For several years now, HP (Hewlett-Packard) has been working hard on a campaign to greatly improve the quality and aesthetics of consumer-level HP computers. Based on a number of their recent releases, it seems pretty obvious that HP’s engineering, quality control, and PR departments have been largely successful in their efforts. One of its newest systems to hit the streets, the HP Pavilion s3020n Slimline PC, seems to represent yet another positive step forward. We took a close look at the s3020n to see if it’s everything HP says it is. Continue reading for our unbiased review.
Features and Design
The HP Pavilion s3020n Slimline PC is a vertically-oriented, small form factor PC with plenty of power, good looks, and a very affordable $500 USD base price. While it may have some weaker points typically associated with SFF computers (slower, recent-gen parts), the s3020n has enough positives to make it a great little computer for most common uses.
The s3020n comes standard with an AMD Sempron 3600+ 2.0 GHz processor with 256KB L2 cache. It can be upgraded to an AMD Athlon 64 3800+ 2.4GHz with 512KB L2 cache and a ridiculously fast AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+ dual-core processor, each running at 2.2GHz. The dual core processor only costs an extra $90 USD, but the performance enhancements are dramatic.
2GB RAM Capacity
In a throwback to computer specs circa 2001, HP only supplies the s3020 with 512MB RAM at the base configuration. At the time of this writing, HP is offering a free upgrade to 1GB RAM. While this is nice, both HP and Microsoft recommend “at least 2GB” of RAM to run Windows Vista. Upgrading your config from 512MB to 2GB will cost an extra $90 USD. It’s a shame that the customer has to deal with an upcharge just to get the s3020’s RAM to an acceptable level.
Ports & Jacks
The s3020n has a number of ports and jacks for hooking up your peripherals, drives, and speaker systems. On the front of the s3020n: a 15-in-1 memory card reader (SD/MMC, CF, MS/PRO, etc.), USB 2.0 port, standard 1/8″ headphone jack, and HP’s Pocket Media Drive Bay. The 15-in-1 card reader is great for digital photographers. On the back of the s3020n are old-style PS/2 mouse and keyboard ports, S-Video, digital audio out, wireless antenna adapter (802.11b/g), VGA out (why? why?), one 6-pin Firewire 400 port, four USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 LAN port, fax/modem, and a number of audio jacks: side, rear, center/sub, mic, output, and input.
Keyboard & Mouse
For what can only be tightwad budgetary reasons, HP supplied the s3020n with a PS/2-style keyboard and mouse. Because many computers still come with PS/2 connections, it’s almost forgivable. What’s really shocking is the fact that HP supplied the s3020n with an old-style ball mouse. HP could have spent an additional $1 or $2 for a modern optical pointing device to save a little face. On a positive note, the keyboard has a very smooth, comfortable feel. It’s quiet and seems well built.
Construction & Cooling
Holding the 14-lb. case in one’s hands, it’s obvious that HP was concerned about making the s3020n sturdy and able to withstand potentially abusive family use. For a computer that’s about one-third of the size of standard ATX systems, 14 lbs. is pretty substantial. That said, the s3020n’s weight isn’t accidental or the product of shoddy development. On the contrary, to reduce operational noise, HP cut back on the number of fans inside the case and favored heat syncs. It’s the numerous heat syncs that add the weight. Average external temps remained at room temperature, and the top of the case only warmed slightly. Overall, the construction and cooling tech are quite satisfactory.
Vista and the “Windows Experience Index”
The s3020n comes with Windows Vista Home Premium, so there’s no confusion about whether or not it can handle Microsoft’s newest OS. The s3020n can also be configured with Windows XP Home or Pro.
Microsoft’s Windows Experience Index is a numeric grading system that rates how computer hardware holds up against the rigors of Windows Vista. It’s based on a scale of 1 to 5.9, 1 being the absolute worst and 5.9 being a hardcore gamer’s dream.
The s3020n rated a 3.0 on the WEI scale. The 2GB of RAM rated 3.9 (barely acceptable), the processor itself rated 4.8 (very good), and the SATA drive rated 5.4 (excellent). It was the stock 128MB integrated graphics card that hurt the s3020n the most. It rated a meager 3.0 for both business applications and gaming use. According to Microsoft’s rating system, the s3020n is “able to run Windows Vista at a basic level.”
Fortunately, the s3020n can be purchased with several optional video cards that bring the WEI rating way up.
The s3020n comes stock with an integrated NVIDIA GeForce 6150 LE. This card has 128MB dedicated video RAM and uses upwards of 191MB of virtual memory. It’s nothing to write home about, but it’s really fine for basic applications, watching DVDs, etc.
The s3020n can be upgraded with an NVIDIA GeForce 7300LE, a 128MB NVIDIA GeForce 7350LE, or a 256MB NVIDIA GeForce 7500LE. These video cards are better for photo editing, video production, and serious gaming. They’ll also have a very positive effect on the Windows Experience Index.
