HP Pavilion a1640n & a1630n: Intel vs. AMD?

Table of Contents

It’s not every day that a full review of a system from a major PC brand appears at SPCR. Now here we are with two 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? No matter; this article will give the quiet computer buyer an idea of what to expect from a big PC brand these days.

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.

BASICS

The small size (approximately 15″h x 7″w x 16″h) of these systems puts them roughly on par with short tower retail case such as the Antec NSK 3300/3400 or Silverstone TJ08. They are small enough to be place atop most desks without looking too obtrusive, unlike bigger midtowers. What’s very clear with just a glance at the front panel is that these PCs are well equipped for connectivity and portable data transfer. This is confirmed by the detailed specifications on the previous page.


One of the PCs had all the promotional stickers on it still.

Each PC is equipped a 16X DVD LightScribe drive that can handle a wide variety of 12cm optical media, and even print labels direct to the disc. Each PC also has a 9-in-1 memory card reader with four slots and an extra USB2 port tossed in for good measure. Beneath a slide down door under the card reader is a port for HP’s Pocket Media Drive, which is a 2.5″ notebook drive (80 or 120gb capacity) in a proprietary case that can be plugged in and out easily, much like a backup tape cassette or a big floppy disk. The plug-in interface is a standard USB port, which allows the Pocket Media Drive to be used with a USB cable with other computers and devices not equipped with a Pocket Media Drive port. Also under the silding door are the audio connectors, and IEEE1394 (Firewire) and USB connectors. All of this connectivity and portable media accessibility seems quite extensive for PCs priced well under $1,000.

The back panels of the two systems were just about identical in terms number and type of ports. It’s obvious that they are equipped with different model fans, but other than that, they are just about identical. The number of PCi slots identifies them as having MicroATX motherboards.


A SPDIF input on the a1640n is the only difference; the same PSU model is used.

Only the right panel can be removed, by removing a single thumbscrew. The panel itself measured 0.9mm thick, fairly substantial for a modest sytem. The fit was not particularly good, however. This is what you see inside the two systems:


HP Pavilion a1630n


HP Pavilion a1640n

A Bestec 300W ATX power supply is used in each system. It is a conventional 80mm fan cooled unit with very open intake vents on the back and underside of its casing. It has a manual 115/230 VAC switch, and it does not have Active Power Factor Correction. Two 1024mb sticks of RAM are used in each PC; each has two more memory slots. The CPU heatsink/fan in each system is a generic all-aluminum type. The one in the a1630n comes from AVC and the one in the a1640n comes from Asus (which happens to be the maker of both motherboards). The PSU fan, 92mm case fan and the CPU heatsink fan in both systems are all ball bearing types — the buzzing from each makes this abundantly clear, especially when powered up without the hard drive.


The front vent probably doesn’t do much.

There is a slot vent under the bottom edge of the front bezel, and some perforations on the inner front panel, but it’s not likely that much air flows though these because of the long distance to the fans. Most of intake vents are on the side cover; they are much closer to the fans. The CPU fan certainly draw most of its air through the side, and probably much of the intake flow for the back panel fan is also same vent. This means the HDD doesn’t really get much direct airflow, but again, there is a vent on the side just below where it sits, so the systems are quite well ventilated.


The three side vents are the main intake air sources for the power supply, CPU/motherboard, and the HDD — in that order, from top to bottom.

POWERING UP

The first order of the day was a quick examination of the BIOS. It was very quick indeed. As is typical of systems from Big Brands, the BIOS is extremely limited. There are almost no options to speak of in either system. They both have hardware monitoring, however, for temperature sensing of key components. Both systems also came equipped with standby/sleep functions, although there were no selectable options for them in the BIOS.

