HP Compaq nx8220 / nc8230 Review and Replacing the Screen Overview (pics, specs)

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by Przemek Sliwinski, Poland / Arizona

A Reader’s Digest version of the review: This review consists of two parts. The first, more belletristic, presents the experiences collected through the seven months of intensive use of the HP Compaq nx8220 (sold as the HP nc8230 in US) as a workhorse. The second, short and technical one describes the procedure of replacing the notebook display (from WXGA to WUXGA).

My general opinion about this HP notebook is very positive, and only some minor details spoil the very good overall picture of the notebook as a reliable companion. Nowadays, in the Core Duo era, its performance is not blasting anymore (but still satisfying) and hence efficiency issues are not the leitmotif of the text: I focused rather on the notebook usability, reliability, and on its design. It is very likely that the refreshed version of nx8220/nc8230 family (likely to be named nx8420/nc8430) will get a richer interior but the same appearance,’ and these comments remain helpful for the potential HP buyers.


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Introduction and Family Affairs:

A widescreen 15.4″ notebook the HP Compaq nx8220 is offered in Poland (as well as in other European countries) by HP in a business notebook HP Essential’ series (which is barely equivalent to the performance laptop’). This category has two branches in the US: the first is represented by the widescreen 17” desktop replacement notebooks based either on Pentium 4 (elder nw9600) or on Core Duo processors (a newborn nx9420). The other branch consists of widescreen 15.4” twins, nc8230 and nw8240 which appear to be just wealthier brothers of the nx8220 (which, as in the Grimm’s fairy tale, had to go into the world and… has not been offered in US).

Configuration:

When bought (September 2005), the computer featured:

  • Pentium M 730 1.6GHz, 2MB L2 cache (Dothan)
  • Mobile Intel 915PM Express Chipset (Sonoma)
  • Widescreen matte LCD 15.4”, WXGA (1280 x 800) with ambient light sensor
  • ATI Mobility Radeon X600 with 64MB of discrete memory
  • 512MB (2x 256MB DDR-333) (replaced later by 2x 512MB DDR2-533)
  • 60 GB, 5400 RPM, Ultra-ATA/100 (Toshiba MK6026GAX)
  • MultiBay II DVD+/-RW (Matshita UJ-822Da)
  • Full-size keyboard and two button Touch Pad
  • Intel(R) PRO/Wireless 2200BG and Bluetooth 1.2, FIR (Fast IrDA)
  • NetXtreme Gigabit PCI Express Ethernet Controller, Agere Systems AC’97 Modem
  • VGA 15-pin, TV-out, line out, built-in microphone, stereo speakers
  • 3x USB 2.0, FireWire IEEE-1394
  • PC Card Type II, SmartCard interface slot, SD/MMC cards slot and docking connector
  • 69Wh Primary 8-cell Lithium-Ion Battery and 90W A/C adapter 110/

The nx8220 dimensions are 1.1″ x 14.0″ x10.2″ (28mm x 355mm x 259 mm). It weighs 6.1lb (2.77kg) with DVD drive and 5.8lb (2.63kg) with the weight saver’.

Together with the computer, I purchased:

  • 52Wh 8-cell Lithium-Ion Travel Battery
  • HP Sport Backpack (fabricated by Samsonite)
  • Extra AC cord with US plug

Reasons for Buying:

I work at a university and need a computer to write articles, develop and run numerical software, prepare tests and lectures. Fed up with carrying CD discs & pendrives back and forth from home to my university office I finally matured to a notebook. Having positive (both practically and aesthetically) experiences with a borrowed HP Compaq nx7000 (X1000 in USA) I started looking for a similar notebook for my own. I briefly considered the competitive Toshiba M70/M40 families, the mentioned (but hardly available) nx7000/nx7010 and, finally, one of the nc8230/nw8240/nx8220 triplets. At the time of purchase Lenovo had not yet offered its Z60m series notebooks, or I would have considered it. The decisive factors were:

  • Build quality
  • Battery life and mobility
  • Price and pulchritude of the notebook.

