Archive for the ‘Video’ category

Waterproof LCD for outdoor viewing

May 16, 2007

Summer will be here in a flash, and we’ll be forced to abandon the comfortable confines of our favorite TV-viewing lounge chair. But that doesn’t mean we’ll have to stop watching

Frontgate’s “SunBriteTV” doesn’t just have a bright LCD screen that can be seen in daylight, but it also is outfitted to protect against the elements with an “all-weather enclosure safeguarded from rain, dirt, insects and scratches.” Even its cable ports and remote are watertight and dust-resistant.

This Terminator of television sets, which can withstand temperatures ranging from minus-24 to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, comes in two sizes: 32 inches for $4,000 and 23 inches for $2,500. Now we just need to figure out how to mount it in the Cooper limo’s whirlpool.


Sony announces its first removable-media HD camcorder

April 27, 2007

And then there were four: quadruplet Sony HD camcorders, that is. When they ship on June 27, the $1,200 Memory Stick Duo-based Handycam HDR-CX7 and $1,400 hard-disk-based HDR-SR7 will join the tape-based HDR-HC7 and DVD-based HDR-UX7 to provide consumers with an almost bewildering array of HD options

They differ primarily by storage media. All use the same 1/2.9-inch, 3.2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS sensor, recording video at 2.3-megapixel (HD) or 1.7-megapixel (SD) resolution before downsampling and encoding to 1080i HD (1,920×540) or SD (720×480), respectively. They also shoot photos at native 2.3-megapixel (16:9) or 3-megapixel (4:3) resolutions, despite the 6-megapixel claim on the body, which refers to maximum interpolated resolution. They also use the same 10x zoom Zeiss T*-coated lenses, 5.1 Dolby surround-sound recording, and support the as-yet unviewable xvYCC color space and are rated at a minimum illumination of 2 Lux.


In some ways, though, the CX7 is the odd man out. The other three provide a manual focus dial on the side of the lens and an eye-level viewfinder, while the CX7 appears stripped of the external power-user trappings of its siblings. I’m guessing that’s to save space: Sony claims that it’s the smallest and lightest AVCHD camcorder available.


In fact, both the CX7 and SR7 look remarkably small, especially given their recording capacities. In best-quality HD mode, the CX7 requires 133MB per minute of video, for a total of 30 minutes on a 4GB card or 60 minutes on an 8GB card. The SR7 seems to compress a bit more, managing 125MB per minute of best-quality HD video, or 8 hours on its 60GB hard drive. Both also ship with a Handycam Station for ease of transferring video. 

The HDR 5 series–HDR-HC5 and HDR-UX5–gets another member this spring as well, the $1,100 hard-disk-based HDR-SR5. It shares the specs of its line mates, including Sony’s 1/3-inch 2-megapixel ClearVid CMOS. The SR5’s 40GB hard disk will hold up to five hours of best-quality HD video, or the same 133MB per minute as the CX7. Sony makes no mention of an HDR 5 series Memory Stick Duo-based model


Panasonic Toughbook CF-74

April 18, 2007

Just as you wouldn’t wear cowboy boots to a black-tie ball, you would probably never carry a rugged notebook into a mahogany-paneled boardroom. The
Panasonic Toughbook CF-74 is an exception. This semi-rugged sytem is made for highly mobile people who are tired of replacing less-durable notebooks but want something that still looks, acts, and runs like a mainstream machine.

In fact, except for the sturdy handle that forms this model’s front panel, you would probably never know that this is a rugged notebook, semi or not. The CF-74 has no large bumpers on the corners, and the sturdy magnesium-alloy case is as fashionable as it is functional. We also like the 13.3-inch display, which is relatively large for a semi-rugged system.

 A closer look at the display reveals some special capabilities. The bezel is unusually thick (0.67 inches versus the typical 0.5 inches), suggesting better-than-usual durability for this expensive component. As expected for a notebook unafraid of the outdoors, the screen stands up quite well to direct sunlight, where ordinary LCDs would go black.

There are three aspects of this CF-74’s design we don’t like: One is the bulge on the bottom panel that’s required to house this model’s capacious battery. This bulge not only adds extra thickness, it also tends to press a groove in your thighs while sitting on your lap. Speaking of bulk, its 1.7-pound AC adapter is the heaviest we have seen in quite a while. Finally, we understand that the doors over each of the connectors may deter dirt and moisture, but they may confuse some users. They offer no indication of what’s behind each one.

