HP and the opposite of progress


— 2:37 PM on January 7, 2009

I'll come right out and say from the get-go that I'm typically a big fan of HP's laptops. I'm currently on my seventh laptop in as many years, and two of those systems have been HPs. Why I parted with the others is a discussion for another time. Prior to the release of the current dv lines (dv4, dv5, dv7 et al), HP was often the first brand I looked at when I was either in the market or window shopping. Unfortunately, I'm not as big a fan anymore. I'll explain.

When I bought my dv2500t custom built off HP's website in December 2007, the company had a fantastic coupon deal going, and I'd already tried a few of the 14.1" HP models in stores to get a feel for the chassis. Prior to that, I'd owned a special edition dv6500z (15.4" with a Turion 64 X2 and GeForce Go 6150). The chassis design HP was using at the time seemed to be growing a bit long in the tooth, but I actually found it a very attractive compromise between the all-out gaudiness of modern Toshiba "Fusion" builds, with their hideously glossy keyboards, and the dull silver units Dell is still pumping into the marketplace.

HP's dv2500t.

One of my favorite things about the HP design was the slope on the bottom half, which felt more ergonomic and comfortable to use than traditionally flat laptops. The contours of the unit both open and closed were attractive to me, too. So while I'm not the type to impede progress, I can understand why HP stuck with this build for as long as it did.

In the time I've had to spend with my dv2500t, I've encountered the kinds of quirks I'd come to expect. There's no such thing as a perfect laptop: design is a balancing act between heat, performance, battery life, comfort, aesthetics, cost, and so on. The upshots to this particular build are the latch-less design, the incredibly firm hinges on the lid (I'm typing this on a plane, and the tray table wobbles more than the laptop screen does), high quality speakers, and a generally pleasing aesthetic.

The dv2500t is a little heavier than comparable models, but it feels surprisingly solid. Even though the black and silver of mine is the most common coloring (my special edition dv6000z had a very distinctive white instead of black), it's still attractive. The imprint design under the glossy finish is borderline impossible to damage, so a thorough cleaning would be all the shell needs to look brand new. Finally, the recessed touchpad can be toggled on and off via a small button just above it. The beauty of the touchpad placement is that I can count on one hand the number of times I've accidentally brushed it with my palms.

Of course, it's not all kittens, unicorns, and rainbows. The wireless switch is very loose on HP laptops from this era, the headphone jack placement in the front is less than ideal if you're using the laptop on your lap, and the optical drive could be a bit more secure. On top of that, HP followed the trend of touch-sensitive media buttons, and I'm not a big fan of it. With no feedback to speak of, I sometimes have trouble gauging if I'm hitting one of those buttons properly, and the touch-sensitive volume control only makes matters worse. This is a minor flaw, though; media keys have Fn key shortcuts, and I just use the speaker icon in the Windows tray to change volume. I can adapt.

The number one issue for me—and I'm sure for others—has been the hard drive bay. It lies under the left palm rest, I'm fairly certain the GeForce 8400M GS is hanging out under there, too. If not that, then the Core 2 Duo T7250. Either way, something there is getting mighty hot, because even my 320GB Western Digital Scorpio Blue hits punishing temperatures of 56C when the system is under load. It's enough to make my palm sweat, so it makes me nervous about the laptop's longevity (not to mention the hard drive's). Heat is the whole reason I'm running the Scorpio Blue instead of a Scorpio Black—believe me, if I could get a 7,200-RPM drive in here, I would.

So, the dv2500t has one major flaw in a sea of minor ones, but overall I'm a smitten kitten with this laptop, and I've had a hard time finding anything else that excites me. Asus makes some great laptops, but while I can easily find an extended battery for this HP system, spare batteries for Asus notebooks are scarcer, and worse, they often top out at 2.5 hours from the factory. No dice; I want three hours bare minimum, and even my two-year-old 12-cell still gets more than four hours to the charge. As for Dell and Lenovo laptops, I generally find them aesthetically unappealing, and aesthetics are a big deal for me: I want to enjoy using my laptop. I want it to feel like an extension of myself rather than just a device I use to read The Tech Report at school when I should be paying attention.

Where am I going with this? Frankly, the overhaul of HP's laptop lineup (which some call overdue) has left me disappointed. My favorite aspects of the old build are gone: the black, textured keyboard has given way to shiny silver or bronze ones, the incline of the keyboard is now flat, and the tasteful bi-color design that accentuates the inside of the unit has been changed in favor of one color for the lid and one color for the body. I could handle these updates fine if HP had improved the overall internal design, but that doesn't seem to be the case with the dv4t. The hard drive bay is still right smack under the left palm rest, and if you play with the units in retail you'll see that corner is still notably hotter than the rest of the notebook.

The new dv4t model.

The final, killing blow for me may be a simple one. I like Intel's Centrino 2 platform, and the fact that you can get a 2.4GHz dual core laptop processor with a 1,066MHz front-side bus in a 25W envelope two years after the seminal E6600 desktop chip is, at least to me, impressive. However, the discrete graphics option is dismal compared to the system's predecessor: HP includes a GeForce 9200M with DDR2 video memory. This part is similar to the one in my current laptop, though mine at least has faster-clocked GDDR3 memory.

Ultimately, HP's current dv-series laptops (and the dv4t specifically) seem like a step forward and two steps back. I find them less impressive than their predecessors from an aesthetics standpoint, and while I can't say the same with certainty for the 15.4" models, the dv4t seems to have inherited all of the dv2000t series' problems. It's disappointing to me because HP has been my go-to brand for a while. Yet even when I'm getting tired of the sluggish performance of my GeForce 8400M GS, a year and a half of progress would net me no real improvement in graphics performance. The best thing I can do is hope that HP announces something more compelling or starts offering Nvidia's GeForce 9400M IGP, which is actually competitive with low-end discrete GPUs at this point.

For a while, I felt HP's laptops were the most attractive, beautifully designed on the retail floor, and now they look little better than their over-glossed Toshiba rivals. I sincerely hope HP makes a good showing at CES 2009, but if not, I won't be too upset. My laptop isn't long in the tooth just yet, so I can happily keep it if no one wants to sell me something more interesting.

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