HP Pavilion SlimLine s3020n PC

Hewlett-Packard’s new Pavilion SlimLine s3020n PC comes bearing HP’s new glossy black vision for all of its PCs and laptops. We’ve long complained that HP gray was only a few boring steps removed from old-school desktop beige, and we’re glad to see HP took some steps to make its PCs look more exciting. We’re also impressed with this system’s combination of performance, features, and value. At $580, this model dominates similar systems in its price range, and even approaches the overall value of PCs that cost up to $850 or more. As always with a smaller desktop, you sacrifice expandability for size, but HP even designed this system to give you a little more room to improve this system post-purchase. It’s obvious that HP put a lot of thought into this system, which makes it easy to give it a CNET Editor’s Choice award.

Unlike the last SlimLine we reviewed (also an EC winner), the s3020n features the default retail configuration. Like the older SlimLines, you’ll find systems both in retail stores and on HP’s own shopping Web site, and as usual, you can tweak the online models for more memory, a faster processor, and other options. This retail-only s3020n comes with a modest configuration. A 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+ comes paired with 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 RAM, a roomy-enough 250GB 7,200 rpm hard drive, and a multiformat DVD burner, with the obligatory LightScribe capability, which lets you print your own custom black-and-white images onto the surface of a blank disc. 

As our performance testing shows, that configuration places the SlimLine s3020n firmly ahead of its similarly priced competition. Compared to the recent eMachines T5224 and the even smaller Shuttle XPC X200, the SlimLine dominates them on all of our budget PC benchmarks. On iTunes and our CineBench tests, where pure CPU speed has the most impact, the HP also came very close to the WinBook PowerSpec T470, a midtower desktop that costs almost twice as much as this one.

We’re glad to have the WinBook as a comparison system though, because of its 2GB of RAM. Based on its top scores on our Photoshop tests, you can see that on programs that call for it (intensive digital media apps, for example), more memory really does make a difference. That’s the first upgrade we’d make to the SlimLine s3020n. Its 1GB of memory also partly explains why we don’t have a gaming score for this system. We tried Quake 4 at 1,024×768, and got a pokey four frames per second. So the SlimLine is still not a gamer. If the SlimLine s3020n had 2GB of RAM, the integrated GeForce 6150LE graphics chip would have a little more memory to use, and you might see better 3D performance.

 

As always, the real way to strengthen a PC’s gaming chops is to add a full-fledged 3D card. Many smaller PCs don’t have the expansion space, and if they do, you’re limited to half-height PCI graphics cards. You’d have trouble playing Quake 1 with one of those, though. And while the SlimLine s3020n still limits you to half-height cards (which generally offer lower performance), the motherboard in this system does offer a genuine PCI Express graphics slot, as well as spare standard PCI slot, also half-height. You can find various low-cost, half-height 3D cards from Nvidia and ATI. None will break benchmark records, but adding one after the fact should benefit overall graphics performance. The free PCI Express slot is also a strong improvement over HP’s older SlimLine, the PCI-only s7600e.

The overall expandability of the Pavilion SlimLine series is also why we prefer HP’s small-scale model to Apple’s Mac Mini. Apple had the aesthetic advantage over HP’s older SlimLines, but HP’s new glossy black frame catches up with Apple considerably. HP also took its peripheral components into consideration with the redesign. The new matte black keyboard looks sharper than HP’s old model, and it comes complete with the media keys lined along the keyboard’s sides. That seems to be an industry-wide trend in keyboard design, and we’re happy about it, since it’s much easier to get to the media keys on the sides than if they’re placed along the top row. HP also has new LCD monitors out on the market with a similar glossy black finish to the SlimLine and the other new Pavilions. The new displays feature a stand that lets you slide the keyboard under the display for a cleaner workspace, similar to the HP TouchSmart from earlier this year.

 HP design improvements aside, Apple does still have a few advantages in its Mac Mini. The SlimLine is still larger (10.8 inches high, 4.5 inches wide, and 13.3 inches deep), and the Mac Mini also offers both integrated 802.11b/g wireless networking and Bluetooth. The SlimLine s3020n only comes with Wi-Fi. But for its overall value and capability, if you want to go small, HP is our pick. Of course, choosing HP also means you get Windows
Vista, in this case Home Premium. We found no problems with this system and general Windows
Vista usage, but we were sad to see that HP’s software desktop remains overrun with icons pushing various products and services. They’re easy enough to delete, but we wish we didn’t have to. We criticized the last HP desktop we reviewed for the same icon clutter, but we’re glad to report that unlike that system, HP incorporates a

Pocket Media Drive slot into the SlimLine s3020n without sacrificing an internal hard drive bay. This is because the SlimLine’s motherboard only has two serial ATA inputs on it, which are both currently occupied by the hard drive and the DVD burner cables. You don’t lose anything then, if you opt to purchase one of HP’s external hard drives, and it slides neatly into its dedicated bay, which you can hide with a slide up cover on the front panel. Finally, HP’s service and support is still one of the most robust in the industry. The default plan gets you one year of parts and labor coverage, and 24-7 toll free phone support, whose only limit is on software support, which you can get for the first 90 days after your purchase. HP’s InstantCare service gives HP’s techs an efficient means to fix your PC remotely while leaving you in control of what they can see. We also like HP’s Total Care Advisor software, which comes on every new HP PC and provides you with the tools and information necessary to perform some basic troubleshooting steps yourself.

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