HP Pavilion a1640n & a1630n: Intel vs. AMD?

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April 11, 2007 by Mike Chin

Products
HP Pavilion a1630n + a1640n
Desktop PCs
Manufacturer
Hewlett Packard
Sample Supplier
AMD
Market Price
a1630n: $780
a1640n: $860

It's not every day that a review of two systems from a major PC brand appears at SPCR. In fact, it's not every week, or every month, or even every year: It might be something like once or twice in the past five years. It's not that we haven't reviewed systems. We have, but they've generally been from smaller, specialist brands who focus more on quiet systems. It's also not that we haven't been interested in the big brands. It's mostly that the big guys just haven't been interested enough to pay attention to our requests for samples.

It's notoriously hard to find the right person in a big company to make things happen for a more special interest type of request... and questions about acoustics still are considered abnormal even if more understandable. The big exception was Apple, who came up with samples of Intel-based iMacs for us last year, probably because they knew we'd approve.

Now here we are with a couple of desktop PCs from Hewlett Packard. In the third quarter of 2006, HP took the lead from Dell as the biggest maker of computers in the world. Does this mean the big guys are finally paying attention to the special interest tech site called Silent PC Review?

Well... maybe. You will note that these HP systems did not come from HP. They came from a third party, AMD. As you might guess, there is a story here. It begins with the details about the two systems.

HP DESKTOP SYSTEMS... via AMD!


They're modestly sized systems designed for multimedia home use, running Window Media Center Edition 2005. Identical on the outside, pretty similar on the inside... except for the CPU and GPU.

Item
HP Pavilion a1630n
HP Pavilion a1640n
Market Price
$780
$860
Product number
RC658AA
RC663AA
Introduction date
14 Aug 2006
30-Aug-2006
Sold in

US and Canada

Base processor
Athlon 64 X2-4600+ 2.4 GHz - AM2
Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 1.86 GHz
Chipset
nVidia GeForce 6150 LE
Intel G965
Motherboard
Asus A8M2N-LA (NodusM3-GL8E)
Asus P5BW-LA (Buckeye-GL8E)
Memory
2 GB DDR2 SDRAM PC2-4200
Hard drive
250 GB SATA, 7200 rpm
(WD WD Caviar SE, 8mb cache)
250 GB SATA, 7200 rpm
(Maxtor Diamondmax 10, 16mb cache)
Optical drive
16X DVD(+/-)R/RW RAM (+/-)R DL LightScribe drive
Video graphics
Integrated - nVidia GF6150LE
Integrated - Intel G965 Express
Sound/Audio
Realtek ALC 888 chipset; up to 8 audio ch.; Dolby Pro Logic II compatible
Memory card reader
9-in-1 (4 slot) + 1 USB
Network (LAN)
Integrated 10/100 Base-T
Modem
56K bps data/fax
Operating system
MS Windows XP MCE 2005 w/ Update Rollup 2 - SP2
Front I/O ports
9-in-1 (4 slot) + 2 USB
1 - 1394
1 - Headphone
1 - Line-in
1 - Microphone
Same as a1630n, except for additional USB port
Back I/O ports
2 - PS/2 (keyboard, mouse) VGA One
4 - USB
1 - 1394
1 - LAN
1 - SPDIF out (coaxial)
Audio (side speaker out, rear speaker out, center speaker out, line-in, line-out, microphone)
Same as a1630n, except for additional SPDIF in (coax) port
Expansion slots
3 - PCI Three (Two available)
1 - PCI Express x16
Drive bays
2 - 5.25" external (One available)
2 - 3.5" external Two (None available)
1 - 3.5" internal One (None available)
1 - pocket media drive bay
Keyboard / mouse

HP multimedia keyboard
HP PS/2 scroller mouse

Warranty

Hardware parts and labor plus technical telephone assistance for one year from date of purchase

A close examination of the comparison table above will show that your initial impressions are correct: These PCs are just about identical, except that one runs an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and the integrated video graphics in the G965 Express chipset, while the other is AMD A64-X2 processor based and runs the integrated video graphics in the nVidia GF6150LE. Two gigs is plenty of RAM in each system. They don't use the same hard drives, but the HDD performance should be close enough that any difference should be trivial. (This is the luck of the draw: Most big system integrators only specify the basics of the drive — in this case, 250GB and 7200rpm — and not the brand or model. What goes into each PC depends on what's available on the production line when the machine is assembled.) The two PCs are basically Intel and AMD processor variants of the same model. The ~$80 difference in selling price that we found online in mid-February 2007 seems to be a direct impact of the higher cost of the Intel E6300 processor over the AMD Athlon 64 X2-4600+.

AMD told us that these systems were purchased in Q4 last year. When they ordered, they deliberately configured the systems to be as close to each other as possible.

