The 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor in the Pavilion a1740n is an adequate dual-core CPU, but if you pay just a little more, you can get the faster 2.6GHz dual core Athlon 64 X2 5000+ in the Dell. We also found that if you're willing to go with a lesser known brand such as iBuypower, you can get a better PC for the same price; for instance, its $850 Value 640 that came with the faster Core 2 Duo E6400 chip, although we'd tweak its config a bit. You could also look at HP's Pavilion m7750n, which, at least on paper, looks as if it would compare more favorably as well. We wish HP had sent us that system instead.
Aside from the CPU, the Pavilion a1740n is very much like the other systems we've mentioned. It comes with 2GB of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM, perfect for running Windows Vista Home Premium. The more expensive Dell has a low-budget graphics card, which is a little better than the HP's integrated Intel chip, but both look weak compared with the iBuypower's GeForce 7600 GS 3D card. That system would be the hands-down winner in the low-mid range category, but it has only 1GB of memory. If you trade the 3D card for another gig of memory, you'd be set.
On CNET Labs' performance tests, you can see that the HP falls mostly flat compared with others in its class. On the processor-intensive iTunes and CineBench tests, all of the other similar PCs performed better than the Pavilion a1740n. It did a little better than the iBuypower on Photoshop, likely because the HP has more memory, as stated above. The HP's multitasking performance shines brightest here, but we were unable to run that test on the Dell due to early Windows Vista issues that weren't Dell's fault, so we can't compare it to the HP based on that test. The iBuypower still comes out ahead, though.
For gaming, we tried to run FEAR at our most forgiving 1,024x768 resolution and the HP turned in a whopping 3.7 frames per second. You might have better luck with casual games, but for even basic 3D gaming, we highly recommend you add a graphics card.
If you were to purchase the Pavilion a1740n with the idea to upgrade it, you at least get some room to add hardware. A free x16 PCI Express slot stands ready to accept a graphics card, although a 250-watt power supply limits you to low- and midrange cards at best. You also have two free standard PCI slots, as well as two spare slots for memory.
We have a moderate beef with the hard drive options on this system, however. The included 320GB, 7,200rpm hard drive gives you plenty of room for basic multimedia file storage. And while you could normally add another drive to this case, HP blocks the spare bay with a socket for one of its portable Pocket Media Drives. Those are cool little drives--that you can connect externally as well--but they're also much more expensive per gigabyte than a standard hard drive.
For nonobstructive removable storage, a media card reader on the front panel will accept up to nine kinds of flash storage. The LightScribe DVD burner also is a flexible option, in that it will accept all manner of standard definition optical discs. You also get a spare bay for a second optical drive, if you'd like to add one later, although we'd submit that this free space might be a better place for the Pocket Media Drive bay.
That HP asks you to buy a less-than-economical portable hard drive if you want to expand Pavilion a1740n's storage space points to a more general problem we have with this system, which becomes apparent when you power it on. On the Windows desktop screen, we count eight different icons the ultimate goal of which is to sell you some product or service. This trend has been growing for the past year across the entire PC industry, but in our experience, HP is the worst offender in terms of relentlessly pitching you extras. We understand that the advertising revenue might help offset the cost of the PC. We'll also concede that the icons are easy enough to delete, although that begs the question that if they are that easy to eliminate, can HP really be getting that much money for them? Regardless, we'd much prefer that the upselling stop when you leave the store.
The one exception to our recommendation against this system might be HP's support. We don't really account for the quality of phone support in our reviews, since quality or poor phone care is far too hit-or-miss to rate reliably. But from HP's informative Web site to its preinstalled Total Care Advisor software, to its InstantCare remote access tech support, HP provides robust tools for self-diagnosis and to support its own tech support efforts. The default warranty is standard for a system in this class, covering parts and labor for one year, with 24-7 phone help available as well.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)