Since giving my Lenovo Yoga 13 to my parents (a great machine, by the way, and v2 looks even better), I’ve been on the lookout for something to replace it. My primary considerations were battery life, display (inc. touchscreen), touchpad, weight, build quality and reasonable future-proofing for the machine to last 2-3 years. I’ve really liked the 12-13.3″ range, since it usually results in a laptop in the 3-3.5lb range, which is highly portable, while providing enough display real estate to be truly productive.

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I considered several MacBooks, particularly the MacBook Air 13 (gosh, the 10-12 hours of real-world battery life is mind-blowing) and the MacBook Pro Retina 13. The build quality, battery life, and touchpads are absolutely fantastic, and frankly, even pricing isn’t outrageous, when looking at comparable options across the ecosystem.

However, I landed on the HP Spectre 13T, because:

  • Nice build quality, aluminium used throughout and positioned as a premium Ultrabook, so I hoped for the best in terms of manufacturing tolerances and the visceral feel in-hand
  • Great display options (in both colour gamut and resolution)
  • Includes both a gigantic touchpad and a touchscreen; most importantly, the touchpad is smooth and tracks well, almost as well as the MacBooks
  • Approximately 3.2lbs with 8-9 hours of real-world battery life
  • Configured with a Core i5 4200U, 8GB memory, 128GB SSD, 2560×1440 touchscreen, and included 2 year warranty was just under $950 (cheaper than a base MacBook Air 13)

I’m only a week in, so more detailed thoughts will have to wait. Initial impressions are positive; it feels reassuringly sturdy, the design is simple, but the aluminum colouring makes it a bit less generic than every other black or silver laptop out there, and the display is stunning in both colour as well resolution. Given how close it is to a melange of the right elements of each of the MacBook Air and Retina, in a package that cheaper than either, is a very good thing.

HP EliteBook 2540p

I’ll get some photos up next week… I seem to have lost the few I took when I first got the machine.

Microsoft provided me a generous budget for my work laptop, which I used on an HP EliteBook 2540p. Specs:

  • Intel Core i7 640LM (2.13GHz – turbo 2.93GHz)
  • 4GB DDR3
  • Intel 160GB SSD
  • 12.1″ WXGA LED
  • Intel integrated graphics
  • 6 cell battery (62Whr)

HP EliteBook 2540p

I also had the option of larger, 14″ and 15″ laptops, but I knew I’d also have a desktop with plenty of grunt for running VMs. My laptop would to take to meetings, work on the road, at home, etc. I wanted something small and light, with good battery life. It really came down to the 2540p and the Lenovo X201. However, only the 2540p could be had with an SSD within budget, and knowing the difference one makes with my personal laptop and desktop, I had to have one for my work machine as well. One note: if you want an optical drive in this laptop, you’re stuck with 1.8″ form factor drives. Fortunately, Intel makes a 1.8″ SSD – otherwise, I would have been saddled with some slow as molasses 1.8″ spindle drive. That’s just no fun. Then again, I now have an optical drive I haven’t used yet.

Build and Design

Business machines haven’t exactly prioritized aesthetic design, but the EliteBook doesn’t do a horrid job here. It has a nice brushed metal texture on the lid and a two-tone color scheme when open. Brushed metal also adorns the palm rest. The combination of a standard 16:10 display, thick top and bottom bezels and thin side bezels could make one mistake it for a standard 4:3 laptop, but who makes those nowadays, right? Even the 6-cell battery protrudes out the back about 2/3rds of an inch, but ends being a fair hand-hold when the laptop open or closed. (I end up walking with my laptop open, reading email more than I’d like.) Overall, it’s a little more sprightly looking than a ThinkPad, but there’s certainly also something classic about the ThinkPad look. We’ll see if the EliteBook design wears well over time.

