What should a small business look for in a new laptop? In this economy, price ranks first followed closely by reliability and security. Way down at the bottom of that list comes styling, bells and whistles.
With that in mind, consider the Hewlett-Packard ProBook 4510s, a well-priced, reliable yet attractive 15.6-inch widescreen laptop, designed for small and medium business users. Prices range from $529 to $949 and HP offers both pre-configured models and custom configurations.
The unit we tested, model FM849UT#ABA, came with Windows XP Professional, 3GB of RAM, a 320GB hard drive, 2.1 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, Intel Wi-Fi Link wireless network adapter and standard CD-DVD writer. Price: $799. Dells Vostro line, also aimed at the small business market, costs about the same.
While there certainly are less expensive brands, HP laptops have a reasonable reputation for reliability, and as the top-selling laptop maker in the world, HP has the market presence and infrastructure to provide better-than-average after-sales service.
That said, in a recent customer satisfaction survey published by Forrester Research, Gateway was the only Windows-based PC maker rated above 65 percent equivalent to an OK rating. HP, Dell and others scored less than 65 percent, while Apple scored 80 percent. (Customer satisfaction isnt a pure measure of product reliability, however.)
The 4510s warranty includes one-year parts and labor, pick-up or carry-in (HP pays for shipping), plus toll-free 7/24 hardware technical phone support (for the life of the product). You can upgrade the warranty to get on-site service, and the primary battery comes with a one-year limited warranty.
The build quality of the 4510s appears reasonably solid, though the notebook is mainly plastic. One nice feature: the keyboard has less space around keys, which should make it more resistant to spills.
HP also claims that as part of its HP Total Test Process, it performed more than 95,000 hours of quality testing on this product which of course doesnt preclude the possibility of getting a lemon.
HPs 3D DriveGuard helps protect the hard drive against bumps or drops although HP makes no claims about how high a drop. Like similar systems it uses an accelerometer that notifies the system software of any sudden movement and sends a command to temporarily park the hard drive to help avoid the worst damage.
While Windows Vista (boo, hiss) is the standard-issue operating system for this model, you can arrange to have it shipped with XP Professional, which will certainly make it more reliable.
HP builds in some security features you wont find standard on other makes and models, and it provides HP ProtectTools software to manage them all in one place.
The tools let you manage and secure Windows accounts on the machine, making it easier to use the computer even with the kind of strong security in place that usually causes users headaches. You can also configure HP ProtectTools to prevent unauthorized people from tampering with BIOS (pre-boot) settings.
Most importantly, you can use Drive Encryption for HP ProtectTools to encode data on your hard drive so that its unreadable by an unauthorized person if the computer is lost or stolen.
Not Just a Pretty Face: The HP ProBook 4510s includes HP ProtectTools to manage encryption that keeps your data safe from unauthorized eyes.
(Click for larger image).
In our testing, the 2.1 GHz core duo processor with 3 GB of RAM was more than adequate for running common business applications concurrently browser, Outlook, Word, Excel and even Photoshop. Its not for power users or gamers, but it provides horsepower for the rest of us. (Yes, even if youre using Vista.)
The 15.6-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit HD display screen (1366 x 768 pixels), features HPs BrightView technology, a coating that provides a glossy, but easy-on-the-eyes, low-glare finish.
The screen is very easy to read with good, bright contrast. But dot-pitch, the distance between dots a specification not generally cited for laptop monitors looks to be fairly high, giving an appearance of coarse grain. This wont be an issue for most work-related applications, but it does mean its not the most pleasing screen for watching DVD movies or working with photography.
Note that HPs ProBook line the 4710s series now includes models with 17-inch screens. Pricing starts at $900 and up.
The keyboard is unconventional-looking with its square keys, but the generous spacing and the travel the distance the keys move provides a comfortable feel.
The look might remind some people of unsatisfactory computer keyboards from the last century that featured similar chiclet keys, but once you start typing on it, it feels like any other lapboard keyboard, better than many in fact.
The standard Synaptics touchpad also works well. The bar along the right side, which allows you to scroll down a page with a stroke of a finger, works more smoothly and reliably than on some laptops weve tried recently.
The 4510s doesnt have every connection you might want. Notably, it lacks the older PS2 mouse and keyboard ports, and an RJ-11 (telephone) jack is optional. But it does have a standard VGA monitor connector, four USB ports located on the sides which you could use for external mouse and keyboard and an HDMI port.
The HDMI port allows you to plug your laptop into a high-definition (HD) TV for movie watching using the highest-quality all-digital connection. Or you could use it with an HDMI-DVI adapter or cable to connect the 4510s to an external monitor again, using an all-digital DVI connection which will give the best image quality.
The 4510s is surprisingly slim for a standard laptop i.e. not a thin-and-light variety. It measures 14.6- x 9.83- x 1.24-inches and weighs as little as 5.7 lbs. (depending on battery and other options.)
The notebook features the same modern squared-off look as the keyboard design. Available in either Merlot (pictured here) or a glossy piano-black chassis (HP calls it Noir) the 4510s might remind some of Apples MacBook Pro as, indeed, might the lines name.
Is HP deliberately trying to compete with the MacBook Pro with this product? Were not sure, but if you move in circles where industrial design matters if colleagues and/or clients like to flaunt their work-of-art Macs the 4510s should let you hold your head up a little higher.
The 4510s doesnt come with a vast array of pre-installed software, but it does have InterVideos WinDVD software for playing DVDs. And it does come with Microsoft Office 2007 pre-installed but dont get too excited: its only a two-month trial version. If you want to use Office 2007 permanently, youll have to shell out $230 for a Small Business license.
Bottom LineThe price is reasonable and HP includes reliability extras hard-disk impact protection, disk encryption that not all laptop makers offer. As for functionality, the 4510s does the job for all but the most media-intensive tasks.
Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s.
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