By gaming standards, the HP Envy Phoenix h9-1420t's appearance is positively subdued. This midsize tower PC has some red backlighting and a clear pane so that you can gaze at the liquid cooling unit, but aside from that it could easily pass for a conventional HP desktop. Although it doesn't have much in the way of bling, the Phoenix delivers better-than-average performance at a cheaper-than-boutique price. Down-the-road upgrade options, on the other hand, are limited by its decidedly nonenthusiast motherboard.
Components and performance
Our $1840 h9-1420t test configuration sported an unlocked 3.5GHz Intel Core i7-3770K processor. Thanks to the liquid cooling unit, the system had no problem maintaining 4GHz, and it likely has at least a little more headroom. The Pegatron (that's Asus's OEM arm) 2AD5 motherboard offers minimal overclocking controls in its BIOS, but it isn't completely locked down. You can set each core's maximum frequency multiplier separately, but you get no provisions for tweaking the operating voltage, for instance. The board also has just a single full-size PCIe slot, so you can forget any dual-card graphics upgrade via SLI or CrossFire.
Fortunately, HP picked a strong graphics card, inserting an Nvidia GeForce GTX 680 with 2GB of GDDR5 memory. With that card in place, the Phoenix managed a playable frame rate in Dirt Showdown right up to the 2560 by 1600 resolution of our 30-inch test display. The game wasn't as silky smooth at that resolution as it was at lower ones, but it was certainly playable. Should you decide to buy an h9-1420t online, HP allows you to customize the configuration to a degree, but your options don't include Nvidia's best GPU, the GeForce GTX 690.
The other core components on our test machine included 12GB of DDR3-1600 memory and a 2TB, 7200-rpm hard drive, which helped the h9-1420t produce a very good WorldBench 8 score of 87. A solid-state drive would have boosted the score even more, but that option wasn't available when we ordered our evaluation unit. HP has since corrected that omission, but there's no getting around that single multilane PCIe slot, which is a puzzling design decision in a PC whose primary reason for existence is performance.
Power, expansion, and ports
While you can't add a second video card, the system has lots of room for other components, including one open 5.25-inch drive bay and two free 3.5-inch drive bays, all of which are accessible from the front panel. The graphics card and the liquid cooling unit dominate the area over the motherboard, leaving only two x1 PCIe slots exposed (a third x1 PCIe slot is blocked).
Even though the h9-1420t doesn't have a lot of free slots, it does boast a ton of exterior ports. Slide down the front panel, and you'll find four USB 2.0 ports, as well as the usual array of memory card slots. On top of the front panel, facing rearward, are two USB 3.0 ports plus audio-in and -out. The PC has rear audio outputs to support up to a 7.1-channel surround system, plus an additional four USB 2.0 ports, two more USB 3.0 ports, a single gigabit ethernet port, and an optical S/PDIF port.
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