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Tuesday, 18 January 2011 10:35

HP ProBook 4720s delivers the goods - Input Devices and Ergonomics

Written by Nermin Hajdarbegovic
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Review: Affordable 17-incher boasts great battery life
HP is no stranger to the business-laptop market and its ProBook series lappies have been a staple of many small businesses and corporate users for years now. The 17-inch 4720s was introduced last year and it’s aimed at no-nonsense users who need a serious desktop replacement with plenty of screen acreage and reasonable performance.

Although many users shy away from 17-inch notebooks due to their bulk and weight, the 4720s manages to keep the weight at reasonable levels and it has a rather acceptable footprint as well. It tips the scales at 2.97kg, which is pretty impressive considering the size and it ranks as one of the lightest products in its class. However, unlike other “light” 17-inchers, the 4720s packs an 8-cell battery rather than a 6-cell, which results in superior battery life, but we will get to that later.

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Like all ProBooks, the 4720s is available in a wide variety of SKUs and you can easily configure it to suit your needs. We scored a rather interesting and relatively fresh version, based on Intel’s Core i3 380M processor, Intel HM57 chipset and AMD Radeon HD 6370 graphics.

The Core i3 380M is one of the latest incarnations of Intel’s 32nm Arrandale architecture and it’s a reasonably priced dual-core clocked at 2.53GHz. It packs 512kB of L2 cache and 3MB of L3 cache and it supports Hyperthreading.

We can forget about the integrated graphics core, since the 4720s packs AMD HD 6370 graphics, but don’t be fooled by the name. The HD 6370 is not based on a new graphics core, it’s basically a rebranded HD 5470, with 80 shaders clocked at 750MHz. Despite the rebrand, this is a pretty good GPU for the money, especially considering it also packs 1GB of DDR3 memory clocked at 800MHz. While it might not be fast enough to cope with new games, it’s more than enough for any business user.

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Our sample also included 4GB of memory, 320GB of storage, DVD burner, eSATA, WiFi – Bluetooth combo and even an optional 56k modem, something we haven’t come across in quite a while. The 4720s ships with a pretty nice carrying bag and at first glance it’s pretty good value. Prices start at €699 for the cheapest SKU, but this particular version will set you back a bit over €750.

Design and Build Quality

Measuring 41.1 x 26.6 x 2.82 cm, the ProBook is relatively compact for a 17-incher and it doesn’t feel too chubby. However, from certain angles it looks quite a bit fatter than it actually is, thanks to HP’s minimalistic, faceted design. Most vendors go for gently beveled edges, particularly on the lid, thus creating the illusion of a somewhat thinner laptop. However, HP chose to go with straight edges.

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Mind you, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The 4720s looks rather elegant and simple, which is what we want to see in any business notebook. The brushed aluminium used on the lid and palm rests feels and looks quite nice, while the piano black finish on the bezel and the keyboard offer a dose of chic to compensate for the understated design. Add a stylish chiclet keyboard and the end result is a pretty good looking business notebook that’s neither too dull nor too flashy.

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Also, we like HP’s choice of colours. The dark copper finish used on the aluminium is perfectly offset by glossy black details and the sizable silver power button. It just has a steampunk feel to it and we like it, unlike most HP notebooks.

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Build quality is pretty good, too. There are no major issues to report. The chassis feels quite sturdy and the use of brushed aluminium helps give it a touch of class as well. There is not much flex on the keyboard, or the palm rests for that matter. As with all 17-inchers, the lid is pretty big and somewhat prone to flex, so some caution is advised, i.e. always grip it by the edges and don’t treat it like an ultraportable. Despite this, the lid protects the screen pretty well and you shouldn’t experience any distortions unless you are very careless or heavily intoxicated.

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The bottom of the chassis is fashioned from rather robust plastic and it feels solid. There are no ventilation vents on the bottom and this is great news, as using the 4720s on your lap or on a couch shouldn’t be an issue. In the long run, this will probably result in less dust accumulation as well.

The exhaust vent is on the left side and the cooling system is nearly silent in everyday use. Noise levels under load are bearable. Heat is rarely an issue on 17-inchers and the ProBook is no exception. There’s plenty of room for dissipation and the chassis rarely heats up above body temperature. So if you’re human, you shouldn’t face any major issues.

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Sadly, accessing the insides isn’t easy, so it took us a while before we managed to reach the 2 SODIMM slots. However, few users choose to upgrade their notebooks and we would always go for a solid chunk of durable plastic rather than flimsy panels that allow easy access to memory slots or the hard drive. Besides, the 4720s is aimed at business users, so they will probably just let the company tech guys tinker with it. Let them earn a living, they are very nice people once you get to know them.





Keyboard

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Chiclet keyboards are all the rage nowadays and to be honest we drank the chiclet Kool-Aid, too. However, HP did not sacrifice functionality or quality for the sake of style. The layout is near perfect and even novice users will get to grips with it in no time. It’s worth noting that people who aren’t used to chiclet keyboards might take a bit more time to get adjusted to the new style. Personally, I use two desktops with chiclet keyboards and notebook with a regular keyboard, so getting used to HP’s keyboard was a breeze.

