The Good: Removable storage made insanely easy
The Bad: Personal Media Drive should be bundled with the machine
The Bottom Line: Excellent performance; an elegant way to resolve your data storage needs
Removable storage should have been this easy years ago. That was my first reaction to what I think is one of the most important innovations to come to the PC in the last decade.
If you haven't struggled with the problem of data storage, then you simply haven't been using your computer enough. Now that more consumers are storing several years' worth of data -- e-mail, personal photos, home movies, music libraries, collections of movies and TV shows -- on their home computers, data storage has become an enormous problem.
You can typically get a desktop with a built-in hard-drive capacity of 160 gigabytes -- a size that five years ago seemed unnecessarily large. These days even that much storage seems confining. Whenever I'm asked for advice on buying a computer, I almost always recommend the biggest integrated hard drive a vendor offers; no matter what it is, in time it won't seem big enough.
So when I came across the Personal Media Drive that goes with the Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) Pavilion m7360n Media Center PC, I shouted "Eureka!" This gem of a machine became a shoo-in for our series of reviews on high-end desktops (see BW Online, 2/22/06, "Alienware's Reality PC").
A little bigger -- and a lot heavier -- than a VHS videotape, the Personal Media Drive is a removable hard drive that connects effortlessly into the front panel of the PC itself, and slides right out when you're not using it, or want to use another. It's hot-swappable, meaning you can pop the drive in and out without shutting the computer down. Just like a standard external drive, Personal Media Drive will also connect with other computers using a basic USB connection and an AC power cable.
The machine ships standard with an already impressive 300-GB internal hard drive, and the one I tested came with a 160-GB Personal Media Drive. That's sufficient storage for 36,000 MP3s, 160 hours of standard-definition video (almost but not quite enough for the entire run of Star Trek: The Next Generation), or 18 hours of high-definition video. If you fill it up, you can buy another for about $170 (after rebates).
If 160 GB isn't big enough, the drives come in larger capacities, priced after rebate at $260 for 300 GB and $330 for 400 GB. At 400 GB, you'd have enough room for every episode of Next Generation and Deep Space Nine -- with room to spare.
PLUG IN ANYTHING.
Storage aside, the machine, which sells for $1,149 after a rebate, is impressive. It has a blazing-fast Intel (INTC) Pentium D 920 processor rated at 2.8 gigahertz, and ships with 2 GB of DDR2 memory. There are two optical drives, one of which supports LightScribe, a cool technology that lets you inscribe labels on your CDs and DVDs right in the the drive after burning.
On the front are all the inputs you would expect for a media-ready TV: two USB ports, RCA audio and video jacks, and one Firewire port for connecting to digital devices. At the top there's a 9-in-1 flash card reader, and on the back are audio and video inputs and outputs, including one for your TV cable.
I tested the machine with an HP f2105 monitor, a 21-inch flat-panel display that sells for $650 after rebates It seemed a little dark to me, and especially when watching video, I felt that urge I so often feel -- to turn up the brightness, only to find it was already at maximum.
Overall, the computer's performance was excellent, and I had no major complaints. The only drawback is that a Personal Media Drive isn't bundled with the PC when you buy it. With the price already fairly low, HP could afford to bundle the first drive in for $100 and still have a reasonably priced system. Still, I like the way that HP has tackled the data-storage capacity problem. I wouldn't be surprised if other PC companies such as Dell (DELL), Gateway (GTW) and even Apple (AAPL) were taking notes.
But for now, the easy and elegant option of additional storage puts the m7360n a cut well above the rest.