Price (RRP): $569
The internet is fast becoming the place to download music, videos, movies and even TV shows. The problem is that your computer isn’t the most ideal place to enjoy them. A much better option is to watch your video on the big-screen TV in the living room, and listen to music through your stereo speakers. The Zensonic z500 is a device that lets you do this. Apart from taking on the job of a DVD and CD player, the z500 can play music, video and photo files stored on your computer.
One way of doing this is by burning your media files onto a CD or DVD, and playing them via the optical drive on the z500. Another way, and the reason why the z500 is referred to as a ‘network’ media player, is that it can use your home network to access files stored on your computer. This can be either a wired Ethernet network or the wireless 802.11g variety. With the supplied media-serving software loaded on your PC or Mac, you can access an iTunes or Winamp library, or photos and video collections from a TV in a completely different room of the house.
The z500 is compatible with most optical disc types, including CD, CD-R/RW, VCD, SVCD, DVD and DVD+/-R/RW. Fortunately, the z500 supports a wide range of files created by digital cameras, MP3 players and DV camcorders, plus the myriad types available from the internet.
The z500 connects to your television and home entertainment system in the same way that a DVD player would. It also features the new HDMI interface, plus composite, component, SCART and S-Video connections. On the audio front, there are coaxial and optical digital outs, six analog RCA outputs, plus two RCA-style stereo connectors. The front of the unit also includes a USB2.0 connector, for accessing files stored on external hard drives and memory cards. The unit plays the high definition variants of Web video formats WMV9 and XviD, but does not upconvert DVD to HD resolution via hardware like an upscaling DVD player.
The z500’s very ‘unpretty’ front panel is home to a set of navigation buttons, an LED readout and the power button. For the most part, your interaction would be via the onscreen menu and remote control. The controller is a bulky, rather unattractive unit, but it has a great backlight. The colourful onscreen menu includes large icons and fairly readable text, but is a bit sluggish to respond. The unit takes about 30 seconds to boot, which can be annoying.
Plugging the z500 into our reference home theatre system was easy enough, but we ran into trouble getting it talking across our wireless network. If you have a firewall or router that restricts access, setup can be challenging. I had to disable our 128-bit encryption to get the z500 to connect, and all of our internet security software for it to be able to access the media server software. If you have a fairly simple network setup, you may have no problems at all. More secure systems require nous and patience.
The main menu offers you a choice of video, audio, photos, settings and services. The latter is where you’ll find the weather report, and the settings menu is where you can configure network settings and a variety of other functions. Fast-forward and rewind options for music and video are fairly basic, and an overall track/clip length graphic would be handy to indicate where you are in the file. Also, there’s a slideshow feature for your photos, and you can set the interval between shots, but there are no extras, such as different transitions effects (wipe, fade, dissolve, etc). You can view your photos to an accompanying music effects (wipe, fade, dissolve, etc). You can view your photos to an accompanying music track or CD, however.
Just how the z500 will perform when playing video across your network will depend on a few things. First, a wired network is the fastest choice, and should be used for streaming high definition video. A wireless network’s transmission speed can vary depending on the number of walls and obstacles in the way, and may not be able to deliver a seamless high definition experience, although it should be fast enough for lower quality video, and defiantly good for streaming music and browsing photos. Also, the amount of grunt your computer has can also affect the delivery of content – especially high definition content. For best results, we suggest a machine with a processor that runs at 1.5GHz or faster.
The z500 is an interesting proposal if you store loads of media files to a computer and want to enjoy them on an entertainment system in a different room, and its support for high definition Web formats is certainly a bonus. Our experience, though, suggests that the conveniences offered by the z500 are only realised after a good deal of fussing about with network integration.
Note, too, that Zensonic has changed its name to Ziova, and will be selling the z500 under the name of Clearstream CS505. While they look slightly different, both devices have identical features and internal components.