If HP's high-end EliteBooks are beyond your budget, the company's ProBook range offers a more affordable alternative — while still generally delivering good build quality and stylish looks. ProBooks range from 13.3in. ultraportables right up to the massive 17.3in. behemoth reviewed here, with a good choice of configurations for each model.
The ProBook 4720s is a vast notebook that few will want to carry very far or very often. Its massive 41.1cm by 26.6cm by 28.2cm dimensions and 2.97kg weight (that's a starting weight and excludes an optical drive) simply make it too large for most people to contemplate toting. So, the ProBook 4720s is a desktop replacement notebook, whose screen size means you probably won't need to connect an external monitor.
As far as build quality is concerned, the base section is tough enough but there's a fair amount of flex in the lid section, while the outer chassis is thin and depresses easily when pushed. Piling things on top of this notebook when the lid is closed is not advisable.
HP's ProBook 4720s has a massive 17.3in. screen with a resolution of 1,600 by 900 pixels
HP uses a brown and black colour scheme for the ProBook 4720s that's a lot more attractive than it sounds. The deep brown of the lid has a brushed-metal finish, which we rather like. The wrist rest is also dark brown, as is the panel above the keyboard that houses a pair of speakers. The fingerprint scanner, which sits on the far right edge of the wrist rest, is barely visible as it's black on this brown surround.
It's perfectly possible to have a document and a fairly wide web browser window open side-by-side on the 1,600-by-900-pixel screen. However, a higher resolution would make better use of the 17.3in. screen, and would also make the display sharper. Horizontal viewing angles are good but not great, vertical ones somewhat less so. We found it necessary to work with the screen at almost 90 degrees for optimum visibility.
The spill-resistant keyboard is comfortable to use, and the 'chiclet' design gives it a stylish look. The keys have plenty of travel, delivering a noticeable click when pressed. Heavier-handed typists may notice some give in the keyboard, but this is only really apparent if you absolutely hammer the keys.
Thanks to the size of the ProBook 4720s, there's plenty of room for a separate number pad. The 8, 4, 2 and 6 keys double up as cursor keys; 7, 9, 1 and 3 do extra duty as Home, PgUp, End and PgDn; and the 0 and dot keys have secondary Ins and Del functions.
The ProBook 4720s has a 'chiclet'-style keyboard with a separate number pad
Of course, there's enough space for an entirely separate bank of keys to perform these functions. Above the number area are Home, End, PgUp and PgDn keys, three of which have their own secondary functions (Scroll, Pause, Break). An 'inverted-T' quartet of cursor keys sits to the right of the main keyboard, in its traditional spot.
The Num Lock key, which lacks an indicator light, sits top left on the number pad, so you can easily toggle between the two sets of functions. This doubling up will no doubt be of great use to power spreadsheet users, but most will probably ignore it.
A more interesting innovation is that the bottom row of the keyboard, from the Ctrl key on the left to the dot key on the right of the number pad, is slightly taller than usual. This has no effect on typing efficiency, but does mean that the cursor keys, which have not been allowed to bleed outside the keyboard rectangle, aren't unfeasibly small.
The touchpad is vast and one sweep across it will move the cursor from one side of the 17.3in. screen to the other. It incorporates two-finger scrolling, zooming and rotation. The mouse buttons are built into the touchpad rather than separate. The whole thing looks great and works well. You can disable the touchpad with a double tap in its top left corner; when the touchpad is off, an orange indicator light glows in this corner to remind you.
There are multiple configurations of the ProBook 4720s available, although the range of pricepoints is limited: as we publish, the entry-level model costs £545 (ex. VAT) and the most expensive will set you back £670 (ex. VAT).
Intel Core i3 and i5 processors are used throughout, with our review sample having a 2.26GHz Core i5-430M. You can specify Windows 7 Home Premium, Windows 7 Professional 64-bit or, as in our review sample, Windows 7 Professional 32-bit.
Our review unit had 4GB of RAM, but models with 2GB and 3GB are also available. Hard drives come in 250GB, 320GB and 500GB capacities, all running at 7,200rpm — our review sample had a 320GB drive. The optical drive is a SuperMulti DVD+/-RW with LightScribe.
All 4720s models have Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) and Wi-Fi (802.11b/g/n) wireless, along with wired Gigabit Ethernet. You can specify a modem too, although our review model lacked this legacy feature. The graphics processor in all models is ATI's Mobility Radeon HD 4330 with 512MB of dedicated video memory.
The ProBook 4720s has plenty of room for a good collection of ports and slots. There's a total of four USB 2.0 ports: two sit side by side on the front right edge, while the other two are on the front left. One of the side-mounted USB connectors doubles as an eSATA port. The right edge also houses the optical drive and power jack. On the left edge you'll find HDMI and VGA ports for external displays, the Ethernet (RJ-45) port and an ExpressCard slot. The front edge has a pair of audio jacks and a reader for SD- and Memory Stick-compatible media. Above the screen is a 2-megapixel webcam that can be used for face-recognition-based login as well as video calling.
Third party software includes freebies you could download yourself, such as Skype, plus 60-day trials of Corel Home Office Productivity Suite and Microsoft Office Professional.
Performance & battery life
The ProBook 4720s has a Windows Experience Index (WEI) rating of 4.4 (out of 7.9). As ever, this is the score given to the poorest-performing subsystem, which in this case is Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero).
The remaining scores are all more than acceptable. Both Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) and Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) score 5.9, while Processor (calculations per second) gets 6.4 and RAM (Memory operations per second) comes out on top with 6.4. Overall, the ProBook 4720s is a decent performer.
The ProBook 4720s ships with an 8-cell battery which HP says should deliver up to 6 hours' life. As usual we asked the ProBook 4720s to play a DVD movie from a full battery charge, with the HP Optimised power plan selected for this task. Screen brightness is fairly low on this setting, but it was fine for viewing the movie, which played for 3 hours 11 minutes. This is a very healthy duration for such a large-screened notebook.
The stereo speakers deliver plenty of volume, and you could probably give a presentation to quite a large room using just the notebook's audio. Sound quality isn't great though, and there is distortion at the highest volume level.
The HP ProBook 4720s sits in a small niche: there simply isn't much demand for general-purpose business notebooks with 17.3in. screens (as opposed to specialist high-performance portable workstations like Lenovo's ThinkPad W701). Large and heavy, the ProBook 4720s is likely to be deskbound for much of the time, although our rundown test suggests that it will deliver good battery life if necessary.
We'd have liked a higher-resolution screen and less flex in the lid section, but this jumbo notebook combines stylish looks and good performance with very attractive pricing.