Much cheaper than the nc8230 and nw8240*, the nx8220 enjoys the same design, accessories and build quality — the choice was obvious.

* They were horrendously overpriced then in Poland. For instance, the nw8240 with PM 770, WUXGA WVA, 1GB, 60GB, DVD+/-RW, WLAN, and BT, used to cost astronomic 18000+PLN (“Polish zloty”) with VAT, which is no less, no more but $6000! Now, it is available at the half of that price.

Where and How Purchased:

After a week of Internet investigation I ordered the laptop via my university supplier. I paid a total of about $1,650 (~5200PLN with VAT). I found that price really fair for what I got: preparing the review I have revealed that — to my big surprise — a similarly configured nc8230 in HP’s online shop now costs about $1,950. And although there are some differences between that notebook and mine, i.e.:

  • 3/3/0 warranty,
  • faster processor (1.73GHz), and
  • PointStick and TouchPad (both with three buttons),

I am not sure whether they justify the $300 price increment difference.

Design & Build:

The nx8220 has a magnesium chassis and lid frame, metal hinges (under plastic coat) and a “scratch-resistant keyboard deck using in-mold lamination” surrounding a full size keyboard. If asked, I would modestly characterize the laptop design as natural but sophisticated, excellent and sleek, stylish and elegant (simply polish). See the pictures to appreciate its thin and widescreen format and matte black/graphite finish with subtle silver accents. In my personal ranking the nx8220 is on par with the 12″ PowerBook and slightly above the ThinkPad Z60t in design category.


Seperation of screen from the case caused by rubber bumpers (view large image)

You can notice in the pictures that both the lid and the keyboard deck are armed with the rubber bumpers to separate the screen surface from the keyboard and the palm rest areas from the lid edges*.

* The same design clich is used by other notebook manufacturers as well.

They however did not prevent scratching the keyboard deck by the lid when riding on my sport bike with the notebook in my backpack. Moreover, the keyboard bumpers left marks on the screen and were especially annoying since bumpers were easily smeared by palms during typing. Evidently, the nc/nw/nx series notebooks were designed as an office business’ line and during the final tests nobody put them in the HP backpack and carried them on a road bike… I have considered following remedies:

  • Buying a bike which forces upright position (like of the urban or cruiser type) to avoid bending the notebook on your back; this is crucial when you carry books together with the computer), or — since I still like my bike
  • Buying a ThinkPad (see why), or — since I like my notebook too
  • Buying crumpled backpack, or — since I have already another one
  • Simply putting a soft and thin fabric or foam sheet between the screen and keyboard (and ask grandma to embroider the HP logo on it…): the best is the protecting foam sheet delivered with your brand new HP (do not throw it out like I have done). One can even buy a really elegant one here…

Strong pressing of the cover results in ripples on the screen*. This design flaw occurs in the area above the HP logo only. Pushing either the logo itself or the rest of the lid has no effect on screen. Looks like none can be both beautiful and bold…

* These remarks are no longer valid after display replacement (see the second part of the review). However, I still use the protecting foam sheet when riding my bike with the notebook.

The hinges work well. The screen latch is smooth but reliable. But, on the other hand, the LEDs in the front of the laptop are clumsily mounted and scrape the left wrist and/or forearm of the typist.


Front area LEDs (view large image)


Back side view with slim battery (view large image)


Back side view with larger travel battery (view large image)


DVD drive on the right side (view large image)

Screen:

The notebook was initially equipped with a matte WXGA (1280×800) 15.4” screen. Unfortunately, it was a genuine Achilles’ heel of the nx8220 because of its rather narrow viewing angles. Consequently, colors, readability and relative backlight uniformity were very affected by the angle you looked at the screen. It had been pretty acceptable during normal working conditions (I mean: only your laptop and you — face to face), but had made somewhat uncomfortable sharing the screen contents with others (like watching a dark movie or pictures). More expensive nc/nw HP models in this line, when equipped with WSXGA+ or WUXGA displays (for only $25 or merely $125, respectively) offer wide viewing angle (WVA) capability, cf. here. I should also mention the small light leaks at the bottom of the screen, uneven backlighting (noticeable on a blank white screen but, again, not disturbing under normal working conditions) and a black screen which was not black either. Luckily, no dead/stuck pixels had been found.

