by Eric Grevstad
If you're wondering how much PC you can buy on a $1000 budget, we have a hands-on test of just such a system: the HP Pavilion 753n. This holiday-buying-season desktop is now in stock at a superstore near you, monitor not included, for $999 (or $999.97, if you shop at profit-crazed CompUSA).
The 753n is the next-to-the-top of HP's new fall lineup (identified by model numbers ending in 3, as opposed to last June's 2). It hits the magic under-$1,000 price point by dropping the DVD+RW drive and GeForce4 MX graphics card found in the $1,249 Pavilion 763n, settling instead for 16X DVD-ROM and 40/10/40X CD-RW drives and Intel's 845G integrated graphics chipset (though at least there's an AGP 4X slot for aftermarket alternatives).
But otherwise, it gives Joe and Jane Consumer and the kids a lot of not-far-from-cutting-edge components: Intel's 2.53GHz Pentium 4 processor (with 533MHz instead of 400MHz system bus), a full 512MB of DDR SDRAM, an 80GB hard disk, 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet connections, six speedy USB 2.0 ports (two mounted handily up front), and three speedy IEEE 1394 FireWire ports (one mounted handily up front). While it can't record DVDs, HP preinstalls a stack of image- and video-editing software and a "Memories Disc" program to burn digital-camera slide shows with music onto CDs, as well as an assortment of hand-holding helpers and online game and music offers.
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It adds up to a thoroughly powerful PC, with one lopsided exception: Intel's integrated "Extreme Graphics" are extremely slow for anyone hoping to play the latest 3D games. Our Pavilion puttered along at a barely adequate 45 frames per second (fps) when playing Quake III Arena in lowly Normal 640 by 480 mode, and stumbled to 17 fps in High-Quality 1,024 by 768 resolution.
The system's 3DMark 2001 SE Pro benchmark score of 1,408 is on par with other economy desktops and laptops with integrated chipsets, but less than half as fast as a Gateway we tested recently with an Nvidia GeForce2 MX chip (which was a midrange model two years ago), and a mere fraction of the performance of today's blazing 3D cards.
We don't expect HP to match the lowball pricing of an eMachines - which just introduced a $999 Web-order special with an Athlon XP 2200+ chip and ATI's record-setting Radeon 9700 Pro card - but cheap, unsuitable-for-game graphics are a slap in the face to kids (and not a few adults) in today's PC-buying families. It's been a gripe of ours for years, and it's gotten worse - actually, it's gotten grotesque when you consider the 753n has what was until eight weeks ago Intel's fastest CPU.
Even though performance purists will shudder at yoking the 2.53GHz Pentium 4's 533MHz front-side bus to 266MHz PC2100 DDR memory (the 845G chipset doesn't support DDR333 as its newer siblings do), the Pavilion roars through the PCMark 2002 benchmark with a dazzling CPU score of 6,103, memory score of 4,418, and hard disk score of 925. In SysMark 2002, its Internet Content Creation rating of 291 and Office Productivity score of 125 add up to a world-class overall result of 191. In short, performance-minded PC users should be very happy to find a 753n under the Christmas tree - as long as there's also a $100 to $200 AGP 4X card in their stocking.
Of course, lots of lower-priced retail PCs are sentenced to integrated graphics for life, with no AGP slot to add that 3D-worthy video card. The Pavilion, with the same blue-gray minitower case that HP's used for some time, earns a B-minus for upgradability or access to said slot: Two thumbscrews let you lift off the side panel and get at the system's innards, but most of the motherboard is hidden beneath drive bays and the cooling-fan hood that covers the CPU.
The Micro-Star International MS-6577 motherboard is a compact affair with three PCI slots and one AGP slot; just one of the PCI slots is vacant, the others holding the Lucent 56Kbps Winmodem and an expansion card for the IEEE 1394 ports - two on the card's bracket facing the rear, one routed via a cable to join two of the USB 2.0 ports behind a door at the bottom of the Pavilion's front panel.
Between the cords leading to the three front-panel ports and to the powered speaker port at the system's rear, installing an AGP or third PCI card will take a bit of care. Ditto for upgrading the system memory - a single 512MB DIMM module leaves one socket free for adding more DDR266, though the sockets are all but buried under drive cables.
