If your family balks at the idea of putting a computer in the living room so you can play your digital music collection on your home theater system, Hewlett-Packard's (HP's) Digital Entertainment Center de100c might be the answer. This entertainment appliance takes over the digital-music-device role that a computer would ordinarily play and fits into a standard-sized stereo rack component.
The concept is straightforward: You use your TV as the display device and the de100c to rip and burn CDs and play Internet radio stations. The software technology behind these capabilities is Real's RealMedia—a popular computer-based digital media technology.
To test the de100c, I set up the device as a component in my primary home theatre system. First, I connected the de 100c to the TV so that I could see what was happening during the configuration process. Unfortunately, my audio/video (A/V) receiver didn't have a spare video-switching connection. I already have two VCRs (Hi-8 and S-VHS), a satellite dish, and a DVD player hooked up, leaving only the front-panel video connection (for connecting a video camera) available. So I had to connect the de100c's video output directly to the TV, change the television's video source mode, and select the de100c as the audio device. Fortunately, the 61" Sony projection TV has more than enough video connectors, but I must admit, on a screen that large, the de100c display looked pretty poor—giant letters and not much information per screen, which I realize is because the unit doesn't know what kind of display you have and must work for the lowest common denominator.
You can connect the audio using analog or digital (optical and coaxial) connectors, as your setup permits. In my case, both types were available. The de100c ships with only analog cables, so if you opt for a digital connection, you must purchase the appropriate cable.
After you connect the usual A/V devices, you can hook up your Internet connection. The de100c includes a 56K modem, so if you use a dial-up connection, you're set to go, although you can't use AOL or any service that requires custom connection software. But most of us don't want to connect using 56K dialup so the de100c also has HomePNA and Ethernet connectors so that you can connect it to your home network. I connected the de100c to my Ethernet network and accepted the auto-setup network settings.
After restarting the de100c, I used it to play a CD. It worked fine, and the sound quality was good. Next, I tried to rip the CD to the local hard disk in the de100c and hit my first snag. Like any computer-based digital-music ripper, the de100c can access an Internet database of CD information so that you don't have to type the descriptive information for each track on a CD. However, when the information isn't available, you must enter it by hand, which was the case for the CD I had chosen to rip. After taking 5 minutes to enter the information for the first track, I decided to choose a test CD that the online database could identify. I let the de100c identify the music and told it to copy the disk. The default format is 128Kbps MP3, but the device supports higher and lower bit rates. HP says the de100c stores about 750 CDs (9000 tracks) at the default encoding rate. The device supports only the MP3 recording format, but HP plans to add additional formats.
Burning CDs from stored music is also simple. The de100c supports both CD-R and CD-RW technology and can create CD Audio discs. After adding a few CDs of music to the de100c, I burned a CD-Audio disc by selecting the desired tracks and creating the mix disk. The de100c can also simply copy MP3 files to the CD-R discs, giving you the option to create either flat file systems (no directory structure so the disk will play in all devices) or a directory tree format for devices that support the technology. The de100c can also copy music files directly to a portable player, although the list of supported players is limited. I used my Iomega HipZip as the test device. Unfortunately, the de100c doesn't support transcoding (copying to the portable device with the files saved at a lower bitrate, to save space).
The de100c lets you access its internal storage device and push files to it from a computer on your network, but the de100c looks for music files only on its hard disk, which is probably the device's greatest fault. If it can access your network, it should be able to play music from any network storage device.
Even with the problems I came across, the de100c is a good first attempt. However, the vendor needs to add quite a few features before I'd pay the device's $999 price tag. Here's my short list of what the de100c needs:
- built-in wireless networking (802.11b)
- remote management (let me add information through a networked computer, so the remote control isn't the only way to configure or edit information)
- full network support (make other devices accessible)
- video storage (it already uses RealPlayer)
Without the above features, the de100c isn't a compelling choice. I'd like to see it become a device that enhances my digital media experience, not one that requires me to create a separate environment from that which I've begun to create from my computers.
Digital Entertainment Center de100c