Though priced at $1100 (as of 8/23/09), the HP Pavilion Elite m9550f isn’t as fully equipped as less-expensive rivals. And unfortunately, its performance fails to match that of many machines, regardless of their price, on our Top 10 Value PCs chart.
We’re finally starting to see Core i7 processors entering value-PC territory; this makes the m9550f’s 2.5GHz Core 2 Quad 9300 processor seem a little deficient, as it just can’t keep up with Intel’s faster, newer CPUs. HP tries stacking the deck with 8GB of DDR2-800 RAM, but (as I’ll describe in a moment) that move ends up being more for show than anything else. I’d be quite happy with a paltry 4GB and a faster CPU. Still, the system’s single Seagate 1TB hard drive provides one of the highest storage capacities you’ll find in a PC of this price range.
In addition, the XFX ATI Radeon HD 4850 graphics card is an above-average offering for a value PC. Together, the CPU/card combination allowed the system to achieve good frame rates on PC World’s suite of gaming tests. The m9550f hit an average of 63 frames per second on Enemy Territory: Quake Wars (2560 by 1600 resolution, high quality) and 52 fps in our Unreal Tournament 3 test (same resolution and quality). That’s decent, but the $999 Dell Studio XPS 435 beat the HP by anywhere from 15 to 20 fps, depending on the title. As for PC World’s more general-purpose WorldBench 6 benchmark, the m9550f earned a strong score of 107, but several other value PCs (including the Core i7-based XPS 435) topped it.
The bundle of wires jammed into the m9550f’s chassis is as unpleasant to work with as it is to look at. The jury’s still out on whether you can even get past all that to access the 3.5-inch hard-drive bays: I’m voting no, unless you want to significantly alter the case’s insides and have one heck of a rebuilding job awaiting you. The system also has a single free 5.25-inch bay, as well as one free PCI Express x1 slot and one PCI slot, but that’s nothing to be proud of, especially since HP doesn’t bundle a machete into the rig to help you work your way through this screw-filled cable jungle.
At least HP had the foresight to offer a number of external connections. Four USB ports on the rear of the glossy, black-and-gray chassis are joined by one gigabit ethernet port, one FireWire 400 port, integrated 7.1 surround sound, and an optical S/PDIF out. The front of the case is a little short on wire connections, offering just two USB ports and a single FireWire 400 port. That said, you can also stuff an HP media drive or pocket drive into one of the available covered drive bays. A multiformat card reader rounds out the system’s excellent connectivity. In a perfect world, though, HP would have passed on its proprietary drives in favor of simple, 3.5-inch hot-swap bays that could accommodate any hard drive on the market. A boy can dream, right?
The m9550f’s case is a standard HP affair, but it looks better than the average chassis in that HP’s stealthing of nearly all the connectors, drives, and expansion bays goes a long way toward improving the aesthetics. I don’t often say this, but I wouldn’t actually mind sticking this generic HP unit under my desk–it’s as attractive as a corporate-design PC can get.
The mouse and keyboard that HP included with our test machine match the system’s color scheme perfectly. The keyboard adds five application-launching function buttons, as well as volume and playback controls, to its standard layout. The mouse is the generic two-button sort. Overall, it’s a nice set of accessories that’s a lot better than the dull, standard input devices I’m used to seeing.
But then I think of the system’s price, and all of its goodness melts away. If you line up all of the value desktops we’ve tested, the HP Pavilion Elite m9550f manages to outperform only the most inexpensive PCs in the group. That doesn’t make it much of a midrange machine, especially considering that less-expensive PCs offer better functionality, more upgradability, and faster hardware than the m9550f does.