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Because there was some confusion the first time we reviewed a customizable HP Slimline desktop, we'll make it known right from the start that this system is not like the budget Slimlines you'll find on store shelves. Instead, the Pavilion Slimline s3200t is HP's online version. You can configure it to be as low as $450, but the build we're reviewing here will run you $1,540. The main reason is that it was configured with HD movie-watching in mind. And compared to traditional HD-capable PCs, this Slimline is not only an absolute steal, it's also technically more advanced, thanks to its hybrid HD DVD/Blu-ray optical drive. If you're looking to integrate a PC into your home theater, HP has the best, most HD-versatile deal going with this system, and earns our Editors' Choice as a result.
The best of both high-def worlds
If you want to know the main reason why we like this system so much, head on over to the desktop and laptop configurators for Dell, Alienware, Toshiba, or Sony, and also take a look at the fixed-configuration Sony VAIO LT19U. Each of those vendors narrow-mindedly professes loyalty to either Blu-ray or HD DVD, and in the case of the Blu-ray faithful, you need to pay a minimum of $350 for the upgrade. Then look at HP's Slimline configurator and you'll see the HD DVD/Blu-ray hybrid drive option will cost you a mere $250. In other words, instead of paying lots of money for one format, HP charges you less and lets you play both HD DVD and Blu-ray movies in one drive. Format war over, HP wins.
We will grant that if all you want is hybrid HD functionality from a single device, the LG BH100 hybrid disc player is a better deal, as you can find it for as low as $700 or so. Of course, it's not a computer. We will also concede that some of the Blu-ray drives in competing systems have an advantage with their burning capability. HP's drive will only burn standard DVDs. Perhaps the lack of Blu-ray burning will cause some of you to pause, and fair enough, but we're willing to forgo homemade Blu-ray discs for the simple fact that this drive will play HD movies of both formats. We're content to let Hollywood provide the content.
Still a few issues
You should consider a few other issues with this system, and PC-based high-def movie-watching in general to consider before you buy. First, the Cyberlink software that comes with the Slimline won't let you use your mouse to drive the menus on HD DVD discs. Instead you have to use the software's interface, which is a clunky workaround. This problem affects every PC that uses Cyberlink's software for HD DVD playback, so it's not exclusive to HP.
The other caveat is HDMI compatibility across both the PC and consumer electronics industries is still dodgy. We had solid Blu-ray and HD DVD playback on a 24-inch Dell LCD via the DVI connection, but when we tried to test via the Slimline's HDMI out going to a Samsung LN-T4061F LCD TV, the TV gave us a signal error. We've had success with HDMI connections from ATI-based PCs such as the Alienware Hangar18 to that TV, but the Nvidia-equipped HP wouldn't make it happen. HP informed us that while neither card is perfect (thanks in part to the TV manufacturer botching certain copy-protection info), ATI's cards are better at reacting on the fly to signal issues. HP says it chose Nvidia, though, because of better HD image quality. We've found no significant quality distinction between the two, and we also like ATI's cards better because they make it easier to pipe audio out via the HDMI port. Thus, we wish HP had gone with an ATI video card on this system instead. If you do make a purchase, you would be wise to do some research into your TV to find out if it has any HDMI compatibility issues.
Under the hood
All this talk about 3D cards brings us to system performance, because after all, the Slimline s3200t is still a computer. Here's how its specs compare to the Alienware Hangar18, a traditionally shaped home theater PC we reviewed in a $3,796 configuration:
|HP Pavilion Slimline s3200t||Alienware Hangar18|
|CPU||2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500||2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600|
|Memory||2GB of DDR2 at 667MHz||2GB of DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz|
|Graphics||256MB Nvidia GeForce 8500 GT||256MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT|
|Hard drives||500GB at 7,200 rpm||Two 1TB at 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drive||Blu-Ray/HD DVD player with LightScribe DVD burner||2x Blu-ray burner|
|Networking||802.11b/g wireless, Gigabit Ethernet||802.11b/g wireless, Bluetooth, Gigabit Ethernet|
|TV Tuner||Integrated ATSC/NTSC tuner||Integrated ATSC/NTSC tuner, (external ATI Digital Cable tuner available through resellers)|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium||Windows Vista Home Premium|
Naturally, the Alienware has the edge in some categories, but none that we consider mission critical for a home theater PC, and especially none that justify the Alienware's $2,000-plus price differential. The biggest features in the Hangar18's favor are its 2TB total of hard-drive storage, the Bluetooth (via the wireless keyboard receiver), and the Digital Cable tuner compatibility. But both the extra hard-drive storage and the Bluetooth are surmountable for the Slimline via user upgrades. HP offers no Digital Cable tuner option with the Slimline, which might be a letdown if you're angling for free HD PVR via a CableCard-equipped PC. We also suppose that the Hangar18's true horizontal case is a better fit for most home entertainment centers than the HP's vertically oriented housing, although you can always flip the HP on its side, and failing that, it's small enough to stand upright without causing too much of an eyesore.