In terms of build quality, the thing is tank-like. The lid feels very good, the heavy-duty metal display hinges are tight as day one, there’s no flex anywhere you’d touch. The lid is held in place by a strong clasp, which is disengaged by a large metal button on the front. Unfortunately, it’s a bit easy to push it and open the lid. ThinkPad’s sliding lid mechanism is much more fool-proof. The chassis is supported by a magnesium alloy shell underneath metal (or plastic around the keyboard). The laptop also meets some military standards for environmental conditions, tested for a wide range of temperature, vibrations and shocks, and moisture. Long story short, this thing is designed to survive in the elements, so surviving a typical office workday probably isn’t asking much of it. After 6 months, the only sign of use is a slight bit of a mark on one of the left mouse buttons. There’s absolutely no marks anywhere else, and I certainly haven’t babied it in the least. Not bad.

On the downside, the laptop is nearly 3/4lb heavier than an equivalent (6-cell) Lenovo X201. I’m okay with the near 4lb weight overall.

Input/Output

The keyboard is one of those hybrid-chiclet types, with flat keys. It feels pretty good to type on, although not as good as the ThinkPad keyboards or the Logitech Illuminated Keyboard I used with my desktop (quite possibly the best keyboard I’ve ever laid hands on). There’s a slight bit of rattle when typing quickly, but no flex is evident. I think the travel distance could be a bit longer. Above they keyboard are touch-sensitive buttons for volume, wireless and some quick-boot options. Personally, I’d be just as happy with tactile buttons. Touch-sensitive buttons are always a bit fidgety, not 100% responsive.

The touchpad is small, but acceptable for a 12″ laptop. Nice rubbery-textured touchpad and pointer buttons have good travel. The pointer comes with an indented cap that I’ve become very accustomed to. In fact, I simply never use the touchpad anymore. When I’m home with my MacBook, my hand defaults to where the track pointer should be, only to realize there isn’t one.

The display is of the 16:10 variety, matte, with typical viewing angles for a TN panel (e.g. decent horizontal, terrible vertical). It can be turned up pretty darned bright and colors seem fine. Then again, I use it for web, email, Word, and the occasional training video. The display doesn’t have the most stressful job to perform in my day to day.

There’s a smattering of ports – 3 USB 2.0, DisplayPort, VGA, SD card reader, FireWire, single headset 3.5mm, gigabit ethernet and (importantly!) a smartcard reader built in. That last input is fantastic for working remotely, as I don’t need to carry around an external card reader.

In Use

I’m not going to run the laptop through a gauntlet of performance benchmarks, since no, I don’t spend my days running PCMark or calculating the x millionth digit of Pi. However, I do launch Outlook quite often and that’s essentially instantaneous now. The combination of four threads of Intel Core i7 power and the Intel SSD does wonders for system responsiveness and performance. There are no hesitations between action and response, except for the human ones. It’s generally a pleasure to use.

Here’s what happens during a normal day. I get into the office, pull the laptop out of my backpack, plunk it into the dock and snap in the dock connector. My Logitech MX Anywhere’s mini-receiver is perpetually plugged into the left-hand side USB port of the laptop, so once the 2540p resumes from sleep (about 2 seconds) I’m ready to go. The dock is connected via DisplayPort and VGA to two 20″ 4:3 Samsung displays, one in portrait and one in landscape mode. I have Logitech Z-5 speakers connected to the dock and a Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboard. Outlook fires up and I’m ready to start with my morning email browsing.

A couple hours later (or perhaps immediately, depending on the day), it’s meeting time, and I simply pop the dock connector button and my laptop’s good to go. I sit down at the meeting, open up my laptop, and a few seconds of the laptop figuring out that it’s no longer connected to two desktop monitors ensues. Then I’m back at my desktop, except with a 1280×800 resolution desktop. Doing the regular tasks at work, writing, emailing, browsing SharePoint, gives me 5 hours or so of battery life on the 6 cell. That’s plenty to get me through the day, since I rarely sit through any string of meetings longer than that (in which I’m actively using my laptop, especially).

