HP EliteBook 8730w Review

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Pros: Stunning 15-million color display; Durable, elegant design; Strong graphics and processing performance; Strong security features

Cons: Shorter battery life than other desktop replacements; Not the brightest display in its class

Verdict: This 17-inch notebook's 15-million color display puts other workstations to shame and delivers serious graphics muscle.

Whether you're a designer, photographer, videographer, or other creative professional, a good mobile workstation needs to be powerful enough to stand in for a blazing desktop yet portable enough to take on location. HP goes way beyond those base requirements with its EliteBook 8730w. It combines fast components, powerful discrete graphics, and a groundbreaking 15-million color display using HP's DreamColor technology. At $3,242 (after an 18 percent rebate), this workstation isn't cheap, but its worth the premium for those who want much more than just the typical high-def screen.

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Design

Like other notebooks in HP's high-end EliteBook line, the 8730w has a brushed anodized aluminum lid and chassis, which gives this hefty workstation a dose of understated class. Meanwhile, the keyboard has HP's DuraKey finish, whose fingerprint-resistant UV coating promises to be six times more scratch-resistant than HP's previous business notebooks. And, unlike the recently released ProBook line, the EliteBook series has a firm latch, as opposed to a lid that you can simply lift open.

At 15.5 x 11.1 x 1.3 inches, the 8730w is not much larger than the 17-inchMacBook Pro, but at 8 pounds (not including the power brick), it's 1.4 pounds heavier. It's also lighter and smaller than theLenovo ThinkPad W700, which weighs 8.3 pounds and measures 16.1 x 12.2 x 1.6 inches.

Above the keyboard is a thin strip of touch-enabled controls, including QuickLook, Wi-Fi, mute, and volume. The controls were very responsive, but HP could have included a few more--perhaps creative professionals using this machine would appreciate multimedia controls. There's a large section in the center of this strip that's blank, which initially had us wondering if some of the buttons were deactivated.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The deck of the 8730w is wide enough to accommodate a full numeric keypad to the right of the keyboard. We could type easily on the keys, which have a slightly rough texture, and there was no flex, either. The 8730w has both a touchpad and a pointing stick; like HP's other business notebooks, the touchpad had little friction, and was easy to use. The pointing stick, as is HP's wont, is concave rather than convex; and while this indentation is meant to accommodate your finger, it may take some getting used to if you're more familiar with a ThinkPad-style pointer.

There are two sets of mouse buttons (for the pointer or the touchpad), which were comfortable, but felt too floppy. Interestingly, each set has a third mouse button. By default, each can be used to scroll through Web pages when used in conjunction with the touchpad, but can be customized to perform other actions.

Ports and Webcam

HP makes good use of all the space around the 8730w; on the left side are HDMI, VGA, USB, and FireWire 400 ports, along with an ExpressCard/54 and Smart Card slot. On the right are three USB ports, eSATA, and Ethernet and modem ports. The front of the workstation has a 6-in-1 memory card reader and headphone and mic ports. There are no ports on the rear, but HP included a docking port on the underside. While our unit did not come with one, you can add a 2.0-megapixel Webcam for $24.

Display and Audio

Our configuration of the 8730w featured a 17-inch, 1920 x 1200-pixel display with HP DreamColor technology, which makes it capable of displaying more than 15 million colors, whereas most notebook displays recognize 260,000 colors. (HP also sells a standalone display for $1,999 that recognizes 1 billion colors.) In addition to a much larger gamut, the colors themselves look better: HP promises that reds, blues, and greens look deeper, blacks are four times as dark, and whites are more adjustable.

HP developed the technology in collaboration with the film studio DreamWorks Animation SKG. Indeed, while animators and other video professionals are one group for whom color accuracy is critical, these nuances in color are also crucial for photographers and other artistic types. The RGB-LED backlit screen has a brightness of 300 nits (about 50 percent brighter than other screens; the Lenovo ThinkPad W700's screeen has a brightness of 400 nits), and features a contrast ratio of 800:1 (where 300:1 is more typical).

While the 8730w lacks the built-in color calibrator on the W700 we reviewed, this HP's Mobile Display Assistant software guides you through a series of windows to accurately render colors on screen.

The ripples on water and the texture of concrete were perfectly rendered and action was crisp when watching a Blu-ray of Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa. The stubble of the five-o'clock shadow on a general's face in a trailer for Monsters vs. Aliens made us want to get a shave.

Performance

The 2.93-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9800 and 4GB of RAM powered the 8730w to a PCMark Vantage score of 4,913, which is almost 1,400 points above the category average. The ThinkPad W700, which costs more than an additional $500, scored nearly the same: 4,918. Meanwhile, the 17-inch MacBook Pro, which is also aimed at creative professionals, scored just 3,745 when we ran PCMark Vantage in Boot Camp.

On our LAPTOP Transfer test (duplicating 4.97GB of multimedia files), the 320GB, 7200-rpm hard drive notched a transfer rate of 22.4 MBps, which is the same as the desktop replacement average. And thanks to the paucity of trialware, the 8730w booted to Vista Business in just 53 seconds, 16 seconds faster than the category average.

