We suspect many hard-core PC gamers will be turned off by the HP Firebird 803 ("with VoodooDNA", according to the official product name) because it lacks upgradeability. Fair enough. For everyone else who might consider spending $2,099 on a gaming desktop, you will find it awfully hard to turn away from what this PC has to offer. The spiritual kid brother to HP's Blackbird 002, the Firebird brings some of that high-end system's modular design elements down to a more refined scale. It also makes a statement of its own with remarkable power efficiency and strong performance and features for its price. Assuming you can get past the restricted upgrade path, the Firebird 803 will meet or exceed your expectations for an upper midrange gaming PC.
If you're unaware of the meaning behind "VoodooDNA" referenced above, the Firebird is the product of HP's 2006 acquisition of boutique PC vendor VoodooPC. Since then, VoodooPC's CEO Rahul Sood (now HP's CTO of Global Gaming) has been charged with reinvigorating HP's game PC efforts, the first product of which was the high-end Blackbird 002. The Firebird is the second.
Like the Blackbird, the Firebird features a unique, accordion-style chassis, with the main body supported by a cantilevered base. The benefit of this design is increased airflow to the inside of the system by allowing air to come up from the bottom. This feature is no longer unique to HP's PCs, but no other desktop chassis that we've seen uses the same dramatic design.
Even though the Firebird is similar in design language to the Blackbird, this new system is much smaller and easier to maneuver. In part, HP reduced the bulk of the chassis by planning for a smaller set of internal components and sticking with more plastic and lighter metal on the Firebird's exterior than that of the Blackbird. But HP also opted for a 350-watt external power supply for the Firebird, which helps keep the system weight in check.
In addition to its smaller profile, the Firebird also maintains a minimalist aesthetic on its front and rear panel. The Blu-ray drive slot, a hidden media card reader, and the power and reset buttons are the only features on the front of the case. The back is covered in ports that all sit flush with the back panel, each in a purpose-cut spot accompanied by the appropriate symbol, with no color-coding. While the Firebird might lack some of the user-friendliness of color-coded ports and front-side USB inputs, we can't deny the polished, Mac-like visual effect of the simplified design.
We mentioned the lack of upgradeability right at the start of this review, and when you pop open or remove the Firebird's hinged side panel and get a look inside you'll see what we mean. The memory and hard drives are both easily accessible (although you only get two slots for each), but instead of even a single 1X PCI Express, the motherboard presents you with a pair reflective metal blocks, each connected to its own liquid cooling tube.
These blocks are in fact the Firebird's graphics cards. Rather than use a traditional expansion card design, HP opted for Nvidia's MXM graphics card packaging, most common to laptops and all-in-one PCs. The benefit of MXM is that it's a much smaller design than traditional expansion cards, and geared for power and cooling efficiency. The trade-off is expandability. If you're brave enough, you can go digging on sites like MXM-Upgrade for DIY upgrade kits, but for the most part MXM never took off as a consumer-side upgrade path. You aren't likely to find an MXM-format card for sale at Newegg, and the alternatives are daunting for all but the most dedicated enthusiasts.
|HP Firebird 803||Dell XPS 625|
|CPU||2.83GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550||3.0GHz AMD Phenom II X4 940|
|Motherboard chipset||Nvidia MCP7A||AMD 790X|
|Memory||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||(2) 512MB Nvidia GeForce 9800S graphics cards||512MB ATI Radeon HD 4850|
|Hard drives||(2) 320GB 5,400 rpm hard drives||500GB, 7,200 rpm|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray drive/dual-layer DVD burner||dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n/ wireless, Bluetooth||Gigabit Ethernet|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit SP1||Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit SP1|
We haven't reviewed a gaming PC right at $2,099 lately, so we've opted to compare the Firebird directly against the most recent one we've covered, Dell's XPS 625. Given the $600 price difference, we obviously expect more from the Firebird, and it delivers in features and in performance, as you'll see below. The key thing to point out is that there's very little in the Firebird 803 that we'd want to change out of the box. Even though it's small, it's not really a living-room PC, so you may not have any interest in the Firebird's wireless networking or Blu-ray capabilities. The $1,799 Firebird 802 lacks those extras, but it also has a slower quad-core CPU and smaller hard drives.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)