Review: HP's Pavilion s5180a proves that cheap and cheerful isn't everything

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Review: HP's Pavilion s5180a proves that cheap and cheerful isn't everything

The HP Pavilion s5180a punches above its weight and provides a welcoming entry point for a starter or low-end upgrade system.

In comparison to the Acer Aspire X5810, opposite, the exterior of the HP Slimline Desktop is a little more friendly and welcoming. From the gentle blue glow of the on/off button and the highlight stripe at the top of the chassis, through to the curved and bevelled piano-black front panel, floating over a silver plastic base, it has a welcoming feel.

The front panel, sadly, feels flimsy and insubstantial; the silver plastic isn't strong enough to take much force, and the whole front portion isn't as secure as we'd like, but despite our fears, the piano-black portion proved surprisingly resilient.

We wouldn't like to pit it against a toddler armed with a screwdriver for terribly long, but it's able to withstand knocks and bumps without problem.

The chassis has more cooling than the Acer system, and remained relatively cool even while the CPU was performing at maximum during our benchmarks.

It's reassuring to see the effort put into keeping even a machine of this size well-ventilated. This cooling is managed even despite a case that is as tightly packed and hard to access as the Acer system, though it surprisingly includes an easy release case.

As with the Aspire, any hopes of upgrading are quashed by the necessity of removing many of the internal components even to add something as simple as additional sticks of RAM. Though the system can hold 8GB in all, you may be better off getting a professional to do the installation for you if you're not comfortable with system building.

Setup for new HP machines is a hand-holding exercise for those less computer-savvy, but it covers the important points, and even offers a video walkthrough. It's impossible to skip, or to take much faster than HP intends, however, and we found it a little tedious.

We've previously complained about HP's excessive software inclusion on machines intended as consumer desktops, and the s5180a is no exception to the trend.

You've got everything from a swag of casual games (provided by US game network WildTangent), Microsoft works and a 60-day trial of Office 2007, eBay shortcuts and more. Most of it feels unnecessary, but we won't begrudge you the odd game of Bejeweled.

The inclusion of the e7400 processor in the s5180a is a canny move by HP - it's the best bang-for- buck Intel processor from our test earlier this year as well as being under $200. It means that the HP's performance is far better than its price might indicate, and it even pipped the Quad-core-powered Acer with an overall benchmark result of 1.42.

Where the HP doesn't fare so well against the Acer is with gaming, however. HP has opted to include the Nvidia GeForce G100 - a rebadged older Nvidia GeForce processor equivalent to a GeForce 9200.

The 8 processor cores at 567MHz, with 512 MB DDR2 VRAM and 64-bit memory interface is excellent for video playback, but it's not equipped for games.

For a home computer, 500GB of hard disk space will fill all too rapidly - that's enough for perhaps two people to have a decent media collection and games - but HP include a pocket drive slot for additional drives if you desire.

The pocket drives are an excellent idea, in theory - anyone can simply plug and play their own high capacity drive to make sharing a computer a simpler process - but we've yet to meet anyone actually using them.

The s5180a has a reasonable selection of ports and connectors, though it's nowhere near the powerhouse that the Acer is. Six USB (four rear, two front), keyboard and mouse PS/2 ports, HDMI, DVI, a memory card reader and 5.1 surround is pretty much your lot. It's sufficient, but more rear ports, in particular, would be welcome for most modern families with stacks of peripherals.

In common with most of the lower end systems we've seen through the labs lately, the HP brings wireless-n as well as Ethernet, but there's no Bluetooth. The optical drive is a DVD-writer with LightScribe, which is ample for a machine designed as a family machine.

If you're getting the idea that the HP is a fine basic machine, you're not far wrong. Its performance is surprisingly good for the price, but there's nothing else that stands out.

Even so, that soupçon of performance helps make it more appealing for anybody wanting to replace an older system, and the Photoshop results indicate that it will be a fair performer for video and photographic tasks. For $1200, too, it looks like good value.

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