And although the HD drive makes a strong case for putting the Slimline in the living room, the fact remains that it, like every home theater PC, is still a Windows-based computer, from which we expect a certain level of performance based on its price and specs. As you can see from out charts, the Slimline also performs well in this regard.
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering a single CPU|
|1,024x768 (4xAA, 8xAF)|
Again, compare the $1,540 HP to the $3,800 Alienware, and the HP looks like a remarkable deal. Its scores on every test were either as good or better than the Alienware system. The Slimline also trounces Sony's non-HD, $1,600 VAIO TP1. It was no surprise that the Dell XPS 420 won on every test given its configuration. It's also a traditional full-tower desktop that you're more likely to use as your primary PC than the Slimline in its HD configuration. For the money, and compared to other home theater PCs, then, the Slimline is an outstanding performer. It will get you through photo editing and music file encoding with little trouble, and you might even be able to play a 3D game or two at modest settings.
The little things count, too.
For the rest of its features, the Slimline offers few surprises. The wireless RF mouse and keyboard are decidedly desktop-oriented and are fine for that purpose. We'd like to see HP offer a scaled-down keyboard, and perhaps a motion-sensitive mouse or remote for more living-room-friendly usage. Unlike other HP desktops, the Slimline's Pocket Media Drive slot sits unobtrusively on the bottom edge of the system, giving you room for removable extra storage but without cluttering up the inside of the systems. For other upgrades, you don't get a ton of room to work with. You'll have to opt for half-height expansion cards due to the size of the system, and you'll also need to replace the extant graphics and TV tuner cards. You'll also need to remove the optical drive to get at the memory and the one internal hard drive slot. Finally, we'd like to see 802.11n Wi-Fi become the de facto standard for potential living-room-based PCs, as streaming HD content over the HP's (and others') narrower 802.11a/b/g connections is less than ideal.
Software-wise, HP trumps Alienware here again with the integration of its HD player software with Windows Media Center. Simply, HP's works. Alienware's gave us all kinds of trouble, and sometimes just plain wouldn't function. The crapware icons, as usual with HP, are in full effect on the Slimline's desktop, coming in this time with eight or so offers for additional services and programs to buy. They're nothing you can't delete easily, but they're still a nuisance. There's also no equivalent of the Adobe Elements Studio like you'll find on Dell's systems these days, leaving HP without a Windows-based competitor to Apple's iLife digital-media-editing software.
HP's support is among the best in the industry, at least in depth if not length. The one-year parts-and-labor coverage and 24-7 toll-free phone support fits right in with the industry standard, no more, no less. Online, you'll find the usual raft of support help, from driver downloads, tech chat options and other features. We also like HP's TotalCare software that comes on each system and provides you with easy-to-understand system information to help you diagnose problems yourself and prevent them before they happen, both without requiring a working Web connection.
Find out more about how we test desktops.
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB ATI Radeon HD 2400 XT graphics card; two 1TB 7,200rpm hard drives
Apple Mac Mini
Apple OS X; 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 64MB (shared) Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip; 120GB 5,400rpm Hitachi hard drive
Dell XPS 420
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600; 2GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT graphics card; two 320GB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drives
HP Pavilion Slimline s3200t
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E4500; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 8500 GT; 500GB 7,200rpm Samsung hard drive
Sony VAIO TP1 Living Room PC
Windows Vista Home Premium; 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5600; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 32MB (shared) Intel 945GM integrated graphics chip; 300GB 7,200rpm Seagate hard drive