- Solid, understated design
- good performance and battery life
- plenty of ports and connectors
- good security features
- One year warranty as standard
The HP Compaq nc6120 is a 'thin and light' mainstream business notebook with a smart new design, brand-new innards in the shape of Intel's second-generation Centrino platform (codenamed Sonoma) and a price that just squeezes in under the £1,000 (ex. VAT) barrier. It performs well, has a good set of ports and connectors, and manages over 3.5 hours of mains-free operation with a standard battery.
The first thing that strikes you about HP Compaq's new design is its clean, sober slate-grey look. There's no silver edging or other unnecessary trimmings here (as seen in the previous generation), and we prefer it that way. It's neither the thinnest nor the lightest of thin-and-lights, but at 32.9cm wide by 26.7cm deep by 3 - 3.67cm high and 2.7kg, it's not out of line for its class. Like a number of notebook designs, the nc6120 is thicker at the back (3.67cm) than at the front (3cm), giving a slight forward tilt to the keyboard that makes for a reasonably comfortable typing position. However, there are no pull-out feet on the underside should you wish to make further adjustments. The 86-key keyboard has plenty of space, and is sensibly laid out, with a cluster of frequently used keys (Insert, Delete, Home, End, PgUp, PgDn) at the top right and the cursor keys in an inverted-T arrangement at the bottom right. It's not up to the peerless standards of IBM's ThinkPads, but it's not bad at all. Six buttons between screen and keyboard turn the wireless connection on and off, launch applications and control audio volume. Navigation is via a two-button touchpad with an integrated 'scroll zone' on the right for moving through documents and Web pages. Our review model had a 15in. XGA (1,024 by 768) screen, although other models in the range come with 14.1in. XGA or 15in. SXGA+ (1,400 by 1,050) displays. The combination of the bigger screen and lower resolution makes everything very readable, but some may prefer the workspace offered by the higher-resolution display. The screen hinge -- always a potential problem area for notebooks -- felt reassuringly solid on our system. One innovation on HP Compaq's new range is an ambient light sensor that automatically adjusts the screen brightness (the biggest power drain in a notebook system) in order to conserve battery life.
The nc6120 is built around Intel's Sonoma platform, which comprises, in our review system, the 1.73GHz Pentium M 740 processor with 2MB of Level 2 cache and 533MHz frontside bus (FSB), the 915GM chipset with integrated graphics, and Intel's PRO/Wireless 2200BG Mini-PCI card. At the moment, HP Compaq is using slower 333MHz DDR RAM -- 512MB of it as standard, expandable to 2GB -- rather than faster DDR2 memory at 400MHz or 533MHz. The hard disk is a 60GB Fujitsu unit with a rotational speed of 5,400rpm, which is a cut above the bog-standard 4,200rpm. Other models are available with 40GB and 80GB hard disks. For optical storage, there's a fixed 12.7mm multi-format DVD writer. As befits a business workhorse, the nc6120 doesn't over-egg the pudding by fitting a discrete graphics chip, but instead relies on the improved Graphics Media Accelerator 900 module built into the 915GM chipset. This can dynamically grab up to 128MB of system memory for its purposes and performs more than adequately with mainstream business applications. HP Compaq has equipped the nc6120 with an impressive array of ports and connectors, considering its relatively slim dimensions. There are legacy ports in the shape of serial and parallel (no PS/2 though), plus four USB 2.0, VGA, FireWire (IEEE 1394), Fast infrared, S-Video out, modem (RJ-11) and Ethernet (RJ-45). There's also a pair of Type II PC Card slots and a multi-format flash card reader that accepts SD, MMC, SmartMedia, Memory Stick Pro and xD media. The standard battery is a 4,800mAh Li-ion unit that can be augmented by HP's new £109 (ex. VAT) Travel Battery, which clips onto the bottom of the system. HP claims that the Travel Battery can boost battery life by up to 4.5 hours, although we didn’t test this. Usefully, you can still dock the nc6120 with the travel battery attached: the standard docking station costs £105 (ex. VAT), and there's an Advanced option with a modular drive bay and PCI Express support costing £134 (ex. VAT). Business notebooks need to take security seriously these days, and HP Compaq doesn't disappoint. The motherboard includes a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) that stores encrypted data and allows for pre-boot user authentication, while HP's ProtectTools software gives access to supported security features such as power-on and BIOS administrator passwords. Physical security is catered for by a Kensington lock, while HP's Mobile Data Protection System cushions the hard disk from potentially damaging shocks and vibrations. The system comes with Windows XP Professional (Service Pack 2) preloaded, plus a selection of business-related software including Altiris Local Recovery, Norton AntiVirus 2004 and HP Client Management Software. There's no productivity suite included, as most businesses will want to install their own software for this purpose.
Performance & battery life
The nc6120 performed well in our benchmarks, delivering a score of just under 200 in the application-based MobileMark 2002 test. For comparison, the fastest notebooks we've ever tested scored 216, and they were hefty desktop replacement systems from Dell and Acer. The bottom line is that this notebook will perform pretty much any task a mainstream business user asks of it, with ease. When it comes to battery life, the picture is pretty encouraging too. Even with the CPU set to full throttle under the Home/Office Desk power management scheme, it managed to last for 3 hours and 42 minutes. More conservative settings should boost that to four hours or more, and if you're prepared to shell out another £105 (ex. VAT) for the add-on Travel Battery, you should easily get a full working day's worth away from a source of mains power.
Service & support
Disappointingly for a business notebook, HP only backs the nc6120 with a one-year collect-and-return warranty as standard. There's plenty of support information available online, though, including forums, email support and live chat with a support technician. Telephone support is also available, between 8.30am and 6pm Monday to Friday (10am - 4pm on Saturdays), and is charged at 8p a minute.