HP produces a cheap but capable all in one desktop. (November 29th, 2009)
Product Manufacturer: HP
- Good (if very iMac-like) design with added expansion.
- Performs well for the price; Windows 7 a help.
- Built-in webcam and Wi-Fi with DLNA support.
- LightScribe burning at a low cost.
- Could use added performance.
- So-so webcam and mouse quality.
- Big external power brick.
hardware design and the feature set
The MS214 is a great looking and surprisingly well-designed piece of technology. While not a stunner, the entire computer is no more than two inches thick and is mounted to a very sturdy plastic, angled stand; for most intents and purposes, it resembles a lower-cost, 18.5-inch version of the iMac. That resemblance does, however, make for an easily adjusted vertical viewing angle and open space directly below the PC. HP is surprisingly minimalist in its USB keyboard and optical mouse. The keyboard didn’t come with a deluge of unnecessary shortcut buttons, and its only extras are volume controls. We do wish the mouse was of higher quality, though, as it felt cheap.
The right-hand side of the unit houses a LightScribe-capable DVD burner and display brightness adjustment buttons. The left-hand side is certainly more convenient than Apple's system: it houses two USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, and a media card reader. The back of the MS214 sports four USB ports, an Ethernet jack and an optical audio output jack. Not surprisingly, MS214 also sports an integrated webcam and Wi-Fi as well as a set of internal speakers which, while not astounding, sound better than any notebook speakers. HP's design isn't an embarrassment of riches, but it's unlikely the target audience will run out of ports or have to scramble for peripherals.
If there's a quirk to the physical design, it's that HP has kept the all-in-one slim by "cheating" with its power adapter: the brick that comes with the MS214 is kept outside of the system and is simply a giant in its dimensions. It rivals the power bricks of the ten pound notebooks from the late 1990s. Such size isn’t too big of an issue as this computer is a desktop unit and is not designed for portability, but the iMac and some Windows-based all-in-ones manage to keep this element hidden and are that much sleeker as a result.
What may be more disappointing is the performance, at least compared to traditional desktops at a similar price. The 1.5GHz Athlon X2 3250e is a dual-core, desktop-grade processor and worlds away from the Atoms in nettops, but it won't equate to a gaming PC or to much heavy lifting for media editing. AMD's ATI Radeon HD 3200 is a minor consolation: it again won't lead to serious gaming, but it can smoothly accelerate the Aero Glass interface in Windows 7 and should let at least some HD video play smoothly. We'd also prefer more RAM, but 2GB is enough at this price point given Windows' newly lowered performance overhead.
Windows 7 and software
Although it doesn't necessarily need the support for extra memory and apps, the MS214 is relatively futureproof and ships with a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium and all of the usual Microsoft trimmings, plus some added HP-specific applications for media management. Beyond the usual security software trials, a copy of Microsoft Works, and some multimedia software, the MS214 doesn’t come with much else preloaded; that's expected given the price, although we can imagine some buying this as a student PC and wishing it had a full copy of Office instead.
Windows 7 has been heralded in recent days as everything that Vista should have been three years ago. In the limited amount of time we have spent with the MS214 we’ve been fairly impressed with some of the new features and apps in Windows 7 as they relate to HP's design. Even simple tasks such as importing photos from a memory card are easier. We inserted a Sony Memory Stick into the reader, for example, and Windows automatically copied the photos into our ‘My Photos’ folder, offered to tag the files, and offered to delete the files from the memory stick all in one process. Mac users will be familiar with this experience, but it's nice to see a Windows all-in-one rendered simple in software as well as hardware.
Some of the Aero effects that debuted in Windows Vista have clearly been refined. We really appreciate the Aero Snap function, which tiles two windows next to each other by dragging each to an edge of the screen. Performance-wise, Aero features such as the transparent borders and live thumbnail previews ran flawlessly on the MS214.
Home networking in Windows 7 is very easy and here is particularly helped by the Wi-Fi. We really appreciate the extra support for DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) devices, though this is mostly useful for non-UPnP devices like the PlayStation 3 or for similarly equipped PCs on the same network.
extras: LightScribe burning and the webcam
The two most notable hardware features on this system are its LightScribe DVD burner and the webcam. LightScribe technology burners etch an image onto the top of DVDs and CDs for those who would prefer to avoid printing labels; it's not a game-changing addition but a welcome one, especially in a category where optical drives are often quite basic.
The webcam in turn has features and effects to make online chats more interesting; its video quality was mediocre, but the audio quality was superb. We’d really like to see HP use a higher resolution webcam the next time around to compliment the quality microphone that the company put into this unit.
For only $600, the MS214 is a fairly sleek all-in-one computing option as long as your expectations match the price tag; don’t expect much in the way of extra software or horsepower and you'll come away content. Do expect an easy to use home computing environment that is ideally suited for typical Internet use and light multimedia editing, storage, and playback.
If we had to improve the system, it would chiefly be to improve the fit and finish of the peripherals and to aggressively update the specs over time. While the speed will certainly be adequate as of November, it sits in a borderline area where a configuration left untouched for too long could quickly become outdated.
This system doesn’t offer cutting edge hardware, but it does give users what they want most an affordable, easy-to-use and even stylish home computer. Apple may still reign at the higher-end of the all-in-one spectrum, but the low-end now has a viable choice of its own.