In contrast to the display, an ambient light sensor (which adjusts backlight intensity to the current lighting conditions) works great. The reference brightness can be tuned manually (Fn-F9 and Fn-F10) when the sensor is on (an average malcontent should be satisfied by that). Its activity is turned on/off by the Fn-F11 combination.

PPI Digression:

WXGA resolution on a 15.4” screen results in 98 ppi (points per inch). This is fairly enough for browsing, but evidently insufficient for screen real estate greedy’ applications like e.g. integrated development environments. Thus WSGXA+ (1680×1050, 128ppi) would be great and WUXGA (1920×1200, 147ppi) the ideal solution for me. Fortunately, Windows XP’s ClearType makes, with the generous help of Verdana/Georgia fonts, the life of WXGA users sweeter (ClearType Tuner applet for the pickiest users is available here).

My humble advice to the prospective notebook buyers, who have in mind working with GUI wealthy systems such as Vista or MacOS X is therefore the following: a high resolution LCD (usually offered on pair with more powerful graphics card and/or larger amount of discrete RAM) should be considered as a must if you want to fully enjoy all their elaborated half-transparent 3D controls, gadgets, widgets, dashboards, sidebars, add-ons, plug-ins, toolbars, wizards, etc. and still have a place for a humble editor or spreadsheet. Needless to recollect that 1920×1080 is a native HDTV resolution…

With this advice written I have been baffled by an Apple official statement from 2005 addressing its LCD technology when one can learn that:

“Apple has determined that the ideal balance between monitor size and number of pixels is approximately 100 pixels per inch (ppi). At 100 ppi, the display is optimized for images, yet it allows you to work easily with applications that require manipulation of text, such as sophisticated type treatments in layouts.”

This, when translated from marketing language to English, means probably that “[100ppi] is apparently the ideal balance [for Apple] between monitor price and number of pixels [for a given brightness and wide view angle requirements]”, because, in my opinion the Apple’s 100ppi compromise’ offers really stunning color reproduction, brightness and WVA, but simultaneously limits legibility of the small, 8-10pt, fonts (smoothed by Apple’s Quartz Extreme technology — thus less than brilliantly).

Finally, it is interesting to note that the increment of the screen ppi does not necessarily lead to better legibility of small fonts — this rather counterintuitive property is the consequence of the Gauss Circle Problem!

Speakers:

Two speakers are situated on both sides of the keyboard. They look nice and even perform pretty well at higher frequencies but rather consequently neglect bass. Note however that HP’s engineers had a miserable 0.3” of height (see the picture) to put between the MultiBay II slot and the keyboard’s cover something more than a piezoelectric buzzer.

Luckily, earbuds (five-buck Koss, for instance) easily improve bass reproduction to the mp3 player’ level and a good headphone set (like a bit more expensive Logitech) allows enjoying CD’ quality. The notebook has also a built-in microphone, which is sufficient for such things as seamless Skype conversations.

Processor and Performance: 

To the original Pentium M730 (1.6MHz with 2MB L2 cache), and 60GB 5400 RPM Toshiba hard disk on board I added two 512MB DDR2-533 memory modules* and found it altogether a sufficient configuration**.

* Memory modules replacement procedure is straightforward unless you need to replace both of them. While the first (referred to as external memory module’ in HP’s guides) is easily accessible from the bottom cover (one screw), the second (i.e. an internal memory module’) is available after removing the keyboard (two screws and four latches) and the cooling plate with six or seven (numbered) screws. This HP peculiarity is, I think, completely meaningless for normal business users and not a problem for savvy notebook enthusiasts either.

