HP Pavilion a1250n
At $899 (without monitor), the HP Pavilion a1250n is one of the least-expensive dual-core PCs you'll find, and it uses an AMD processor, which we favor over Intel's dual-core offerings. The a1250n is a fixed-configuration system that uses the operating system, but its low price means you miss out on a couple of important Media Center standards, namely a TV tuner and a remote control. While you won't be integrating the Pavilion a1250n into your home theater without first making a few upgrades, the PC is a proven winner as an all-purpose family system, delivering performance that allows it to compete with more expensive Media Center systems.
The Pavilion a1250n is housed in a silver midtower case with glossy-white, hinged optical-drive covers that, while stylish, are flimsy and prone to snapping off with a misplaced knee or shin under your desk. Hidden behind another white sliding panel are two USB 2.0 ports, audio jacks, and a six-pin FireWire port. Rear-mounted connections include four additional USB 2.0 ports, another FireWire port, an Ethernet connection, and audio jacks for the integrated six-channel audio controller. Overall, the a1250n presents an attractive, clean appearance, but if a true living-room PC is what you're after, the slightly more expensive HP Media Center m7260n Photosmart PC includes a TV tuner, a remote control, and HP's handy Personal Media Drive dock. The HP z555 Digital Entertainment Center ups the ante further in terms of both price and overall design.
A double-layer DVD burner with LightScribe technology is paired with a standard 16X DVD-ROM drive. LightScribe drives can burn grayscale text and images onto specially coated CD and DVD media, although the discs are generally pricey ($5.99 for a five-pack of DVD+R discs), and the burning process is slow. The system also comes with a 9-in-1 media-card reader that accepts nearly every type of flash memory card.
The 250GB Hitachi DeskStar hard drive is more than adequate for storing digital photos and music files but will fill up quickly if you're archiving lots of large video files. Sadly, there's no room for a second hard drive. You also get 1GB of memory running at 400MHz, and you can upgrade aftermarket to 4GB of RAM.
The Pavilion a1250n is powered by AMD's entry-level dual-core CPU, the 2.0GHz Athlon 64 X2 3800+. The system boasts significant muscle for its price range in handling general home and office applications. Its score of 208 on CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 application benchmark bested the results from the pricier Sony VAIO RC11G, which uses a dual-core Pentium D 830 chip. It trailed the much more expensive Dell XPS 400, which features the Intel Pentium D 840 chip, by only 4 percent. In the opposite direction, the eMachines T6524 costs $300 less than the Pavilion a1250n but was 16 percent slower on SysMark.
Gaming enthusiasts will be disappointed with the a1250n's integrated ATI Radeon Xpress 200 graphics solution, although it will suffice for older, less-demanding 3D games, such as Unreal Tournament 2004. The good news is that there is an empty x16 PCI Express slot, if you decide you want to boost 3D performance by adding a high-end graphics card, such as the.