Cue up the late Rodney Dangerfield: The traditional desktop tower just doesn’t get the respect that it used to. Notebook sales have outpaced desktops since at least 2008, and PC makers, hoping to inject renewed interest in non-portable PCs, have shifted much of their desktop-PC attention to space-saving all-in-one (AIO) models. But towers are still a smart choice if you value performance over portability, and upgradability over saving a few inches of desk space.
Hewlett-Packard’s Pavilion Elite h8-1010, a $729 tower available at Staples and a number of online outlets (as well as direct from HP as a quick-ship, non-configurable model), embodies many of the appealing aspects of the desktop tower. It offers up good performance for the price and lots of upgrade options. And while its internal component list doesn’t put it in the “elite” category that its name suggests, it’s a solid mainstream machine, provided that watching Blu-ray movies and playing the latest heavy-hitting games aren’t priorities for you.
These top USB ports face the back of the PC, which helps keep cables out of the way while you’re charging your gadgets.
The exterior of this Pavilion PC is relatively understated, as Pavilions have been for some time, but HP has given its Elite line a recent aesthetic overhaul. Here, the glossy black-plastic face sports hidden indicator lights at the top (for hard drive activity and Wi-Fi connectivity), and a glowing red stripe sits below the second (empty) optical drive bay.
The top of the tower has a concave surface for cradling your gadgets while they charge, and the two top-mounted USB ports near it face the back of the system, ostensibly to help keep USB cable clutter to a minimum. The back-facing ports make connecting devices up here a bit more difficult, but another pair of USB ports is hidden on the front of the system, behind a slide-down door. Open it, and that also reveals a four-slot flash-card reader. All of these USB ports (as well as the four others found around back) are, unfortunately, of the 2.0 variety. You won’t find any USB 3.0 ports on this PC.
A drop-down door below the optical-drive bays conceals the flash-card-reader slots and another pair of USB ports.
In fact, the port selection in general is rather lackluster. Apart from the eight USB ports, you get a set of analog audio jacks, DVI and HDMI ports on the graphics card (more on that in a bit), an Ethernet jack (Wi-Fi is also included), and…that’s it. That’s an okay mix for a budget machine, but it’s a bit disappointing for a machine with an “Elite” moniker. Those hoping for high-speed connections for external storage, such as USB 3.0 or eSATA, will have to install an expansion card, or look elsewhere.
The two wired USB input devices that HP includes in the box—an HP-branded mouse and keyboard—aren’t anything to get excited about. The keyboard feels squishy, and the mouse a bit cheap, but both are serviceable. If you’re planning on writing a novel, we’d definitely suggest upgrading. But we have certainly seen (and felt) worse peripherals bundled with PCs in the past.
As we mentioned earlier, you won’t find a Blu-ray drive in this PC, unlike in the IdeaCentre K330-77273GU, a closely competing $799 Lenovo tower we also recently reviewed. The Elite h8-1010 sports a standard DVD burner, though a free 5.25-inch drive bay below it will let you add a Blu-ray player or burner yourself later, if you like.
One of Intel’s second-generation (“Sandy Bridge” family) CPUs provides this PC’s computing muscle. Here, it’s the dual-core, 2.7GHz Core i5-2390T, a solid-enough mainstream processor. This chip isn’t as powerful as the quad-core, 3.3GHz Core i5-2500 processor in the Lenovo K330 system, but the HP machine’s processor is plenty powerful for everyday computing tasks. That’s especially true here, paired with an ample 8GB of DDR3 memory.
The system’s spacious 1TB hard drive is also a speedy spinner, rated for 7,200rpm. The terabyte of storage should provide room aplenty for everyday programs, space-hogging games, and moderate-size media collections. One kink in the speed chain, though, is the AMD Radeon HD 6450 graphics card that HP included. As we’ll see below in testing, it isn’t quite up to running today’s most-demanding titles. Games like World of Warcraft and The Sims should be perfectly playable at moderate screen-detail and resolution settings, but don’t expect much more from this machine on the gaming front.
Behind the zip-tied jumble of wires, you’ll find a trio of empty PCI Express x1 expansion slots, two free SATA ports, and two RAM slots—both filled.
Accessing the inside of the system is as easy as twirling off a single thumb screw and popping off the case door. Inside, you’ll find a fair amount of upgrade options, though the included 300-watt power supply will preclude adding a high-end graphics card.