I come back to my office, plug the 2540p back into the dock and my monitors pick up the picture again, without any input required on my part. It’s all really pretty seamless. My mouse and keyboard haven’t left their original positions and I’m ready to work again.

And really, that’s how a business laptop should be, in my opinion. Portable, good battery life, easily able to survive being bumped around and virtually invisible (from a reconfiguration point of view) to the user. I don’t want to think about reconfiguring my multi-monitor setup every time I get back to my desk or need to explicitly ask to undock my laptop before I do so (which, from what I understand, you need to do with the ThinkPad docking solutions).

Conclusion

As you can probably tell by now I’m pretty happy with my choice of the EliteBook 2540p. It’s built well, performs great, has good battery life, and fits seamlessly into my day-to-day use cases. It’s a bit heavier than the equivalent from Lenovo (X201), looks a bit nicer as well (in my opinion), and has a fantastic docking solution. It should easily last me our typical hardware upgrade cycle.

Pros

  • Built like a tank (essentially no signs of use after 6 months)
  • Blazing fast with the SSD
  • Portable and good battery life
  • Full-size keyboard
  • Looks pretty nice for a business machine
  • Great, seamless docking experience

Cons

  • Keyboard is only good
  • Heavier than the competition (X201)
  • Display is middle of the road in terms of quality (but bright)
  • If you don’t get an SSD and want an optical drive, you’ll be stuck with a slow 1.8″ hard drive

HP Buying EDS. Time to Buy HP.

One big piece of business news of the past couple days is Hewlett-Packard’s announcement that it will be purchasing IT services company EDS for a total of $13.9 billion in cash. As a result, HP’s stock has been battered, falling about 13% from its Monday afternoon highs, just before news leaked out about the purchase, to its Tuesday lows. While large acquisitions invariably run the risks of integration, I believe now is the time to buy HPQ. If anything, the purchase of EDS will be more reason to buy HP than not.

HP’s purchase of EDS, as many analysts have daftly pointed out, will certainly be a step in IBM’s direction, where services revenues make up about 60% of its business. However, services only make up about 15% of HP’s revenues. Both IBM and HP are able to achieve approximately 10% operating margins from their services segment, while EDS has only been able to pull a 5% operating margin.

Since taking the reigns in early 2005, Mark Hurd has done a fantastic job of cutting costs, boosting growth, and as a result, has increased operating margins considerably, across HP’s market segments. The following is just one example of operating margin growth, in the Personal Systems Group (otherwise known as the PC segment). Numbers were calculated from HP’s annual and quarterly reports:

  • 2004 – 0.8%
  • 2005 – 2.5%
  • 2006 – 3.9%
  • 2007 – 5.3%
  • Q1 2008 – 5.8%

That’s quite an improvement. I can only imagine that the plan is to boost EDS’ margins more inline with the rest of HP’s services division. An extra 4% improvement in operating margins at EDS would boost operating income by close to $1 billion annually. That’s assuming no growth in revenues. This is probably the ‘significant synergies’ that HP expects from the combination. I’m confident Mark Hurd will be able achieve his goals, given his track record.

Also taking into consideration that EDS has over $3 billion in cash, the net $10.9 billion cash outlay doesn’t sound so bad for an additional $2 billion in operating income, if operating margins at EDS can be expanded to ~9%. That’s not evening mentioning any revenue growth in other segments from cross-selling through services.

Mini PCs and Vista SP1 Battery Life

There’s been a lot of hype and news regarding low-cost and/or small form factor PCs in recent days.

HP 2133 Mini-Note

Let’s start off with the HP 2133 Mini-Note. I wrote about my thoughts earlier and followed up with the editor at Notebook Review regarding possible problems with the VIA power management module. Unfortunately, the unit has been sent back to HP already, but judging by the editor’s experience with the 1.2GHz C7-M ULV in the Everex Cloudbook, the heat dissipation and mediocre battery life are not isolated to the HP 2133.