Creature comforts tend to be lacking on semi-rugged notebooks, but not here. The keyboard has a good feel, the Synaptics touchpad works well, and the touchscreen does not require a stylus; you can use your finger. Of course, if you do want a stylus, Panasonic has supplied one, along with two storage sheaths, thoughtfully located on each side of the notebook. It’s not a unique feature for this class of system, but the CF-74’s carrying handle is particularly useful, even for carrying the notebook short distances. In fact, after a few days, we began to wonder why every notebook doesn’t have one.

Inside, the CF-74 packs some impressive components. Like most newer notebooks, this Toughbook features a 1.83-GHz Intel Core Duo processor supported by a fast 667-MHz front-side bus. The shock-mounted hard drive provides 80GB of storage space. Memory options range from 512MB (included in this configuration) to 4GB. A good chunk of memory (128MB) is shared by the Intel 945GM integrated video accelerator. We suggest an upgrade to 1GB of RAM ($165) to better handle Windows Vista Premium when that OS launches early next year.
This system scored 245 on our MobileMark 2005 benchmark test, well above the average mainstream notebook. Because of Intel’s integrated graphics solution, the CF-74 turned in a low 3DMark03 score of 1,224, although it managed to beat the Itronix Hummer. The most impressive score for this Toughbook was its battery life. In our benchmark tests, the CF-74 lasted 5.5 hours. That’s still short of the advertised seven hours but impressive nonetheless. Although the CF-74 does not offer GPS like the Itronix Hummer, it more than holds its own in the communications department. Standard equipment includes an 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi adapter. Our test unit was also equipped with a new wireless WAN adapter from Sierra Wireless, which forms a slight bulge on the back of the display, used for accessing Verizon’s high-speed EV-DO network (a $600 option). In our tests, this adapter was able to connect at speeds of approximately 425 Kbps, not far from the Dell Latitude D620’s top score. A Bluetooth wireless adapter is also available.Like all rugged and semi-rugged notebooks, the Toughbook CF-74 is expensive. Its list price of $2,999 matches that of the Itronix Hummer, but the Toughbook has a three-year limited warranty, two years longer than the Hummer’s. There’s also a 24/7 telephone support line, which the manufacturer claims has a wait time of less than a minute (in our test, they answered in 25 seconds). After seeing two or three mainstream notebooks destroyed, many forward-thinking buyers would rightly consider this semi-rugged Toughbook one of the best bargains on the market.  


Sony KDL-52XBR2

April 13, 2007

LCD has come a long way, but judging from the best LCDs we’ve tested, which currently belong to the KDL-XBR2 series from Sony, those liquid crystals still have some catching up to do. The 52-inch KDL-52XBR2 offers the same characteristics that we liked about its smaller brethren–the KDL-40XBR2 and the KDL-46XBR2–to a larger screen size, but otherwise there isn’t much difference. We loved the big set’s style, including that unique interchangeable bezel color, and we were equally impressed by its comprehensive feature set, anchored by three HDMI inputs and more picture controls than any other competing HDTV. But the KDL-52XBR2 still can’t compete against the best plasmas in a dark room with the lights turned low–its black levels are still noticeably lighter. Other than that, the Sony KDL-52XBR2 is one of the better HDTVs available, plasma, LCD or otherwise.

Overall we really liked the looks of Sony’s high-end LCD, although it doesn’t have the same economy of form as many other HDTVs, such as the competing Sharp LC-52D92U. In other words, there’s a lot of room devoted to nonscreen real estate. Specifically, the screen is ringed by a thick bezel of silver, wider on the sides than above and below. That bezel is surrounded by about an inch of glass that’s in turn ringed by a strip of silver. Cool touches include an illuminated Sony logo (it can be turned off) and indicator lights suspended within the glass. Including the matching silver stand the KDL-52XBR2 measures 55.7x35x15.1 inches (width-height-depth); without the stand attached it measures 55.7×32.6×4.9 inches.
The XBR2 series of LCDs is unique among HDTVs in its ability to change color. For $350, Sony will sell you a kit consisting of a new bezel and a new matching cover for the stand, changing the predominant color of the set to red, white, brown, black, or blue. You can also order a wall-mount kit–Sony’s official model is the $300 SU-WL51–if you’d like to hang the panel on a wall. Sony’s longish remote stands out as a model of ergonomics, although we would have appreciated glow-in-the-dark keys or other illumination. It can operate three other devices, such as DVD players, satellite or cable boxes, and VCRs, and the company behind Blu-ray took care to equip its clicker with device controls for “BD/DVD” gear. The big, central cursor control falls naturally under the thumb, and just enough shortcut keys are available to quickly cycle through picture, sound, and wide (a.k.a. four aspect ratio) settings. A convenient Tools key calls up a couple oft-used submenus, including picture and sound modes, wide-screen controls, and closed captions.

