Hewlett-Packard SMB e-pc

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Pros

  • Lockable port control system
  • easy-access hard disk bay
  • HP e-center.

Cons

  • Memory is not user-upgradeable.

With its new appliance-like SMB e-pc, Hewlett-Packard (HP) is aiming to provide small businesses with a service as much as a piece of hardware.

Take the hardware first. The design of SMB e-pc is based on the e-Vectra (now renamed the Corporate e-pc) that shipped earlier this year. Housed in a similar beige and dark grey compact case that can stand upright or lie flat, this 3.8kg PC is not 'legacy-free' like some of its competitors. At the back, you'll find a familiar set of I/O ports -- parallel, serial and PS/2, as well as USB, audio and Ethernet. There's a modem, too, but that's an external USB unit that looks more like a handheld scanner than a communications device.

The SMB e-pc is legacy-free to the extent that there are no expansion slots. In fact, the only user-upgradeable component is the hard disk, which is housed in an easily accessible bay on the side of the case. A 10.2GB Ultra ATA/66 Seagate drive was supplied with our review sample. The SMB e-pc will accommodate up to 512MB of RAM, but this must be specified at purchase time -- our system had 128MB.

Other notable features of the SMB e-pc's design include a external power supply (which makes for a quiet system as there's no need for an internal fan), a closed chassis with lockable port control system, and a base that clips to the back of the LCD monitor's pedestal to form an integrated unit.

The model we reviewed was powered by a 633MHz Celeron processor, although the range also includes Pentium III models up to 866MHz. The chipset is Intel's highly integrated 810E, which incorporates 2D/3D graphics and audio capabilities as well as the standard system and peripheral controller functions. The monitor supplied with the SMB e-pc is HP's L1510, a 15in. TFT display that incorporates a pair of stereo speakers and can operate in either landscape or portrait orientation.

A number of USB accessories are available for the SMB e-pc, including an 802.11b wireless LAN adapter and access point, a floppy drive, a CD-RW drive and a CompactFlash reader.

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Our review model was supplied with Windows 2000 Professional, which helped it to deliver a solid set of benchmarks, headed by a Business Winstone 99 score of 29.7. The SMB e-pc will handle today's productivity applications with aplomb, although you shouldn't expect much in the way of 3D performance. In addition to the operating system (Windows 98 is available too), the software bundle includes Microsoft's Works 2000 suite and HP's TopTools 5.0.

So far, so straightforward: the SMB e-pc is a compact PC with some nice design touches. What makes it stand out, though, is the HP e-center, which aims to be a one-stop solution for businesses wishing to establish an online presence.

The e-center's front end gives access to five components: Internet Sign Up presents ISP deals from HP's various 'preferred access providers'; the HP Business Customer Center is a portal that provides services such as domain name registration, file sharing and collaboration tools; Your Web Site allows you to create and publish a Web site using the wizard-driven Trellix Web authoring software; HP Special Offer flags up various SMB-related deals that HP has struck with suppliers and business partners; finally, Control your Cost installs oRA Creative's Compteur Internet software, which allows you to track your Internet connection costs.

At the time of writing, HP was still constructing the e-center portal, but as a simple-to-use one-stop shop for online products and services related to small and medium-sized businesses, it shows a lot of promise -- it's certainly a cut above the average bundle of ISP connection software you get with a new PC. HP's Internet Keyboard makes things easy by providing hot-button access to the e-center and a URL of your choice -- there are six buttons in all, three of which are user-programmable.

Another useful service is HP's e-DiagTools, a hardware diagnostics utility that's accessible at boot time by pressing F10. Having tested the main system components, e-DiagTools can generate a Support Ticket with the PC's configuration and test results, which can be sent via SMTP email to the helpdesk, support provider or vendor. This utility also supports the automated downloading and flashing of BIOS updates.

The SMB e-pc is a nicely designed compact PC, but the competition in this sector is increasing. The addition of the e-center, if its potential is fully realised by HP, could tip the balance in its favour for many small and medium-sized businesses.

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