Today I began the project of upgrading my Hewlett Packard z555 Digital Entertainment Center HTPC. The goal of the project is to make the PC more "relevant" to today's technology and capabilities. I realize that some of my goal could probably be accomplished more cheaply via other means, but the fun is in the doing.
UPDATE 15 August 2014: See post 1140 for current build status:
I began by wiping and reloading from HP's recovery DVD, to make sure I was starting with as clean a load as possible. I then ran PCMark05
, and Passmark's PerformanceTest
to get a benchmark of the system "stock." I will repeat these tests as I complete each step to get an idea of performance improvement. Stock numbers:
The steps I plan to take are:
Phase 1: Upgrade the graphics card (Complete)
The stock nVidia Geforce 6600 graphics card was replaced with an MSI NX8500GT MTD256EH
. This was done to:
- Improve GPU performance
- Provide an HDMI connection
- Quiet the system (fanless)
- Provide HDCP compatibility
Installation went flawlessly. No issues from drivers, no clearance issues in the case. The card is a low-profile card, but does not include a low-pro bracket. Reading from other sources, MSI will send you the low-profile bracket at shipping cost if you ask, which I will try tomorrow. Right now, the card is sitting in the slot sans bracket, but the PCI-E card retainer in the back of the slot is holding it snugly in place.
I replaced the MSI 8500GT with an Asus EAH4550
, based on ATI's 4550 graphics set. Installed the Catalyst 8.10 drivers. Playback is much improved, no more of the stuttering I was experiencing with some movies like ID4 and RE:E. The price was less than I paid for the MSI ($60 at NewEgg as of this writing).
The EAH4550 is supposed to have an onboard encoder capable of full Multichannel LPCM encoding over HDMI, to include Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA. As of this date, I have not been able to get this functionality working. However, the improvement in video quality alone is worth the upgrade cost to me.
I would now recommend the EAH4550 over the MSI 8500GT for this upgrade project.
Performance numbers forthcoming.
Phase 2: Upgrade CPU (Complete)
Currently has a Pentium 4 530. From other sources, the highest CPU that this chipset (Intel P915) can handle is the Pentium 4 650 series. (Anyone smarter than me shed light on this?) This is being done to help with future performance needs (see Phase 4 below).
: Replaced CPU with the Pentium 4 650. Reused stock CPU cooler with fresh thermal compound due to heatsink that came with chip wouldn't fit the MB holes (pre-threaded, chiller has plastic feet).
Phase 3: Upgrade RAM (Complete)
Performance gain, hopefully. Plan is to go from 512MB to either 1 or 2 GB (undecided as of yet, comments?).
: Digging through my parts bin, I found a 512MB stick of Crucial RAM that was of the right clock speed, so I stuck it in one of the free RAM sockets. Wonder of wonders, it worked! Free upgrade!
I performed this at the same time as the CPU upgrade, so for benchmarks, see above. I did not do benchmarks for one or the other, just after both.
: Cannibalized two 1GB sticks of DDR2 400 RAM from my "dropped dead" office PC, and put them in the z555. PC accepted the RAM, performance seems roughly comparable. Haven't checked yet to see if it fixed the stutter problem I had with "Independence Day" BluRay.
Phase 4: Upgrade DVD drive (Complete)
Plan is to replace the current DVD-RW drive with the LG GGC-H20L HDDVD/BluRay player / DVD burner, and swallow the PURPLE pill.
This will require removing the wireless network card and installing a SATA controller. I don't use the wireless card now, so this is no big loss.
: Received and installed Rosewill SATA controller, placed in slot vacated by wireless card. Install and driver load went flawlessly, no issues. Awaiting drive (tomorrow, hopefully) to complete major upgrades.
: Received and installed the LG GGC-H20L drive. Hardware and software installation (OEM PowerDVD Ultra) went flawlessly. Plays HD DVD and Blu-ray perfectly! 30-40 percent CPU utilization with GPU hardware acceleration turned on. No stutter, no blur, just perfect audio and video.
$20 (SATA controller)
$320 (LG BD/HD drive)
: User mz4 points out that a SATA-to-IDE connector will let you connect the new optical drive without sacrificing the wireless card. I found this one at NewEgg: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Produc...82E16812200156
, which looks like it should do the job just fine. Were I to do it again, I'd probably go this route.