** To some extent: 1080p HDTV movies are not smoothly reproduced with this configuration (720p still are)

Some numbers supporting my statements are here:

  • System booting Times (time until all networks are active & all system tray residents loaded):
    • Time to logon screen: 37s
    • Time to full readiness: 57s
  • From standby: 10s
  • To/from hibernation:15s / 33s
  • Application Startup times:
    • Office XP applications 5s
    • Visual Studio 2005 Pro: 20s
    • Eclipse 3.1 (with the standard set of plug-ins): 25s
    • Firefox 1.5/Thunderbird 1.5 10s / 15s
    • IE 7.0: 8s

Benchmarks:

I’l let the magic numbers speak for themselves, this is not a top performance notebook as it uses last years Pentium M processor, but it gets the job done as far as being a business notebook:

Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
HP nx8220 (Pentium M 1.6GHz) 1m 51s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 1m 29s
Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 16s
HP dv8000z (1.8 GHz Turion-64 ML-32)  2m 12s
Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 52s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 1m 57s
Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  2m 10s
Sony VAIO S380 (1.83 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 42s

 

3DMark05 Results:

Notebook  3DMark 05 Results
HP nx8220 (1.6GHz Pentium M, ATI Mobility Radeon X600 with 64MB)  866 3D Marks
 Lenovo ThinkPad Z60m (2.0GHz Pentium M, ATI X600 128MB)  1659 3DMarks
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)  727 3DMarks
 Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)  2530 3D Marks
 Quanta KN1 (1.86 GHz Pentium M, NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 128mb)  2,486 3DMarks
 HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)  2536 3D Marks
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4157 3DMarks

Note, this is not a 3D performance notebook, in fact the average frame rate during the 3DMark05 benchmarking was 1 – 2 frames, LOL!

  • HD Tune  Benchmarks (Toshiba MK6026GAX Hard Drive)
    • Transfer Rate Minimum 1.8MB/sec
    • Transfer Rate Maximum 30.9MB/sec
    • Transfer Rate Average 26.1MB/sec
    • Access Time   16.6ms
    • Burst Rate   67.4MB/sec
    • CPU Usage   5.8%
    • Temperature   35 C (95 F) — 38 C (100 F)
  • Everest Benchmarks
    • Memory Read   3052MB/s
    • Memory Write  803MB/s
    • Memory Latency  103.9ns (4-4-4-12)
  • Everest Full Report 1 / Everest Full Report 2


Heat and Noise:

During a normal work regime the upper part of the laptop becomes slightly (especially under the palm rest areas) but acceptably warm. However, in the bottom part, beneath the touchpad, the notebook is just hot!

Here is my warm appeal to HP engineers: Guys! Remove this hot spot’ or at least place it closer to knees next time, please! Thank you. Eh, looks like none can be both beautiful and cool…

A fan is audible, no doubt, but it is easily masked by general office noise*. There is however something weird with processor clocking: after reset or restart, when in idle mode (or performing light tasks and/or playing mp3s), the processor works at 400MHz to jump at 800MHz only from time to time. However, after a few standby/hibernate cycles the clock leaps to permanent, full throttle 1.6GHz announcing it via the fan’s moaning.

* Recently, there is an option in BIOS v F.10 which allow setting Fan always on with AC: with this option on the fan spins slower and almost silently.

Keyboard and Touchpad:

The full-size keyboard is just very good. To the standard collection of buttons HP added six of its own (from left to right): to display HP Info Center, turn on/off wireless, launch presentation, and to mute/down/up volume.

The keyboard is described as being an HP spill-resistant keyboard with Mylar film’. Note that the HP spill-resistance’ philosophy differs from the ThinkPad one: the HP does not offer drains whereas the ThinkPad does. According to the HP documentation the keyboard is also scratch resistant.  It would be nice to have a keyboard backlight.