As you'd expect with a machine this powerful, we saw no on-screen lag when we opened new programs or documents at full screen or switched tabs in Internet Explorer. The 8730w continued to hold up in more demanding situations as well. When we transcoded a 5-minute-and-5-second MP4 clip to AVI using Handbrake, it took 5 minutes and 28 seconds. It took 9:46 when we tried this conversion with jZip zipping a 4.97GB mixed-media folder in the background. That falls below the category average (4:34 and 8:01, respectively), but this group includes notebooks with faster quad-core processors.

Graphics Performance

The Nvidia Quadro FX 2700M GPU, backed by 512MB of dedicated memory helped deliver a 3DMark06 score of 7,564. That's about 1,600 points above the desktop replacement category, but still falls behind the W700 (which has a more powerful Nvidia Quadro FX 3700M GPU) by about 3,000 points. The MacBook Pro, which has the more modest Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT card, notched 5,194 in the same test.

These results were borne out somewhat in Far Cry 2. The 8730w managed a respectable 69 frames per second with the resolution set to 1280 x 720, and the effects set to optimal. But when we cranked the resolution to 1920 x 1200, bumped the effects to Very High and enabled DirectX 10, the frame rate dropped to 19 fps. That's not impressive but on a par with the 17-inch MacBook Pro. Still, if you knock down the resolution and the eye candy, there's no reason a graphics designer can't do a little fragging in her spare time.

The 8730w's GPU is also CUDA-enabled, which means that it can take some of the processing tasks off the CPU's hands. Indeed, using vReveal (a video converter that takes advantage of this technology), we were able to transcode our video file from MPG4 to AVI in just 2:42. We performed the same task while zipping the 4.97GB folder, and the time increased to 6:09.

Battery Life and Wi-Fi

The 8-cell battery on the 8730w lasted 2:35 on our LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing via Wi-Fi), 20 minutes less than the category average. But it's important to note that this kind of machine will be used for much more strenuous tasks than Web surfing, so expect a lower endurance in everyday use. Still, we doubt this workstation will stray far from an outlet. If you don't need quite as much performance, the 17-inch MacBook Pro lasts almost seven hours on a charge with integrated graphics enabled, and about an our less in discrete mode.

The 8730w's 802.11n Wi-Fi card performed decently, notching throughput of 18.7 Mbps and 15.1 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet from our access point. Both scores are just below the desktop replacement averages.

Security, Software, and Warranty

While the 8730w is blissfully free of trialware--another distinction that separates the EliteBook line from the mid-range ProBook series--it comes standard with an arsenal of security tools, including HP ProtectTools, TPM circuitry, a fingerprint reader, HP Spare Key, HP Disk Sanitizer, Enhanced Drive Lock, Drive Encryption for HP ProtectTools, Credential Manager for HP ProtectTools, and File Sanitizer. An integrated Smart Card Reader comes standard.

HP Services includes a three-year standard parts-and-labor warranty with onsite service, and toll-free 24/7 hardware technical phone support.

Configurations

Performance like this doesn't come cheap, but HP does a good job of offering a wide range of preconfigured models (you can configure your own, too). The base model ($1,699) has a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 processor, 2GB RAM, a 160GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive, ATI Mobility FireGL V5725 graphics, and a 1680 x 1050 display. The top-of-the-line model ($3,999) has a 3.06-GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X9100 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 7200-rpm, 250GB hard drive, Nvidia Quadro FX 3700M graphics, and a 1920 x 1200 DreamColor display. For even more processing power, you can also opt for a 2.53-GHz quad core X9300 CPU. Our unit came with a Blu-Ray drive, but if you don't need a high-def optical drive, a dual-layer DVD burner is available for $475 less.

Verdict

At $3,242, the HP Elitebook 8730w is a very capable mobile workstation that falls between the 17-inch MacBook Pro ($2,799) and the Lenovo ThinkPad W700 ($3,802) in portability, performance, and price. But the 8730w is heads and shoulders above the other two when it comes to HP's 15-million color display. And for creative professionals, a bright and color-accurate screen is almost as important as sheer horsepower. If you're looking for a system with impressive graphic rendering and some serious eye candy, add the 8730w to your short list.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.93-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9800
Operating System MS Windows Vista Business (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 8GB
Hard Drive Size 320GB
Hard Drive Speed 7,200rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 17
Native Resolution 1920x1200
Optical Drive BD-R/DVDRW
Optical Drive Speed 8X
Graphics Card Nvidia Quadro FX 2700M
Video Memory 512MB
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/draft-n
Bluetooth Bluetooth 2.0
Mobile Broadband
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) Firewire
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) eSATA
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) Docking Connector
Ports (excluding USB) Modem
USB Ports 4
Card Slots ExpressCard
Warranty/Support Three-year standard parts-and-labor with on-site service/24/7 toll-free phone
Size 15.5 x 11.1 x 1.3 inches
Weight 8.0 pounds
Company Website http://www.hp.com