HP's latest desktop targets both multimedia lovers and mid-level gamers, and does reasonably well at this to boot. The standout feature that will get the most attention though is the combined Blu-ray/HD DVD player.
At first glance, the m9090a's chassis is just like any other black case, and seems to be a little unexciting when compared to high-end competitors machines out there. After a closer look, you begin to notice the nice details though. The HP logo that glows faintly blue on the front. A rubberised bay at the top to hold your gadgets for either transferring data or charging, complete with cable management for up to four cables. The hidden ports on the front. The power button mounted on top of the machine, and one of the sexiest optical drive eject buttons we've used.
The case follows a BTX design, meaning that it is opened on the opposite side than most are used to. Inside is an utter wiring shambles, which makes upgrading a pain and is bad for airflow, meaning the fans have to work harder to keep the machine cool, and ultimately produce more noise. Fortunately the m9090a never reached an annoying level of sound, although the rear fan worked up a slight clicking after some intense use.
Admittedly upgrading isn't the intent for this machine, as simply the act of opening it can impact your warranty. There's only one PCI slot, one PCI-e x16 and one PCI-e x1 slot as it is, and everything except the x1 slot is filled -- this is intended to be a one-shot purchase machine.
The m9090a is well featured, with a card reader at the top (SM/xD/CF/MD/MS), wireless b/g networking, and two proprietary bays for HP's own external USB drives. While this is a good way to start people backing up and the drives are compatible with other machines through a simple USB cable, we get the feeling that most will opt instead for a third party brand that's more in the public eye like Seagate, Western Digital or Maxtor, or possibly something that's eSATA enabled for better speeds.
More successful perhaps is the "HP Media Backup" physical button next to these bays, giving one-touch access to HP's backup program, which is also capable of network backups and scheduling. It's a nice touch to overcome a regular problem with home users -- and thankfully is even smart enough not to let you backup to your system drive in case you lose it.
Hidden behind the "Connect Points" door on the bottom left are two USB ports, one firewire, microphone in and headphones out, as well as composite/S-Video in and RCA audio in, almost bringing it up against Dell's XPS 420, but without hardware accelerated MPEG2/4 encoding, meaning the CPU will be hit hard.
A hybrid analog/digital TV tuner is included, but only contains the one tuner -- meaning that you can't record a channel while watching another at the same time -- a quite hefty omission on HP's behalf considering the digital media angle on the Elite. Fortunately the dual 500GB drives should store quite a bit of recorded video before you have to think about burning things off or transferring to a file server.
In terms of video the included GeForce 8600GT may not be the most powerful video card around, but will keep the moderate gamer happy, and the included HDMI port means that this will do well as a media centre, despite its desktop form factor. Sound is also able to travel over the HDMI port (once you set it up as the primary sound device in Vista), as HP has linked the video card to the SPDIF out port on the motherboard. The quad core Intel Core 2 Q6600 CPU is quite feisty as well, which should be able to handle the high definition decodes that the graphics card can't accelerate (namely, VC1 content, unlike the ATI equivalent).
A remote is included, as is a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse to further seal its fate as a media centre PC, however some will be turned off by the desktop form factor in this regard.
On the software side, an official PowerDVD isn't included despite other Cyberlink apps being bundled, instead relying on the HP branded "DVD Play" -- which we suspect is simply a rebranded PowerDVD anyway. Annoyingly it wasn't fully Vista Compatible, dropping the theme back to Vista Basic once the video started playing. While region setting for Blu-ray is in the program, it's not easy to find for first time users, or, as the case may be, experienced users trying to find the options panel. HD DVD of course played instantly, being region free.
Things don't get much better on the bundled software front, continuing HP's odd affiliation of including Yahoo as the default search and home page in Internet Explorer, but also bundling Google's toolbar. More annoying links are to Dodo Internet and Telstra BigPond sign ups, as well as Yellow and White pages links. A whole swag of rebranded casual game demos have been included, which can be dutifully ignored.