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HP’s Pavilion Media Centre TV m7690n home-theater-ready PC is optimized for high definition. I looked at a shipping unit of this desktop, which is the company’s first to include an HD DVD drive. The system performed admirably in our performance tests — but with a price tag of CDN$2,400 (as of 12/18/06), it doesn’t come cheap.

Our Vista Capable test machine ran Windows XP Media Centre Edition and included a TV tuner for recording television shows. It also came with a remote control and audio support for up to 5.1 channels of surround sound. The other major feature is a Toshiba SD-H802A HD DVD ROM drive (the PC’s second optical drive). It can read HD DVD movie discs, but the implementation is kludgy: You have to run the included HD DVD player program separately, as it’s not integrated with the Media Centre software.

The accompanying 22-inch HP w22 LCD monitor was also disappointing, offering pale colours and poorly reproduced shadow details. Standard wide-screen video content won’t fit it perfectly, either; you will still have to accept either letterbox black bars at the top and bottom of the screen or a distorted image. The screen works fine for general desktop use, but it can’t replace a wide-screen HDTV.

The m7690n has a multitude of design conveniences, such as a variety of conveniently located ports. On the front of the silver case, a sliding cover hides an array of video and audio inputs, plus two USB 2.0 ports and a FireWire connection. The system’s integrated audio decoder has S/PDIF inputs and outputs, useful for connecting it to a satellite or cable TV box or to a stereo receiver.

A bay for HP’s Personal Media Drive — a removable hard drive that you can operate in the system or over a USB 2.0 connection — sits on the other side of the case. An optional 160GB Personal Media Drive costs $160 (about $47 more than you’d pay for an ordinary external hard drive).

With a 2.13-GHz Core 2 Duo E6400 processor and 2GB of DDR2 SDRAM, the m7690n earned a mark of 126 on our WorldBench 5 tests, a strong score that makes it well suited for most general computing tasks. It also turned in reasonable graphics performance using a GeForce 7600G GT graphics card, a mainstream model designed for home theater and HD game play. The system managed a respectable frame rate of 112 frames per second in Doom 3 at 1280 by 1024 resolution.

Although the case is a good size, the Personal Media Drive bay takes a lot of room, making the interior rather cramped. Our review unit had two hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, providing an adequate 500GB of drive space — enough to store a good amount of recorded TV.

The m7960n is an expensive system; you’re paying a lot for the HD DVD feature. We’d like to see the HD DVD functions better integrated with Media Centre, too. And don’t expect the m7690n to replace your high-end home theater setup: The monitor is too small and not of good enough quality to show off HD DVD movies to their full effect.

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