A spare hard drive bay up front allows you to add a second drive for more storage space or backing up the terabyte in place. Plus, three empty PCI Express x1 slots on the motherboard will let you add a USB 3.0-port card, a TV tuner, or other expansion cards. The board has only two RAM slots, and both are occupied with modules, but the 8GB of RAM in there should more than suffice for the mainstream tasks this machine is made for.
Once again, we feel the urge to point out that you shouldn’t expect true “elite” levels of performance from the HP Pavilion Elite h8-1010. But for heavy (and tab-intensive) Web browsing, all kinds of media playback, productivity programs, and other general computing tasks, this system is certainly capable.
In PCMark Vantage, a holistic test suite designed to measure overall system performance, the Pavilion Elite’s score of 8,970 wasn’t far behind the pricier IdeaCentre K330’s 10,422. As a point of comparison, the $549 Gateway SX2851-41, a compact budget tower we looked at a few months back, managed just 5,983 on the same test.
The sparse spread of ports is at the bottom of the tower, which makes plugging things in a bit trickier if the box lives on the floor.
In Cinebench 11.5, a CPU-specific test that’s designed to test all available processor cores, the dual-core processor in the Pavilion Elite looked a bit weak, with its score of 3.01, versus the IdeaCentre’s quad-core showing of 5.36 on the same test. What this tells us: If you run lots of professional software that can take full advantage of multiple CPU cores (think Adobe’s Creative Suite or Sony’s Vegas Pro video editor), you’re better off paying a bit extra for a machine with a four-core CPU.
If mainstream consumer software is more your speed, though, the Pavilion Elite will serve you just fine. In our real-world iTunes Conversion Test, in which we convert 11 standard MP3 tracks to AAC format, the Pavilion Elite’s conversion time of 2 minutes and 10 seconds was just 10 seconds behind the pricier IdeaCentre. (Here, the budget Gateway machine was much slower than them both, taking 2:41.)
Our next test, the Windows Media Encoder video-conversion test, again showed that the pricier IdeaCentre K330 is a better bet for heavy-lifting media tasks. The Pavilion Elite took 3 minutes and 2 seconds to convert our test file, while the IdeaCentre blazed through the same task in 1:57. (The Gateway slid in at 3:16.)
Gaming is another area where the Lenovo IdeaCentre K330 showed a clear edge. In Just Cause 2, a demanding DirectX 10 title we use for testing, the Pavilion Elite managed an average frame rate of just 10 frames per second (fps) at a resolution of 1,680×1,050 with its entry-level Radeon HD 6450 graphics card. The IdeaCentre had a midrange card installed (based on Nvidia’s GeForce GT440 chip), and it turned in a more impressive 40.9fps on the same test at the same resolution.
Like we said, the HP machine isn’t meant to be a serious gaming machine. It’ll handle Flash-based games just fine, and will manage mainstream titles like World of Warcraft at moderate settings. But if you need more gaming muscle, the IdeaCentre is clearly the better choice in this price zone.
If you’re frustrated by pre-installed software that’s of questionable usefulness, we’ve got another reason for you to opt for the Lenovo IdeaCentre over the HP Pavilion Elite h8-1010. The Lenovo system was only lightly sprinkled with unnecessary apps and links, while the Pavilion Elite is laden with a frustrating amount of software clutter, commonly referred to as bloatware.
Out of the box, you’ll find desktop and Start Menu links to eBay, Snapfish (a photo-sharing and -printing site owned by HP), the Blio e-reader platform, HP Games (Wild Tangent), Netflix, and more. You also get the ad-supported Microsoft Office Starter 2010 suite, which nags you to buy the full version, and trial versions of Norton’s security and backup apps. If you do opt for this machine, be prepared to spend some quality time in Windows 7′s program-uninstall control panel, purging all the bits you aren’t likely to use. Doing so will save some desktop space, and it should speed up boot time, as well.
There’s a good amount to like about the HP Pavilion Elite h8-1010. It’s a capable midrange machine that’s well-equipped to handle most productivity and family-computing duties. And once it starts to show its age, this tower will have the space and means waiting to accept a few life-extending upgrades.
That said, if gaming and Blu-ray playback are important to you at all, you edit lots of video, or you do other tasks using professional or “prosumer”-grade software, it’s hard to ignore the Lenovo IdeaCentre K330, the better value. For about $70 more, you get two more (and faster) processor cores in the CPU, a much brawnier graphics card, and a Blu-ray drive. Plus, that machine isn’t quite as packed with software clutter. Taken together, all those factors make the Lenovo machine the better choice for most users, despite its slightly higher price.Price (at time of review): $729 (direct, as tested)