Does it ever make sense for an educated consumer to buy a preconfigured PC rather than configuring one online to exact specifications? In the case of the midrange HP Media Center m7260n Photosmart PC, the answer is a qualified yes. The $1,169 system includes features that will satisfy families and students (and may even include some things they never imagined they'd need) while costing less than many comparative systems. More-advanced users with specific hardware needs such as high-end graphics or an easy-to-upgrade case will balk at its one-size-fits-all approach, but multitasking mainstream users will put the system's dual-core CPU and multimedia features to good use right out of the box.
The m7260n looks innocuous enough with its low-key silver-and-gray case, but this outward friendliness belies a powerful passel of parts underneath the hood. The m7260n features a dual-core Pentium D 830 processor running at 3.0GHz, along with 1GB of RAM, a hefty 300GB hard drive, and a standard-def TV tuner. (The slightly cheaper m7246n model downgrades the CPU to a Pentium D 820 while the m7248n model goes the AMD route, with an Athlon 64 X2 4200+ dual-core processor. Our recent dual-core CPU prizefight feature showed that AMD dual-core chips outperform their Intel counterparts. We'd sacrifice 50GB of hard drive space and choose the cheaper AMD Athlon X2-based m7248n model.
The system features a nifty dock on top that accommodates a digital camera or an MP3 player and provides easy routing to run a FireWire cable to the back of the system. There are plenty of connections up front, including FireWire, S-Video, composite-video inputs, and dual USB 2.0 ports, and there are even more around back, including digital-audio and 7.1 surround-sound audio ports. All inputs and outputs are clearly labeled--a small but welcome gesture.
Given that the system is based around the Media Center OS, users could easily fill up its gigantic hard drive quickly with recorded TV shows. So HP gives you a handy option: a front-mounted slot for HP's proprietary Personal Media Drive. These internal/external hard drives come in 300GB ($280) and 400GB sizes ($350) and plug right into the slots like cartridges, providing plenty of additional storage space as well as excellent data-backup options. The Personal Media Drives can also connect to any system via a USB 2.0 connection.
The one drawback of the Personal Media Drive becomes apparent when you twist the case's two thumbscrews and remove its side panel. Inside, you'll find that the housing for the slot blocks access to many components, so swapping out the hard drive or one of the optical drives, or even adding more RAM, can be a small nightmare. Mainstream consumers who have no intention of opening their cases for upgrades may not be bothered by this, while intrepid upgraders will find one 5.25-inch drive bay and one PCI slot open.
Optical-drive duties are handled by a double-layer LightScribe DVD burner and a standard DVD-ROM drive. HP's LightScribe technology lets you burn grayscale text, photos, and preformatted CD label art directly onto specially coated discs, adding a professional, if time-consuming, touch to your projects.
Despite having a dual-core Pentium D 830, one of the highest-end processors available today, the m7260n's performance doesn't shine. In testing it lagged behind other systems with nearly identical configurations, scoring 5 percent slower than the Sony VAIO RC110G in CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 benchmarks. (To the m7260n's credit, it costs less and provides a larger hard drive than the VAIO RC110G.) Though it lags behind other dual-core systems, the m7260n far outpaces the single-core Pentium 4 530-based Shuttle XPC 8300mc by a healthy 13 percent. A dual-core CPU is a smart choice for a versatile Media Center system such as the m7260n, where you might find yourself recording TV while running an antivirus app and Web browsing, as dual-core CPUs are better equipped to handle multitasking than single-core CPUs.