- Review Price: £999.00
When HP showed me its latest Media Center PC last October in Monte Carlo, I was, to be honest, less than impressed. It seemed that HP hadn’t quite grasped the idea that a Media Center system should look more like a consumer electronics device than a PC. Whereas most manufacturers have been striving to design system cases that would fit in nicely with your home cinema equipment, HP had decided to stick firmly with the PC form factor and construct its Media Center machine in a familiar tower case.
My original misgivings about the HP’s choice of form factor remain, but having played with the m1260.uk for a while now, I’ve come to realise that it’s not a machine without merit, far from it in fact. For a start, HP has done its best to make the tower case look good, and the sliver and black finish has a reasonably stylish aura to it. At the top of the tower is a memory card reader that can handle pretty much anything you care to throw at it, short of TransFlash. A memory card reader is very important for a Media Center PC as it allows you to transfer your digital photographs easily and quickly. The matt silver finish to the card reader contrasts well with the gloss black finish surrounding it.
Below the card reader is the DVD writer, hidden behind a gloss black door. The DVD writer that HP has used is something a little special, but I’ll come back to that a bit later. Below the DVD writer is another 5.25in drive bay hidden behind a gloss black door, but this one is left empty for potential upgrades. Quite a few PC cases use doors to hide the optical drives, but many of them suffer from poor eject mechanisms. Thankfully, the eject button on the m1260.uk works effortlessly with the DVD writer and only the slightest amount of pressure is required.
The array of features on the front fascia doesn’t end there though. There’s a sliding black panel that hides a plethora of connection options. There’s an S-Video input, composite video input and stereo audio inputs. There are also two mini-jack connectors for headphones and mic, as well as two USB 2.0 ports and a six-pin FireWire port.
To the left of the connection ports is one of the best features of the m1260.uk – a spring loaded door that hides a vertically mounted drive bay for HP’s Personal Media Drive (PMD). The PMD is a 160GB removable hard disk that’s completely hot swappable. The PMD connects via USB 2.0 and when you slide it into the drive bay it automatically connects to a USB port and power plug. Of course, being a removable drive, the PMD doesn’t only work with the m1260.uk – HP ships an external power supply and USB 2.0 cable with the PMD so that you can connect it up to any PC. So, taking into account the 160GB internal hard disk as well, you’ve got an impressive amount of storage space – always useful in a Media Center PC.
Inside the m1260.uk you’ll find an Intel Pentium 4 CPU running at 2.93GHz and 512MB of RAM. There’s also a Hauppauge WinTV PVR II tuner card, complete with integrated FM radio receiver. It’s a shame that HP has chosen to fit only one TV tuner, since MCE 2005 supports dual tuners – the upshot being that you won’t be able to watch one programme while you record another. It’s also an analogue TV tuner and I would have preferred to have seen a DVB card instead.
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.
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.
When you’ve been a technology journalist as long as I have, you don’t come across something genuinly innovative very often, but Lightscribe is just that and I can see it becoming a standard feature on all drives very soon. Obviously you’re going to pay a price premium for Lightscribe media, at least for the time being, but that should erode over time. Of more concern right now is finding media at all, but luckily Verbatim managed to supply me with some early samples for this review.
But HP hasn’t just concentrated on the hardware, you also get a pretty generous software bundle. For office productivity, you get a copy of Microsoft Works Suite 2005, which includes Word. There’s also AutoRoute 2005, Encarta Standard 2005, Money Standard 2005 and Picture It!. You also get Norton Anti-Virus and Norton Personal Firewall, although both only have 60 day Live Update licences.
Using Media Center 2005 is just as slick and smooth as always, although HP has actually customised the Media Center menu. As well as all the usual selections under the Media Center menu, you’ll also find HP Image Zone and HP Tunes. It’s a bit odd though, since both these functions are already available in Media Center. That said, HP Tunes integrates with iTunes, which indicates HP’s strengthening relationship with Apple.
Thankfully, HP has chosen not to go with the standard Media Center remote control, and instead has supplied a far more sleek and stylish black unit. On the down side, despite the large system case, HP hasn’t integrated the infrared receiver, so you end up with the receiver hanging off one of the USB ports and generally spoiling the look of the system.
HP has created a strange Media Center solution in the m1260.uk, but that’s not to say that it isn’t without merit. As already mentioned I like to see Media Center systems in slim and stylish cases, that fit in with your living room décor, but this is a different type of Media Center machine. This is more of a Media Center system for creation, rather than playback and it’s likely to double up as the main workhorse PC as well. Yes, HP has made a few major compromises, and there are one or two features that I would definitely change given the choice, but at £999 including VAT, you’re getting a lot for your money.
The Photosmart m1260.uk isn’t a conventional Media Center PC, but it is an interesting and attractive product. Features like the Personal Media Drive and Lightscribe DVD writer give this machine an edge over the competition. The lack of DVI on the graphics card and external infrared receiver are both disappointments, but the low price point helps make up for these. If you’re looking for a workhorse PC that also features all the bells and whistles of Media Center, the m1260.uk is definitely worth a look.
Score in detail