Next to the latest ultrathin notebook, tablet or smartphone, mainstream corporate laptops may not seem particularly alluring or sexy, but they can be just as innovative and necessary — especially for everyday business. Two of the newest and most interesting mainstream notebooks are HP’s EliteBook 8460p and Lenovo’s ThinkPad L420.
What makes a laptop suitable for the business world? Regardless of whether it is for a salesperson in Seattle, a corporate trainer in Cleveland or an accountant in Albany, there are four main things that corporate buyers look for in a notebook.
* It has to be reliable and durable, a system that will be usable for three or four years.
* It must be manageable so that IT administrators can change software and settings easily and remotely; it should also have excellent security so that what goes into the computer stays there.
* It needs to balance performance with battery life.
* It needs a long-term warranty so that if there’s a problem it can be fixed pronto.
Size and weight generally take a back seat to these requirements, and these two 14-in. systems are bulkier and heavier than comparable consumer notebooks. They both weigh over 5 pounds, while 14-in. entertainment systems from HP and Lenovo are thinner and weigh as much as a pound less.
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Most of that extra weight is taken up by a sturdy internal metal structure and beefed-up display frame that protect the system’s innards from damage. These are not by any means ruggedized notebooks that meet all of the Department of Defense’s MIL-STD-810G requirements. Both, however, have gone through the rigors of selected 801G tests and should stand up to more abuse than a typical consumer system.
To make sure this shoot-out was on a level field, I got models that were as close to each other’s configurations as I could. They both have second-generation Intel Core i5 processors that run at 2.5GHz and can use TurboBoost technology to sprint to 3.2GHz when needed.
Each comes with 4GB of RAM (and supports up to 8MB), a 320GB hard drive, a DVD burner and Windows 7 Professional. Both have comfy keyboards and security-conscious fingerprint scanners. While both have bright 14-in. displays, the EliteBook has the advantage of an optional ATI Radeon HD 6470M graphics engine, while the ThinkPad gets by with Intel’s HD 3000 graphics.
The two are about as equally matched as two notebooks can be. To see how they do against each other, read on.
HP EliteBook 8460p
With its slick aluminum skin, HP’s EliteBook 8460p may look like the latest entertainment or gaming notebook, but its beauty is more than skin deep. It has a rugged design, superior performance and a 3-year warranty. In other words, it is as corporate as a Brooks Brothers suit.
At 1.3 x 13.3 x 9.1 in., the EliteBook is thinner and narrower than the ThinkPad, although, at 5.5 lbs., it weighs 4 oz. more. When you add in a larger and heavier AC adapter, it brings the EliteBook to a travel weight of 6.5 lbs. — 3/4 lb. more than the ThinkPad.
On top of its sturdy aluminum-magnesium internal frame and screen enclosure, the EliteBook has a solid aluminum band around its edge to protect its corners from damage if it’s dropped. Like the ThinkPad, the EliteBook 8460p has been subjected to some of the 810G ruggedness tests. It survived a 30-inch drop, thermal shock as well as high and low temperature use, high altitude operation and operational shock, and is resistant to dust and vibration. It wasn’t put through the humidity test that Lenovo performed on the ThinkPad.
In stark contrast to the ThinkPad’s three individual compartments at the bottom of the case, the EliteBook has a single panel that provides easier access to the system’s components. This can simplify diagnostics and repairs.
The review system came equipped with a dual-core 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor, but the system can be ordered with a range of chips, from slower and less expensive processors all the way up to a quad-core Core i7 chip; models start at $999. The unit I looked at came with 4GB of RAM, but it can hold up to 8GB. The system can be outfitted with hard drives that can hold between 250GB and 750GB of data; you can also opt for a 128GB or 160GB solid state drive (SSD); my system had a 320GB hard drive.
The EliteBook’s 14-in. screen shows 1366 x 768-pixel resolution. My test unit included a discrete ATI Radeon HD 6470M graphics engine; lesser configurations come with integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, the same as in the ThinkPad I tested. The EliteBook display looked bright and rich. A light sensor adjusts the display’s brightness to suit where you’re working, a touch I always like.
The keyboard has flat black 18.9mm keys that stand out from the silver background and includes a keyboard light for late-night work. Around the keyboard are controls for turning Wi-Fi on and off, muting the volume and opening QuickWeb, HP’s instant-start environment, which gives access to email, Web browsing and Skype. Like the ThinkPad, the EliteBook has a pointing stick and a touchpad; the EliteBook’s pad has a smooth finish and is one-third larger than the ThinkPad’s.
