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February 24, 2011 • Reviews

Notebook PC Review: Hewlett Packard Elitebook 2540p Laptop

Last year I reviewed the Hewlett Packard (HP) Elitebook 8440w Mobile Workstation, declaring it one that I would love to be able to keep and use in my daily life, and as the best business laptop I’d ever used. Well, move over 8440w – because I have a new favorite, the svelte but ultra-powerful Elitebook 2540p!

The Hype:
Stay connected and productive on the go—without getting weighed down. Starting at just 3.38 lb, the durable HP EliteBook 2540p is HP’s smallest and lightest EliteBook, designed for maximum portability and uncompromised performance.

Ultra-portable:
• Compact, lightweight design with a 12.1-inch diagonal LED display starts at only 3.38 lb
• Extensive wireless connectivity options—HP Mobile Broadband (customer upgradeable), Wi-Fi CERTIFIED™ WLAN and Bluetooth®

Business-rugged construction:
• Meets tough military standards (MIL-STD 810G) for vibration, dust, humidity, altitude and extreme temperatures
• The full-size, spill-resistant keyboard with drains protects the system board from minor spills, while HP DuraKeys keep your keyboard looking newer, longer
• Travel confidently with the magnesium-alloy casing, hardened-steel pin axels and scratch-resistant HP DuraFinish
• Automatically protect hard-drive data from drops and sudden impact with HP 3D DriveGuard

Security and convenience:
• Centrally manage security policy with the latest HP ProtectTools mobile PC security infrastructure solution. The HP EliteBook 2540p also includes optional vPro out of band management.
• Access e-mail, calendars, contacts and websites without waiting to boot up using HP QuickLook 3 and HP QuickWeb

Environmentally responsible design:
• The HP EliteBook 2540p is made with a minimum of 12% recycled plastic.
• EPEAT® Gold registered in the United States. EPEAT registration varies by country. See epeat.net for registration status by country.

The Reality:

As a reviewer, I bring to the table not only a history of reviewing products that allows me some breadth of understanding and (hopefully) objective ability to assess positive and negative aspects of a product; I also bring my own personal tastes and bias as a long-time gadget lover with a specific set of needs and wants. I mention that because while I was unsure of exactly how I would like the 2540p, it quickly won me over because it hits a sweet spot of portability, functionality and performance that is hard to beat!

I once again copied the bulk of the HP press release in terms of specs into the ‘hype’, because there is actually a lot of stuff there, and it is really cool – but very little of the ‘Easy to use’ stuff was I actually able to test. That is because of corporate security and other boring details, but suffice to say that what I saw matched up with the claims.

System Specifications
There are ‘build to order’ as well as pre-configured options available to customize the Elitebook series, and the top-end pre-configured choice on the HP website was identical to the unit I tested:
– Windows 7 Professional 64-Bit
– Intel® Core™ i7-640LM Processor (2.13 GHz, 4 MB L3 cache)
– 4 GB 1333 MHz DDR3 SDRAM
– 250 GB 5400 rpm 1.8-inch SATA II
– DVD+/-RW SuperMulti with Double Layer
– 12.1″ diagonal LED-backlit WXGA anti-glare (1280 x 800)
– Intel HD Graphics
– Intel Centrino 802.11a/b/g/n Bluetooth 2.1
– Battery Type: 6-cell (62 WHr) Li-Ion
– Battery Life: Up to 7 hours 30 minutes

Before I launch into details, let me provide a frame of reference as a reminder: in my review of the Elitebook 8440w, I used my current work laptop – an HP Compaq 6910p as a frame of reference. Our company is replacing my groups laptops this year and also switching to Windows 7 … but for now the HP Compaq 6910p remains my main point of comparison, along with my Alienware m11x.

Build Quality
I mentioned before that in spite of being close to three years old, my HP Compaq 6910p remains in solid condition. Sure there are more ‘issues’ as time progresses, but that is as much due to software compatibility concerns causing crashes as more and more applications assume you will be using Windows 7 rather than XP. But physically the system has done wonderfully through being tossed in bags, dumping things on top of it and doing all sorts on inadvisable hot-swapping and reconfiguring of docking systems and external devices.

The EliteBook series has evolved from my current laptop, but as I noted with the 8440w review they have come a long way, baby. The systems have a much more rigid feel, a brushed gun-metal exterior, and a much more solid latching mechanism. They are built for the rigors of daily use and to really last the 2-3 year replacement cycle most companies have adopted – and not in the way most cell phones come limping into the end of a two-year contract, either!