The TouchPad is simply well designed: its touch-sensitive area is lowered by about 0.1”. This, backed by Synaptics’ PalmCheck feature, prevents accidental cursor moves. Rubber buttons look oddly only at the first glance. They are soft and distinguishable thus easy to localize by thumbs. I wish I had three buttons (standard in nc/nw models). This lack is partially compensated by the Synaptics’ driver which allows emulating third button by selected touchpad corner. The small nx8220 is also bereft of the PointStick and HP Biometric Fingerprint Sensor’ (again in favor of its avid brothers). I have no idea how to make amends for the latter.*

* Replacing the display, I also installed the keyboard with PointStick and the corresponding touchpad. Dual pointing device capability is really useful: I started using PointStick with the left hand, while the right one works (as previously) with the touchpad. This helps to relieve it.

Input and Output Ports:

Here the nx8220 is a mediocre laptop. No legacy ports (i.e. serial or parallel) occupy precious place on the laptop’s sides (except, maybe, the PC card slot crammed with it’s eject button on the top of SD/MMC cards and Smart card readers). Three USB 2.0 ports are available. FireWire (IEEE 1394) has 4 pins. Audio jacks are conveniently situated on the right side together with a microphone. Modem’s RJ-11 (another kind of relic?), and Ethernet’s RJ-45 ports are accompanied by S-Video TV Out’. The IrDA port is on the front while the power connector at the back, next to VGA port. I really wonder why in a 2005/2006 notebook the VGA port is put instead of DVI-D.


Left side view with travel battery in (view large image)


Left side view open with no travel battery (view large image)


(view large image)

Wireless:

As in other Centrino labeled notebooks, the Intel Wi-Fi card (here 2200BG version) is part of the assembly. The antenna is mounted in the screen frame. I have been exclusively using wireless since the beginning (usually with a Linksys router working in G-only mode).

Although the current router is situated 15 yards away on the other side of a brick wall from and covered by a bed (to hide it from a curious dog) I still have a firm four stripes reported on the wireless signal strength bar. I have never measured the maximum Wi-Fi range, but at the university campus I haven’t been in the “others can but I can’t connect” situation.

Internal Bluetooth and IrDA are on board as well. I use Bluetooth to synchronize Outlook contents with my HP iPAQ 1940 palmtop (and to sporadically backup cell phone pictures). Since the palmtop lacks a Wi-Fi card I also use Bluetooth to talk via Skype through the notebook as a gateway. Bluetooth works fine for up to 5-8yd and up to 1-2 walls.

Battery:

Tested with a timer, my laptop worked for 7h 40min on two batteries (first 3h 30min should be attributed to the Travel Battery which — reasonably — is used first and charged as second). During that particular session I wrote articles mainly, browsed and read/replied e-mails skyping’ occasionally but did not perform heavier software development/compilation tasks.

Hardware settings were:

  • Ambient light sensor on (daily/office/home light).
  • Wi-Fi & Bluetooth on.
  • Gigabit NIC/modem/Secure card off and DVD drive removed.

Quite good, isn’t it? (Furthermore, twelve hours out-of-outlet period is possible — see the specification of the recent HP’s 12 cell Ultra-Capacity (95Wh) battery.)

In the same hardware configuration, a fully charged main battery makes possible playing the mp3/wma music from HDD for c.a. 3h 30min (and up to 5-10min longer the songs stored at SD card).

Both batteries have 8 cells however the main one is of a greater capacity (cf. specification: 69Wh vs. 52Wh). It fits the notebook envelope. The Travel Battery placement is shown in the picture (also available here in an animated version). It has a 4 LED gizmo indicating the charging status without turning on the computer (see the picture). One can connect/detach the Travel Battery with one hand. To release the standard battery you need to unlock both latches simultaneously — two hands are useful here.

With the extra battery the typing is even more comfortable and cooler (due to improved air circulation) but the laptop loses its crouching ray-like appearance.

