A closer look at convertibles: HP's EliteBook 2740p

Convertible tablets have gotten lost in the iPad madness, but they are still around and keep getting better. Here's a closer look at HP's EliteBook 2470p, one of two 12-inch convertibles that I've been testing.


In a previous post, I took a look at convertible tablet PCs-a niche that has gotten lost in the iPad madness. Below is a closer look at HP's EliteBook 2470p, one of two 12-inch convertibles that I've been testing. I'll follow up with a post on the competing Lenovo ThinkPad X201 Tablet.

The 2740p starts at $1,599 with a 12.1-inch WXGA display with digitizer and multi-touch, 2.40GHz Core i5-520M, 2GB of memory and a 160GB hard drive. The configuration I tested include a faster processor (the 2.53GHz Core i5-540M), 4GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive for $1,699. HP offers two other displays on the 2740p, one with a digitizer only for about $100 less and one that is "outdoor viewable" with both a digitizer and touchscreen for about $50 more.

There's a lot to like with the design of the 2740p. The brushed aluminum and plastic case on a magnesium frame is both durable and looks great. The hinge holds the display firmly in place with no wiggling, unlike those on other convertibles I've tried. The 2740p also has a spill-resistant keyboard and HP's 3D DriveGuard to protect the hard drive from bumps and spills, and it is designed to meet military standards for vibration, dust, humidity, altitudes and high temperatures. Overall I prefer the looks of the EliteBook 2540p, HP's standard ultraportable, but the 2740p in nevertheless one of the best-looking convertibles to date, and I like its solid, rugged feel.

The 2740p has a compact footprint (1.3x11.4x8.4 inches) and weighs only 3.8 pounds with the standard 6-cell (44WHr) battery. The ThinkPad X201 Tablet is a bit lighter at 3.6 pounds, but that is with a smaller 4-cell battery; the configuration I tested with the 8-cell battery weighs close to four pounds. The X201 Tablet is slightly thinner, but it is wider and deeper, especially with the optional 8-cell battery jutting out the back. Dell's Latitude XT2 is about the same size and also starts at 3.6 pounds with a 4-cell battery, but it is a bit thinner than the 2740p and ThinkPad X201 Tablet. These differences are relatively minor and overall I found the 2740p-like most ultraportables-to be very easy to carry around even for a daily commute.

Using it in tablet mode, however, is a different story. When you hold the 2740p for extended periods while reading or browsing the Web, you really start to notice the difference between a convertible and a slate. For example, the Kindle DX has a 9.7-inch display but is only 0.4 inches thick and weighs 19 ounces. After a few minutes of reading in tablet mode, the 2740p feels so heavy that you start looking for a pillow or ledge on which to prop it up. To be fair, this isn't an issue with the 2740p-it's an issue with all convertibles, which are by nature larger and heavier than slates and e-readers.

The 2740p has a full-size keyboard with flat, metallic keys that are sort of a cross between the standard keyboards with tapered keys placed next to one another and so-called chiclet keyboards with lots of spacing between flat keys. The 2540p has a similar keyboard, but with rubberized black plastic keys that have a softer feel. Generally I prefer the old-school keyboard on ThinkPads, but in day-to-day use I didn't see much difference in terms of speed or accuracy, and I like the feel of the 2740p's keyboard. The 2740p has both a small touchpad with two buttons and "scroll zone" and a pointing stick with two buttons. The pointing stick is a little more recessed than the iconic red ones on ThinkPads, but once I became accustomed to it, HP's version worked fine for me.

The 2740p has most of the connectors you'd expect on an ultraportable. The front edge has sliders to turn the system on and open the display. The right side has two USB ports, a headphone jack, modem, dedicated keys for HP's QuickWeb and QuickLook utilities (more on those below), a smartcard slot and Kensington lock slot. The opposite side has a holster for the pen, ExpressCard and memory card slots, a third USB port (this one powered), a switch to toggle WiFi on and off, and FireWire. On the back are the AC power, Ethernet and VGA-out connectors. About the only things you might miss are eSATA and HDMI-out. It's also worth noting that the 2540p, which is smaller and lighter, has an integrated optical drive-something lacking in not only the 2740p, but also the ThinkPad X201 and X201 Tablet, Latitude XT2 and most other ultraportable-class laptops.