When it comes to security, HP did its homework. It includes a Total Protection Module (TPM) security chip that can encrypt the drive so that any data on a lost or stolen notebook will remain hidden. Using the company’s ProtectTools Security Manager, you can control just about every aspect of the computer’s setup and security, including a way to wipe all data from a drive when it gets passed to a different user.
The EliteBook comes with four USB ports, two of which use the faster USB 3.0 spec (the ThinkPad offers one USB 3.0 port). One of the USB 2.0 ports is shared with an eSATA connector. The EliteBook also has a VGA port, a DisplayPort connection, headphone and microphone jacks, and a FireWire port.
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For getting online, the laptop offers 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi as well as wired Ethernet and an old-school dial-up modem for communications emergencies. HP offers mobile data options for connecting with HSPA (AT&T) or EVDO (Sprint and Verizon) 3G networks.
It all adds up to a high-performance system that led the ThinkPad in all tests. The EliteBook’s score of 1,380.1 on PassMark’s PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark was 12 per cent ahead of the ThinkPad, while its score of 17.6 frames per second (fps) on the CineBench GPU test was more than double that of the ThinkPad.
At a Glance
HP EliteBook 8460p
Price: $999 (base); $1,199 (as tested)
Pros: Good performance, two USB 3.0 ports, rugged design, backlit keyboard, 3-year warranty
Cons: Heavy, short battery life, expensive
While the ThinkPad ran for 7 days using PassMark’s BurnInTest software without a problem, the EliteBook encountered a single processor problem when a test file couldn’t be opened on one occasion. The system continued and ran the test more than 1,000 times without a problem.
The EliteBook’s 5,400 milli-amp hour battery pack ran for 3 hours and 42 minutes, 38 minutes short of the ThinkPad. This wasn’t surprising — the EliteBook consumes as much as 87 watts to charge the system, more than double the ThinkPad’s 40 watts. HP offers several optional batteries that can double or triple the system’s time between charges; they cost between $90 and $190 and can add more than a pound to the weight of the system.
A big bonus for corporate buyers is the EliteBook’s three-year warranty, two years longer than the ThinkPad’s coverage. At $1,199, it is about $200 more expensive than a ThinkPad L420 with a comparable warranty.
Lenovo ThinkPad L420
Despite its traditional black case, Lenovo’s ThinkPad L420 is actually a green machine that sips power while not skimping on security, reliability and manageability. Think of it as a business notebook with an eco conscience — and it costs less than the EliteBook to boot.
Although at 1.6 x 13.5 x 9.1 in. the ThinkPad is thicker and wider than the EliteBook, at 5.3 lbs. it weighs 3 oz. less. When you factor in the system’s lightweight AC adapter, the travel weight becomes a reasonable 5.8 lbs., nearly three-quarters of a pound less than the EliteBook.
The ThinkPad’s plastic case lacks the EliteBook’s metal skin but underneath it is rock solid, using a magnesium frame to protect the system’s motherboard. According to Lenovo, the ThinkPad passed the 810G tests for 30-inch drops, thermal shock, high and low temperature operations, dust, vibration and humidity.
On the bottom of the ThinkPad are three separate panels that you need to remove to get at all of the system’s components (in contrast to the EliteBook’s single access panel).
The ThinkPad I tested came with a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor, but if you’re pinching pennies, there’s a $599 base system that comes with a 2.1GHz Core i3 processor. The system I looked at had 4GB of RAM (it can hold up to 8GB), a DVD burner and a 320GB hard drive; Lenovo also offers drives from 250GB to 500GB as well as a 128GB solid state drive.
The 14-in. 1366 x 768 display is driven by Intel’s HD 3000 graphics chip, which doesn’t provide the same visual power as the EliteBook’s optional Radeon HD 6470M graphics engine. When using the laptop, however, I thought the display looked about as bright and rich as the EliteBook’s. There’s no graphics upgrade option for the L420, although the 15.6-in. ThinkPad L520 can be ordered with ATI’s HD 565v graphics chip.
The keyboard lacks the EliteBook’s handy night light for late work. At 19.2mm, its keys are slightly larger and are scalloped to match the contours of the finger. It has both a pointing stick and a touchpad; I liked the feel of the pad’s textured surface, but it is one-third smaller than the EliteBook’s.