The tools menu is even more welcomed because the main menu key summons a seemingly unnecessary interstitial menu that’s too focused on tuner controls; three of its five options pertain to cable and antenna channels, which cable and satellite box owners will almost never use. Otherwise, Sony’s menu design is characteristically clean and thoughtful throughout, offering text explanations of various functions and logical progression from basic to advanced functions. We also liked the input menu, complete with options to name used connections (including custom names up to 10 characters) and skip unused connections.

A high pixel count is one of the Sony KDL-52XBR2’s major claims to fame. The panel has 1920×1080 pixels, otherwise known as 1080p native resolution, which enables it to resolve every detail of 1080i and 1080p sources–the highest available today. All other sources, whether HDTV, DVD, standard-def TV, or computer, are scaled to fit the pixels.
The Sony KDL-52XBR2 offers more ways to adjust the picture than any LCD on the market. Settings for the standard brightness, contrast, and other controls can be saved individually to each of the three adjustable presets, labeled Standard, Vivid, and Custom. In addition, each of these presets is independent per input, so your contrast setting in Custom for Input 7, for example, can be different from Contrast in Custom for Input 6. (In case you’re wondering, Sony likes to use the term “picture” to denote contrast.) This provides a huge amount of flexibility in adjusting the picture for different sources, lighting conditions, and user preferences.

There are four color temperature presets.The default for Custom, Warm 2, comes closest to the standard, but only the two least-accurate are available in Vivid and Standard. Other basic picture adjustments include a 10-step backlight control, which adjusts the intensity of the light behind the screen (unlike the backlight settings of many TVs, Sony’s are also independent per picture mode and input); five noise reduction settings; two DRC modes (only one is available with non-HDMI sources) and a DRC palette control (which is disabled in certain circumstances). DRC stands for Digital Reality Creation, and we cover its effects in the Performance section of this review. There’s an additional menu section labeled “advanced settings” that appears only when you’re in the custom picture preset. In general, your best bet is to leave all of these set to Off. The options include a four-step Black Corrector, which is best left to Off to preserve shadow detail; a four-step Advanced Contrast Enhancer, which changed the overall brightness and seemed to dim areas near black as the image got brighter (and that’s again best left off to preserve shadow detail); a five-step gamma control, which should be set to Low in dim environments for the most-linear rise from black to white; a three-step Clear White control that belongs in Off since the other settings just make whites look bluer; a four-step Live Color setting that seemed to make reds more intense, although Off provided the best color balance; and a Live Color control that we preferred to leave in Normal for the most-accurate primary color reproduction. Next up is a white balance setup screen that includes 20 steps each for Red, Green, and Blue gain and bias, in case the out-of-the-box color temperature doesn’t come close enough for your liking. The four-step Detail Enhancer should be left to Off with already-sharp sources like HDTV and even DVD since it introduces unnatural edge enhancement and there’s another four-step control entitled Edge Enhancer, which had no effect we could discern.

The Screen menu offers a solid selection of four aspect ratio controls for both standard-def and high-def sources. Many of the aspect ratio choices, especially the Zooms, allow you to adjust the horizontal and vertical position, as well as the vertical size, of the on-screen image. We appreciated the unique option to specify how the set deals with 4:3 programs, as well as the option to automatically detect wide-screen shows and properly size the picture. A Display Area control adjusts overscan; we loved its Full Pixel option because it showed the extreme edges of the image, and didn’t subject 1080p-resolution sources to scaling. We recommend choosing this setting unless you see interference along the edges. In the setup menu, there’s a room lighting sensor that changes the picture’s brightness according to how much ambient light it detects. For this reason, we left it off for critical viewing. The setup section of the menu also houses a “game mode.” Unlike Samsung’s similarly named mode, the Sony’s does not wreak havoc on picture settings; Sony’s engineers claim that it skips most of the set’s video processing to eliminate the possibility of delay between the controller and what happens on-screen (we didn’t test this mode).

