Inside Look: New HP Business Notebooks Deliver The Mobile Goods

The new offerings, which carry the Compaq brand, include the 4200 series of ultra-lights/tablets; the 6100 series of low-cost, general-purpose notebooks; the 6200 series of business professional notebooks; the 8200 series of widescreen notebooks; and the nx9600 series of desktop replacements.

At the product launch, HP executives said the new business laptops reflect the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company's goal to reclaim the top spot in the notebook market. That space recently has become crowded with vendors trying to one-up competitors with expanded feature sets and more power. Similarly, HP's re-engineered notebook line is its latest attempt to edge out competitors in the SMB and enterprise segments.

The CRN Test Center put some of HP's new notebooks to the test to see how they stack up against rival products and how far the systems go in meeting businesses' mobile computing needs.

Test Center engineers evaluated two 6200 and two 4200 models. The 6200 series is positioned as a corporate business notebook, whereas the 4200 line are geared for ultraportability.

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The 6200 series has two initial base models: the 6220 and the 6230. Both have a similar chipset, but the 6230 has a faster processor. The 6220 offers the mobile Intel 915GM Express Chipset with integrated Intel video, and the 6230 has the Mobile Intel 915PM Express Chipset with an ATI Mobility Radeon X300 Graphics video subsystem. Both models are available with a range of processors, from the Celeron M processor 370 (1.5GHz, 400MHz FSB, 1 Mbyte of L2 cache) to the Intel Pentium M processor 770 (2.13GHz, 533MHz FSB, 2 Mbytes of L2 cache). Hard-drive sizes range from 40 Gbytes to 80 Gbytes, and system memory options run from 256/512/1,024-Mbyte upgradeable to a 2,048-Mbyte maximum. The 6320 offers a choice of displays: a 14.1-inch SXGA+ with a resolution of 1,400 x 1,050 and 16 million colors or a 14.1-inch XGA with a 1,024 x 768 resolution and 16 million colors.

The Compaq nc6320 evaluated by the CRN Test Center was configured with the XGA screen, an Intel Pentium M Dothan 1.7GHz processor, a 60-Gbyte hard drive and 256 Mbytes of RAM, a middle-of-the-road configuration and one of the most popular. The nc6320's standard features include an internal, swappable CD-R/RW+/DVD drive, a 56-Kbps modem, one Gigabit Ethernet port, three USB 2.0 ports, 802.11a/b/g wireless connectivity, one Type I/II PCMCIA PC card slot, an integrated smart-card reader and a Secure Digital slot.

Though Test Center engineers would have liked to see a FireWire port included, the 6320 was well-equipped for a midrange notebook. The unit weighed about 5.5 pounds and had a battery life of 4.5 hours when the power-saving features were enabled. HP must have invested a lot of research into power-saving enhancements. For example, an ambient light sensor can automatically dim the display's backlight to conserve power, and the integrated Gigabit Ethernet port powers down if no Ethernet cable is detected.

Engineers, however, were disappointed by the XGA display, which had a muddy look and lacked the sharpness found on competing XGA displays. Solution providers should suggest that customers upgrade to the SXGA+ display, which would improve sharpness and clarity.

Overall, the 6230 has a solid, high-quality feel to it. HP designed the unit to be resilient and integrated a shock-mounted hard drive. The notebook case also uses stronger plastics, and a recessed keyboard helps prevent damage to the display when the lid is closed. The 6230's primary competitor is the IBM T4x notebook line, chosen as a 2004 Product of the Year by the CRNTest Center. The HP nc6320 has some advantages over IBM's ThinkPad T42, such as a lighter travel weight, better battery life and superior performance. The HP nc6320 also includes an integrated serial port and more USB ports than the IBM T42. HP solution providers seeking a sales edge should point out to customers the uncertainty surrounding IBM's notebooks because of the pending sale of the IBM PC division to Lenovo Group. The HP nc6320 is covered by a three-year warranty, and the company guarantees peripheral compatibility across the product line. The unit's long life-cycle projections can ease corporate concerns about large deployments.

HP also offers some convenient add-ons, such as an external battery that weighs less than a pound and can double battery life. For corporate users, an optional docking station might be a valuable add-on.

Still, the nc6230 had its quirks, such as the absence of a keyboard light, the lack of a power LED on the power supply and the fact that users must remove a screw to swap out the optical drive. Those issues aside, HP's 6200 series is an adequate choice for solution providers servicing the enterprise and SMB markets.

HP's execution of a convertible tablet PC highlights its emphasis on professional design and quality. Test Center engineers evaluated a preproduction model in HP's new 4200 line.

The TC4200 test unit was equipped with an Intel 1.87GHz Pentium M 750 processor, 512 Mbytes of DDRAM and a 60-Gbyte hard drive. The unit weighs less than 5 pounds including the power adapter, and like most convertible tablets, it doesn't have an internal optical drive.

The TC4200 feels solid, and users will appreciate the full-size keyboard and the crisp 12.1-inch display. Battery life also was impressive. The TC4200 ran in tablet mode for more than four hours on a single battery charge. By enabling additional power-saving features and dimming the display, users should be able to stretch battery life even more. The TC4200 also offers an optional external battery that weighs less than a pound and promises to double battery life.

Unlike many competing products, the TC4200 has a full array of ports, with three USB 2.0 ports and VGA, audio in/out, RJ-11, RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet), S-Video TV out and Fast IR connections. It also offers docking station connectors and HP Travel Battery mounts. The unit includes three pointing devices: a touchpad, a trackpoint and a tablet pen.

Wireless is provided by integrated 802.11b/g connectivity and Bluetooth transceivers. The TC4200 uses the Intel Mobile 915GM chipset, bundled with the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900 video card.

The 4200 series also sports many of the innovations found in the 6200 series, such as a shock-mounted hard drive, ambient light sensors and the ability to power down the Ethernet connection. Test Center engineers felt that the overall design of the TC4200 approached the ideal for a convertible tablet system. The only gripe was the lack of an integrated optical drive, but that feature is often left out of tablet computers.

One thing is certain: HP's new notebooks will give other vendors a real run for their money. Their overall quality, long battery life and three-year warranty make HP a great choice for businesses looking to equip employees with mobile systems.