The dx5150 Small Form Factor is aggressively targeted at those on a tight budget. However, unlike the plethora of cheap, ugly desktops that litter the budget market, it stands out thanks to its promise of contemporary styling, solid build quality and quiet, efficient operation. Producing a computer that achieves these goals is a thankless, difficult task, so it'll be interesting to see whether HP achieves its goals without delivering a fatally compromised and ultimately pointless PC.
The dx5150 is available from HP's site in Small Form Factor and Microtower flavours. The model we tested was the Small Form Factor EJ803ET, which comes in at £387.
The dx5150 is a welcome throwback to the desktop PCs of yesteryear. It uses a horizontal 'desktop' orientation instead of the more typical space saving tower layout, but it's far from bulky. Unlike HP's 'ultra compact' version of the dx5150, this Small Form Factor (SFF) version has the same approximate footprint as the screen area of a standard 17-inch TFT monitor.
It's also quite attractive in a generic sense. The unit is predominantly black with a silver front panel and black optical drive. It's not as stylish as the similarly sized, and similarly named, but its small dimensions and inoffensive looks should appeal to most users.
There's very little in the way of input/output connectivity at the front, aside from the obligatory pair of USB ports and a couple of headphone and mic jacks. There's a decent range of I/O ports at the rear, but it's hard not to notice the lack of luxuries such as a memory card reader or even a floppy disk drive.
To its credit there are six USB ports at the rear of the unit, bringing the total to a healthy eight. There are also digital DVI and analogue D-Sub ports for connecting to an external monitor, and a serial port -- which may come in handy if you've got any ageing legacy peripherals. The accompanying keyboard and mouse are connected via PS/2 ports, thus maximising the number of USB ports available.
Given the dx5150's low price, it's no surprise to learn it's not stuffed to the gills with modern hardware. Our sample uses an Athlon 64 3200+ processor, which in fairness is still a fairly potent solution that will let you carry out pretty much any PC-based task at a decent speed. It's not the sort of processor you'll want to brag about to your technophile friends, who'll probably disown you for admitting the PC only has 512MB of DDR memory. Fortunately, this can be upgraded (to a maximum of 4GB), as can the CPU, which can go as high as an Athlon 64 4000+.
The whole shebang runs in conjunction with the ATI Radeon Xpress 200 chipset -- an ageing if not entirely decrepit system that provides just enough features to keep most PC users content. Among the most notable of these is support for dual-channel memory. Whereas early Pentium 4-based computers suffered performance bottlenecks (the processor was often left waiting for the memory to catch up with its requests), the Xpress 200 chipset's dual-channel memory controller is the PC's equivalent of opening an extra lane on the motorway. This allows greater memory bandwidth, which is particularly important in memory-intensive applications such as image or video editing.
The Xpress 200 chipset also provides the benefit of an onboard graphics adaptor. It's not very good in comparison to a discrete graphics card but it'll run undemanding DirectX 9 games at modest resolutions -- minus all the eye-candy special effects. You also get both digital DVI and analogue D-Sub video ports for extra flexibility when connecting it to an external display. If the idea of an integrated graphics adaptor doesn't float your boat, you can add a discrete graphics card in the motherboard's PCI Express 16x card slot, but this'll have to be a half-height model owing to the SFF case.
Sound output comes courtesy of the chipset's Southbridge -- the portion of the motherboard that controls most of its integrated features. You get eight distinct audio channels, so you can connect a set of surround-sound speakers, but don't expect it to produce studio-quality sound. If you want to record your own high-end audio, you'll need a high-end sound card such as the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi.
For your money you also get an 80GB hard drive and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive. This isn't an ideal pair for multimedia file hoarders, but it's fine if your data collection consists mainly of a few thousand pictures and the odd Word document. Don't expect to make large backups though -- the CD-rewriter can only burn around 700MB of data at a time. High-speed network backups are possible, however, thanks to the integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, which can transmit data at up to ten times faster than PCs with standard 10/100 LAN network ports.
Software's pretty thin on the ground, as you'd expect from such an inexpensive PC. You get a copy of Windows XP Home Edition and Norton AntiVirus 2005. There's also a two-year guarantee, the first year of which entitles you to on-site repairs, while the second gives you next business day parts and labour.
The HP dx5150's Athlon 64 3200+ and 512MB of RAM would have made an ideal foundation for a high-end PC just two years ago. But even today it doesn't fare too badly against PCs with more modern components. It clocked up a respectable PCMark 2005 total of 2,525, which indicates it's perfectly adequate for running everyday applications such as a Web browser, word processor, desktop publisher and even image- and video-editing applications. We'd recommend upgrading the PC with an extra 512MB of memory, but it's perfectly fine for the average user in its current state.
The dx5150's graphics performance isn't particularly inspiring. It's not a games machine by any stretch of the imagination, so if you fancy a spot of Doom 3, Far Cry or Half-Life 2 without jerky frame rates you should upgrade with a half-height PCI Express graphics card.
One of our favourite things about the dx5150 is its quiet operation. You won't find hoards of fans littering its vents, so if you like peace and quiet while you trawl the Web, you'll like this PC.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield