HP has decided that the onboard sound on the motherboard isn’t good enough for MCE duties and has installed a SoundBlaster Audigy 2 ZS card instead. HP has even gone to the trouble of blanking off the onboard audio ports, so that users don’t plug anything into them by mistake – a very considerate move and one that I’d like to see from other PC manufacturers.
Since HP has gone to the trouble of installing a dedicated sound card, it seems strange that the graphics card is such a weak link in the specification. the Radeon X300SE card isn’t going to get the latest games running, so if part of your entertainment PC wish list is 3D gaming you’re going to be a bit disappointed. Now, I usually don’t worry about 3D gaming performance on Media Center PCs, because they are usually designed to be living room boxes, but this HP isn’t – well, I wouldn’t want to have it in my living room anyway.
To be fair to HP, there are a couple of good reasons for the choice of graphics card. One is that it has helped keep the noise level down – the m1260.uk is a pretty quiet machine, even when it’s sitting on the desk next to you. The second reason for the choice of graphics card is cost, since HP has been very aggressive with the pricing of this system.
However, the level of 3D performance offered by the graphics card can be forgiven, but the lack of DVI output is particularly disappointing. When HP was showing off a Media Center PC last year, it was connected to a 23in widescreen LCD display, and with that type of screen you really want a clear and crisp digital connection. In fact with any LCD monitor, you really want to be connecting digitally for the best possible signal and image.
As well as the system unit itself, the m1260.uk ships with a wireless keyboard and mouse combination – they’re both reasonable units, but not quite up to the standard of the latest models from Microsoft or Logitech. The lack of a wrist rest is a little disappointing on the keyboard, but it does have a full array of multimedia buttons, including a volume dial. The mouse is a standard fare optical model with a scroll wheel – some may find its dimensions too small, but for me it was just about perfect.
A good inclusion is the wireless networking card, which ships with a external antenna for the best signal strength. Wireless networking is very important in a Media Center PC, since many of the features require connection to the Internet.
Rounding off the hardware package is a set of Altec Lansing speakers. This is a 2.1-channel set, comprising two satellites and a small subwoofer – the sound produced isn’t the best I’ve heard, but it’s good enough unless you’re trying to fill a large room.
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I said earlier that the DVD writer was a bit special, and it certainly is. As well as being a 16x burner, with dual layer disc support, this is also the first drive I’ve seen to offer Lightscribe functionality. When HP first showed me Lightscribe last October, I thought it looked pretty clever, but now that I’ve used it first hand I have to say that it’s quite simply superb. Lightscribe is a way to label your discs, without the need for stickers, or inkjet printers. Using a Lightscribe compatible blank disc, you can actually burn text and images to the disc surface.
HP has pre-installed Sonic Express Labeller, which makes getting your text and images onto your discs the simplest of procedures. Once you’ve decided on your design, you simple place a Lightscribe disc in the drive (upside down of course), and let the drive draw a pretty picture on it. Since this is a first generation product, it takes around half an hour to burn a full-disc image, but the results are well worth the wait. For anyone that likes to have copies of their legally owned music in the car with them, while the original stays safe on their shelf at home, this technology is just great – and it means you don’t have to worry about labels coming off while a disc is in your CD player. You can also create detailed disc art for your own creations – if you’re burning your holiday snaps to CD/DVD, why not Lightscribe one of your pictures onto the disc, along with some text saying where you went and when.