WHAT'S HOT: The stylishly compact HP Media Center 883n PC will certainly turn a few heads. Cast in glossy gray and black hues, the machine has plenty of small thoughtful touches, overlooked by other PC companies. The CD-RW and DVD+RW drives are labeled with very visible silver buttons. Flash media slots, located under the floppy drive, read memory cards from digital cameras, MP3s, and PDAs, including Sony's proprietary Memory Stick, a plus for those with Sony digital devices.
Like the Gateway Media Center PC 500 Series, this system's foundation is Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, an extension of Windows Home Edition that adds the ability to watch and record TV shows, record and play digital music, and manage your digital images. A wireless remote control comes with the package. HP included a solid collection of multimedia features: A 120GB hard drive for storing content, a DVD+RW drive, and a 48X CD-ROM. Behind a drop-down door, near the bottom of the front panel, hide FireWire and USB 2.0 ports (one each). While one FireWire port is fine, one or two more USB ports would have been better.
The HP keyboard, cast in black and silver, complements the system's overall design; its construction seemed sturdy, and typing felt solid. A well-designed array of hot-keys allows quick access to Internet applications and e-mail. In addition, a separate area of the keyboard has four clearly marked buttons for recording and playing back music or DVDs. Another keyboard button accesses a feature of Windows XP called Fast User Switching, which lets you change users without having to log out of Windows.
WHAT'S NOT: The system suffers from disappointing graphics performance--its Asus V8170 Magic video card has just 64MB of SDRAM.
Another gripe is the system's lack of expansion options. Because of its Media Center operating system, you cannot upgrade the HP without the strong possibility that the Media Center features will cease to work. Our review system also had no open drive bays for extra hard drives or for removable media drives such as Zip disks. (An extra hard drive might come in handy when recording a season's worth of "Sponge Bob Squarepants" or "The Sopranos.") While there is one open module to add system memory, the system lacks an open PCI slot.
WHAT ELSE: Configured with a 2.67-GHz Pentium 4 processor and 512MB of DDR266 SDRAM, the Media Center 883 earned a PC Worldbench 4 score of 121--well within the average for its processor class.
HP's Pavilion F70 17-inch LCD delivered crisp, easily readable text and bright colors at its native resolution of 1280 by 1024, in our image quality tests. However, the display's viewing angle seemed narrower than most of the LCDs we've tested of this size. The display's large oval base has built-in speakers, though you're not likely to need--the PC came with Klipsch ProMedia THX 2.1 speakers, consisting of two satellites and subwoofer. The sound quality from this set was on a par with other 2.1 channel speakers from Klipsch: Bass notes were strong without being overpowering and treble notes on vocal tracks sounded clean and crisp. And though these speakers are THX certified, you won't be able to experience the immersive sound quality typical of higher-end, five speaker surround sound sets.
HP's documentation consists of two manuals--one focusing on hardware components specific to the PC, and another dedicated to wending your way through the various settings in Windows XP Media Center. Both manuals provide detailed instructions, bolstered by helpful illustrations. The software bundle includes family-oriented pre-installed fare such as Britannica Online. WordPerfect Office 2002, Arcsoft PhotoImpression, Quicken 2002, and Norton AntiVirus 2002 are also included. This system includes only one blank DVD+RW disc, compared with the stack of blank media bundled with Gateway's PC.
UPSHOT: A sophisticated-looking, moderately priced entertainment machine, the Media Center 883n PC is well equipped for video and music. But give it a pass if you like fast, high-end gaming.
By Mick Lockey