Intel released their latest microarchitecture, the Nehalem-based Core i7 platform, in November of last year. It’s taken until now, however, for some manufacturers to jump into the game and this time it’s HP, with their new Pavilion Elite m9600t. Competitors like Dell and Gateway both released their own i7 systems last fall; is HP too late or right on time? Read on for our full review.
- Processor: Intel Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz
- Memory: 6GB DDR3 RAM @ 1066 MHz
- Hard drive: 750GB SATA @ 7200RPM
- Optical drive: Blu-ray readable / DVD+/-RW
- Sound: Integrated 7.1 audio
- Video card: ATI Radeon HD4850 1GB
- Networking: Gigabit Ethernet
- Wireless networking: 802.11n
- Operating system: Windows Vista Home Premium 64-bit
- Power supply: Delta Electronics 460W
- Warranty: 1 year limited warranty
The HP Pavilion Elite m9600t has a starting price of $949. In this configuration, it carries a suggested retail price of $1429.99.
Build and Design
One thing that’s set HP apart in recent years is the quality of their desktop cases, and the Pavilion Elite m9600t is no exception. The sides, top, bottom and back are all constructed out of metal with the front a plastic façade over top of a metal skeleton. Dell and HP have both taken a different tack than Apple with respect to handling inputs and the front styling of their bigger machines. Apple has largely removed these connections from the front of their computers and forced necessary ones, like the optical drive, to blend in very well.
Dell, and more to the point HP, have hidden as much as they can behind little doors and panels. On the plus side, this computer camouflage does a pretty good job of smoothing out the front and dimming down the high-tech look. Unfortunately, it’s applied somewhat haphazardly here, with some items covered and others not. Personally, I’d rather leave all of these panels and doors off entirely, as they often get in the way and if you want to plug in headphones or a USB device into the front, you’ll need to leave them open anyway.
One very cool feature of the m9600t that I’ve never seen on any other computer is a charging station built into the top of the desktop. Instead of being completely flat on top, the machine has a shallow indentation where you can store portable devices such as cell phones or MP3 players. The bottom and sides of the indentation are covered in a thick rubber mat that keeps all of your devices from getting scratched up; this is a really clever feature.
At the back of the mat is a flat clip that swivels up and down, hiding channels built into the top of the computer. Wires from charging devices are funneled through these grooves to USB ports on the rear of the computer. Once you have your gadgets set up, the clip snaps down and secures the cords in place, preventing a tangled mess. After the initial setup, you don’t need to reach around to the back of the computer to plug your iPod in, or leave USB cables dangling from the front of your machine.
Inputs and Expansion
The m9600t is almost bursting at the seams with expandability, although not all of it is as useful as it might be. The front of the machine offers users a Blu-ray/DVD burner combo drive as well as a 15-in-1 card reader in two of the expansion bays. There’s also an IR receiver in the middle of the card reader. Underneath those two is an open 5.25” expansion bay for whatever you might need to install.
It’s at this point where things get a little murky. In the middle of the front of the m9600t, HP put in a slot designed to fit its “pocket media drive” accessory. These are small portable hard drives that run off of USB. In the back of the of pocket drive bay is a full-sized USB plug; all you do is slot the drive into the bay and the built-in plug plugs into the drive. An eject button nearby ejects the drive when you’re finished with it. Further down the front of the chassis is another specialized drive bay that fits HP’s media drives, which are full-sized external drives. Inside this slot is another USB plug like you’d find on the end of a full-sized USB cable as well as a DC jack designed to fit into the back of the (traditionally) external media drive.
Inside of the full HP Media Drive (3.5″ drive) Bay
View of the Pocket Media (2.5″ external drive) Bay
While both of these slots can be handy features, I’m not sure how useful they really are. Taking advantage of them requires you to buy HP’s external hard drives and no one else’s. Furthermore, these proprietary drive bays take up extra room in the case, and I’m not sure it’s worth it, since I’m willing to bet 90% of the people who buy these computers won’t buy the hard drives. Given HP’s really elegant solution for charging portable devices, I’d rather be able to add in more hard drives or drive bays and put external storage devices on the rubber mat on top.
Behind the door on the lower-left front are the standard pair of USB2.0 ports, analog audio in and out as well as a FireWire port. I really wish they weren’t behind one of these little doors, since it makes it a pain to access them if you keep the desktop somewhere on your left. Also, if you want to plug in a pair of headphones or a thumb drive, that little door is going to stay open for long periods of time, increasing the chances it might get broken or catch on something.