Both systems were preloaded with Windows Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005. They also came preloaded with some applications, including…

  • MS Works v.8 (a simpler alternative to MS Office)
  • HP Photosmart Premier 8.0 (which seems similar to one of Adobe’s general purpose imaging packages)
  • Sonic DigitalMedia Plus v.7 (optical disc burning/management software suite)
  • MS Money 2006

As usual, there were numerous trial and limited time software products preloaded into both systems, and even links to “hot deals” from various HP partners. Most of these were just a nuisance, and most users would probably want to uninstall them as quickly as possible. But that’s probably a long and tedious job as well. We’ve seen similar “partner” packaged software in other big brands as well and have the same opinion of the practice: It’s mostly a nuisance.

Aside from such annoyances, first impressions were…

  • The systems are noisy but not as bad as we’ve heard. The buzzing and humming of the fans, and the chattering of the hard-mounted hard drive when seeking was about the same in both systems. Not great, but better than others we’ve encountered in the past.
  • The overall feel of both systems was pretty good. That is to say, speedy and responsive enough not to feel much different in casual Windows procedures and web surfing than higher performance systems in the lab.

TESTING

Before running any tests or comparisons, the OS and drivers on both systems were totally and completely updated using Windows Update and HP’s own HP Update. This actually took a couple of hours. Out of curiosity, the most recent G965 chipset graphics driver (win2k_xp1427.exe) was downloaded directly from the Intel web site. During the installation, an error message appeared stating that the driver is not validated for this computer and that the appropriate driver should be obtained from the computer manufacturer. The same thing occurred with the AMD system. In other words, the drivers in these systems are optimized by or for HP, and maintained through the HP Update service.

The following tools were used during testing:

Software:

CPUBurn (CPU stress test)
Prime 95 (CPU & memory stress test)
Speedfan v. 4.32 (temperature monitoring)
3DMark06 (video performance benchmark)
3DMark05 (previous version)
PCMark05
(system performance benchmark)
HP Photosmart Premier 8.0
Command & Conquer: Generals (2003 early 3D real time strategy game)
Far Cry (2004 first person shooter game)
Web browsing, document reading/editing

Hardware:

BenQ FP991 19″ LCD monitor
ADI 19″ CRT monitor (many years old)
Linksys 2-port KVM switch
Seasonic Power Angel AC power meter
Brüel & Kjaer Type 2203 Sound Level Meter
SPCR’s digital audio recording
system

Ambient conditions at the time of testing were 18 dBA and 21°C.

Acoustic, Thermal and Power Measurements
HP Pavilion a1640n (Intel E6300)
Activity State
SPL (dBA@1m)
CPU
HDD
AC Power
Idle (SpeedStep)
29
44°C
39°C
76W
2 x CPUBurn
30
69°C
39°C
108W
2 x Prime 95
30
69°C
39°C
117W
HDD defragment
36
45°C
42°C
78W
HP Pavilion a1630n (AMD A64X2 4600+)
Activity State
SPL (dBA@1m)
CPU
HDD
AC Power
Idle (CoolnQuiet)
27
29°C
30°C
47W
2 x CPUBurn
27
64°C
30°C
135W
2 x Prime 95
27
62°C
30°C
120W
HDD defragment
28
30°C
32°C
49W

Acoustics

Despite the slightly lower Sound Pressure Levels (SPL) measured for the AMD-based PC, there wasn’t much significant difference in the sound of these systems. Both had a generally rough, if subdued, machine-like character most of the time. The big difference was during hard drive activity, when the Intel-based system was much louder than the AMD one. But the two system were running different makes of hard drives, and the HDD in the AMD-based system just happened to be quieter. The Intel-based system also became a bit noisier under prolonged CPU load as its CPU fan seemed to speed up a little. In contrast, the AMD-based system sounded the same at idle or at maximum load. Noise caused by vibration of the chassis, especially by hard drive seek vibration, was one of the bigger annoyances in both systems. Of course, the AMD-based system had one nasty annoyance: Its CPU fan started with a shocking full speed blast that lasted about 4-5 seconds.

By SPCR standards, the level of noise was fairly high, but more important than that was the poor quality of the sound. Neither PC had the smooth quality needed to make a computer sound quiet. The Intel-based system was worse in this regard, but it was mostly caused by the louder, harsher sounding hard drive. This was just an accident of fate; the drives could easily have been swapped on another production run.