Phase 5: Miscellaneous
Having the case open, I notice that the side fan on the case is moving no air at all. I will be replacing this.
Reversed the stock fan. PC seems quieter, not much noticeable difference in heat.
Phase 6: FireSTB
I am also going to try again to get the FireSTB application working again. I think I had something corrupted on my old load (not surprising to me) so hopefully the clean build I have now will allow it to function properly. Any help that anyone can provide would be most appreciated. I could record the video, but no sound, on both HD and SD channels. Also showed as Copy Free on my STB.
: The MyTray application still won't record in conjunction with MCE, but I can record perfect video and sound on both SD and HD channels with CapDVHS. I'll just use this to record from now on. It has a timer function, so perhaps I can use this for delayed recordings. More to follow.
PowerDVD 7.3 Ultra (OEM), Arcsoft TMT, and MyMovies
I started with PowerDVD OEM, but I have since purchased the retail version of ArcSoft TotalMedia Theater (TMT). I did this because it integrates seemlessly with both MCE 2005 and MyMovies. I am in the process of ripping my SD DVD's to VIDEO_TS folders, and the playback is very, very good. The WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor) is very high, she finds it very easy to find and play both discs in the drive and ripped movies.
Alright, so I tested this drive, software, and my audio equipment. Specs of my system (repeated from elsewhere, but all in one place here for easy reference):
Video Card: MSI NX8500GT-MTD256EH
Sound Card: Integrated Realtek 889 audio card (using Toslink optical out)
Amplifier: Pioneer VSX-815K (Toslink optical in, capable of: DDEX, DD5.1, DTS, DTS-ES)
Audio formats that I have been able to test from various HD DVD's, Blu-ray's, and DVD's:
LPCM tracks are read by PowerDVD, and are listed as such in PowerDVD's information box. But, they are apparently downmixed by the software, since it is the OEM version. My amplifier reports that it is receiving a Dolby Digital stereo signal and outputs as such. Surround is capable by putting the receiver in Dolby Pro Logic IIx mode.
Dolby TrueHD tracks are read by PowerDVD, but are similarly downmixed. The amplifier again reports receiving a Dolby Digital stereo signal. Again, surround is only capable with this track by using Dolby Pro Logic IIx.
Dolby Digital Plus
Dolby Digital Plus tracks are read by PowerDVD. They do not appear to be downmixed, but my receiver is not capable of receiving Dolby Digital Plus, but it reads the signal as Dolby Digital Surround EX. This is a 6.1 track, and does output to the receiver properly. Personally, I think this track sounds really good on my equipment.
Dolby Digital Surround EX
Dolby Digital Surround EX tracks are outputted properly by PowerDVD and read properly by the amplifier.
Dolby Digital 5.1
Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks are outputted properly by PowerDVD and read properly by the amplifier.
DTS-HD tracks are read by PowerDVD and outputted without downmixing. My amplifier cannot read a DTS-HD track and reads it as DTS-ES Discrete 6.1. Personally, to my ears this tracks sounds best of all tracks I have tried.
DTS-HD Master Audio
S/PDIF doesn't have the bandwidth to handle this track, so all it outputs to my receiver is the DTS 5.1 core track, which my amp up-converts to DTS Neo:6. Sounds good!
DTS-ES Discrete 6.1
DTS-ES Discrete 6.1 tracks are outputted properly by PowerDVD and read properly by the amplifier. Sounds identical in quality and tonal range to DTS-HD on my receiver.
DTS tracks are read properly and received properly by the amplifier.
Temperatures and Performance
With Resident Evil (Blu Ray) playing for several minutes, temperatures and performance seem to have stabilized. CPU utilization is around 60-70%, but no stutter. Good, smooth playback, even this high. Pentium D, C2D, C2E, or C2Q should have no trouble at all here.
HD DVD's do better. Transformers hovers around 35-40%.
Temperatures: Ambient stays around 40 C, and CPU hovers right around 55 C.
So that's the project, already underway. I will update each phase as I complete it. My hope is that this will be of use to others out there who may want to get some more years of enjoyment out of these wonderful machines.
Thanks for the help you all have already given me, hope I can give a little back.