- ✓Two USB 3.0 ports and three USB 2.0 ports
- ✓Solid build
- ✓Super keyboard
- ✓Good performer
- ✕Large and heavy for everyday carrying
- ✕Average battery life
HP's EliteBook range offers feature-rich mobile computing for business users who require more performance and a tougher build than your run-of-the-mill notebook. There are plenty of models, ranging from ultraportables to mobile workstations.
The 15.6in. EliteBook 8540p is bulky, heavy and doesn't come cheap. However, it is one of the first notebooks we've seen to incorporate USB 3.0.
The EliteBook 8540p is solidly built, meeting MIL-STD 810G ratings for vibration, dust, humidity, altitude and temperature. A metal lid section ensures absolutely no flex at all in the lid, and there's metal used on the wrist rest and keyboard surround too, which adds toughness.
The metal in the chassis does make for a pretty heavy machine, though: at its lightest this notebook weighs 2.95kg, which means you'll need a sturdy bag and a strong shoulder to carry it around. If you do carry this notebook regularly, you'll appreciate the solid clasp that holds the top and bottom sections together in transit.
The EliteBook 8540p is sizeable too, measuring 37.35cm wide by 25.15cm deep by 3.24cm thick. The 15.6in. LED-backlit screen has a native resolution of 1,600 by 900 pixels. The extra width from the 16:9 aspect ratio display will be welcome if you like to have two, or even three, document windows open at the same time, or if you do a lot of work with large, complex spreadsheets.
The screen has an anti-glare coating and a matte finish, so even with a light source directly behind us there was no annoying reflectivity at all. Viewing angles are great in the horizontal plane, less so (but still perfectly OK) on the vertical. Above the screen is a small pop-out light for illuminating the keyboard in dim lighting conditions.
There's also an ambient light sensor that can adjust screen brightness automatically. A simple Fn key combination turns this feature on and off.
The spill-resistant keyboard is extremely well made. Solid and with absolutely no flex, keys depress quite a long way — too far, perhaps for some people, although we found the arrangement comfortable.
This notebook is wide enough to accommodate a separate number pad to the right of the main keyboard. The whole arrangement is spacious, making this one of the most comfortable notebook keyboards we've used in a long time.
The touchpad incorporates a vertical scroll zone, but not a horizontal one. Beneath it are three buttons, the central one functioning like the middle button on a mouse and providing further scroll features. There's also a trackpoint sitting between the G, H and B keys. This can be used in conjunction with another three buttons that sit beneath the space bar.
Above the row of half-height Fn keys sits HP's familiar set of touch-sensitive controls. Sitting in a long strip and with dark blue, turquoise or red backlights, these are joined by the main on/off button on the left-hand side.
These touch controls let you turn wireless on and off, disable/enable the touchpad, control or quickly mute volume and call up the Windows calculator. The latter function might seem redundant given the presence of a keyboard number pad, but in fact, having called up the calculator, workings on the number pad are immediately directed to it, which makes quick figurework easy to accomplish.
Two further buttons on this panel call up QuickWeb and QuickLook, which are 'instant on' services bundled with the notebook. QuickLook accesses email, calendar, contacts and tasks, while QuickWeb pulls up a web browser. We didn't find these features all that quick to launch, and would probably stick with the full Windows experience.
A fingerprint sensor sits in the bottom right corner of the wrist rest area, and there's a 2 megapixel webcam above the screen. The bundled webcam software is basic but perfectly serviceable.
There are five configurations of the HP EliteBook 8540p currently available. Our review sample, the WD921EA, is the top-end model, costing £1,489 (ex. VAT); at the other end of the scale is the entry-level £1,240 (ex. VAT) WD918EA. All versions run Windows 7 Professional (32-bit), but that's the extent of the across-the-board similarities.
Our review unit has a 2.66GHz Intel Core i7-620M processor and comes with 4GB of DDR3 RAM. The other models all use Intel Core i5 (520M or 640M) CPUs with either 2GB or 4GB of RAM installed. Storage in our review unit was a 320GB SATA II hard drive spinning at 7,200rpm. Other models either use this or a 250GB drive with the same, fast, spin speed.
Connectivity options vary, our review unit being one of two with a mobile broadband/GPS module. Bluetooth (2.1+EDR), Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Gigabit Ethernet are all offered on all models, along with a (rarely seen these days) modem. All models also use a discrete GPU in the shape of Nvidia's NVS 5100 with 1GB of dedicated DDR3 RAM.
HP bundles a number of applications with the EliteBook 8540p. Power Assistant is a utility — accessed, if required, via an Fn key combination — that can help you extend battery life. It also calculates the cost of power consumed, giving kilowatt hours, carbon dioxide emissions and money costs — the latter in US dollars only, unfortunately.
There is also a collaboration utility called HP SkyRoom, which caters for collaborative working with up to three remote colleagues, plus a utility that lets you use the webcam as a business card scanner.
The EliteBook 8540p is among the first notebooks we've seen to include USB 3.0 (or SuperSpeed USB) ports. There are two of these, side by side on the right-hand side. As ever with this arrangement, using one port may obscure access to the other, depending on the peripherals concerned.
The Ethernet (RJ-45) and modem (RJ-11) connectors are also on the right edge, while towards the front there's a SuperMulti DVD drive with LightScribe support.
The left-hand side carries three further USB ports, this time USB 2.0. Two are stacked vertically at the back of the chassis (so note that they may not both be accessible at the same time), while the third is towards the front next to the eSATA and DisplayPort connectors. Further towards the front is a FireWire (IEEE 1394a) port and a pair of audio jacks.
The back houses the power connector and a VGA port, while the front has a reader for SD-compatible and Memory Stick media.
Performance & battery life
The EliteBook 8540p WD921EA has a Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 5.9 (out of 7.9), which has only been beaten by the Sony VAIO Z (6.4). Just like that notebook, all the component scores are strong, with no subsystem letting the side down. The WEI-defining 5.9 score was for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate); all the remaining susbsystems scored over 6.
The top score of 6.7 went to Processor (calculations per second) and RAM (Memory operations per second), while the two graphics elements Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero and Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) each clocked up 6.4. This is an admirably fast notebook with no noticeably weak performance areas.
The EliteBook 8540p ships with an 8-cell 68Wh battery, for which HP makes no longevity claim. We tested it, as usual, by asking the notebook to play a DVD movie for as long as possible. The battery kept going for 2 hours and 13 minutes Under the HP Optimised power plan, which is no better than average. If you need to guarantee a day's work away from mains power, you'll probably need to invest another £134 (ex. VAT) in HP's 12-cell Ultra-Capacity battery.
The speakers sit on the front edge, where they are well placed to direct sound in a fairly intimate setting such as round a desk. Audio quality isn't too bad, either, and a lot less trebly than we've experienced on many other notebooks.
HP's EliteBook 8540p WD921EA is a quality notebook. It's large to carry but very sturdy, has a superb keyboard and is packed with top-notch features — including five USB ports, two of them USB 3.0. It's expensive, but in this case you're paying for top-quality components and solid build. On the downside, the 'instant on' features seem superfluous, and the supplied 8-cell battery is unlikely to see you through a full working day.