Hewlett-Packard is making a concerted effort to corner the market in low-price PCs--a strategy that analysts say is helping the company gain market share at the expense of archrival Dell. While the very cheapest Pavilions, the a1400 series, start at a mind-boggling $250 (after rebate), the $599 Pavilion a1510n uses that extra breathing room in the price to add a LightScribe DVD burner and a decent, if not exactly flashy, set of specs. For basic computing, the fixed-configuration Pavilion a1510n occupies an attractive middle ground between the ultrabudget boxes, such as HP's and the company's more expensive Media Centers, such as the Pavilion m7360n. If you don't need a brand name on your computer, Cyberpower offers a better deal; its PC costs the same $599 and gives you better specs, including a dual-core processor and the ability to customize your system prior to purchase.
The Pavilion a1510n is housed in a silver midtower case. Two drive bays sit behind hinged doors above a media card reader, while audio connections, two USB 2.0 jacks and a single FireWire port are behind a sliding door, making for a somewhat cluttered, but highly functional, front panel. Rear-mounted connections include four additional USB 2.0 ports, another FireWire port, Ethernet and modem connections, and audio jacks for the integrated six-channel audio controller--pretty much all the connections a mainstream consumer would need.
The system's DNA is visibly related to HP's more expensive Media Center machines', and the a1510n also featuresas its operating system. Despite the visual similarities, the Pavilion a1510n costs half as much as the Pavilion m7360n and leaves out extras such as HP's proprietary Personal Media Drive, a TV tuner card, and a Media Center remote.
Even with a budget price, the Pavilion a1510n keeps HP's signature LightScribe DVD burner, which is a nice touch for such an inexpensive system. It 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 Pavilion a1510n is a retail model, meaning you'll find it preconfigured on store shelves instead of as a customizable model online. Its specs are more than adequate for the price, however, and include a 200GB hard drive, 1GB of RAM, and integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150 graphics. A customizable version is easily built by going to HP's Web site and starting with the parent Pavilion a1500 series. Both AMD and Intel versions are available (with the fastest CPU being a Pentium D 805, the only dual-core option), and you can bump the specs to up to 2GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and an Nvidia GeForce 7300 LE video card. If you want to upgrade the system on your own, there's room inside the case to add a second hard drive and a second optical drive, as well as two empty RAM slots.
As we expected, the Pavilion a1520n gave us virtually identical performance to that of another budget system we looked at recently, the. Both machines have a 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 3800+ CPU and 1GB of RAM. The eMachines is roughly $60 cheaper, but it lacks extras such as the LightScribe drive. HP's Compaq Presario SR1910NX is $200 cheaper and has a bottom-of-the-barrel 1.8GHz AMD Sempron 3200+. It's not much of a bargain, even at only $399, when you consider it trailed the Pavilion by a wide margin on each of CNET Labs' benchmarks.
While the Pavilion a1510n's single-core Athlon 64 3800+ processor is perfectly adequate for basic computing and Media Center needs, it's still hard to recommend a system without a dual-core CPU when systems such as the Cyberpower Back to School 2006 hit the same $599 price. Not only will the Cyberpower PC provide better performance today, but it's better positioned to make the leap to Windows Vista next year.
Gaming enthusiasts will be disappointed with the Pavilion a1510n's integrated graphics solution, although it will suffice for older, less-demanding 3D games at low resolutions, 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 graphics card later on. Unfortunately, HP does not offer a TV tuner card with this system, despite the fact that it ships with Windows Media Center Edition. You can add a TV tuner after purchase by using one of the system's three PCI slots. Also missing is an IR remote and a wireless keyboard and mouse. Instead, the a1510n comes with a shiny silver multimedia keyboard and matching scroll mouse, which is of the antique roller-ball variety.
The system does not include a monitor or speakers, but does include a lot of bundled software. The Pavilion a1510n comes with HP's Image Zone Plus software, which lets you edit and organize photos, Sonic's MyDVD Plus for CD and DVD burning and labeling, and Quicken 2006. The system also includes numerous casual gaming apps and the usual advertising come-ons for Internet access, eBay, and the Rhapsody music service.
Included in the box are a quick-start guide and a generic user guide. A one-year parts-and-labor warranty is included in the price, but you can opt for an extended two-year plan for $99 or bump it up to three years for $179. Each plan offers round-the-clock toll-free telephone support for the life of the plan and use of HP's Total Care service, which includes real-time online-chat tech help sessions and guaranteed one-hour e-mail response to technical questions. You can also visit HP's Web site for general troubleshooting, help with setting up your system, tips on system recovery and backup, and the latest software and driver downloads.