The brushed aluminium case over a magnesium chassis makes the HP EliteBook 8640p look business-like and well built, and that's exactly what this Core i5 14" laptop is. Stylish without any extreme design styling, it's crammed with ports and useful features, and it will easily stand up to the rigours of travel thanks to strong aluminium alloy hinges, shock absorbers around the screen and a spillproof keyboard.
The extra-large latch button means you won't be fumbling to get it open at the start of a meeting, and the latches are made of titanium alloy. The EliteBook 8460p meets military standards for how it copes with temperature, dust, vibration and being dropped; this is a notebook for the road warrior who might have to do a little fighting for a seat before they get down to wrestling with spreadsheets.
Keyboard and touchpad
The body of the laptop matches the brushed aluminium lid, with a darker grey touchpad on a wide palm rest, and a plain but functional black bezel around the screen that means it doesn't twist no matter how hard you tug at the corners. The isolated black plastic keys aren't going to win any style awards but they're a good size - even with the three cutouts to make room for the TouchStyk pointer nub - with plenty of travel, although the action is a little stiff.
The slightly concave sculpted surface helps keep your fingers on the key you're trying to hit. This is more pronounced on the half height function keys which double as the usual controls for volume and brightness - including turning on the ambient light sensor. The mute button is one of three round buttons above the main keyboard; the others are to control the Wi-Fi and open a Web browser in a hurry or to boot HP's QuickWeb pre-boot shell with Web browser and Skype. We'd prefer a slider as the Wi-Fi control, or at least an indicator to show whether it's on or off.
The keyboard isn't backlit but there's a nifty pop-out LED light next to the Webcam that illuminates the keys in a dark room without irritating your neighbours (and you can use it to read business cards or the slip of paper with the Wi-Fi password on).
The up and down arrow keys are also half height, which is a little too small, but you may not need them as the 8460p has both a track pointer and a large touch pad; that puts left and right mouse buttons both above and below the touch pad, which means you don't have to move your hands far away from the keyboard. You can also configure both sets of buttons independently for extra flexibility. By default the touch pointer moves slowly and sluggishly but you can change the settings for that.
The touchpad is ultra-smooth, with just enough texture to stop your fingers slipping. HP says it's made from chemically strengthened glass, not dissimilar to the MacBook, and it responds smoothly and fluidly to gestures. There's a wide choice of scrolling options; at the edges, two fingers, moving your finger in a circle and even changing the direction of scrolling (a la Lion). The two-finger pinch zoom and rotate work well and three finger forward/back and full-screen gestures are more responsive than on many notebooks, although not really any more useful.
You can even control the palm rejection, which stops the cursor jumping if your hand brushes the touchpad ad you type. Like the rest of the system, there are no gimmicks, just a wide range of options.
The chassis is surprisingly large, although the EliteBook isn't as heavy as you'd expect from the size. The cutaway angle of the sides makes it look slimmer from above and all that space earns its keep as it's packed with ports.
There's no dropped hinge so that back of the chassis has room for VGA and Gigabit Ethernet ports - as well as a 56Kbps modem (something we haven't seen on a notebook in a long time). Down each side are two USB 3 ports, two USB 2 ports (one doubling as eSATA), FireWire, DisplayPort and a smartcard reader to go with the fingerprint reader on the palm rest. There's also an ExpressCard 54 slot, a SD/MMC card slot, separate headphone and microphone jacks and a Lightscribe DVD burner (so you can make pretty labels on compatible DVD media.
The Webcam has better resolution than usual - up to 720p - and detail is good but the image is very dark in low light conditions. as well as Wi-Fi n and Bluetooth there's built-in 3G mobile broadband (the SIM slot is under the battery). One latch on the base releases the battery; the other releases the sheet of magnesium allow that covers most of the base, giving you exceptionally easy access to change the hard drive or upgrade the memory - we'd like to see this on more notebooks, because it's so handy. Taking the cover off also reveals the details of the drip tray for the keyboard - carefully isolated from the other components.
Vents at the front and side pump out a little warm air from the Sandy Bridge Core i5 but we didn't find the unit ever got particularly hot. The processor plus 4GB of memory, 64-bit Windows and a fast 500GB drive make this a snappy performer, although the graphics card wouldn't handle serious gaming at highest resolution. It is, however, excellent for speeding up GPU-accelerated software.
The LED backlit 1600 x 900 screen has a distinctively matte finish that means there are no problems with glare. Turning on the ambient light sensor on a sunny day cranks up the brightness until you can comfortably read outside in bright sunlight. Horizontal viewing angles are fairly good but you can't tilt the screen too far towards you without it getting hard to see. Detail is crisp and clear and contrast is excellent, showing plenty of detail even in dark areas, but colours aren't particularly vivid or saturated, although they are accurate. Streaming 1080p video from the Web played smoothly and with excellent clear detail thanks to the Radeon graphics, and 720p video from our local network also played smoothly and with more detail than we usually see from our test clip.
Sound quality is surprisingly good given that it's coming out of one speaker on the base and another on the front of the case (and you'll get slightly crisper and less muffled sound if you put the EliteBook on a desk rather than on your lap). Thanks to the SRS audio enhancement there's reasonable volume and bass, and high notes doesn't sound unnecessarily tinny. You can hear a fair amount of detail in music and while it doesn't compare to the audio on consumer models with high-end sound it's just fine for playing movies (which SRS automatically optimises) and enjoying music while you work.
With the Radeon graphics running, Wi-Fi on and streaming music or video most of the time, and the screen at medium brightness, the battery life is a slightly disappointing two hours fifteen minutes. HP claims up to 32 hours battery life, but that's for the SSD model with the 'ultra-capacity' battery. The 9 cell battery life would add several hours of battery life and turning off the discrete graphics would also help. The battery does charge quickly though, so you'll be back up to full power in about two hours.
The bundled software is all business too; Office Starter and Norton Internet Security, HP ProtectTools for setting up drive encryption, facial recognition, theft protection and secure file deletion, Power Assistant for power management, Skype and Roxio MyDVD.
The HP EliteBook 8460p proves that serious business notebooks can look good and perform well as well. The screen and the super-smooth touchpad are stand-outs, as is the sound quality (for a business machine). It is hefty though, both in bulk and price, but an excellent specification means the only feature you could wish to add would be HDMI.
Battery life is average, but if this machine is to serve as a desktop replacement then that's unlikely to be a problem. If you need extra power, then the nine cell battery could be worth an investment, or if you need a gallon of extra power, then get the ultra battery.