HP EliteBook 2740p

PC makers taking a swing at the tablet market tend to go for low-power, lightweight systems to compete with the iPad, but that means they’re giving you a netbook experience at rather more than a netbook price. With the EliteBook 2740p, HP has gone in the other direction; with a Core i5 or i7, 4GB of RAM and a 120GB SSD this is a nicely powerful notebook crammed with handy features - which just happen to include a multitouch screen that you can rotate to turn it into a tablet, plus a Wacom pen for smooth inking.

The third generation of HP's professional tablet PC, the 2740p still barely qualifies as an ultraportable - weighing in at 1.7kg. Although it looks remarkably similar to previous models 2710p and 2730p, it's thicker and heavier. It's not a rugged system as such, but the magnesium chassis and matte aluminium case are sturdy enough to stand up to the rigours of travel (unlike previous EliteBook models, where the latch could be fragile and the surface sometimes wore away in use). The projecting hinge is chunky, which gives you something to grip when using it as a tablet and strong enough to stand up to you rotating from tablet to notebook and back repeatedly. And the weight is well balanced in tablet PC mode so it doesn't tip out of your hands. The clever magnetic catch - which appears automatically as you close the lid - is backed up by a sturdy sliding latch to keep it in place. HP says the lid can stand up to 300 pounds of pressure and if you get the hard drive rather than SSD model it has shock protection and an accelerometer that parks the drive heads if you drop the laptop; this is common on business notebooks but just starting to show up in consumer models.

While the full-speed Core i5, 4GB of memory and a fast SSD mean you may not need to do any upgrades, the large panel on the base means you can easily get at the 3G slot as well as all the system components (and we appreciate thoughtful design touches like clips that hold the screws to the panel so they're in place when you're ready to replace it). Even if you don't order the 3G module, the antennae are built in and connected to an extra pop-out antenna on the top of the screen to boost reception. That means adding 3G when you want to pay for it isn't difficult.

The 12.1-inch 1280 x 800 touchscreen has a matte finish and a really wide viewing angle; that's even more important when you're using it as a tablet because you want to be writing at the angle that suits your wrists, not moving it around to avoid glare. Some touchscreens look dark or grainy; even with both pen and finger touch built in, the screen on the 2740p is clear and bright, with good contrast and even colours. The pen is the same smooth and fluid Wacom system HP has been using for several years and drawing and writing feel remarkably like writing on extra-smooth paper with an ink-ball pen; Windows 7 has built-in handwriting recognition so you can use the input panel to write in any app, or scribble down ink notes in Windows Journal. The pen is also ideal for detailed drawing in a tool like Art Rage. As with handwriting, you can rest your hand on the screen while you're drawing without the 2740p ever mistaking it for a pen; the finger touch doesn't work whenever the pen is in range of the screen - a major advantage over simple capacitive screens, even if they come with a stylus.

With the pen tucked away in the well at the side of the keyboard, the two-point multitouch screen is also responsive and accurate to use. It quickly becomes natural to touch buttons and scroll windows with your finger when you're using the keyboard, as well as using either the small touchpad or the trackpoint for accuracy (both have two mouse buttons so you can find a comfortable way to click however you place your hands). And in tablet mode, you don't need to pull out the pen until you want to write or draw something detailed. It's an excellent combination.

HP doesn't include any touch-specific apps or interfaces (apart from the Microsoft Touch Pack with games and the multitouch globe) but Windows 7 is designed for touch; icons like those in the taskbar automatically have a bigger touch area when you're using your fingers (even though the icon image doesn't change). Although small icons in apps aren't always sized for fingers, the 2740p does a good job of detecting touch and giving you the command you wanted. You could certainly touch type on the onscreen keyboard, but with a real keyboard just a swivel away you won't need to for more than the odd URL in tablet mode. 

The screen rotates automatically when you flip the screen into tablet or notebook mode, but there's also a button on the side of the screen to rotate manually, plus a scrollwheel and rocker switch (more useful on models without the touch input but handy if you're finding it hard to click a small button on screen). 

The only disadvantage of the combination screen is if you want to carry the 2740p in tablet mode when it's turned on (if you're walking around and taking notes, say), it's too easy to brush the screen with your shoulder or side and find you've opened an application if the pen slips away from the screen (or you put it away for safety).

The keyboard runs almost to the edge of the case, giving you decent-sized keys for a 12-inch format, with a large, smooth wrist rest. The keys are sturdy and solid with good travel and a positive click. Each key has a lowered bezel that keeps you from hitting the key next to it as you type and lets you feel if you’re not hitting the keys centrally. And although there are clear gaps between the keys (which can trap dirt and fluff), the keyboard is “spill resistant” so a few drops of water won't short the machine out the way it would with older models.

The speakers can't compete with what HP is putting in other entertainment laptops; these are standard stereo speakers with little mid-range or bass, although the volume is decent and the touch controls for mute and volume are handy. The pop-out keyboard light above the screen angles light down onto the keyboard nicely (and closing the screen closes the light if you've forgotten to do it yourself). The webcam is only 2 megapixel, but that's good enough to scan business cards; HP includes software that guides you through tucking cards into the slot on the front of the case and tilting the screen down to detect the card, grab an image and OCR it. 

The ports and connectors HP puts in the 2740p are more about staying compatible with previous models; VGA rather than HDMI and FireWire 400 rather than eSATA - there's even still a modem port. The ExpressCard 34 slot means you can add USB 3 if you need it but with all that plus a physical Wi-Fi switch and an SDHC card reader there's only room for three USB 2 ports, Ethernet and a combined headphone/microphone socket. But the combo Wi-Fi and 3G card also gives you GPS and Bluetooth; the Wi-Fi card and antenna give you an unusually fast connection and sometimes finds Wi-Fi signals other laptops can’t detect. And there's a fingerprint reader tucked out of sight on the side of the screen.

Most Windows tablets have an Atom processor, and tablet PCs have usually combined the mediocre performance of low-voltage processors with more bulk than most ultraportables. The Core i5 in our test machine is hugely faster and copes happily with hefty applications like Photoshop. While the Intel GMA HD integrated graphics won't excite gamers it's fine for HD video and hardware-accelerated Web browsing and had no problem driving a 27" external screen. And while you may hear the fan kicking in from time to time, the PC never gets uncomfortably - or even noticeably - hot.

The downside of a powerful processor is that you don't get the battery life you might expect. The standard battery gives you a little less than 5 hours of real-world use with Wi-Fi on; that can drop to two and a half hours with something demanding like streaming video. You can double that with the additional battery slice, which clips onto the bottom and is helpfully set to use itself up first (so you can take it off and make the tablet lighter). The same docking connector means you can re-use extended batteries and the DVD-ROM multimedia dock from previous EliteBook tablet models if you have them. Thankfully charging the battery is fast; you get 80% of capacity in an hour.

Verdict

The EliteBook models are HP's attempt to combine business features with both style and sturdiness. The 2740p takes the great pen experience of previous EliteBook tablets and adds the performance of a full-voltage Core i5 processor, plus the convenience (and sheer fun) of touch. There are a lot of nice-to-have touches like the card scanner and keyboard light, but you wouldn't buy the 2740p to get them and you're certainly paying for everything you get. Budget for the extended battery (or a second standard battery) or you'll be disappointed. But if you need a tablet PC that gives you the input options of tablet and the power of a real PC that you can use as your main system, and that combination is worth this kind of money to you, the EliteBook 2740p very nearly has it all.