HP Pavilion a1050y
If you spend a lot of time burning CDs or DVDs for friends, you'll want to check out the $1,350 HP Pavilion a1050y. Complete with HP's LightScribe DVD burner for emblazoning your own designs onto specially coated discs, this PC gives you a unique way to personalize a gift and should earn you a few extra thoughtfulness points from the recipient. Its performance is merely average, but the Pavilion a1050y is an able, all-purpose mainstream machine.
The HP Pavilion a1050y, a replacement to the Pavilion a850y, comes with two optical drives built into its clean-lined front panel. You'll also find a 9-in-1 media-card reader, three USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire 400 port, and a set of audio jacks integrated into the front-side design, which presents this full array of inputs and outputs in an accessible, visually pleasing manner.
The back is generous with four more USB 2.0 ports, another FireWire 400 port, analog and digital audio jacks, and an Ethernet port. The system comes with a PS/2 keyboard with dedicated media and Internet keys and a PS/2 mouse with a roller ball (we recommend you upgrade to the optical mouse for $10 extra). The HP site says that the a1050y comes with a two-piece speaker set, but our test unit didn't have it. Likewise, we didn't receive a monitor, but you can choose to add one when configuring the system on HP's site (or choose none).
The 16X multiformat, double-layer LightScribe DVD burner comes accompanied by one specially coated LightScribe CD. Extra discs are easy to find online (including HP's site) or in office supply stores, and they sell for about $2 each. The Pavilion a1050y includes three applications that can burn to LightScribe discs--iTunes, Sonic Express Labeler, and InterVideo DiscLabel; we were shocked to see how poorly they all handled the task. iTunes lets you burn only track titles--a waste, since LightScribe can burn grayscale photos for a much more impressive look--and Sonic's app locks the user into predefined templates. InterVideo's tools were clunky and 10 years out of date, but at least they let users create their own designs. After we created a design with photos, graphics, and text, the drive burned it onto the disc in 23 minutes. Amateur bands looking to create their own discs will spend a lot of time with LightScribe.
You can customize the Pavilion a1050y on HP's site, which provides a little wiggle room among mainstream components. Our review unit came with a 3.6GHz Intel Pentium 4 560J processor, 512MB of DDR memory, and a sizable 160GB hard drive. Although HP submitted our test system with the 3.6GHz processor, the company no longer offers that chip for this system. You have your choice of four Pentium 4 500-series processors, ranging in speeds from 2.8GHz to 3.4GHz. Our test system proved to be a strong midrange configuration for home multimedia tasks such as light photo editing and CD burning. Our SysMark test places the Pavilion a1050y about where it should be given its configuration. Sub in the 3.4GHz CPU, and you'll see a slight performance reduction but not enough to prevent the Pavilion a1050y from performing its intended tasks. In fact, we think the sweet spot for mainstream users in terms of price vs. performance is the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540J for this machine.