My review unit was rock solid and in perfect condition. As with the 8440w I was clearly not the first tester of the unit, but it remained in like-new condition. I didn’t have a single build-related issue with the 2540p throughout my test.

Portability
The use-case for a so-called ‘ultraportable’ is very clear: to be small and light enough to be able to go anywhere the user needs a ‘real’ computer. This was true with the Compaq LTE, the Apple Powerbook Duo, the HP Omnibook 300 and other subnotebook pioneers of the early 90’s, and it remains true now. In terms of where the 2540p fits in with that crowd, I took a picture of it sitting with my (1996) Toshiba Portege, Lenovo s10 netbook and Alienware m11x.

However, one major thing is different – performance expectations. If all a user needs is portability, they can simply grab a netbook. HP has two different lines of these products to fill those needs. Similarly they could grab an iPad or other tablet device with a smartphone-derived OS to fill most of their basic computing needs.

To compete in the current market you either need to be extremely thin and light (e.g. Macbook Air) or tout performance capabilities that allow users to make a small laptop their primary work computer. As noted in the system specifications, the 2540p comes with a low power Core i7 processor and high-speed memory, indicating that it should certainly be up to the task of mainstream computing tasks. I will get into details about performance later in the review.

Configuration Comments
Looking at the system specifications on the surface doesn’t look like the classic ‘compromise system’ or yesteryear. Back then you traded portability for performance – and still paid a premium! The 2540p has solid specifications that are better than most laptops you could buy at your local Best Buy for $1000 or more … all put into a rock-solid container with high quality components and a svelte frame.

One thing that surprised me in this configuration was the presence of an internal optical drive. It isn’t that having a DVD is unheard of in the category – particularly for a business application. It is simply that when I pulled the 2540p out of the box I thought it was too thin and packed with connections to have space for an optical drive. HP accomplished this by having the battery protrude out of the back, but it was definitely a welcome surprise.

Core Performance
The Elitebook comes with a Core i7-640LM, which is actually on the lower end of the i7 chain, with dual cores and a design that is a trade-off of speed and power consumption. I actually expected the i7-640UM, which is slightly slower but with better power consumption – so I knew battery testing would be a priority.

Since my goal was to evaluate this not as a ‘secondary’ computer but as a primary-use system, my testing involved numerous applications I use on a regular basis at my workplace that I was able to install on a trial basis on the laptop. These included Microsoft Office, JMP Statistical Analysis software from SAS Institute, Minitab Statistical Analysis software, and the open-source R data modeling software. I also hooked up to my account on music streaming provider Spotify to see how the added workload would impact the system.

When a system boasts a 64-bit operating system, 4GB of high-speed memory and a Core i7 processor, there is not much concern about how well it scrolls text in Word or how quickly it opens tabs in Google Chrome. Suffice to say that for the majority of tasks that any general business worker would need – email, web, Microsoft Office, etc – the 2540p is a peppy machine more than adequate to the task.

While I fully expected the Elitebook 8440w Mobile Workstation to be a powerhouse with my more demanding applications, I was concerned that the 2540p would be powerful enough. Too often I have seen laptops that tout seemingly solid specs but suffer from the compromises made to keep size small or price down.

I will say it once again – this is NOT a compromise machine!

I could see the impact of the 5400RPM hard drive when loading some larger files compared with the 7200RPM drive in my Alienware laptop. But the impact was on the scale of a few seconds for fairly massive files, and once loaded there was no slowdown.

Once again the powerful Core i7 does very well when pushing the computations. I have moved to a new project since reviewing the 8440w, but am still involved with complex analysis of data sets with hundreds of thousands of data points. These analyses require multiple programs to get everything I want from the data sets, which means having large files loaded in multiple applications, all while having Chrome open for web access to my work email and so on.

I was thrilled by the way that the 2540p handled all of my data analysis needs. The biggest constraint was the 12″ screen, but given my penchant for portable devices that wasn’t a big deal. Quite frankly – most office users have a docking station and monitor at their desk and deal with the trade-off between portability and screen size long before their computer arrives.

Graphics Performance

As I mentioned in the system configuration, the 2540p comes with “Intel HD Graphics”. For most folks, this just means HD capable, but for those tracking technology this is ‘next generation integrated graphics’. For a long time integrated graphics earned their bad reputation by being dreadfully slow and incompatible with even the lowest of standards. The new Intel HD Graphics are still not up to par with decent discrete graphics chips, but they are no longer a bane of the mobile gamer’s existence!

Fortunately Intel has made great strides with their integrated graphics in the last couple of years, necessitated by new laptops being sold more and more as DVD playback systems. The result is that any new laptop will have a competent graphics subsystem.