The s3020n comes with an integrated 7.1-channel sound with front and rear audio ports.
Sorry, no Bluetooth options for the s3020n unless you use a USB 2.0 adapter.
Wired & Wireless
The s3020n comes equipped with adequate networking hardware. On the wired side is a 10/100Base-T LAN port. For wireless, the s3020n offers an 802.11b/g radio. Neither the wired nor wireless modems are anything cutting-edge. Most modern systems have gigabit LAN and 802.11b/g/n connections. The s3020n’s wireless modem uses an external boom antenna.
HP gave the s3020n a pretty neat feature: the LightScribe 16X DVD+/-R/RW SuperMulti drive. It burns all types of CDs and DVDs and then etches images or text onto the top surface of said media. If you haven’t seen a LightScribe drive in action, you should.
As for hard drives, the s3020n has three options: 160GB, 250GB, and 400GB 7200rpm SATA 3Gb/s. Given the $120 USD cost to upgrade from 160GB to 400GB, it may be more sensible to buy the 160GB and upgrade to 400GB on your own. You’ll save some money and get a spare 160GB drive for backups.
Pocket Media Drive Bay
Because HP intended for the s3020n to be used as a media PC, the s3020n has a hot swappable “Pocket Media Drive Bay.” Pocket Media drives are proprietary to HP and they’re essentially custom-shaped USB 2.0 hard drives. (On the inside of the drive bay is a simple 4-pin USB plug.) These Pocket Media drives come in 80GB and 120GB varieties.
Image Courtesy of HP
Setup and Use
As with most computers these days, setting up the Slimline s3020n is very easy. In the box are the s3020n itself, the keyboard, mouse, power cord, modem cable, product documentation, and disks. It took me less than 3 minutes to open the box, plug everything in, attach the wireless antenna, and store the box away.
The initial boot and setup took less than 5 minutes. Once the s3020n was configured, an external timer showed that a cold boot took one minute and 30 seconds to the Vista desktop, 2 minutes and 26 seconds till HP’s Total Care Advisor program launched, and 2 minutes and 56 seconds till the HDD returned to a post-boot idle. None of these times are impressive, but they’re not exactly embarrassing, either. The s3020n can begin tasks immediately after the Vista desktop appears.
Our s3020n was configured with 1GB PC2-4200 DDR2 SDRAM, which is double the base configuration, but half the recommended memory for Windows Vista. Because of this limitation, the s3020n runs Vista well, but nowhere near its full potential (you’ll find the s3020n performing much better with the tried and true Windows XP).
The 15-in-1 memory card bank on the front of the s3020n is very handy. No more external USB memory card adapters to deal with (or lose), and no more connecting digital cameras and media devices to the computer with cheap-feeling USB cables.
The back of the s3020 shows plenty of inputs/outputs, but no DVI support
HP showed some generosity by including a 16X DVD burner. In fact, the LightScribe DVD drive is better than a generic DVD-RW drive, in that it can be used to burn images and text onto the top surface of specially coated DVDs and CDs. This eliminates the needs for awkward paper DVD labels and is classier than hand written notes on burned disks.
Concerned about poor video performance from the integrated 128MB video card, I tested some DVDs on a LCD monitor and LCD TV. Surprisingly, the s3020n gave excellent results on both types of screens and with numerous DVDs. Despite the fact that the s3020n has only an analog VGA output, the picture quality was quite sufficient. Of course, the s3020n also has an S-Video output with digital audio out, so if your TV set has S-Video in and an input for digital audio, you’re going to get slightly better video results. HP really should have made an optional DVI (or HDMI) upgrade available.
Upgrading the s3020n after purchase is tricky for most, but relatively easy for experienced users. Of course, with a very tight space and proprietary board, the easiest targets are the hard drive, RAM, and DVD drive. Someone with an enterprising mind and some skill could even modify the Pocket Media Drive Bay to be an iPod dock. Pretty cool.
The inside of the s3020 shows little upgrade potential
All in all, the HP Pavilion s3020n Slimline PC is a great little computer for a wide variety of tasks. Students in dorms, studio apartment dwellers, and others dealing with space constraints will undoubtedly love the diminutive size of the s3020n. It has a tiny footprint and draws very little electricity, yet it has a powerful processor and efficient internal components. It runs Vista smoothly. It can double as a media PC (with external USB TV tuner), even with the stock video card. Unless you’re looking for a serious gaming computer, the s3020n will satisfy most of your computing needs. The s3020n is easy on the wallet, too.
• Strong AMD processor
• 2000MHz system bus
• SATA hard drive and DVD-RW drives
• Mostly uses heat syncs for cooling
• HP Pocket Media Drive Bay
• Ridiculous 512MB base RAM
• No DVI
• Ultra cheap PS/2 ball mouse
• Clunky cosmetic drive bay door
• Uses slower PC2-4200 DDR2 SDRAM