Since my notebook works on batteries every other day, charging times have become important factors for me. These are about claimed by HP (1h 30min to 90% = 1%/min, <2h 30min to the full charge with the system OFF’, +3h with the system ON’) — really good, if not excellent. During charging, the <90% level is signaled by the amber LED and by the green otherwise. I only wish HP offered MultiBay II spare battery. (An 80GB 5400RPM drive is available instead.)

Operating System and Software:

HP delivered:

  • Windows XP Home SP2 (both English and Polish versions) + DVDs with recovery tools and a collection of drivers
  • HP Protect Tools
  • Sonic software for CD/DVD authoring
  • InterVideo WinDVD player

The complete installation took no more than one hour (only Bluetooth drivers was installed separately afterwards). I also upgraded Synaptic drivers later on and turned off all Protect Tools. The Sonic suite is probably useful but I need it only accidentally — just to format RW discs. The whole system works stable, is updated by Windows Update, maintained by HP online diagnostic software and protected by Microsoft AntiSpyware tools.

Customer Support:

After installation I registered the computer online in HP’s customer service center. It offers driver upgrades adjusted to the notebook via ActiveX-based diagnostic utilities. Recently, HP has launched a live chat’, the IRC-like form of direct consultations — which works pretty well.

Fortunately, I did not have to participate’ in the battery replacement program.

Conclusion: 

I am a satisfied user of my notebook. It is an elegant example of well balanced engineering efforts with minor flaws; after the screen replacement only the ThinkPad z60m could be a better choice (since it is probably even sturdier overall).

Praises

  • Overall build quality, lightness and responsiveness
  • Sufficient battery life and smart Travel Battery concept
  • Sleek & stylish design
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Comfortable keyboard and recessed’ TouchPad with soft, rubber buttons
  • Dual pointing devices
  • Removable DVD RW drive, silent Toshiba HDD
  • Almost all-you-need’ I/O ports, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on board
  • Built-in microphone
  • Comprehensive and convenient on-line support
  • Wonderful, crisp and bright WUXGA display

Annoyances

  • Subtle light leakages and imperfect backlighting
  • Lack of the third (middle) TouchPad button
  • Inconsistent processor speed management and audible internal fan
  • Quite difficult access to the second memory module
  • Common Wi-Fi & Bluetooth on/off button

Complaints

  • Narrow viewing angles of WXGA display
  • Not a bike’n’backpack proof lid!
  • Lack of DVI-D port
  • Too warm in front-bottom part
  • DVD RW drive does not record DL discs

Display replacement

After two online consultations with HP support (via the aforementioned chat-line) I decided to replace my WXGA with a brand new WUXGA display purchased via the HP online shop.

The replacement procedure is described in details in the Maintenance Guide available at the HP site. The crucial factor is to have the proper screwdrivers (for Torx and Philips screws*). The replacement is then relatively simple since HP sells a whole display assembly’ which comprises the LCD together with cover, hinges and all necessary cables (for video and for wireless antenna). Before the display disassembly one must remove (see pictures below):

  • Keyboard (to allow replacing wireless cables),
  • Touchpad (to detach these cables from mini-PCI wireless card),
  • Switch cover (to get access to the hinges’ mounts).

It took an hour. That’s all.  After reassembling you need only to turn on the notebook (ATI’s Windows drivers recognized the screen automatically and set the native WUXGA resolution.

The result is marvelous! This new screen is bright, produces vivid colors, features WVA, and offers 2.25x more workspace (see the screenshot). While web pages are sometimes less legible, PDF documents look like printed versions and all of Windows’ control features (i.e. frames, toolbars, menus, captions) do not overwhelm the contents of the screen anymore.

Surprisingly, 1080p HDTV movies started playing almost smoothly.  There is another extra feature — the new display cover is much stiffer: pushing the cover in any place does not affect the screen at all now.

* Screws’ sizes are described in the Maintenance Guide as well; this set sufficient, for instance.

Images of components being removed from the notebook to upgrade the screen:


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With the new screen in place, the display is now beautiful and far superior to the stock screen! (view large image)


 


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