“If you can get over this computer's homely profile, you'll find great value for the money.”
- Core i7 CPU; Blu-ray disc player; 6GB of memory; unique back-up features; very quiet
- Ugly; slow gaming performance; memory slots blocked by the drive bays; limited opportunity for expansion
When you’re considering a PC like HP’s Pavilion Elite m9600t, you have to give yourself honest answers to two basic questions: Are you a PC enthusiast, or do you just want a high-powered computer that doesn’t call a lot of attention to itself? And do you have the time and patience to suss out problems on your own, or do you prefer the peace of mind that only a large tech support operation can provide?
Gamers and PC enthusiasts will be disappointed with this machine, but they’re obviously not HP’s target market—at least not with the Pavilion series. Those folks are a niche market, and HP bought the boutique manufacturer Voodoo PC to meet their needs. Computers like this one are instead aimed at mainstream buyers who want a machine that delivers power without drama and at a price point that doesn’t induce a nosebleed. The Pavilion Elite m9600t delivers on both those counts.
Features and Design
If you purchase the Pavilion Elite m9600t directly from HP, you can configure it with either of Intel’s latest and most powerful mainstream CPUs, the 2.66GHz Core i7 920 or the even faster 2.93GHz Core i7 940. The machine HP sent for evaluation was outfitted with the former (the Core i7 940 would add $400 to this system’s $1,450 price tag).
The Core i7 has earned accolades from every corner of the tech industry—it is truly a sublime piece of engineering. It’s a quad-core microprocessor that uses Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology to provide the operating system with eight processing threads to work with. Threads are lightweight sub-processes that can operate concurrently but independently, which enables the computer to get more work done more quickly. Multi-threading won’t automatically make every task faster—the software application you’re using must be specifically written to take advantage of the feature—but the list of such programs keeps getting longer. Some of the more popular multi-threaded apps include Adobe’s Photoshop CS3 photo editor, Autodesk’s 3ds Max modeling and animation software, and Avid’s Pinnacle Studio 12 video editing program.
The Core i7 is equipped with an integrated memory controller that can handle three channels of DDR3 memory, and the Pavilion Elite m9600t is equipped with three 2GB sticks of DDR3 memory to take advantage of it. But HP uses relatively slow modules: The Core i7 can handle memory that runs as fast as 1,600MHz, but the memory in this machine runs at a modest 800MHz.
A tech enthusiast might try boosting that clock speed by accessing the BIOS settings in the Pegatron IPMTB-TK motherboard, but those values—as well as those for the CPU—are not exposed to the end user. Most people won’t care about that, but if you ever decide to add memory to the machine (the motherboard can handle up to 24GB with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium that’s installed on the hard drive), you’ll have to remove and replace both the regular hard-drive bay and the bay for HP’s proprietary Personal Media Drive.
Storage and Optical Drives
Our eval unit was equipped with a 750GB Seagate hard drive that spins at 7,200 RPM. There’s room inside the case for only one additional 3.5-inch drive, but the enclosure also includes integrated bays for both of HP’s proprietary removable hard drives: The Personal Media Drive and the Pocket Media Drive. If you don’t buy a drive with the computer, you can add one later because the infrastructure is already in place. Personal Media Drives come in 500GB, 750GB, and 1TB (1,000 gigabyte) and range in price from $140 to $170; the smaller Pocket Media Drives are available in 160-, 250-, 320-, and 500GB capacities and range in price from $90 to $170.
These drives use USB 2.0 connections, which makes it easy to move large amounts of big files from one computer to another. The Elite series also features HP’s Easy Backup technology, which enables you to back up your computer’s entire hard drive by pushing a single button on the front of the case. Backups can be made to either of the Personal Media Drives, to another hard drive, to an optical disc (although Blu-ray media is not supported) or to a network. Our eval unit came with a combo Blu-ray disc player/DVD burner with HP’s LightScribe technology, which allows you to burn text and graphical images onto the label side of the disc.
Case Design and Noise
The Pavilion m9600t certainly won’t win any beauty contests. The short, stout case exudes about as much sex appeal as YouTube sensation Susan Boyle. On the other hand, it’s as quiet as it is unobtrusive. The only time we could really tell that it was even powered on was when we ran our demanding game benchmarks and the videocard’s fan would produce a mild hum as it accelerated to cool its GPU and memory.
