Z500's standout points and with support for WMV, XviD, Quicktime, MP4, MPG and Nero Digital the unit is fairly encompassing. These all worked well at standard definition, with smooth playback and good scaling.
High Definition is supported via the HDMI connection supporting 720p and 1080i at both 50 and 60 Hertz. We tested the unit with HD sample files in WMV HD, DivX HD, Nero Digital HD and Quicktime HD formats. We quickly realised the Z500 wasn't going to play all these formats as it lacks the H.264 video codec that Quicktime HD and Nero Digital AVC HD use. This immediately limits the unit's options, which is disappointing.
We also had problems playing regular Nero Digital HD files. All the Nero Digital HD files we tested displayed jerky frame rates and were impossible to watch. Using WMV HD 720p things were much better, but were still not quite as smooth as when the same files were played back on a PC. DivX HD 720p files, which are encoded at a lower bit rate than WMV HD, played flawlessly with crisp pictures and good colour.
Overall, we found the Z500's standard definition playback to be good, but when it came to high definition, we were really only impressed with DivX HD.
We also tested the files over a wireless connection. All the HD videos except DivX struggled over the wireless connection, so it may be best to transfer High Definition files to DVD or to use a wired network connection. For regular videos and music the wireless connection is fine.
Zensonic has also thrown in two extra features which were useful, both utilising an Internet connection. Firstly, the Z500 can download information from the Weather Channel and display the five day forecast for any given location. Secondly, Internet radio can be streamed to the system. Zensonic include some presets and more can be added using the media streamer software, Twonkyvision. This software is an alternative to Windows SMB file sharing and is easy to use. Twonkyvision is compatible with Macs and Linux as well as Windows.
While the Internet features are nice, we thought it would be good to have some more functionality in this area, perhaps the ability to download RSS feeds. Zensonic assures us more is on the way, and the Internet connection is utilised for firmware updates. This is made incredibly simple; updates can either be downloaded direct to the Z500 or activated from a USB stick or CD-R.
Now to the bad part. One problem we encountered across all modes of operation was the unit's temperamental playback. Using our HDMI connection we would often encounter problems when changing resolutions, with the screen going blank, or just displaying white noise. We checked this on multiple televisions and all exhibited the same problem. It was only occasional, and always disappeared, but it hardly inspires confidence in the product. Zensonic tell us this is a known problem and will be fixed in a future firmware update. Another problem was when trying to play unsupported formats. Sometimes the Z500 would inform us that it couldn't play the file, other times it would crash. On a couple of occasions the unit refused to play files we had opened only five minutes previously, forcing us to restart the system. We also encountered a few bugs with music playback. When we attempted to change the volume from outside the music menu the system would instead mute the sound, forcing us to restart the songs. The combination of all these frustrating quirks leaves an impression of a half finished product. Zensonic assure us all the bugs plus the long start up time will be ironed out through future firmware updates, but at present the Z500 can be incredibly frustrating to use.
Overall, the Z500 is an interesting package. As a basic media streamer for standard definition content and music the Z500 works well, with an incredibly easy setup and wide range of supported formats. However, the High Definition features weren't as well implemented, with a lack of H.264 support and some troublesome playback issues. These temperamental problems ultimately became frustrating and we are unable to recommend the product until Zensonic irons them out.
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