Because this is a tablet, the display itself has several buttons including a jog dial for scrolling through pages and selecting items, and buttons for changing the orientation of the display and pressing the Escape key without having to use the virtual keyboard. This last feature, which is missing from the ThinkPad X201 Tablet, turns out to be pretty useful when in tablet mode since it lets you exit a photo slideshow, PowerPoint slideshow or other full-screen application without having to open the display and use the keyboard. The pop-out keyboard light and retractable wireless WAN antenna are nice touches. The display also has a 2-megapixel Webcam.

The touch functionality is a nice enhancement to many existing application from Web browsing to managing photos to note-taking. And handful of applications, such as Microsoft OneNote (not included), have features designed specifically for pen and touch input. But aside from that there's not much in the way of applications built from the ground up for touch. HP does have a nice suite of touch-enabled applications-including applets for Rhapsody, Netflix, Hulu and Twitter-which it loads onto TouchSmart all-in-ones and the TouchSmart tm2, but these are not available on the 2740p. It makes sense to differentiate between consumer and business PCs with touchscreens, but many business users will want these apps too, especially since there's not much else out there, and HP should at least make versions compatible with the 2740p available for download.

Putting aside the touch functionality, however, HP does include lots of extra software. QuickWeb and QuickLook are "pre-boot" environments that provide fast access to Web pages and e-mail, appointments and contacts in Microsoft Outlook, respectively. Unfortunately neither one worked properly with my tests configuration with Microsoft Office 2010. There are numerous other useful security, communications and productivity applications on board. I liked the HP Business Reader, which scans cards using the Webcam and automatically (and relatively accurately) dumps the data into Outlook. All of these utilities and applications, as well as system drivers, can be installed and upgraded through HP's convenient Software Setup applet.

The performance of the 2740p is very good thanks to the use of Intel's standard-voltage Arrandale 32nm dual-core processor. Aside from the Core i7-620M, which is a bit faster and has more cache, the 2.53GHz Core i5-540M is the fastest processor currently available for an ultraportable since the 45nm Clarksfield quad-cores run too hot for these smaller laptops (for that you'd need to move up to the HP Envy 14). But given the 2740p's size and the lack of an optical drive it seems like there ought to be room for a standard 7,200rpm hard drive, rather than the slower 1.8-inch 5,400rpm version. You can also get the 2740p with an 80- or 160GB SSD. The ThinkPad X201 Tablet is available with either 5,400rpm or 7,200 rpm drives, or a 128GB SSD. The 2540p is available with a 7,200rpm drive, but not with the internal DVD drive.

The trade-off with the standard voltage processor is battery life. On my tests with the display set to full brightness and all power-saving features disabled, I got slightly more than 3 hours with the optional Long Life 6-cell 39Whr battery ("Long Life" in this instance refers to the fact that the battery will last about three years or take about 1,000 charges). The standard 44Whr battery will probably last slightly longer. I also tested the optional 2700 Ultra-Slim Battery, a 6-cell 46Whr slice that fits entirely under the base, unlike the ThinkPad X201 Tablet's extended battery that extends from the back. With both batteries, the 2740p came close to lasting a full work day on typical office productivity applications making this a very attractive option.

The ThinkPad X201 Tablet uses different batteries--either 4- or 8-cell ones--so it is impossible to make an exact comparison. But given that Lenovo chose ultra low-voltage processors, it's fair to state that you'll get better battery life but slightly lower performance with the ThinkPad X201 Tablet, and that is consistent with what I saw on my tests.

Overall this convertibles contest is too close to call, and it really boils down to personal preference. Most reviewers give a slight edge to the X201, largely because it carries the DNA of the ThinkPad X series ultraportable, which is a perennial Editors' Choice winner. But the EliteBook is its equal in nearly every respect, and even if you've been carrying a ThinkPad for years, you should take a good look at the 2740p. If you don't need the tablet functionality, the very nice EliteBook 2540p should be on your short list.