Why? And why did AMD send these systems to SPCR?

AMD's PR department was seeking reviewers who would be interested to:

"1) Compare equally configured / branded value systems with an AMD vs.Intel focus
2)
Compare the systems for value (what you get - performance, etc. - for the $)
3) Compare the systems for image quality and functionality"

AMD's point, which they hoped the reviewers would confirm, was that....

"The Intel based system relies on Intel integrated graphics (because that's all you'll get with ViiV) which cannot hang in Vista or in reasonable gaming expectations (for a UMA* system) compared to the AMD system with nVIDIA integrated graphics. Our partner approach means you can also have ATI graphics also, and we don't lock you don't to one vendor on other components like wireless, mobos, etc."

(*UMA: for Unified Memory Architecture. A computer that has graphics chips built into the motherboard that use part of the computer's main memory for video memory is said to have Unified Memory Architecture.)

Fair enough. AMD had their vested reasons for sending us these HP systems to review. We had our own reasons as well: We were interested in typical power consumption, acoustics and general usability of these mainstream systems from a major PC brand. This was a good opportunity for SPCR and our audience.

WHY BOTHER WITH VALUE SYSTEMS?

To expand on the reasons for our interest in these systems a bit further, while most hardware review sites love to pore over all the details of the latest and greatest high performance system or component, such hardware is relevant to less than perhaps 5% of computer users. The vast majority of computers sold in the world are modestly priced, functional tools.

The video graphics card is a key indicator. Most hardware sites provide umpteen reviews of discrete video graphics cards. Typically, the models reviewed are midrange and higher. We're talking about a price range of at least $100 up to about $1,000 currently for a water-cooled version of the top 8800 series nVidia gaming card. While such products may make some people drool, most computer users don't really pay any attention. It's irrelevant if you're not obsessed about playing the latest (mostly violent) computer games at the fastest possible speed with the greatest amount of lush, realistic detail.

The reality is that most computers don't even have discrete graphics cards. That's right, they use video cards that are integrated in the motherboard. According to a Graphics Processor Trends – Desktops and Notebooks – US Retail report dated September 2006 by Current Analysis, during 2005 and 2006, 92% of desktop computers sold in the US were delivered only with integrated graphics. Just 8% were sold with any type of discrete video graphics card. The assessment by Current Analysis:

  • Attached discrete GPU’s declining shares are attributed to price premium and integrated graphics enhancement.
  • Q1 2007 Outlook: Graphics will garner more attention after the Vista release, but intensified pricing is required to increase discrete graphics attach rates.

Many of you may also be aware that sales of notebook computers surpassed desktops last year, and this trend will continue. What's happening to graphics cards in notebooks, then? According to the same Current Analysis report, the proportion of notebooks sold with discrete GPUs has declined steadily from nearly a third (31%) in Q3 2004 down to just 5% in Q3 2006. Their comments:

  • Discrete GPU market limited to high-end as retail customers focused on Price and lack of knowledge of “Discrete vs. Integrated Graphics”.
  • Q1 2007 Outlook: Graphics will garner more attention after the Vista release, but pricing will still be key and integrated solutions available will be “good enough” for most customers.

Our value mainstream review PC samples from HP don't have discrete graphics, and that's why they're relevant to most computer users. The performance of these machines is representative of what most people typically get from an Intel or an AMD desktop PC system today. It also gives us a close look at acoustics in typical mainstream PCs for the first time in years.

WHY THE LONG DELAY?

If you search the HP web site for either of these systems, you will find they are now discontinued. They were still being offered when the systems first came to us in early February. It's a long story.

The HP systems had been used by AMD for a few months in demos and comparisons before coming to us. By the time we cleared space and time to begin working on them, it was mid February. It was then that we discovered the Intel-based a1640n system had developed a problem in transit. The video refused to come on. A series of exchanges with AMD ensued. This took a few days. We were advised to consult HP tech support. HP insisted on beginning with email / phone tech support. It took a week of exchanges with HP to confirm the simple fact that the graphics function of the integrated motherboard was obviously broken. Finally, an RMA (return of merchandise authorization) was issued. The PC was packed up and shipped off from Vancouver to HP's Canadian tech support headquarters in Ontario on Feb 27. They anticipated a return date of March 7. That turned out to be highly optimistic. The repaired a1640n system did not make it back to SPCR until March 20. Another week went by before attention could be refocused on these systems again.

As a result, this review is not quite as relevant as it could have been if it was published a couple of months ago. But similar systems are still offered by HP. The Pavilion a6050e (AMD) and Pavilion a6050y (Intel) systems with the top CPU choices are quite close to the models we're reviewing here, the biggest difference being that they're now running Windows Vista.



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