You can also choose between standard-def (ITU601) and high-def (ITU709) colorspace for each resolution–a nice option, but usually you’ll want to leave these at default settings. In addition to the obvious effect of saving a few pennies on power consumption, the Sony’s three-position Power Saver setting has a significant effect on picture quality. For optimal image quality we liked the “Low” position because it was still bright enough for viewing in a darkened room, but also resulted in deeper black levels than the default “Off” position. The third choice, “High” power saving, limited light output just a bit too much for our tastes. Conveniences abound on the KDL-52XBR2, but one surprising omission was picture-in-picture, which isn’t available on any Sony flat-panel LCDs this year. The company did include a freeze function, however, as well as extensive tuner extras like a favorite channel list. There’s a built-in ATSC tuner but no CableCard–not a huge omission in our book, but still notable given the XBR2’s price. The KDL-40XBR2 has more connections than most other HDTVs, starting with three HDMI inputs: two around back and one on the side. There’s also a pair of component-video inputs; one A/V input with composite- and S-Video; another with only composite; and a VGA-style PC input that can handle resolutions up to 1920-by-1080 pixels at 60Hz (a big improvement on the VGA input of Sony’s KDS-60A2000 rear-projection set). The side panel also includes another A/V input with composite, along with a headphone output. Other audio outputs include one stereo analog and one optical digital audio, the latter for passing surround soundtracks from the over-the-air digital/HD tuner to an audio system.

As we mentioned at the top, the KDL-52XBR2 offers very good all-around picture quality, although its black-level performance just doesn’t measure up to the best plasmas. We especially appreciated its extremely accurate color and clean image. We noticed a few video processing issues, including an inability to properly de-interlace 1080i signals, but we don’t consider those deal-breakers. All things considered, the KDL-52XBR2 is the best-performing LCD at its size that we’ve tested.
As always, we began by adjusting the Sony’s picture for optimal performance in our darkened home theater which meant, among other things, reducing its blindingly bright light output to a more-comfortable 40 ftl or so. Once we had that under control, we turned to the myriad other adjustments. The set’s grayscale in the default Warm 2 mode was accurate out of the box, and after we used the fine controls it was much better up and down the scale. We could have wished for more linear progression, however; the color of gray would spike slightly toward warm (red) or cool (blue) at different level of brightness, which caused its “After” geek box number to be less-than perfect (see below). For our full user-menu settings, click here or see the Tips & Tricks section above. After adjustment we set up the Sony next to some other high-end 50-something flat-panel HDTVs we had on-hand, including the aforementioned Sharp LC-52D92U–a 52-inch LCD and the Sony’s most direct competitor at the moment–the Panasonic TH-50PX77U plasma, and our reference plasma, the Pioneer PRO-FHD1. We slipped the Eragon Blu-ray disc into our
Samsung BD-P1000, slid the resolution selector to 1080p, and we settled back to see how the KDL-52XBR2’s picture compared. The first thing we noticed in our darkened environment was the KDL-52XBR2’s mediocre black-level performance. During dark scenes, like the beginning of Chapter 9 showing the enemy stronghold and the shadowed forge, the set clearly didn’t deliver as deep a level of black as the others; the black letterbox bars looked brighter, as did the darkest shadows and the overcast sky. Black-level performance was definitely better than some of the sets we’ve tested recently, including almost all LCDs, but against the inky-looking Sharp and the two plasmas it simply wasn’t as deep. The Sony did evince plenty of detail in shadows, however, an area where it clearly beat the Sharp and matched the plasmas. The clothing of the evil blacksmiths came across well, for example, with the hairy decorations and patterned hides easily discernable. The smoky forge areas also brought out a bit of false contouring in the fading light of a torch, and later in the white sky, that was visible on the Panasonic but not the Sony or other sets. The foggy mountains also looked a bit cleaner on the Sony than the Panasonic, with fewer motes of video noise. Accurate color is one of the KDL-52XBR2’s strengths; indeed, its primary color scores are as accurate as that of the excellent Pioneer PRO-FHD1. The green of the forested hillsides looked nice and natural as a result, as did the blue sky and river as the heroes ride through on horseback. Grayscale accuracy was likewise visible in skin tones, which remained neutral and natural regardless of lighting. Arya’s face as she sneered up at her captor was flush in the firelight but not overly red, while Eragon’s face in the morning light in the barn appeared equally natural and not too pale. Unfortunately, despite spot-on color, the Sony’s simply did not look as rich or saturated as the other displays. That’s because its lighter black levels washed out the image a bit, robbing the picture of that extra impact in a dark room. We’ve received a lot of reader e-mail regarding complaints about Sony LCD TVs’ exhibiting “clouding” or what’s been called a “Mura effect.” The issue appears as amorphous, brighter areas in scenes that should be a uniform darkness across the screen. From reports via e-mail and in forums like AVS we gather that many models of Sony LCDs are affected, but for the record the Sony KDL-52XBR2 we reviewed did not exhibit this issue. In other words, the Sony’s uniformity across the screen was solid for a flat-panel LCD. In the darkest test patterns we detected that the sides of the screen appeared somewhat brighter than the middle, but it was imperceptible in real-world program material. Likewise the upper-right corner was very slightly brighter, which was visible in letterbox bars if we looked hard for it. Of course the set evinced none of the “banding” issues we noted on the 52-inch rival from Sharp, and we didn’t detect any “clouding” regardless of brightness level. That’s not to say that we discount the reports we’ve seen elsewhere, but only that this particular model, which was (as are all review samples CNET receives) hand-picked by the manufacturer. Off-angle viewing was very good for an LCD, although we’d give the slight nod to the Sharp if we had to choose. Its image didn’t seem to wash out quite as quickly as we moved from dead center toward the edge of the viewing area. Of course, both of the plasmas stayed equally true from all angles. As a 1080p big-screen HDTV we expected the KDL-52XBR2 to deliver plenty of detail, and it didn’t disappoint. In scenes with the mature dragon, his gray-blue scales looked sharp down to the finest detail, and we could see the tiny points of the spines below his jawline. We saw similar sharpness in the mane of Brom’s horse and the blonde of Eragon’s hair. As always we looked out for differences in detail between the Sony and the lower-resolution Panasonic, and if anything the Panasonic appeared a bit sharper. We attribute that subjective difference to–once again–black-level performance; the superior contrast of the Panasonic made the fine details “pop” ever-so-slightly more. Objectively speaking, with a still frame the Sony KDL-52XBR2 was able to resolve every line of a 1080i source, but the moving tests on the HQV HD DVD gave it problems. It failed both the video resolution and film resolution tests, which other displays, such as the Pioneer, passed. We noticed that the bleachers during the pan over
Raymond James Stadium looked a bit softer, but the difference was subtle during program material. We adjusted all of the DRC controls to no avail, although we got the best results from using DRC Mode 1 with Reality at 1 and Clarity at 100. We recommend using 1080p sources when possible with this set, although if your choice is between 720p and 1080i you should still choose 1080i. With standard-def sources, the Sony KDL-52XBR2 turned in a below-average performance. Using the HQV test DVD, we saw some jagged edges in moving diagonal lines, and the waving American flag evinced more jaggies in the stripes than with many other televisions. With DRC Mode 1 engaged, we saw some flicker in the still resolution/color bars pattern, so we left DRC turned to Off. Also, the set failed the 2:3 pulldown test, displaying moire in the stands behind the cars in all of the available DRC modes. The Sony’s noise reduction modes performed very well, however, cleaning up the nastiest snowy noise in the sky and sunset scenes without hampering detail too much–although the highest setting did soften the image noticeably.  
Please note: We have received reader complaints, both in the user opinions and in e-mails, regarding uneven backlighting in XBR2 and XBR3 series flat-panel LCDs from Sony’s 2006 line. Since we didn’t notice abnormal backlight behavior in any of our review samples, including this one, we can’t comment firsthand one way or the other.

