SAN FRANCISCO (10/07/2003) - WHAT'S HOT: Designed to be an inexpensive rig for home video editing, the Hewlett-Packard Co. A250n ships with a 4X DVD+R/RW drive and a 120GB hard drive. It also comes with a six-in-one memory card reader that can accept CompactFlash I or II, Memory Stick, MultiMediaCard, Secure Digital, and SmartMedia memory cards.
To help home users, the A250n comes stocked with several well-planned touches. There are clear labels (both icons and words) for the two front USB 2.0 ports, the one FireWire port, and the card reader slots. The rewritable-DVD and 48X CD-ROM drives are also clearly labeled, and each drive features a conspicuous side button to help operate the trays.
You won't need tools to get into the A250n's compact case. Press three tabs on its side, and the front panel snaps off, after which you'll have unobstructed access to drive bay cages. Tabs fastened to the bay cages lift out with a slight tug, and optical and hard drives easily slip out from the front. HP adds an instruction card on the bottom of the case to help guide you with the operation. The tool-less entry will also come in handy if you need to install an additional hard drive in the open internal drive bay--it's tucked behind a bay that holds the 120GB Serial ATA hard drive.
The A250n does not include a monitor, but HP sent along an HP F1503, a 15-inch flat panel that rests on a 6-inch-deep base and whose price we added to our calculations. Though this monitor is HP's entry-level LCD, its text displays looked crisp and legible, and it performed superlatively when the screen showed pale gray text against a black background--one of our toughest tests of text quality and legibility. Games and a DVD movie both displayed vivid colors, and a photo of children sported realistic skin tones and sharp detail.
WHAT'S NOT: As with many compact cases, the A250n's chassis leaves room for only the most modest upgrades. There's one available 3.5-inch internal drive bay (and no externally accessible bay), two open PCI slots, and two open memory slots. Though the drive bay cages were easy to get at, haphazard cabling limited our access to the two free memory slots; you'll have to push the cables out of the way when adding more memory.
WHAT ELSE: The A250n comes equipped with Intel Corp.'s 2.6-GHz Pentium 4 processor, notable for its hyperthreading technology and 800-MHz frontside bus, previously available only on Intel's 3.0-GHz Pentium 4 and higher CPUs. Paired with 512MB of dual-channel DDR333 SDRAM, our review model earned a score of 116 on PC WorldBench 4 tests--good but not exceptional. Other value systems on the chart handily beat that score, by at least 6 points.
The A250n we received was equipped with an NVidia Corp. GeForce4 MX 440 AGP graphics board with 64MB of DDR graphics memory--not state of the art for gaming, but more than adequate for viewing Web graphics or working with digital still photography.
The Realtek AC'97 integrated audio can support up to six channels of sound. Our test system also had two Harman Kardon satellites, a 2.1-channel set that is typically bundled with the HP F1503 LCD. In vocal music and a DVD movie, however, the bundled speakers delivered bass notes that were hard to hear and trebles that sounded thin at mid- to low volume settings. Cranking up the volume to full blast produced sound that occasionally crackled.
HP's quiet, responsive keyboard has nine programmable hot-keys. Each can launch Internet applications and e-mail programs. But it does not have volume-control buttons.
The bundled software includes Corel's WordPerfect Productivity Pack 2002 office suite (Quattro 10, WordPerfect 10, and a basic database program) and home-oriented digital video and photography titles like Arcsoft's Funhouse, PhotoImpression, and ShowBiz.
UPSHOT: The HP Pavilion A250n is a perfect fit for home users who need plenty of handholding. But for an improved multimedia experience, we'd opt for a system with better speakers and a beefier graphics card, both of which would make this system more attractive--but also more expensive.