Dell plans for the low-cost notebook market

While in Tel-Aviv, Dell’s CEO, Michael Dell said that the low-cost notebook market is something he plans on addressing.

We do see opportunities for very interesting products that are smaller and lighter and address the more mobile users in a very cost-effective way – Michael Dell

The rumours are that based on the potential June announcement, this product or product line will be powered by Intel’s Atom processor. I certainly hope the offering will be as well designed and built as the HP 2133, but also more functional, from a heat and battery life point of view. Take the HP 2133, reduce the heat dissipation and make the battery life 1.5X or more and you’ll have something that is really appealing.

ASUS Essentio 5110

Here’s a higher-end mini-desktop from ASUS, equipped with a Blu-Ray drive along with the performance to power 1080p content. It’s definitely not a competitor for something like the upcoming Eee Desktop, but does address what I’ve been writing about recently, an attractive, almost decorative desktop. It’s not a power performer, but, as an HTPC, has the ability to push all the HD content the user could want. This ASUS looks like one of the more attractive and well integrated HTPCs I’ve seen thus far.

Vista SP1 Battery Life

I recently installed SP1 for Vista on my Dell XPS M1330 and I’ve noticed an improvement in battery life. Some initial testing with SP1 has shown a 14.2W power consumption during web browsing and productivity work, versus 15.6W without SP1 under the same conditions. The SP1 testing was performed with an extra BlueTooth module as well. This translates into an almost 10% increase in battery life (around 20 extra minutes with the 6 cell and half an hour with the 9 cell), which is quite significant.

HP 2133 Mini-Note – So Close, Yet So Far Away

Now that HP has officially announced the 2133 Mini-Note PC, I’d like to discuss why I don’t believe it will succeed like the ASUS Eee PC has. Note that since I don’t have a unit in my possession, I can only base my analysis on what the initial reviews have observed. (By all means, if HP wants to send me a sample to review, I’d be more than happy to do so…) For reference, the Notebook Review article is what I’ll be speaking to mostly.

HP 2133 Mini-Note

I previously wrote about the HP 2133 mini-notebook back when it was but a rumor in the blogosphere. I touched on some key points it aimed to address, namely screen size, keyboard usability, and battery life. By combining these three improvements with what the Eee PC does well, I reckoned it could be a very compelling choice in the sub-notebook space, assuming appropriate pricing. It looks like HP’s nailed two of the problems, completely missed the third and added a few issues of its own along the way.

Screen and Keyboard

Let’s talk about the good things first – the screen and the keyboard. There will be people who dislike the WXGA resolution display (1280×800) on a relatively small 8.9″ display, but I think it’s great. That’s a ton of real estate – the same as most mainstream widescreen laptops these days, which means you’re really not sacrificing much, despite having a much smaller chassis and display. The keyboard is also significantly larger than what the Eee PC has, advertised as 92% of the regular size (although there’s some weirdness going on with the number keys). These two key improvements over the 7″ Eee PC could make the 2133 a significantly more useful productivity tool. That is until you reach the next couple points.

The Steve Ballmer

Battery life, battery life, battery life. Battery life, battery life, battery life. (Imagine me saying that while dancing on a stage if you like.) You cannot make a small, portable, mini-laptop, touting it as the mobile internet browsing, email writing machine and then give it about 2 hours of battery life. That’s what the reviewers are getting on the 3 cell default battery (productivity work gives anywhere between 2 and 2.5 hours). Granted the review samples are running Vista, which isn’t exactly the most efficient system, but if you’re selling them in that configuration, make sure it works well. Upping the battery to the 6 cell (55Whr) makes it awkwardly thick towards the rear and brings the weight up to over 3.2lbs, making the whole ‘just toss it into your bag‘ proposition go out the window. And even then, the 4-4.5 hours of battery life isn’t anything to brag about. The Dell XPS M1330 I’m typing this on gets close to 4 hours of productivity battery life on the standard 6 cell (56Whr). How does a 8.9″ display, an ULV VIA C7-M processor, and integrated graphics consume almost as much power as a standard voltage Core 2 Duo, a discrete 8400M GS video card, and a 13.3″ LED backlit panel?