Thermals

The temperature of the CPU in both systems went up into the 60s, with the Intel CPU reading a bit higher. As the readings are from different CPUs made by different manufacturers, compare the data only with skepticism. The main thing to note is that neither system experienced any throttling or misbehavior at high CPU load testing. Ditto the hard drive temperatures, which remained quite low in both systems.

The much lower temperature of the AMD processor at idle (compared to the Intel processor) may be explained by this system’s near-30W lower power consumption at idle. See next paragraph.

Power

47W AC at idle is mighty impressive for a system with such credentials. The only other systems examined by SPCR that idle below 50W are those built around mobile processors or the VIA EPIA min-ITX integrated motherboards. Remember, the system’s AMD A64-X2 4600+ is a dual-core processor that runs at 2.4 GHz. Aside from the power supply not being equipped with Active PFC, the HP Pavilion a1630n is actually ready to meet the toughest <50W requirement for Category A: Desktops of the new EnergyStar Computer Spec 4.0 that becomes effective in just a few months on July 20, 2007. This, despite the fact that it actually falls into the less stringent Category B: Dual-Core Systems with 1GB RAM, which allows idle power up to 65W.

The single greatest power difference between the two systems was at idle. Intel Enhanced Speedstep (EIST) and the similar AMD Cool’n’Quiet (CNQ)was operating on both systems to keep CPU power down during idle, but no matter what, the Intel system never dropped below 76W.

In contrast, the AMD system idled at 47W, nearly 30W lower. At the highest loads (Prime 95 for the Intel system and CPUBurn for the AMD system), the advantage went to the Intel system: 117W versus 135W, a difference of 18W.

A couple of recent AC Plug Load research studies* found that typical home systems idle about 2/3 of the time they are on and run at high load about 1/3 of the time. If this formula is applied to the two systems on hand, and a typical daily power-on time of 4 hours is used, the results for energy usage would be as follows:

Home Energy Use Estimate
System
Daily
a1640n
(Intel)
358 Wh
a1630n
(AMD)
304 Wh
AMD advantage
15% less energy

If the systems were assumed to be typical office machines, the difference would be considerably bigger, because according to the Energy Star program of the EPA, most office PCs run at idle 90% of the time that they are on. Assuming an 8 hour day, this means the daily energy usage would be considerably different from the home computer. The AMD system’s energy advantage then becomes 29%.

Office Energy Use Estimate
System
Daily Average
a1640n
(Intel)
664 Wh
a1630n
(AMD)
473 Wh
AMD advantage
29% less energy

These estimates assume that the high load in real office or home systems is the highest load we could apply in the lab. This is unrealistic. Most people don’t run CPUBurn or Prime 95 for two hours every day. The typical high load in a home computer would be most likely to be games. In an office computer it might be manipulations with a very large database file, processing large images with apps like Photoshop, or perhaps applying 3D processes in an architectural program. The simple fact is that none of these programs apply as large and continuous a load as either of the CPU stress utilities used here. The lower the peak load, the greater the significance of the idle load… and the greater the AMD system’s energy efficiency advantage.

PERFORMANCE

As mentioned earlier, both systems felt perfectly responsive with typical applications. We tried to get a handle on what the performance differences might be with a couple of standard benchmark suites, a couple of games, and some known applications.

Benchmarks

PCMark05 produces a measure of the PC’s overall performance for a specific type of usage. It is a single number that is easily comparable to that of other PCs. PCMark05 targets typical home usage. The load sequence includes graphics, office applications, web page loading and other typical home activities.

In contrast, 3DMark is a popular tool for benchmarking 3D graphics performance of the latest PC hardware. It uses selected sequences of advanced 3D computer games to accurately gauge the speed of play with those very games. The CPU result has some affect on the final score in 3DMark06 compared to 3DMark05.

Both benchmarks were run several times on each PC.