At the back of the m9600t are the rest of the standard connections, including four more USB2.0 ports, another FireWire port, analog audio in and analog 7.1 audio out. There’s a Gigabit Ethernet jack, two eSATA ports and optical audio out. In addition to the Gigabit Ethernet, the m9600t also features 802.11n wireless connectivity, which means you don’t need to worry about setting it up next to a network jack or string a long Ethernet cable around. One interesting design feature of the rear inputs is that HP printed all of the labels for the ports either vertically or upside-down; that way, when you tip the computer toward you to hook all of the cables up, you’ll be able to read the text if you need to.
Inside of the machine there’s a little room for expandability, but not much. You can see the empty 5.25” drive bay mentioned earlier, as well as room for a second hard drive. The custom board is a little backwards from many computers as the right panel pops off to expose the insides rather than the left. Space is pretty cramped internally, as there are cables everywhere and the custom HP media drive bays take up a fair amount of room.
Unfortunately, HP lets us down here as the m9600t is filled with bloatware and advertising. There are free trials or ads for Microsoft Office, Snapfish, Pandora radio, Juno and NetZero internet access, AV software and more. Icons are already littering the desktop the first time you start the computer. It’s easy enough to wipe the drive and start over if you need to, though it’s not that difficult to uninstall most of the software. People new to computers might need help, though.
HP does include a full copy of Cyberlink’s DVD suite for burning and playing DVDs as well as interesting “kid-proofing” software that you can run and create a sandbox for your children to play in without worrying they’ll destroy all of your settings. There’s also a button on the front of the computer that lets you access HP’s backup software; it’s preset to backup your My Documents folders and the like, not regular operating system files. You can customize whether it saves to external hard drives, optical media or even network shares, what kinds of files it backs up and even set it to back up the drive automatically. It’s nice to see manufacturers make it easier for consumers to remember to save important documents regularly.
We’ve tested desktops based around Intel’s Core i7 platform before and they are, in a word, fast. The Pavilion Elite m9600t is no exception, ranking high in essentially all of our tests. It’s worth noting here that while Intel’s Core i7 920 processor has a standard multiplier of 20x, giving a clock speed of 2.66GHz, it can vary based on load. If Intel’s Turbo Mode is turned on in the BIOS, then when CPU load rises, the multiplier will increase to 21x, which ups the CPU to 2.79GHz. If you set Windows to its highest performance settings, then the CPU will stay clocked at the higher speed regardless of load on the processor.
wPrime is a PC performance benchmarking program that forces the computer to perform recursive mathematical calculations. This program is multithreaded, meaning we can take advantage of more than one core of a processor at a time, resulting in a more realistic estimate of a computer’s performance.
wPrime benchmark comparison results (lower numbers mean better performance)
|Desktop||wPrime 32 time|
|Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965 @ 3.2GHz)||7.426s|
|HP Pavilion Elite m9600t (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz)||8.835s|
|Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz)||9.1s|
|Dell XPS 625 (Phenom II X4 940 @ 3.0GHz)||12.777s|
|Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz)||13.869s|
|Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz)||14.625s|
|Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz)||16.301s|
PCMark05 overall system performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)
|Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965 @ 3.2GHz)||15,186 PCMarks|
|Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz)||10,928 PCMarks|
|Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz)||10,616 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS 625 (Phenom II X4 940 @ 3.0GHz)||10,296 PCMarks|
|HP Pavilion Elite m9600t (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz)||10,157 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz)||9,999 PCMarks|
|Dell Studio Slim (Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200 @ 2.33GHz)||6,887 PCMarks|
3DMark06 overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)
|Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965, Dual ATI HD4870X2)||22,666 3DMarks|
|Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450, ATI HD4870X2)||14,705 3DMarks|
|Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850)||13,085 3DMarks|
|HP Pavilion Elite m9600t (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850)||13,081 3DMarks|
|Dell XPS 625 (Phenom II X4 940, ATI HD4850)||12,641 3DMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850, NVIDIA FX4600)||10,327 3DMarks|
|Dell Studio Slim (Core 2 Quad Q8200, ATI HD3450 256MB)||1,820 3DMarks|
PCMark Vantage overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)
|Desktop||PCMark Vantage Score|
|Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965 @ 3.2GHz)||11,310 PCMarks|
|HP Pavilion Elite m9600t (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz)||6479 PCMarks|
|Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920 @ 2.66GHz)||6056 PCMarks|
|Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450 @ 2.66GHz)||5976 PCMarks|
3DMark Vantage overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance)
|Desktop||3DMark Vantage Score|
|Alienware Area-51 x58 (Core i7 965, Dual ATI HD4870X2)||p21865|
|Alienware Area-51 790i (Core 2 Quad Q9450, ATI HD4870X2)||p12578|
|HP Pavilion Elite m9600t (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850)||p7815|
|Dell Studio XPS (Core i7 920, ATI HD4850)||p7603|
The m9600t holds itself pretty well; while the tables make it seem like it ranks toward the bottom in the first PCMark and 3DMark tests, the numbers themselves are pretty close together.
