Wednesday, December 17, 2008

New HP Mobile Workstation

As many of you know, I am a long-time contributing editor to Desktop Engineering magazine and several other publications. One of my regular subjects is reviewing the latest computers.

I have long been a fan of HP. Their workstations—both desktop and portable—have always been absolutely superb. My own personal computer is an HP Compaq 8510w mobile workstation, which happens to be the fifth or sixth in a series of HP notebook computers I have used over the years. I am extremely happy with my HP portable workstation and recommend it to others whenever the subject comes up in conversations as I travel the country.

So you can imagine how much I was looking forward to reviewing the latest system in the HP mobile workstation line: the EliteBook 8530w. My first impression is a bit more "mixed" than usual. The system itself is quite elegant—much more modern and streamlined than even my relatively new 8510w—but some of the design decisions compromise things I've loved in the older models.

The new HP EliteBook 8530w features an elegant new design.

For example, I've long applauded HP for putting little icons around the keyboard that clearly identify the various ports around the edges of the notebook, making it extremely easy to find the right port without having to tip the system up on its side. This simple touch, present on all the HP mobile workstations I've owned or reviewed in the past, are not present on the 8530w.

Unfortunately, the new design eliminates the handy icons, seen here on the older HP Compaq 8710w mobile workstation, that clearly identified each port located on the edge of the computer.

According to an HP rep I spoke with, these were eliminated in the new EliteBook because instead of the gray finish on all of the previous models, the new EliteBook uses HP's new DuraCase design, which features a brushed aluminum skin bonded to a magnesium alloy chassis. The attractive two-tone appearance meant that to include the little icons would have required two separate silk screening steps and wouldn't be in keeping with the new design. So it seems that appearance has trumped functionality. Too bad.

The evaluation unit I received came with Windows Vista Business edition. I still prefer Windows XP for production CAD work, but I've had no serious issues with least not until now. My first problem involved user rights management. I found it nearly impossible to install and run some of my standard benchmark tests until I finally dove deep enough into the operating system to completely disable the User Account Management (UAM) functions and also create several new directories (explicitely making them writable) that should have otherwise been created by the benchmark's own installation routine. I never had to do this in the past. What else did Microsoft change in this release of Vista?

After finally overcoming the UAM limitations, imagine my surprise when I attempted to run my standard battery life test. That test consists of first setting the system for maximum power conservation, unplugging the power supply (so that the system is running on its internal battery) and then playing a DVD video and recording the time until the battery is completely exhausted.

Apparently, Microsoft doesn't believe that business users watch movies on long flights. Windows Vista Business doesn't include the necessary codec to play videos. While it appeared at first that users would need to either upgrade to a different (more expensive) version of Windows Vista or purchase, download, and install a third-party codec, HP actually includes a copy of WinDVD as well as lots of other useful software. This was not initially evident, however, because none of this software was pre-installed, just pre-loaded. HP calls this a "lean image." You need to run a software setup utility to install this additional software.

I'm still in the early stages of my evaluation of this system, so please do not consider this to be anything more than a first impression. I'm just starting to run my benchmarks. I'm actually going to test this system multiple times. HP graciously sent me a second hard disk containing Windows XP. So after running all my tests using Vista, I'll test again under XP.

Watch for my in-depth review in a future issue of Desktop Engineering magazine.

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