VIA As a Scapegoat

Many people are blaming the CPU, a VIA C7-M ULV ranging from 1.0GHz to 1.6GHz, for almost all of the machine’s problems. I don’t believe this to be the case. However, it may very well be the cause of one problem – performance. Typically performance would be a non-issue for laptops in this category. The ASUS Eee PC wasn’t designed for number crunching, but at least internet performance was fluid. Based on Notebook Review, the tasks the HP 2133 was designed for, internet usage and productivity, are somewhat hindered by sluggish performance.

On paper the 1.6GHz VIA C7-M processor should provide excellent speed for general computing tasks. In reality, web pages rendered slower than expected, multi-tasking was painfully slow, and most processor-hungry applications like Photoshop or video encoding software just didn’t like the VIA processor. – NBR

I’m not worried about Photoshop or encoding performance, but web page rendering and multitasking issues? With the reviewed system being the absolute top-of-line 2133 (1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, 160GB 7200RPM hard drive), it should eat up multitasking with ease. Slower than expected web page rendering is appalling. Whether these issues can be chalked up to Vista remains to be seen (hopefully some testing with the SuSE Linux version will show a different outcome), but regardless, as I mentioned above, the out-of-box experience is what most people will end up having and it’s not looking good. In addition, heat dissipation seems to be a problem, and for a laptop that’s very portable, having the fan constantly running and the bottom of the chassis heating up to close to 50C are not conducive to classroom use or use on one’s lap.

HP 2133 temperatures
Temperatures in Fahrenheit. Courtesy of Notebook Review.

One reason HP may have decided to go with the VIA platform is the upcoming Isaiah processor. It looks like it could be very well suited for the mini-laptop design, and being pin compatible, it should be a simple switch over for HP when it becomes available. In the meantime, the top-end 2133 will be stuck with a processor that performs similarly or worse than the 900MHz Celeron M in the Eee PC. I don’t even want to think about what the user experience would be like with the 1.0GHz C7-M for the $499 version.

Pricing is out-of-line

Add that all up and we come down the price. The starting $499 price isn’t bad, until you consider the $399 Eee PC will vastly outperform it and weight half a pound less. If you can wait for the 8.9″ version of the Eee PC, you’ll get a similar sized display as well (albeit at a lower resolution). When you start moving up the 2133 price chain, things get expensive awfully fast, with $50 more giving you a 1.2GHz, 1GB RAM, and a 120GB HDD. the $749 model gets you a 1.6GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, and a 120GB 7200RPM drive. The samples reviewed by most sites included a 160GB 7200RPM drive, which will add even more to the price. When you consider the laptop from a performance point of view, it’s an abysmal price proposition. At the top end of its price range, I’d imagine even something like the $999CAD XPS M1330 would start to enter into the equation, with similar battery life to the 6-cell 2133 and about a pound heavier, but sporting a full Core 2 Duo, 2GB RAM, and a 160GB hard drive, not to mention other features.

The Best Case Scenario

The best case scenario for the HP 2133 Mini-Note currently being reviewed would be that the power management system isn’t functional. That would explain things like the heat dissipation and poor battery life. I’ve asked the reviewer at Notebook Review to confirm that the expected power saving features (such as downclocking the CPU and/or voltage) are working, but I haven’t heard back yet. The nicely designed shell and gorgeous screen and keyboard are more than offset by failing at the one the thing it’s designed to be, a mobile, internet browsing and productivity machine. Without some serious changes, it’ll be but a pretty face.