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In Review: HP EliteBook 8740w

by Oliver Peters
HP EliteBook
When you edit on the road, it’s often a challenge finding the right machine to be your reliable road warrior. This is when it becomes time to bump your laptop up a notch into the mobile workstation class of machines. Mobile workstations are tough, durable and designed to be desktop replacements. As such they are larger and heavier than a small laptop or netbook, but that’s OK. They are meant to survive in challenging locations.

I recently tested the HP EliteBook 8740w, which I also used to review Grass Valley’s EDIUS 6 editing software. This unit features plenty of horsepower and hard drive space, a full-sized, backlit keyboard with a number pad and HP’s beautiful 17” DreamColor display. HP EliteBook mobile workstations come in several different configurations within three main groups: the 14” 8440w, 15” 8540w and 17” 8740w series. All units can be custom-ordered with a variety of hard drive, processor (i5 or i7), RAM and graphic card options. The notebook supports up to 32GB of RAM for those interested in extra performance.

Construction
The EliteBook has a rugged design built to “Mil-Spec” standards and uses a magnesium/aluminum display enclosure and a full magnesium alloy chassis. This design is engineered to meet the U.S. military standard for specific reliability tests, including being able to withstand up to 300 lb. of pressure on the display enclosure. So obviously this unit is at home in military media operations, on the front seat of a police cruiser or with an editor cutting “candids” at a corporate convention event.

The graphic card choices available include several NVIDIA and ATI models. The big difference between these brands is their built-in technology. NVIDIA cards feature CUDA technology, so video editors would opt for these. CUDA is a big plus for Adobe Premiere Pro CS5 editors because it accelerates certain effects via the NVIDIA GPU. The ATI options include ATI Eyefinity Technology, which supports multiple displays from a single card. Up to five displays (including the native panel) can be supported when the EliteBook is docked to an optional docking station that has the necessary ports to connect the additional four displays.

The 8740w that I tested had all the modern connectivity one would expect from a machine of this class, and then some. In addition to the usual items, like CD/DVD-RW drive, two USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, modem, PCIe Express Card slot and memory card reader, there are also some unexpected features. For example, the EliteBook includes a Webcam, fingerprint sensor, 4-pin 1394a (FireWire 400) port and eSATA. It’s also one of the first computers to take advantage of USB 3.0, with two more ports for that standard. External monitors can be connected using either DisplayPort or VGA (both connectors are installed). An optional Blu-ray drive is also available.

Designed for Performance
My review unit came equipped with an internal 500GB 7,200 rpm drive and Intel i7 Q820 processor. This is a 1.73GHz quad-core processor, which runs with up to eight processor threads when Hyper-Threading is enabled. This processor also features Intel’s Turbo Boost technology, which dynamically redirects power to boost performance based on the workload. When Turbo Boost kicks in, the maximum clock speed can increase to up to 3.06GHz. With all of this, HP was conscious of power consumption and offers an extended-life battery, which not only lets the unit run longer on battery power but also allows more charging cycles throughout its life. In fact, HP’s three-year warranty also covers the battery.

I found the HP EliteBook 8740w to be a great working unit. Thanks to reviews and on-site editing I’ve done over the years, I have quite a lot of experience with mobile workstations, including older models from HP and Dell, as well as those from 1 Beyond and Alienware. The EliteBook 8740w is not only a well built and nicely designed laptop, but, despite its size and power, it’s relatively lightweight. For example, it’s not unreasonable to work with it on your lap for an extended period of time. That’s the norm for a small laptop or netbook, but other mobile workstations are often too hot or too heavy.

The 8740w came with Windows 7 Professional installed. That’s a 64-bit OS, which will maximize the performance of any modern application, even if that software isn’t yet optimized for native 64-bit operation. This makes the 8740w with Windows 7 ideal for Avid Media Composer, Grass Valley EDIUS, Sony Vegas Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro, among others. HP offers the ability to order the unit with a downgrade of the operating system to Windows XP Professional, if desired.

In addition to a standard Windows 7 installation, HP adds a few goodies of its own, including HP QuickLook, HP QuickWeb and HP Power Assistant. The last is a power management and profile utility that’s not uncommon in other products, but QuickLook and QuickWeb are pretty unique. These allow access to Microsoft Outlook and the Internet, respectively, without booting into Windows. The concept is that if you are in a hurry and just need to go online or access contact information or e-mail, you can do so in the shortest possible time without a full startup of the computer. Once your network settings are established, simply push the keyboard hotkey and you launch into HP’s QuickLook or QuickWeb, bypassing Windows.

Mobile Editing Warrior
Since I was mainly interested in its performance as an editing tool, I tested the EliteBook with both EDIUS 6 and RED Digital Cinema’s REDCINE-X. Editing was very smooth and fluid with this unit, and it had no trouble handling large files, such as the camera raw 4K RED files. The 1920x1200-pixel DreamColor display was accurate in displaying the image. When I played the EDIUS 6 timeline in full-screen mode or expanded the REDCINE-X viewer to fill most of the screen, images were crisp, with nice contrast and saturation levels.

The DreamColor panel features 30-bit color accuracy (10 bits per channel), compared to traditional notebook panels with 18-bit or 24-bit accuracy. There’s a 178-degree, ultra-wide viewing angle and an RGB LED backlight. In short, this gives you improved color/grayscale accuracy, smoother color transitions and less color shift at different viewing angles. DreamColor is clearly the best display system available on a notebook today.

Playing RED files is still very taxing on any system if you aren’t using RED’s proprietary RED ROCKET card. In my 4096x2048 sample files, setting the REDCINE-X viewer to ¼ debayer and 150 percent of the image size resulted in the image covering most of the display space and yet still looking very crisp. At this viewer setting, the image played in real time at 23.98fps with no visible dropped frames or other playback issues. I exported a 34-second clip as an uncompressed 2K QuickTime movie with a full debayer setting. Using full debayer gives you the highest resolution conversion of a camera raw RED file into a standard video file, but it is also the most taxing and time-consuming without hardware assistance. The conversion took about 11 minutes, which is comparable to most desktop systems handling the same process.

There are a lot of things to like about the EliteBook 8740w. It’s robust without a severe weight trade-off. I noticed that the fan kicks in quite a bit, but it’s not inordinately loud. If you are a Windows user and need a robust machine for the field, or you simply want a no-compromise notebook to use at your desk and on the road, then HP’s EliteBook mobile workstations will certainly fit the bill.