The ThinkPad has a wider assortment of controls arrayed around the keyboard, including the microphone, buttons for audio volume and muting, and Lenovo’s ThinkVantage emergency repair button, which starts diagnostic software that looks for the problem and connects you to a help desk.
The ThinkPad comes with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port, but it does without the EliteBook’s dial-up modem. The review unit I looked at didn’t have any integrated mobile data card options, but Lenovo does offer a version of the L420 with a mobile card built in.
The system includes Skype software, and its built-in microphone can be set to receive sound from a narrow cone (for a single user) or a wider cone (for a group). There’s even a noise-cancellation program that can muffle the sound of the keys if you’re typing during a VoIP call.
Besides its TPM security chip, the ThinkPad has a nice selection of management and security features. In addition to the ability to encrypt the hard drive, an administrator can turn off USB connectors or the optical drive’s ability to burn data to discs. All management activities, including password changes, can be done remotely.
The assortment of ports offered on the ThinkPad isn’t quite as varied as on the EliteBook, although they will be adequate for most business travelers. There are three USB ports, one of which is USB 3.0. Another port can be used as a USB or an eSATA connector. The system lacks the EliteBook’s FireWire plug but includes a VGA port and a DisplayPort connection, along with a combo headphone/microphone jack.
At a Glance
Lenovo ThinkPad L420
Price: $599 (base); $898 (as tested)
Pros: Light weight, low power use, good battery life, nice assortment of controls; inexpensive
Cons: Thicker and larger than similar notebooks
Despite similar hardware, the ThinkPad had trouble keeping up with the EliteBook on the benchmarks. Its PerformanceTest 7.0 score of 1210.0 was slower than the EliteBook’s pace by 12 per cent, while its CineBench graphics score was roughly half that of the HP system.
The system went through a week of continuous operation using PassMark’s BurnInTest software, and encountered no errors.
The ThinkPad’s stand-out area was battery life. Its 4,760 milliamp battery pack may have less capacity than the EliteBook’s, but it was able to run for 4 hours and 20 minutes between charges — 38 minutes longer than the EliteBook. It’s a power miser as well, requiring 40 watts of electricity to charge the battery while the system is running, half that of the EliteBook. This difference won’t add up to more than a few dollars a year in office electricity bills, but it will mean that at least some carbon dioxide is kept out of the atmosphere.
Lenovo provides a one-year warranty; a two-year extension costs only $99, bringing the total price of the system to a reasonable $997, about $200 less than the cost of the EliteBook 8460p.
After working and living with both these business notebooks, pushing them to the limit with benchmarks, using them for typical business tasks and several days of road work, I’m convinced that they have the right stuff to make it in the corporate world. Both have excellent manageability and security options, should be more than reliable enough for the business world and do a reasonable job of dealing with the competing interests of performance and battery life.
Although their specs are very similar, the two machines couldn’t feel more different. I like the brushed aluminum look of the EliteBook, its admirable thinness and its superior performance. The ThinkPad is bulkier, plainer-looking and not as fast as the EliteBook, but it uses less power and has better battery life.
If you’re looking for style and speed in a business-friendly notebook, the EliteBook is a solid choice. If, however, your main consideration is price, the ThinkPad is a better option.
How we tested
To see how these business notebooks compare, I used them every day for several weeks in my office and on the road. I read and wrote emails, worked through memos, researched new product ideas on the Web, updated a Web site, watched videos and used them to create and give presentations.
After measuring, weighing and examining every major aspect, I compared them to a mockup of the typical airplane seat-back table tray to see if they fit; both did. While on the road, I connected each to a public Wi-Fi network and a mobile hotspot.
Then I tested the performance of each system. First I looked at overall performance with PassMark’s PerformanceTest 7.0 benchmark test. The software exercises the major components of the system, including processor, hard drive, 2-D and 3-D graphics and memory; it then compiles the results into a single score that represents its performance potential. I ran the software three times and averaged the results.
Next I measured each system’s battery life. With a USB drive containing six HD videos connected to the system, I set Windows Media Player to shuffle through all the videos while PassMark’s BatteryMon charted the battery’s capacity. While the system was recharging and operating, I measured its power use with a Kill A Watt PS power meter.
I also ran Maxon’s Cinebench 11.5 benchmarks for graphics and processor performance. The software renders several photorealistic 3D scenes that stress the processor and graphics card by manipulating up to a million polygons. It reports scores for each.
Finally, I set each system up with PassMark’s BurnInTest, which runs the PerformanceTest benchmark in separate windows over and over again continuously, trying to find operational flaws. They each ran for one week.