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However, users used to a loud mechanical click might be a bit disappointed. On the upside there is very little flex and the numeric keypad comes in handy for business users, although I’m not a huge fan of numeric keyboards on notebooks, regardless of their size. The choice of materials is also pretty good. HP used soft, matte plastic on the keys, so they feel pretty good. The glossy plastic used on the surrounding frame feels quite sturdy, but as you might have guessed it’s quite prone to fingerprints and smudges.

Touchpad

The touchpad is a mixed bag to say the least. HP went for an integrated Synaptics ClickPad and frankly some users just won’t like it. The button-less design hasn’t taken off yet and many users are still rather new to it. Also, for some reason HP used ghastly white paint to define the button zones and it just doesn’t look as good as the rest of the package. HP should have gone for a more subtle approach.

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Looks aside, the touchpad supports multi-touch gestures and it’s quite big. Luckily, HP integrated the off button in the upper right corner of the pad, so it’s easy to turn off while typing, which comes in handy considering its size. The touchpad is aligned with the space button, which means it’s offset to the left, perhaps a bit too much. We have no major complaints as far as the accuracy or multi-touch features go, but it will take some time getting used to.

All in all, we believe HP would have been better off with a classic touchpad. After all, we are talking about a business machine, hence the goal should be to keep things simple and allow users to transition to the new design with as little hassle as possible. Let me put it this way – I wouldn’t like to have to explain it to my mom and dad. Good thing they’re already enjoying their retirement, thanks to generous Bosnian state pensions.

Ergonomics, Everyday Use

HP’s ProBook-series laptops always been a joy to live with, but this is equally true of most business-oriented models, as they are usually designed for sensible people who have no time for nonsense.

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Despite this, we’re not thrilled with HP’s decision to place the audio connectors and status LEDs at the front. Although audio might not seem very important in a business laptop, we must note that many businessmen and women use Skype and similar services.

Although less important, the quality of built-in stereo speakers isn’t that great. They lack a bit of bass if you are into good music and they aren’t really adequate for movies, either. If, however, you like Celine Dion, they will do fine. On the bright side, they won’t let the rest of the world learn about your embarrassingly poor taste in music.

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For obvious reasons there are no connectors at the back.

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The right hand side features two USBs, optional RJ11, DVD and DC-in.

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HDMI, VGA, LAN, eSATA, Kensington and a lone USB are placed on the left side.

The 2.0MP webcam isn’t very impressive, but then again, no webcam is. However, the matte 1600x900 screen is something worth writing about. Although some users might want a higher resolution screen, 1600x900 can still suffice for most applications and in this price range it’s unlikely you could get a proper 1920x1080 screen. In fact, many vendors still cling to 1440x900 screens in this market segment. As you can see, matte screens make a huge difference in very bright environments.

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Display quality is pretty good. There’s plenty of contrast, backlight and saturation to go around. Although glare screens might offer a bit more contrast on paper, we always prefer matte screens. There is a very good reason why all vendors carry matte screens in their business series laptops. It’s because people who have their own business tend to have an IQ higher than their body temperature in Fahrenheit, even with swine flu. Viewing angles are impressive to say the least, nothing to worry about here.

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As we said earlier, HP went for an 8-cell battery in the 4720s. Most vendors choose 6-cell power packs for their 17-inchers, probably to keep the weight down on the spec sheet. As a result, we expected pretty good results from the 4720s. However, we were in for a pleasant surprise.

The ProBook managed nearly three and a half hours of regular use, and it was careless use to say the least, since we paid no attention to power consumption whatsoever. With somewhat lower backlight levels the 4720s managed more than four and a half hours of WiFi browsing and this is pretty impressive considering the spec. According to our tests, it takes just over two hours to fully charge the battery once it’s depleted.

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Benchmarks

GPU-Z sheds some light on the HD 6370 core. As you can see, it’s an entry level part, but it’s still much better than any IGP.

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In 3Dmark06, HP managed to score 4235 3Dmarks, which is not bad for an entry-level graphics card. We chose to use this largely obsolete benchmark due to legacy issues, since we still come across many notebooks with Intel’s horrid IGPs that can barely run a 5-year old benchmark suite.

3dmark

The 4720s is not aimed at gamers, but it can easily deal with somewhat less demanding titles and genres.

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The Core i3 380M managed to deliver pretty good performance as well. It scored 2675 in 3Dmark and it did quite well in Cinebench, too, scoring 2.05 points. The SuperPI 32M test took 17m 24s to complete.

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Toshiba’s 320GB hard drive is about as average as a hard drive can be.

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Conclusion

HP’s ProBook 4720s delivers good performance in a stylish package at a very reasonable price tag. There’s really not much more one could ask for.

Intel’s Core i3 380M is relatively fast and despite its 35W TDP rating, it’s pretty cool and doesn’t suck up too much power. AMD HD 6370 graphics are a good match for the CPU and the 17-inch matte screen doesn’t disappoint either. At just under 3kg, the 4720s is rather compact for a 17-inch laptop, especially if you factor in the 8-cell battery and the impressive battery life. We like the design as well, but most of all we love the affordable price tag. You would be hard pressed to find anything better in the €699 to €799 price range.

The only major downside is the somewhat awkward and unconventional touchpad, but it’s heavily outweighed by the rest of the package.

Basically, the ProBook 4720s just got under our skin. It managed to exceed our expectations and proved to be a very good product in its price range. We have no qualms about recommending it to anyone in need of a serious desktop replacement, at home, at work or anywhere else.


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Last modified on Tuesday, 18 January 2011 13:37
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