I didn’t do a major gaming review of the system because it simply isn’t equipped to be a full-on gaming system in any way. But I did drop on Steam and installed the recently released Magicka to try it out. The game specifically calls for discrete graphics, but would start and play pretty well on the 2540p. As I ran it side-by-side with my Alienware m11x this game did a couple of things for me – it demonstrated how well the 2540p ran in terms of handling processor intensive tasks, but also showed the slight impact of the 5400RPM drive and particularly the difference between discrete and integrated graphics.

But once again, the focus of this system is business graphics, so I spent more time pouring on thousands of data points into scatterplot matrices, multiple-regressions, bubble plots with multiple levels, and on and on. In this context the 2540p outperformed my expectations, with a snappiness that reminded me of the 8440w, and far exceeding the performance of my Compaq 6910p.

And that is exactly the sort of thing you need in a business setting – you just want to get your tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible without any fanfare.

Battery Performance
Last week I had the opportunity to really put the 2540p to the test. I had morning and afternoon technical sessions off-site from my normal work office, and decided to bring just the EliteBook. I had charged the HP before leaving home in the morning, and when I arrived at my first session I left the power setting at ‘HP Balanced’ and dimmed the screen as low as was comfortable for the room lights, which ended up being about 25% brightness.

The session required me to have my web browser open, as well as Microsoft Excel, SAS JMP, Minitab and R. Each of those programs is processor and memory intensive – especially once loaded up with large data sets and tasked with intensive calculations. Yet at 5PM after a one hour break for lunch and traveling to my afternoon session, I still had enough battery that the system wasn’t complaining yet. It was amazing to me to get that much battery life while using a high-performance computer to do processor intensive tasks. It was at that moment I really fell in love with the 2540p!

HP Value-Added Features
HP is touting their QuickLook and QuickWeb features, and for the business traveler I can imagine that there is definitely a usefulness. I wasn’t able to make use of QuickLook due to security constraints with my Outlook data, but it looked to be a useful tool with some nice features. Similarly QuickWeb is a fast and streamlined way to do something fast and simple on the Web without having to boot into Windows.

I am torn on my opinion of those utilities. In the business travel I have done recently, anyone who has a work laptop with them in an airport or out at a restaurant also has a smartphone. I can easily check my email, calendar or a website on my phone quicker than on the Elitebook. So I see it as a ‘nice to have’ but probably not particularly useful in general practice.

What I don’t Like
There is no such thing as a perfect … well, anything! So naturally there are things with the HP Elitebook 2540p that I wish could be changed or done differently.

First, rather than using a lighted keyboard the 2540p has the same top-light as the 8440w. I have noticed that some new employees at my work getting new HP laptops with backlit keyboards, and there is a marked difference. The work light is a great thing in low-light situations, but as Apple has shown with their Powerbooks for several years now, a backlit keyboard is always better. Especially since I encountered issues with the pop-out light on my 8440w review system last year.

The other thing is that HP needs to finally transition to a single input system. On the larger 8440w there was enough space to accommodate both the trackpad (called TouchPad, not to be confused with the upcoming tablet) and PointStick. But with the smaller real estate afforded by the 12″ screen, the trackpad feels cramped and I would occasionally get mouse-jumps based on hitting between the input systems. It is a shame, because I really love the keyboard itself and found it quite efficient in terms of usability per unit area.

But neither of those are major complaints, just minor criticisms – I used the light quite often at night and never felt like I needed to use an external mouse.

Conclusions
I had said that my major complaint about the Elitebook 8440w was that I had to return it … but as of now I would gladly trade-in the 8440w for the 2540p!

For me the 2540p represents a great evolutionary moment in business laptops: it looks great, is rock-solid, has excellent performance, is loaded with options and connectivity, and is light and small enough to toss in my smallest bag without issue.

As noted, the HP Elitebook 2540p is not competing in the $400 laptop market – it is going for the business segment, which demands higher build-quality, manageability, and price-to-performance ratio. The 2540p delivers on all fronts! If you or your business are looking for a solid ultraportable with top-notch laptop performance, the HP Elitebook 2540p is a great choice!

Review: Hewlett-Packard Elitebook 2540p

Where to Buy: HP.com

Price: $1,629.00* (base model is $1,099)

What I Like: Great looks for a business machine; excellent general performance; solid graphics performance; excellent balance of features

What Needs Improvement: While the light is a nice addition, by now all of their products should have shifted to lighted keyboards.

Source: Manufacturer provided review unit

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