We wish that HP would update the visual design of its PCs, because the gray plastic box is only a shade or two removed from the bleak sea of beige we thought we left behind five years ago. Case color aside, when you head to the store and find HP's new Pavilion Media Center a1640n on the shelf, we hope you can get past the design, because this system offers an outstanding configuration for the price. Intel Core 2 Duo processor? Check. Two gigabytes of DDR2 memory? Yup. Trim new Pocket Media Drive slot? You bet. Vista-ready? Mostly. For $835 that's not a bad checklist. It's really only a graphics card away from being a top-flight desktop PC.
The Pavilion Media Center a1640n is a retail-only PC. You'll find it in Best Buy, Circuit City, and elsewhere. You might be able to find it on various retailers' Web sites, but you won't be able to buy it directly from HP, which means that it's a fixed-configuration PC. So what we received for review is what you get for this one. Fortunately, what you get is pretty good.
We recommend a dual-core CPU for any system that will serve as your primary PC; you can get away with a single-core chip on a bargain-basement budget system you'll use as a second or third PC on your home networks, but that's about it. Thus, we're happy to see that the Pavilion a1640n includes a dual-core CPU in the form of Intel's lowest-end 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo E6300. What took us completely off-guard, though, is the solid 2GB of 533MHz DDR2 memory. That's more memory than we see in many $1,500 PCs. It shows that, but for the graphics, HP really put this PC together with Windows Vista in mind.
While the configuration may be a little ahead of its time, the design of the case is starting to feel dated. HP has relied on a muted-gray-plastic color scheme in its desktops for several years now. We think it's time for an update. Apple, Dell, Velocity Micro, Shuttle, and plenty of other desktop vendors have shown a willingness to take design risks and make strong visual statements. Considering HP's reclaimed status as the world's No. 1 PC manufacturer, any design moves it makes will go a long way toward affecting the rest of the industry. Come on, HP, don't you know gray is the new beige? The case is still very functional, of course. There's room for expansion, and it's not overly large. Just don't be fooled by the "Media Center" in the title: It has the Windows Media Center 2005 operating system, but this mid-size desktop is by no means a living room PC.
The rest of this system's core features consist of an ample 250GB hard drive, a dual-layer DVD burner, a 9-in-1 media card reader, and a front-panel slot for HP's new, scaled-down removable hard drives. This last feature in particular is cool. You might recall HP's original removable hard drive, the Personal Media Drive, from past Pavilion desktop reviews. HP recently scaled down the size of these drives to a much more manageable, small paperback-size design. These new Pocket Media Drives aren't included with this Pavilion, and they're also a little more expensive per gigabyte than the original model: $150 for the 80GB Pocket model vs. $140 for the bulkier 160GB Personal Media Drive. But because the new Pocket drives are much more compact, they make it far easier to travel around with your important data.
And thus we come to the graphics situation. The Pavilion a1640n features an integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 video chip built into the motherboard. Fortunately, it also has an x16 PCI Express slot for a graphics card. That's good news because, any day now, we expect that Microsoft will authorize PC sellers to insert a "free Windows Vista upgrade" coupon into all new PCs. News leaked out that the company would do so back in August, so whenever it happens, it's fair to expect that a PC with one of these coupons will be able to run Windows Vista. Most new PCs will be able to run Windows Vista Basic, the bland version that doesn't require beefy hardware. But many PCs, even like this HP Pavilion a1640n with its fast CPU and plentiful memory, won't be able to run Vista Premium with the exciting new visual effects because it lacks a graphics card--the onboard video chip isn't good enough. Assuming you want to use Vista to its full effect, we'd encourage you to venture out and buy a 3D card and add it to the price tag of this system. ATI's Radeon X1300 or Nvidia's GeForce 7300 card can get the job done. You should be able to find a 256MB version of each card for $60 to $70.
We're getting ahead of ourselves; let's return to the system as it stands now. On our application benchmarks, the Pavilion a1640n lived up to its specs. We suspect that its extra stash of system memory helped it beat out comparable Windows PCs on our multitasking tests in particular. All in all, this is a fast PC for day-to-day use. But we don't recommend it for gaming, which leads us to our lack of faith in its Vista Premium graphics capabilities. Compared to two PCs with less system memory but discrete 3D cards, the Pavilion Media Center a1640n got destroyed. And we'll admit that Quake 4 is a relatively demanding 3D game and also that the Velocity Micro and Systemax comparison systems have midrange 3D cards that give them quite a boost. But Quake 4 is a mainstream 3D game, and even with no systems to compare it to, the a1640n's 4 frames per second is hardly an acceptable frame rate. Fortunately, as we outlined above, solving this problem is only a $70 upgrade away.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)