Screen and Speakers
The 15.6″ HD+ panel on the 8540w Mobile Workstation looks very nice compared to most of the business displays that have come through our doors. If you happen to be a graphics designer or someone who just wants a really magnificent screen, HP does over a DreamColor panel option on the 8540w. Colors saturation is excellent, better than your average TN panel. Some 8540w spec sheets even mention that this is a WVA panel, which wouldn’t surprise us given how nice it looks.
We measured an average contrast ratio of 734:1, which is above average for most notebook. Peak brightness was 213nit at the center of the display, falling off to 196nit at the sides. Black levels were very good, measuring 0.32 to 0.25 nit, with no brightspots at the corners or any other backlight leakage. This screen would be perfect for anything ranging from editing photos to watching the latest HD movies. Backlight brightness is more than adequate for viewing the screen in bright office conditions but still falls short when trying to use the notebook outdoors on a sunny day. Finding shade from a tree or getting a screen hood would probably do wonders though since the panel offers an anti-reflective coating to minimize glare.
Viewing angles are above average but still fall short compared to some of the PVA or IPS panels we have seen in the past. Vertical viewing angles have a broad sweet spot of 15-20 degrees before colors start to significantly invert. Horizontal viewing angles are much better, staying true even while viewing from the far edge of the screen. Right now the only other screen that ranks higher in a similarly priced notebook is the high color gamut FHD 1080P panel found on the Lenovo ThinkPad W510 and T510.
The onboard speakers fall short when compared to most consumer notebooks of the same size but when compared to other business notebooks they are par for the course. For listening to streaming music or an online video the speakers are more than adequate, but if you want to enjoy a movie while traveling a nice set of headphones is a good investment. Users looking to connect the system to a HDTV or home stereo will be disappointed by the DisplayPort digital-video connection. On this particular notebook no digital audio device appears in the control panel, meaning that even though some DisplayPort connections can pass audio, this one won’t. Another problem you will run into is the lack of DisplayPort compatibility on most consumer televisions. It is becoming more common on some computer monitors, but for the home theater your options are very limited without expensive adapters.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The HP EliteBook keyboard is designed to feel like a Chiclet-style keyboard but offer the look of a traditional keyboard. The key tops are flat with a sharp edge which drops off to reveal a surrounding border that acts as a spacer between all the keys on the keyboard. Coming from a traditional keyboard that has cupped keys the flat tops can feel off-putting at first, but it has the same learning curve as a Chiclet-style keyboard. After a few days you adapt and you produce fewer typing errors. The keyboard design is very good with a strong support-structure that resists any significant flex. Under strong pressure you can slightly bend the tray directly underneath the specific key you are pressing, but it stops once you compress it against the chassis.
The color scheme is high contrast, with bright white lettering and the solid black plastic keys as the background. Nighttime viewing is made possible through a keyboard light located on top of the display, that clicks on and off. Individual key action is smooth with mild pressure required to trigger each key. Noise is minimal at worst, making this keyboard great for typing in areas where people might not want to hear you clacking away on a term paper or report.
The EliteBook 8540w offers a moderately sized Synaptics touchpad that is easy to use and has no noticeable lag. The touchpad responds quickly to inputs and has a fast enough refresh rate where it never experiences any “cursor-trails” when quickly drawing or moving towards objects. The touchpad surface is a mildly-textured surface with a fine-matte finish that is easy to glide across even with a damp finger. The EliteBook also offers a pointing-stick interface if you chose to use that style of input. The pointing-stick interface was quick to respond to movement and didn’t have any problem with movement when not in use.
One cool feature that I love about the EliteBook 8540w is the addition of a middle mouse button for the touchpad and pointing-stick. Most notebooks only include a left and right mouse button, which can be annoying if you frequently use a tab-interface. The middle mouse button when properly set in the control panel can be used as a middle-click button that lets you open links as new tabs or quickly close opened tabs without activating a context menu. The Dell Precision M4500 also includes three buttons for the touchpad and trackpoint, while the Lenovo ThinkPads keep two buttons for the touchpad and three for the trackpoint.
Ports and Features
The HP EliteBook offers a wide range of ports, including a few we have not seen on any other notebooks in for review. The 8540w offers two USB 3.0 ports which are perfect for connecting high-speed storage devices without needing a second cable to connect to an eSATA or FireWire port. In addition to the USB 3.0 ports the notebook also offers three traditional USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 400, eSATA, DisplayPort, VGA-out, and audio connections. This machine easily packs more ports into the design than we have seen on any other notebook in its category. Expansion and security features include a smart-card reader, an ExpressCard/54 slot, and a SDHC-card slot.