Review: HP ProBook 4510s notebook

One of the bigger trends in laptops over the past year or two has been the growth of small business notebooks. Many manufacturers have started to segment their business products between those designed for large business and small/home businesses in order to better address the demands of each. Small business notebooks, generally speaking, have been dropping expensive enterprise features, as well as focusing more on versatility and keeping costs down. This often comes at the price of size and materials, but the important thing is the manufacturers are concerned with the needs of small companies who don’t have large huge budgets or dedicated IT departments.

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While any notebook computer can be used for a small business we have seen companies steer buyers towards dedicated lines and away from consumer products. Lenovo has their Think Pad SL series and Dell has their Vostro models, and now HP has their ProBook line. If you are familiar with HP’s products then you know the Elite Boks, HP’s high-end business notebooks, which are suitable for enterprise buyers as well as anyone who is concerned with features over price. The ProBooks will be a step (or two) down from there, but different from HP’s Pavilion (consumer) products. Just for clarification, the “b” series will be remain to be HP’s entry-level corporate notebooks while the “s” series will be the entry-level SMB product. There is some crossover between all these, but the ProBook will remain the most like HP’s consumer notebooks and you won’t see any enterprise features, like Intel’s vPro.

The HP ProBook 4510s starts at 5.7 pounds and runs a 15.6-inch (16:9) display. Our model shipped with Windows Vista Business 32-bit, 2GB of RAM, Intel’s T6570 (2.1GHz) CPU, and a 250GB 5400RPM disk. The computer’s 1366×768 display was powered by Intel’s integrated graphics (4500MHD) while communications go through Intel’s 5100 a/g/n WiFi as well as Bluetooth. This build will sell for $749, though our test unit (a pre-production model) had a 6-cell battery where the 4510s at this price will ship with an 8-cell.

This build is relatively low-powered for a 15.6-inch computer, and while it will satisfy the demands of most business users, some people will want more power. The ProBook can scale considerably and buyers can move up to a 2.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor (or down to a Celeron), add up to 8GB of RAM (you’d want a 64-bit OS with that), and up to a 500GB disk also. Other notable upgrades include a Blu-ray drive, Gobi mobile broadband, and ATI discrete graphics (ATI Mobility Radeon HD430). In keeping with the small business theme there is no SSD option, but the mobile broadband is nice to see.

The outside of the 4510s has a full range of ports, just as you would expect to see on a notebook this size. These include: ethernet, VGA-out, HDMI, ExpressCard/34, four USB slots, microphone/headphone, and a card reader. There is modem hidden beneath a rubber plug (because it is so rarely used) as well as a DVD burner with LightScribe. The laptop has a 2.0 megapixel webcam above the display.

Before getting too far along it’s worth talking about what makes a small business notebook a business product–not just a repackaged consumer notebook. These features largely come down to design (understate and business-inspired), security, and reliability. On the security side the ProBooks have a few features that consumer notebooks don’t, including: HP Security Setup wizard, a device access manager (for disabling USB ports, etc.), credential manager, BIOS level password protection, and HP’s File and Disk Sanitizer. The system does not have facial detection (it wasn’t deemed to be secure enough) nor does have a fingerprint reader. As for reliability, the ProBook series has a spill-resistant keyboard and 3D DriveGuard (an accelerometer for hard drive protection).

Despite all the interesting internal features, HP made a lot of changes to the outside of system as well. It is, at first, reminiscent of the ThinkPad SL series (because of the angular design and all that gloss) but HP put its own finish on it. We see a chiclet-style keyboard, which is a major move for HP. The speakers were placed above the keyboard as well, making room for another major feature: a full numberpad. That is very rare on 15-inch notebooks, so this will be a big selling point. Other exterior perks include a metal on/off button and the use of light blue LEDs instead of green or orange. The exterior is a glossy black that some people will like and others will hate. The other color option is a matte deep shade of red called “Merlot”.