ARE YOU CRAZY!!!!! $1,000,000 Laptop…The HELL with Flossin’

April 10, 2007

At long last, relief from public ridicule. You’ve been suffering in the embarrassment of having to tote around that low-end $350,000 Tulip Ego for months, but someone has finally come along with a portable computer worthy of your elevated station. (How on earth could you be expected to carry a laptop that costs less than your cell phone?)A rather mysterious company named Luvaglio of London has supposedly created a $1 million laptop, which Luxurylaunches says is “believed to integrate real diamonds and other precious jewelry into the chassis of the system.”

ARE YOU KIDDIN’!!! A 350000 Laptop…Who’s Flossin’

April 10, 2007

Dutch company Ego-Lifestyle has brought its latest high-end luxury laptop, the Tulip Ego, to the States just in time for the holiday shopping season. Barneys New York will be the first U.S. retailer to feature the handbag-shaped laptop and its corresponding interchangeable “skins,” which are available in a variety of designer fabrics and finishes. And all this can be yours for a mere $5,000. The laptop, first introduced at Milan Fashion Week in the spring, has a 12.1-inch screen, an AMD Turion processor, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and a DVD/CD burner. But if you’re willing to go even further and sell off, say, your house or your firstborn, you might consider the limited-edition Platinum, Diamond, and Otazu Ego Diamond models. The latter, designed by Rodrigo Otazu, sports a total of 470 diamonds arranged in tulip, heart and Otazu logo patterns. The Otazu (pictured) currently sells for $350,000.

HP Pavilion SlimLine s3020n PC

April 10, 2007

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.