HP cools the CPU with AVC’s Napoleon Plus, a towering heatsink and fan that runs extremely quietly; that, a single case fan in the rear, the fan on the videocard, and the power-supply fan are the only active cooling elements in the entire system. This computer is remarkably small, too, measuring just 15.5 inches high, 7.0 inches wide, and 16.5 inches deep.
A rubber mat on top of the case (HP calls it a “Peripheral Device Landing Pad”) can accommodate portable devices you might want to sync with the system—a digital media player or your smartphone, for instance. There’s a clever flip-up cable-management device at the rear (this goes by the name of a cable-routing cover).
The front of the case is occupied by the aforementioned Personal Media Drive bays; a 15-in-1, four-slot memory card reader; and two 5.25-inch drive bays for optical drives. A flip-out panel hides two USB ports, a FireWire port, and mic and headphone jacks. You’ll also find HP’s One Touch Backup button here. Push the button and the computer will automatically back up all the data files on its hard drive to any destination you choose (including local network-based storage).
Synthetic and Productivity Benchmarks
The Pavilion Elite m9600t is fast, but it’s no speed demon. In our Photoshop test, in which we take a digital photo shot with an Olympus C-8080 in raw format, and then sequentially apply and undo every filter in the Photoshop CS3 arsenal, the computer required two minutes and one second to complete the task.
The system didn’t set any records with its PCMark Vantage score of 5,805, either. This could be related to HP’s propensity to install bloatware on their consumer systems, programs—like HP Advisor—that add overhead without delivering a strong benefit to the end user. You could easily uninstall or deactivate programs such as these, of course, but we decided to benchmark the system as it was shipped. We also left all the “free” trialware—Quicken, QuickBooks, Microsoft Office, et al—installed, too.
Videocard Choices and Gaming Benchmarks
There’s no way around it: If you want a great performance with today’s best games, you need a powerful videocard. The videocard isn’t as important with some other applications, such as photo and video editing, but HP offers buyers a choice of only two budget models with the Pavilion Elite m9600t: Nvidia’s GeForce 9800 GT or AMD’s Radeon HD 4850. Our eval unit came with the latter, which is a $30 option. Fortunately, both options come with large, 1GB frame buffers.
Both these cards have plenty of power for playing Blu-ray movies (so does the Core i7 920, for that matter), but neither of them can handle intense games at high resolutions. We dialed the resolution down to 1680×1050 (the native resolution of the 22-inch ViewSonic VX2240W display we used) in order to benchmark the system with three of the today’s best games: Far Cry 2, Call of Duty 4, and Crysis. This computer turned in acceptable performances with the first two games (we consider 60 frames per second to be the floor, and it delivered these games at 60.6 and 63.9 frames per second, respectively), but it choked on the more demanding Crysis (achieving just 33.9 frames per second).
If gaming is supremely important, you could always add a second videocard: The motherboard has two PCI-Express X16 slots and is based on Intel’s X58 core-logic chipset, so it can handle either Nvidia’s SLI or AMD’s CrossFire dual-GPU solutions (this computer’s 460-watt power supply should be capable of handling either scenario). But the better strategy is to buy the most powerful single videocard you can afford now, and add a second one later when the price of a matching card drops. Unfortunately, HP doesn’t give you that choice.
Price/Performance Ratio and Conclusion
You’ll encounter plenty of Core i7 computers from boutique manufacturers such as Alienware, CyberPower and others that are sexier and more powerful than HP’s Pavilion Elite m9600t. Just for fun, we went to Alienware’s website and built out an Alienware Area-51 X58 system that uses the same CPU, the same core-logic chipset (on a different motherboard), an Nvidia 9800 GT videocard (with half as much memory as the ATI card in the HP system), a Blu-ray drive, and the same amount of memory and hard drive space.
The Alienware comes with its signature case and a heftier power supply, but the tab amounted to $1,869. While it wouldn’t be fair to say that the HP is the better value without submitting both machines to the same battery of benchmarks, the Pavilion’s unique features (e.g., the Personal Media Drive bays and one-touch backup), its benchmark performance, and its $1,450 price tag do represent a solid price/performance ratio for anyone other than a hard-core gamer.
- Powerful CPU
- Plenty of memory
- Small, unobtrusive, and very quiet
- Thoughtful design touches
- Blu-ray drive
- Integrated Personal Media Drive bays
- Best left out of sight
- Videocard not on par with the CPU
- Small power supply
- Very limited room for expansion
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