HP EliteBook 2740p

The HP (NYSE: HPQ) EliteBook 2740p adds a twist to the typical design of ultra-portable laptops. As a notebook, this thin, light PC fits big performance into its small case, but that’s not all. You can rotate the display to shift it into tablet mode. A pressure-sensitive stylus can do sketches on screen, or you can point with up to two fingers, enabling multi-touch gestures. And this EliteBook supplies nearly every other expected feature, making it a versatile work machine for any portable situation.

I tested the 2.53GHz Intel Core i5-540M version, equipped with 4GB of RAM, a 250GB hard drive, and an extra battery mounted underneath. (HP charges $1,699 for the laptop and $179 for the additional battery; price as of August 5, 2010.) HP boasts that the machine includes desktop-class chips, and it shows in the performance and battery life; the laptop feels speedy, but battery life is merely adequate.

The machine scored a strong 104 in our WorldBench 6 test suite, putting it near the front of the pack in the ultra-portable category, and applications all felt responsive during general use. The EliteBook provides ample power for Office software, image editors, and nearly anything a mobile pro could install.Integrated Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) GMA HD video processing lags in the most demanding visual tasks, such as high-end GPU-accelerated 3D applications and games. Audiences for either category should look elsewhere, since the EliteBook 2740p targets another niche.

Instead of 3D mastery, the EliteBook impresses with its touchscreen. In the laptop or tablet configuration, you can poke at the screen with a finger or the stylus. The typical features of Wacom screen technology are here, including 255 levels of pressure sensitivity and a stylus with an eraser end for quick changes. The tool enables precise sketches in addition to nuanced photo edits. The stylus slips inside the case when unused, storing it well. The EliteBook automatically senses when the stylus tip is close to the screen to disable fingertip input, but I occasionally still managed to click with my hands when trying to sketch. (You can manually disable non-stylus touch input in the Control Panel.)

Touching with fingertips feels less precise by comparison, but it’s still accurate enough to navigate through applications. Once I got used to the screen, I often just poked at icons instead of reaching for the trackpad. The screen supports touch from two fingers at the same time, letting you rotate or resize photos in supported software. Unfortunately, few real-world tools yet take advantage of multi-touch, but with this laptop, you’ll be ready for their arrival.

The 1280-by-800-pixel screen presents a good range of color and contrast, although this is one of the laptop’s weaker elements. Colours lack the full richness found in competitors, and the screen begins to wash out in a bright room. In direct sunlight, the image crumbles, although HP says an optional outdoor-optimized display is available for those who need to work outside.

Basic input devices work well. Flat keys bounce back tightly, and the trackpad always feels responsive. HP also includes an eraser-style pointing stick, similar to what you’ll find on ThinkPads. I prefer the concave shape on those competitors, but HP’s take on the pointer still quickly whisks the cursor across the screen. Two sets of buttons–one for each pointing device–feel a little too soft, but at least they’re individual buttons instead of a seesaw lever for each click.

HP includes few extra buttons, but that’s better than a laptop with useless clutter. Touch-sensitive buttons control volume from the corner. Two side-mounted physical buttons activate your browser or e-mail application. A slider switch toggles on or off the 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1. A few extra buttons reveal themselves in tablet mode to reorient the screen and activate Escape and other common commands. They’re all well-placed and useful.

The EliteBook 2740p includes almost every significant port: USB 2.0 (three), VGA, FireWire, a headphone/mic jack, gigabit Ethernet, and analog modem. You can expand with ExpressCard/34, and an SD slot reads flash cards. A Webcam and mic are ready for videoconferencing and other media capture.

In addition, the laptop’s security features can lock down your data. A fingerprint scanner and SmartCard slot can authenticate users. Bundled software can encrypt the drive or permanently destroy old data. An option for the LoJack service can help recover a lost laptop or destroy its data. These touches should fit business users well.

Several aspects of the EliteBook 2740p underperform. Speaker audio sounds loud enough for a small group to hear, but it whistles out music with shrill tones. Battery life is passable at 3 hours, 29 minutes in our test, but that’s with the additional battery pack. If you’re going to the trouble of mounting another battery, you’d expect exceptional results. HP includes a series of firmware tools that can include a Web browser or access to your Outlook data before you boot into Windows. These would be great additions if Windows could boot in the background, but since you still have to run the full startup process to do anything else, they’re rarely useful.

The EliteBook 2740p feels solid as a tablet or laptop. An HP representative said the company put a lot of effort into designing it to be rugged, claiming it can withstand 300 pounds of pressure on the enclosure. Hopefully it’ll hold up, since HP ranks dead last in our most recent survey evaluating how companies handle problematic portables.

While it takes an extra battery–and added weight–for the HP EliteBook 2740p to feel complete, this small laptop can handle mobile work anywhere. It’s quick, and the convertible touchscreen makes it especially versatile. That touchscreen and the unit’s all-around performance make up for the shortcomings in battery life and screen colours.

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