One 3.5-inch internal drive bay is open; the 5,400-rpm Western Digital WD800AB 80GB hard disk fills another, while CyberDrive CW078D CD-RW (officially a 40/10/48X drive, though HP bills it as 40/10/40X) and Samsung SD-616F 16X DVD-ROM drives fill the front-accessible 5.25-inch bays ("front-accessible," in Pavilion tradition, meaning hidden behind labeled doors that flop down at the push of a button and - rather slowly - close themselves once you've pushed the drive tray back in). A 1.44MB floppy drive completes the storage array, while an 200-watt power supply keeps everything going.
Plenty of ports adorn the Pavilion's rear panel: PS/2 mouse and keyboard, parallel, serial, VGA, Ethernet, four USB 2.0, and audio line-in, line-out, and microphone jacks as well as the powered jack for the supplied Polk Audio stereo speakers. With no subwoofer, the latter - designed to be hung on the sides of an HP monitor, but also able to stand on your desk - deliver merely adequate output for the system's Avance AC97 motherboard audio, but we appreciated that they're AC-adapter-free and hence don't fight the PC and our printer, monitor, cable modem, and other peripherals for space at the outlet trough.
Both the mouse and keyboard have classic PS/2 rather than USB connectors, but the mouse is a modern optical (not mechanical rolling-ball) design with scroll wheel. The HP "Internet Command Center" keyboard has a plasticky but solid typing feel and a slew of buttons to launch not only your Web browser and e-mail client but various shopping, sports, and other sites, as well as printing, help, and multimedia volume-control and CD/DVD play/pause/next/previous track buttons.
A majority of the top-row buttons can be reprogrammed via Windows' Control Panel to launch your favorite sites or applications, though the Pavilion greets buyers with a minefield of marketing promos and links to HP's and partners' sites - everything from the WildTangent game channel to MusicMatch Radio and the EMusic MP3 subscription service. One option, a skinny "HP Center" toolbar, stays at the top of the screen to offer pull-down access to help, shopping, Web hosting, and other services.
If most of the online offers are delete-me-quick fodder, the preinstalled software is more enjoyable. Like Gateway, Sony, and Dell, HP has snubbed Microsoft and slimmed its PC prices by combining Windows XP Home Edition with Corel's full-powered WordPerfect 10 and Quattro Pro 10 instead of the entry-level Microsoft Works; a "Task Manager" menu puts a friendly face on the industrial-strength word processor and spreadsheet with various newsletter, school, mortgage-loan, and home-inventory templates.
ArcSoft's Showbiz home-video editor, PhotoImpression image editor, and greeting-card and paste-your-face-into-a-novelty-photo programs join HP's "Memories Disc" in offering plenty of pastimes for digital camera or camcorder owners, while house-brand versions of Veritas' RecordNow and InterVideo's WinDVD (the latter with plenty of plugs for the full-version upgrade) take care of CD-R or -RW recording and DVD movie-watching. Intuit's Quicken Financial Center and a 90-day version of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2002 (but no snoop-fighting firewall) complete the bundle.
Overall, the Pavilion 753n leaves us reasonably impressed with how much consumers will get for their thousand bucks this holiday season - with the big exception of its slow integrated graphics, it makes it difficult for even PC enthusiasts to look down their noses at civilian electronics-store shoppers. On the minus side, it's easy to swoon over the magic $999 figure and forget that $250 more will get you both a halfway decent 3D card and DVD burner from the step-up Pavilion 763n model, or that $50 more will get you at least the 3D card in a comparable Dell or Gateway. If we were a superstore manager, we'd offer HP buyers a discount on an ATI Radeon 9000 Pro.
Pros: More-than-ample 2.53GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of DDR, 80GB hard disk; mice software bundle; nice keyboard controls and front-panel USB 2.0 and FireWire ports.
Cons: There's an AGP slot, but it's empty - integrated graphics slow as molasses; too many online shopping/game/music-subscription offers.
Reprinted from www.hardwarecentral.com.