We took the time to play a few games on the m9600t; while it’s not a dedicated gaming system, it’s certainly fast enough for almost anyone except really hardcore gamers.
|Game/Settings||Minimum framerate||Maximum framerate||Average framerate|
|WUXGA (all settings gamer)||11 fps||35 fps||21.3 fps|
|WUXGA (all settings mainstream)||17 fps||50 fps||33.6 fps|
|WSXGA (all settings gamer)||11 fps||42 fps||26.0 fps|
|Left4Dead (8xAA/Trilinear AF)|
|WUXGA (settings maxed)||42 fps||104 fps||75.0 fps|
|WSXGA (settings maxed)||64 fps||125 fps||95.0 fps|
|Call of Duty: World at War (4xAA/0xAF)|
|WUXGA (settings automatic)||35 fps||85 fps||50.0 fps|
|WSXGA (settings automatic)||36 fps||87 fps||57.9 fps|
As mentioned, the m9600t isn’t specifically designed to be a gaming desktop, but it certainly masquerades as one pretty well. 30 frames per second is typically the “magic number” to shoot for in order to ensure that games have a smooth look and feel to them and in several current games the m9600t (with the optional ATI Radeon HD4850) does pretty well; it’ll even play Crysis with a couple of settings turned down.
Power, Heat and Noise
The m9600f isn’t silent. It has a hot video card and a pretty powerful processor, and you need to be able to keep them cool. That being said, it’s not very loud unless you keep the machine on the desk right next to you. Under your desk, you’ll still be able to hear it, but not very well. At idle, the m9600t uses 108 watts, which isn’t too bad, especially if you let your desktop go to sleep after extended periods of inactivity. Even when maxing out the CPU and video card, we could only get the computer to pull down 281 watts, which is pretty good considering its individual components. With a 460W power supply, you’ve got a little breathing room if you want to upgrade the video card and/or add in some additional drives.
HP is trying to attract consumers by offering features you don’t typically find on other manufacturers’ desktops, like the multiple media drive bays, card readers as standard features, and the really great charging station. The m9600t is their first consumer-focused desktop that uses Intel’s new Core i7, and its performance doesn’t disappoint. Applications are snappy, the CPU has enough raw performance to power through processor-intensive programs and the 6GB of DDR3 memory makes multitasking a breeze.
It’s not all perfect, though; the number of doors and panels on the front of the computer make it feel fussy. I’m also not a fan of how crowded the inside of the computer feels after having two separate media drive bays. In the end, these are relatively minor issues with a system that offers many great features (like the charging station, if you can’t tell I’m enamoured of it). Almost five months have passed since Intel first introduced their newest microarchitecture. Major manufacturers have been selling their own Core i7 systems for some time, so HP has some ground to make up in the mainstream desktop market.
It’s a cliched phrase: “last but not least”, and yet in this case I find it apt. HP’s Pavilion Elite m9600t is a powerful little desktop; the Core i7 CPU, HD4850 video card, Blu-ray optical drive and charging station are really great features. At under a thousand dollars, HP gives you access to Intel’s newest technology and a few unique features you won’t find anywhere else. For everything else, however, it’s going to cost and with several other options on the market, HP has a lot of competition.
- Elegant gadget charging station
- Wireless networking
- Acceptable gaming performance
- Core i7 system starting at $949
- 460W power supply gives you some upgrade flexibility
- Messy internals
- Too many doors/flaps on the front
- Proprietary drive bays lock you into HP-only external drives