Hewlett-Packard Media Center Computer

I was just looking, wasn't planning to buy. But it looked up at me with pleading puppy-dog eyes that said "Please take me home!" Plus it was on sale.

Not talking about a dog, of course. I'm talking about my new computer. My 2001-era desktop had been pressing up against its limitations for some time, and the keyboard on my laptop was starting to act up. I had actually gone to the office supply superstore to look for a USB keyboard for the laptop (which they didn't have.) I strayed over an aisle or two, and started to look around.

They probably wanted to clear space for the latest models, for I found a heavily-marked down Hewlett-Packard M1170N Windows XP Media Center computer. While I wasn't totally sure if I needed all of Microsoft's media bells and whistles, the hardware itself was an excellent price.

This review will just look at the hardware itself, while somewhere down the line I'll take a look at the Media Center software. The official name for this computer is actually "HP Media Center m1170n Photosmart PC". It's meant to be the centerpiece of all your digital entertainment, including audio, video, and photos.

If you look at its picture on the right, the first thing you will notice is lots and lots of ports. At the top are four slots that give it the "Photosmart" name, for they are slots that accept the four dominant types of flash memory cards from digital cameras. Rather than rely on slow cable connections to download your photos, you can just pop out your memory card and pop it into the appropriate slot. The card temporarily becomes another disk drive on the computer, and you can quickly download your photos.

On the bottom right of the computer are two USB 2.0 ports (four more are in the back of the computer), a Firewire port (another one in back), a headphone port, a mike port, three RCA-type composite video plugs, and an S-video port. The back of the computer has all the standard computer connectors (PS/2 for mouse and keyboard, VGA, Ethernet, parallel, serial) plus extra connectors for surround-sound speakers, digital audio in and out, a coaxial connector (for cable TV), an FM antenna connector, and another S-Video. In other words, you can hook up a whole lot of stuff to this computer.

Since it's really designed more for the family room/home theatre than it is an office, it also comes with a remote control to use with the Media Center features. One last piece of optional equipment that you can order separately is an HP Personal Media Drive, which fits into a slot on the left front of the computer. You would need that if you manage to fill up the 180 gigabyte hard drive that comes with the computer. (It's actually a 200 GB drive, but 20 GB is used for all the recovery software that you would use to restore your system after Windows XP inevitably melts down.)

It's got a DVD RW drive for writing your own audio and video disks, plus a DVD/ CD ROM. To play back all the video, there is an ATI RADEON X300 SE PCI-E graphics card with 128MB DDR video memory and TV out. I'm not a cutting-edge gamer, by any means, so I haven't really pushed the video card that way. However, playing back a DVD gave a remarkable sharp picture. Oh yeah, it's got an Intel Pentium 4 3.00Ghz CPU. (I actually look at RAM size and the graphics card as the first measure of speed, with the CPU second.)

So far, it's been used mostly as a regular office PC. The only complaint I have with it is the DVD/CD drive seems to take a little longer to get going than I'm used to, probably because there's so much software (Windows Media Center, HP Tunes, iTunes, WinDVD) all trying to decide who gets first crack at the disk. The keyboard also has special keys that are supposed to take me right to my favorite web sites, but the programming for those keys seems to be rather finicky. It also "only" has 512 MB of RAM, which I will probably upgrade soon. But with the heavily discounted and rebated price (a little more than $900 for me) I could trim away a lot of the media features and still come up with a good computer for the price. If you are going to shop, note that this model is being phased out by HP in favor of the 1270 (and probably the 1370 and 1470 too). But your best bargains are always going to be in last year's computer.

Also posted at Blogcritics