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Bigger Isn't Always Better, but Why Not?

March 08, 2001|LARRY MAGID |

A few months ago, I wrote about the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion 2755, a reasonably powerful desktop PC that comes in a sleek and petite case. At only 13 inches tall, 14 3/4 inches deep and 4 inches wide, the machine represents a trend toward making computers that fit nicely into people's decor.

But there is a trade-off. PCs that come in small cases are harder to expand. That might not matter to some users, but it can be an issue to people who plan to keep the PC for two or more years and want the ability to keep it up to date as technology or their tastes evolve.

Fortunately, most companies that make desktop PCs also make machines that can accommodate extra expansion cards and drives. In fact, Hewlett-Packard is one of several companies that are playing it both ways. Shortly after coming out with one of the smallest desktop PCs on the market, it introduced one of the largest.

The HP Pavilion 9000 series is the exact opposite of the 2755. Instead of being small and demure, computers in this line are big and roomy. I almost needed a shoehorn to squeeze the new Pavilion 9870 under my desk. It's 9 inches wide, nearly 20 inches tall and just as deep. It does fit under my desk, but I had to scoot my chair over a few inches to avoid hitting it with my knees.

Whether such a large PC is good or bad depends on what you plan to do with the machine and how much room you have. If you have plenty of space under your desk, the extra size might not be much of a detriment. If you're trying to fit it into a small space, it's a possible drawback.

A desktop PC with a large case is easier to expand. The HP 9870, for example, comes with three drives--a floppy, a CD-RW (read/write) and a DVD drive. But it has room for three more drives, just in case you want to add a Zip drive or a tape backup.

The number of expansion boards you can put into a PC depends on the number of slots on the system's motherboard. These units have six slots. Five are for standard PCI, or Peripheral Component Interface, cards, and one is for an AGP, or Accelerated Graphics Port, graphics card. The bad news is that all but one of those slots are filled. The good news is that this machine is loaded. In addition to the standard video card, modem and sound card, it also has an Ethernet card and a FireWire (IEEE 1394) card to connect high-speed external devices such as hard drives and video cameras.

Most people probably won't ever bother taking apart their desktop PC. Most devices that you add to PCs these days can be simply plugged into one of the easily accessible Universal Serial Bus, FireWire or serial or parallel ports. But there are still some tinkerers around who like the idea of peeling off the case to add or swap out hardware or simply see what the system is made of.

This machine is for them. You can get inside in just seconds by simply removing two thumbscrews (no tools required) and slipping off the cover. Unlike some machines, you don't have to exert force to pry off the cover and there are no sharp edges to cut you.

HP makes three versions of the machine. The low-end model 9870 that I'm testing costs $1,799 and comes with a 1.3-gigahertz Pentium 4 processor and a 60-gigabyte hard drive. The $2,199 model (9795C) is the same except for a 1.4-GHz Pentium 4. The top-of-the-line system, which sells for $2,399, comes with a 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 and an 80-GB drive.

If I were buying one of these machines, I'd opt for the low end of the line. A 1.3-GHz Pentium 4 is more than fast enough for most people, and even I would have trouble filling a 60-GB hard drive.

I'm not suggesting that any of these machines are appropriate for most users. Frankly, it's hard for me to perceive much difference between the 9870 and my 2 1/2-year-old Dell Dimension XPS, which has a 700-MHz Pentium III processor but the same amount of memory and nearly as much disk space. The fact that power users like me aren't salivating over the latest and greatest helps explain why the PC industry is having problems.

Still, there is the why-not factor. If you're shopping for a high-end PC, you discover that machines with the 1.3-GHz Pentium 4 aren't that much more expensive than similarly equipped Pentium III systems.


Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard between 2 and 3 p.m. weekdays on the KNX-AM (1070) Technology Hour.

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