Performance Benchmark Scores
PC
PCMark05
(AC Power)
3DMark05
(AC Power)
3DMark06
(AC Power)
a1640n
(Intel)
3353
(110W)
624
(109W)
265
(109W)
a1630n
(AMD)
3760
(115W)
661
(113W)
210
(115W)

The results were somewhat surprising. We didn’t really expect much in the way differences. Both PCs crawled through the gaming sequences of these benchmarks, rarely reaching even one frame per second in 3DMark06 and maybe hitting 3-4 fps in 3DMark05. (Motion pictures need 24 fps.) Each machine crashed at least once running 3DMark06. There’s no way you’d want to play any of the games featured in 3DMark with either of these systems in stock configuration. The few places where difference seemed to show up were in the Physics and 3D tests of PCMark, where the AMD system had a noticeable speed and visual clarity advantage. The slight advantage of the AMD system in 3DMark05 seems more representative of what we saw on the screen. The reversed score in 3DMark06 may be due to the higher emphasis on the CPU in the newer version of the benchmark.

Another Look at Energy Consumption

It’s notable that the maximum power draw of both systems was considerably lower than in the CPU stress tests, and the difference was also smaller. If we use 115W and 110W as the maximum load for energy consumption estimates from the previous section on power, the results favor the AMD system more than when the unrealistically high 135W and 117W peaks were used.

Daily Energy Use Estimates based on 115W/110W Peaks
System
Home
Office
a1640n
(Intel)
349 Wh
657 Wh
a1630n
(AMD)
277 Wh
453 Wh
AMD advantage
21% less energy
32% less energy

Web browsing, Document reading/editing

These applications and functions are not generally used for any kind of performance testing. Yet, they represent activities relevant to anyone who uses a PC. Video performance is an important aspect of such activities. Not the kind of action performance needed for games, but clarity, legibility, focus, and so on. Superior 2D performance made Matrox video cards so popular among graphics and design enthusiast in the days of VGA-only interface. Matrox cards were clearer, sharper and better for working closely with images or documents. (DVI output has largely erased the Matrox advantage, but there are still difference in such performance among video cards.) And since VGA is the only integrated interface that either of these PCs provide…

Both systems provide a screen that’s more washed out that what we’re used to seeing with the discrete video card systems in the lab. But there is a difference between the 2D graphics performance of these HP systems. Over the course of two weeks of daily usage and comparison, the nVidia 6150 LE graphics chip of the AMD-based a1630N consistently provided a sharper, clearer, more legible and easier to work with display on both the 1280×1024 19″ LCD monitor as well as the ADI 19″ CRT monitor (still a very sharp display though a bit dim now). The difference was not night and day, but it was easily noticed with text on any light background. Both web pages and local documents were easier to read and edit with the nVidia video chip. Especially with text, the Intel screen created more eye strain due to decreased legibility. Monitor screen adjustments did not really help, although turning the brightness all the way down made it better with both PCs.

Gaming

The advanced games in 3DMark are definitely out of reach for these systems. But how about games that are a bit older, perhaps less demanding? The minimum hardware requirements for 2004’s first person shooter game Far Cry are: AMD Athlon 1 GHz or Pentium III 1 GHz processor, 256 MB RAM, and a 64 MB DirectX 9.0b-compatible graphics card. Seems pretty modest. Even less demanding is 2003’s Command & Conquer: Generals, which calls for 800 MHz Pentium III or AMD Athlon processor, 128 MB RAM, 1.8 GB free hard drive space and 32 MB video card using the Nvidia GeForce2, ATI Radeon 7500 AGP video card, or more recent chipset with DirectX 8.1 compatible driver. Of course, they don’t like to tell you that with minimum requirements, you might not even want to play the game at all; game developer companies do everything to lower barriers to purchase.

