If the car had developed as fast as a PC, you could buy a BMW for a penny, and it could fit on to one. That's all very well, but you wish that they'd think about how you're supposed to drive these things. For once someone has - so here is an exception and it's something of a beauty.
The thinking comes from Hewlett-Packard - a big firm that makes printers, is fourth in world retail PC sales and regularly top of reliability and customer polls. That could sound like sycophancy but when you start unpacking, connecting up colour-coded plugs, and switching on to a working PC you realise that it's something more. The machine seems designed for situations where help or supervision isn't next door or you don't dare ask for it too often - in others words at home or in the staffroom. This particular model, with its built-in photograph scanner and a modem with e-mail, Internet and telephone features, might fit that sort of niche.
The main novelty is a "photo-drive" that looks like another disc drive with a slot for snap-sized photos. Offer it a picture and the software loads, scans the picture and gives it back to you. It files the picture, or you can literally drop the image into programs such as Works or Adobe Photodeluxe. This program shows you how to sharpen it, remove red-eye andit provides masses of creative effects.
The phone idea is amusing but handy: you dial from your address book and then talk to the mike in the monitor as you listen to the speakers. You can receive a fax or send one - as is usual these days from the Microsoft Works word processor. Not only does this work as an answering machine but this, and some other features, work from a set of dedicated buttons on the keyboard. With these you can start, stop, adjust the volume as well as kick-start your favourite program, address book, music CD or Internet connection. Apart from being seen talking to your computer, this is good.
To get beginners up to speed, the machine starts with HP's "Personal Page", with its mouse tutorial and easy, Windows-like menu. Some will react to its looks and its over-familiar tone of voice (it talks) and thus throw themselves straight into the fire of Windows.
However, like "At Ease", a similar program for Apple machines, it has some good security features and help.It has passwords, a "kid's mode", work filing cabinets and a nice trick of pushing out the CD-Rom tray when it wants a disc.
There's a bundle of installed software to get started with, including a virus checker and a disc to put everything back were it ever possible to trash the system. For once the manuals are slim, to the point and intended for users rather than technicians.
The Pavilion Multimedia PC is a well-balanced machine for work or play, though it's not for those who can fiddle about and so buy cheaper. My maths on the added-value extras gives a fair price match, but I guess, like a German car, you can't see all you get. It makes you wonder why all PCs aren't built like this.