Gaming systems aren’t an area where the big, mainstream desktop manufacturers are usually considered competitive. It’s not uncommon for them to offer a gaming line – even Lenovo produces a gaming-capable desktop known as the K330 – but for the most part these systems fly under the radar. Larger, more expensive custom systems garner the lion’s share of the attention.
This is not without reason. High-end video cards aren’t easy for consumers to understand and the big, bulky cases usually demanded by gaming systems are at odds with the slim enclosures consumers generally want. It’s not uncommon for daddy or mommy to be a gamer, but they might have trouble convincing the rest of the family that they need an UberGamer Fireball XXXL in the living room.
Gaming desktops aren’t new to HP. You may remember the old HP Firebirds with their unusual but visually attractive cases. Those systems seemed to be trying to compete with Alienware and the boutiques like Maingear and Falcon Northwest. However, they weren’t the gaming solution for families.
Enter the HP Phoenix
This line of gaming desktops aims to squeeze real gaming performance into a small, affordable and livable package. The basic AMD-powered models start at $999, while our Intel-powered version starts at about $1,150 after an instant rebate from HP.
Our review unit was the high-end h9xt model, which includes a Core i7-3930K processor, 10GB of RAM and a 2TB 7200RPM hard drive. The base version of the h9xt includes a GeForce 550 Ti, but ours was upgraded to the Radeon HD 6850, which brought the price to $1,819.
That’s a lot of cash, but not for a gaming system. In fact, this is the least expensive gaming system we’ve recently reviewed by a margin of over $500. That makes sense – an accessible gaming system needs to have an accessible price.
Mainstream consumer tower desktops have diminished in stature over the last decade, and the HP Phoenix conforms to this standard. It is about 16 inches deep and 16 inches tall as well as 7 inches wide. These specifications aren’t any different from a standard desktop, such as the $700 Acer Aspire that we recently reviewed.
There are some external hints at the Phoenix’s gaming chops, however. The right side of the tower includes a very small transparent window that reveals red LED interior lighting. The otherwise mundane, piano-black front panel is adorned with another strip of red lighting. Though easily to notice, the lighting isn’t so bright as to be bothersome in a dark room, a mistake common among gaming desktops.
Forward connectivity comes courtesy of two USB 3.0 ports and separate headphone and microphone jacks. It’s great to see USB 3.0 included in an easily accessible location, but the arrangement of the ports is a bit strange. They’re tucked on the far side of a bulge at the top of the case and angled away from the user, making them harder to use than they should be. Additional USB 2.0 ports and an SD card reader are hidden behind a slide-away panel on the front. These are more convenient, though not as quick as USB 3.0.
Additional ports are placed around the back in the lower left hand corner. You’ll find two USB 3.0 ports and four USB 2.0 ports along with standard audio jacks and Ethernet. Video connectivity via the Radeon discrete card is excellent, featuring not only two DVI ports but also DisplayPort and HDMI. Wireless-N is standard, but Bluetooth is optional.
The HP Phoenix may look conventional on the outside, but the internals are a different story. Most computers are laid out so that the motherboard attaches to – or near – the right-side case panel (as viewed from the front of the PC). This places the expansion slots at the bottom of the case and the ports near the middle.
HP has inverted the traditional layout by placing the motherboard on the left-side panel. This configuration places the expansion slots (along with the video card) near the middle and the processor near the bottom. The power supply remains at the top, which is now the exception rather than the rule among gaming PCs.
Why the flip? Cooling.
The processor is now directly behind the main system air intake, giving airflow a straight shot through the front of the case, over the processor and out the exhaust. Placing the power supply at the top is arguably better because it prevents any extra heat from rising from the supply and over the video card and processor. Such a concern would not be as relevant in a large desktop, but in a small case like this the heat radiating from each component can impact those around it.
There are downsides, however. A cramped enclosure is always going to be difficult to work with, but the strange layout of the Phoenix makes it a challenge for even veteran geeks. For example, there is a cross-beam that is placed across the middle of the case to strengthen it. It’s directly above the video card, making the usually simple task of replacing the card a bit more involved.