From usability standpoint, the 4510s makes for a solid desktop replacement system. It’s a bit big (1.24 x 14.6 x 9.8-inches) and heavy (5.7 pounds) to move around with you but it does well on the desktop, thanks in part to the numberpad. The cursor controls are fine, but the buttons feel quite strange–they hinge at the front so only the part towards the user can be pressed down. It’s a workable solution, but an odd design choice. HP has a lot of room on the interior of the notebook, but the opted for a clean look instead of convenient buttons, like volume and media controls. The only button aside from power is a shortcut button to the HP Info Center to the left of it. The chiclet keyboard isn’t a huge improvement from HP’s old designs, but it works well and looks great.

The ProBooks are not designed solely with performance in mind, which is why this model shipped with the processor it did and with integrated graphics. This graphics option means you won’t have a lot of power in this department, but the system will be cheaper and you will get a better battery life than you would with ATI’s discrete graphics. Performance was acceptable though and it is unlikely that anyone running typical small business applications will need much more power. Processor, RAM, and graphics upgrades are available for people that want a bit more versatility or will be doing a lot of HD video playback for example. For those interested, the PCMark Vantage score was 2782. The system was strong in productivity testing, but weak with gaming.

The 4510s uses a very nice LED-backlit 15.6-inch 16:9 display, which will be one of the nicer features on the system. If that’s not enough for anyone, there will be a 17-inch model, the 4710s which will also be available, though it will not have an integrated graphics option.

Battery life isn’t a major focus for 15-inch notebooks, but HP did their best to be competitive in this area. The stock system will ship with an 8-cell (63Whr) battery, though our pre-production unit came with a 6-cell (47Whr) unit. HP said to expect 6.5 and 5 hours from the two respectively. Our testing time with the machine was limited, but the battery seemed to be good for about 4 hours of mobile work (backlight at 50% and WiFi on). A quick calculation puts the 8-cell at about 5 hours and fifteen minutes, but we’ll really have to wait until factory machines hit the streets before we have the full picture.

On the software side the ProBook had its hits and misses. A miss was the annoying McAfee Total Protection package that came installed on the machine. It was a 60-day trial junkware that begged the user for activation after every boot, not something any business user needs to see. The software that did shine was HP’s own Protect Tools, which is a protection suite for the PC. It could use some polish in some areas, but overall it’s a very good way to protect your notebook’s security. The point of the suite is to easily lockdown your computer without any expensive third-party tools. Highlights include a BIOS level password lock, file and disk sanitizers, drive encryption, and a device access manager that can disable hardware (like USB ports).

The ProBook 4510s delivered on a number of fronts. The reasonable starting price, long list of options, and built-in numberpad will immediately win some people over, but there are some issues to keep in mind as well. It would be great to see a higher resolution display–1366×768 on a 15.6-inch display isn’t particularly impressive and an option that allows for more screen real estate (better multi-tasking) useful. The matte, anti-glare display was a nice touch, but gloss-lovers can opt for the BrightView option. Another miss, was the lack of a fingerprint reader. This was pretty surprising given how prevalent these are these days, but it was clearly a cost-cutting measure. The good news is that HP’s security software should outweigh this. A hidden benefit companies might not think to ask about–the ProBook is expected to be EPEAT Gold certified, which is not often seen at this price point.

HP’s ProBook 4510s ended up being a solid, but not particularly remarkable machine. There is a lot that they got right with the new line, and small business owners will definitely appreciate that, but there is room for improvement in a few areas as well. The low starting price of the systems limits some factors and will keep the ProBooks separate from HP’s more desirable EliteBooks but the ProBooks remain quite versatile, something some people will prefer to an aluminum palmrest or advanced docking capabilities. The ProBook 4510s will stack up well against Dell’s Vostro and the ThinkPad SL so buyers will be able to shop around and decide for themselves which is the best fit. Home users should keep an eye on the ProBooks as well, as they have most of the attributes people will be looking for and they might find uses for some of the small business features.

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