C&C Generals is one of the very first 3D real time strategy games. It was highly received, a standout in a long line of RTS games from Entertainment Arts. Generals is playable on the AMD/HP machine, but compromises have to be made. At 1280 x 960 screen size, the graphic detail cannot be set any higher than medium. For a bit more lively speed you may need to drop it down to low. It still looks OK, and it’s quite playable, if a bit slow. A smaller screen size helps, but the large maps in the game call for the largest screen size. With the Intel/HP machine, at 1280 x 960 and even on lowest display detail, this game not really playable. Especially when it’s a medium (or larger) size map with more than a handful of moving elements, the action slows to a crawl.

Far Cry was considered about the best of its genre in the year of its release. A Far Cry time demo of 3726 frames was used for a comparative reference. On an A64 X2-4800+ system with 2 GB of RAM and an ATI Radeon 1800GTO, this demo flew, completing a loop in 47 seconds at an average 80 frames per second. The game scenes also looked very good, lush and detailed. The system took 50~60W more power to accomplish this performance.

With the AMD/HP PC, the movement slowed way down to a steady 9~10 fps, but the scenes were recognizable, and most of the details looked OK, except for the water, which was highly pixelated and unnatural. It took over 6 minutes to complete a loop. With the Intel/HP machine, the scenes became unrecognizable messes, action crawled to 5.4 fps, and the loop took nearly 12 minutes to complete.

Far Cry Time Demo
(3726
Frames)
PC
ATI Radeon 1800 GTO
control system
HP a1630n
(AMD)
HP a1640n
(Intel)
Performance
46.6 seconds
80 fps
154~159W AC
370 seconds


10 fps
98~106W AC
694 seconds
5.4 fps
101~103W AC

The photos of the screens below are self-explanatory.




MP3 SOUND RECORDINGS

Each of these recording have 10 seconds of silence to let you hear the ambient
sound of the room, followed by 10 seconds of the product’s noise.

  • HP Pavilion a1640n at Idle / Load — 29 dBA@1m
  • HP Pavilion a 1630n at Idle — 27 dBA@1m
  • HP Pavilion a1640n, HDD defragging — 36 dBA@1m
  • HP Pavilion a 1630n, HDD defragging — 28 dBA@1m

Sound Recordings of Other PC Systems

  • Apple 24″ iMac at any load, 20 dBA@1m:
    One
    meter
    , One
    foot (30cm)
  • Shuttle X100 — Idle / Load (Fan on): 25 dBA@1m:
    One
    Meter
    , One
    Foot
  • Reference quiet SPCR lab system:
    at any load, 22 dBA@1m
    , Defragging at One Meter
    (This is a system we assembled, similar to the Thailand-bound system: AMD A64X2-4800+, ATI Radeon 1800GTO cooled by fanless Aerocase Condor heatsink, Seasonic SS400HT power supply, 2GB RAM, Nexus 92 fan modded Zalman 9500 heatsink, Fander 120mm fan, 2 soft suspended HDDs, 9-in-1 card reader, LG DVD RW drive, Antec P150 case)
    HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

    These recordings were made
    with a high resolution, studio quality, digital recording system, then
    converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard
    to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original WAV files
    to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
    the review. Two recordings of each noise level were made, one from a
    distance of one meter, and another from one foot
    away.

    The one meter recording
    is intended to give you an idea of how the subject of this review sound
    in actual use — one meter is a reasonable typical distance between
    a computer or computer component and your ear. The recording contains
    stretches of ambient noise that you can use to judge the relative loudness
    of the subject. For best results, set your volume control so that the
    ambient noise is just barely audible. Be aware that very quiet subjects
    may not be audible — if we couldn’t hear it from one meter, chances
    are we couldn’t record it either!

    The one foot recording is
    designed to bring out the fine details of the noise. Use this recording
    with caution! Although more detailed, it may not represent how the subject
    sounds in actual use. It is best to listen to this recording after you
    have listened to the one meter recording.

    More details about how
    we make these recordings can be found in our short article: Audio
    Recording Methods Revised
    .

    CONCLUSIONS

    AMD should be pleased that we can confirm their point. The performance of the Intel-based integrated video graphics in the HP Pavilion a1640n is inferior to the nVidia-based integrated video graphics in the HP Pavilion a1630n. The fact that this AMD processor system actually sold for some 10% less is also worthy of note. Neither system is marketed as a gaming PC, so the fact that the a1630n allows an occasional casual game to be enjoyed is a bonus.

