HP's new Slimline Pavilion s7600e strikes a near-perfect balance of size, features, value, and support. Apple's Mac Mini might be more attractive, but there's almost nothing it can do that this small-form-factor Windows PC can't do better, and for less. If you're looking for a general-purpose desktop or a small, affordable PC to send media files to your TV, this should be your pick.
The reason we like the Slimline so much is because of its features. In nearly every aspect, it beats the Mac Mini, its main competition. For core hardware, the config HP sent us came with a 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ processor; 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM; and a 250GB, 7,200rpm hard drive. Those features, among others (which we'll get to), are all upgrades to the core Slimline PC config and bring the $450 postrebate base price up to our review unit's $975. To get the Mac Mini as close as it can to those specs, you'd have to pay $1,075, and the hard drive would still be only 160GB, or 90GB smaller than our HP's. You could even dial the Mac Mini to $1,152 if you add an Apple mouse and keyboard, which would be fair, since the HP comes with its own input devices.
Both the Slimline s7600e and the 1.83GHz Mac Mini come with DVD burners, although our review unit was the LightScribe model (a $40 upgrade over the standard DVD burner), which can etch black-and-white images onto the surface of a disc. We don't find LightScribe all that exciting, mostly because it's slow, but we're sure some people like it. What we appreciate more is the HP's wireless networking capability. It's a $25 add-on here, whereas with the Mac Mini it comes standard. That feature is part of what makes these small PCs so home entertainment-friendly. It's easy to imagine hooking them up to your television and to play movies and music and display photos. The HP lets you do that with Windows Media Center, and the Mac Mini with Apple's Front Row software.
HP also has the edge in other features, but this is in part due to its design. When you go bigger on the case, you can do more. For example, the Slimline has a 9-in-1 media card reader for easy digital media transfers from cameras and other devices. The Mac Mini requires you to plug your devices in directly, because it doesn't have internal space to accommodate a media card drive. We also suspect Apple doesn't want to disturb the Mini's clean-lined exterior.
We're less sure why the Mac Mini doesn't have a TV tuner. WinBook proved that it's possible to fit a tuner in a small case with its Jiv Mini. HP's Slimline has one by way of its half-height PCI expansion slot. We don't love PC-based TV viewing because of the poor image quality, and if you had one of these small PCs connected to your TV, you wouldn't need a tuner anyway. What we like about the HP more than the tuner itself is the PCI slot that lets you add a card in the first place. That expandability might be limited because it allows half-height cards, but it's better than nothing. The Mac Mini gives you no options here; it's a closed box, and any extras have to either connect wirelessly or hang off a direct connection. With the HP, you can add, for example, a half-height 128MB ATI Radeon X1300 PCI card and be ready to run full-blown Windows Vista with the Aero visual effects.
For performance, we compared the HP Pavilion Slimline s7600e to the 1.83GHz Mac Mini on as many tests as possible, and we also added in several similar Windows PCs that compare in either concept, such as the Dell Dimension C521, or in specs, such as the eMachines T5212. Those latter systems cost only $600 or less, but they're midtower desktops. Mostly, we weren't surprised by the numbers we saw. Given its higher-end CPU, the Dell system was faster overall, and given the various intricacies of matching applications to their native applications, the Slimline beat the Mac Mini on Photoshop and lost to it on iTunes. The Slimline beat the 1.83GHz Mac Mini on CNET Labs' Cinebench test, which rates a multicore PC's ability to encode a video file. It wasn't by much, but it was still a victory. What these numbers really tell us is that the HP Slimline s7600e and the 1.83GHz Mac Mini each have their strengths (music encoding for the Mac, photo and video encoding for the Slimline), and in general, they deliver solid performance for their respective prices and configs.
|Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test|
|Apple iTunes encoding test|
|Microsoft Office productivity test|
|Rendering multiple CPUs||Rendering single CPU|
We have to give HP credit over Apple as well for its support. Both have a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, but the Mac Mini gets you only 90 days of phone support. HP gives you a full year of 24/7 phone help. Both offer a wealth of online resources, but HP goes the extra mile there as well. HP recently unveiled its Instant Care program, which, like DellConnect and eMachine's Live Chat support, gives a support tech direct control of your system for remote troubleshooting (and in all cases, with your consent). Apple has its forums, which are very active, but that doesn't come close to this new crop of remote-assistance tools.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Apple iMac Core 2 Duo 17-inch
OS X 10.4.7; 1.83GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5600; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; integrated 64MB Intel GMA 950 graphics chip; 160GB Western Digital 7,200rpm SATA
Apple Mac Mini (1.66GHz)
OS X 10.4.7; 1.66GHz Intel Core Duo T2300; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; integrated 64MB Intel GMA 950 graphics chip; 60GB Fujitsu 5,400rpm SATA
Apple Mac Mini (1.83GHz)
OS X 10.4.7; 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo T2400; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; integrated 64MB Intel GMA 950 graphics chip; 80GB Fujitsu 5,400rpm SATA
Cyberpower Back to School 2006
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 512MB Nvidia 7300GS; 250GB Western Digital 7,200rpm SATA
Dell Dimension C521
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core 4600+; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB ATI Radeon X1300 Pro; 320GB Western Digital 7,200rpm SATA
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 2.66GHz Intel Pentium D 805; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 533MHz; integrated 128MB ATI Radeon Xpress 200; 200GB Seagate 7,200rpm EIDE
HP Pavilion Slimline s7600e
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core 3800+; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 500MHz; integrated 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6150 LE; 250GB Western Digital 7,200rpm SATA