    The lower clarity, legibility and sharpness of the Intel graphics with text is actually a more serious fault, in our view. (Obviously we’re not gamers.) While the folks who buy such computers may occasionally play games, almost everyone types and reads emails or documents with a computer quite frequently. The a1640n surely meets the minimum requirements for text legibility, but it could do better.

    Keep in mind that the video performance of either of these systems could be dramatically improved with a fairly small investment in a discrete graphics video card. Many nVidia GF7600 series or ATI Radeon X1600 series cards can be found for $100 or less, and these cards would make most computer games much more playable than with the integrated graphics in either of the two systems.

    The acoustics differences of the two systems is somewhat surprising. No difference was expected, but it is there, in slight favor of the AMD-based system again. This, we believe, is something of a fluke. Neither system is particularly quiet, but they’re not beasts either. In a family home with children, neither would be perceived as terrible sources of noise.

    Can these systems be made quieter? Yes. All the fans would have to swapped out for smoother sounding, quieter ones, and the hard drive would have to be soft mounted. A bit of electrical tape in key mechanical junctions may also help stop some of the chassis vibrations. For a manufacturer, these changes would not be onerous. For an end user, they’re a pain.

    When SPCR attended the Jan 2007 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, we found that… “Nearly everyone in the PC hardware business wants to talk about acoustics now. SPCR is no longer an evangelical voice in the wilderness. The concept of “quiet equals good” is now widespread.” What the acoustics of these PC systems tell us is that talk about quiet is not the same as quiet itself.

    The two systems are both impressively featured, considering the price. For their intended market and use, they’re pretty good. (Yes, lower acoustics would be nice, a power supply with Active PFC would be good, and only if they could just soft-mount those hard drives — and let’s not forget getting rid of all the “free” and “trial” software.)

    Most interesting are the power assessments. There’s little doubt that the AMD-based system, with its much lower idle power, has a substantial energy efficiency advantage over the Intel-based one. The very low <50W idle power achieved is impressive. So impressive, that out of curiosity, we swapped out the stock Bestec power supply for a new 350W Seasonic model that’s been in the lab for testing. The substitution caused the AC power to drop a further 3W, to 44W. This Seasonic, on the test bench, is about 70% efficient with that level of AC input. It means that the motherboard, CPU, memory and hard drive are pulling around 31W DC at idle. Using this data, we can calculate that the stock PSU is about 66% efficient at this low power load. This system has the lowest idle power demand we’ve seen from any system using a desktop processor thus far.

    The CPUs are certainly a big portion of the idle power differences between the systems, but the chipsets of the two boards also come into play. Unfortunately, there is no easy way of determining the relative power demand of the Intel G965 and the nVidia 6150 chipsets. An Anandtech article has shown that the P965 is a bit more efficient than the P975 and nVidia 570 chipsets (for the C2D processors); the G965 is virtually identical in power characteristics to the P965. As for the 6150, there does not appear to be any definitive study on its power efficiency. We’d guess that it has to be pretty good.

    It’s surprising that in stock form, the HP a1630n exceeds the most stringent energy requirements for Energy Star Computer Spec 4.0. This makes one ask, again, whether the new spec is too lax. It could also be good strategy by HP to be completely ready to exceed all the new requirements by a healthy margin so that even higher configured systems can be Energy Star qualified.

    The energy savings of the a1630n over the a1640n in real use will probably be at least 20%, and considerably more if the computer is powered on more than four hours a day, the conservative figure used for our calculations. For typical home or office use, as long as the AMD CPU performance remains within 10~20% of Intel’s, it’s the lower idle power that looks compelling to us. For a corporation running hundreds or thousands of PCs, >30% energy savings is nothing to scoff at in this day of rising energy and environmental costs.

    Our thanks to AMD for the opportunity to examine these HP systems.

     


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