HP appears to be on a luxury kick with its latest ProBook — the deep copper-coloured brushed aluminium finish and trimmings, mixed with a dash of silver and black make things feel just a little bit opulent. It's well built too, unlike some competitors where the illusion is shattered the moment you start using it.
Open it up, and the island-style keyboard presents you with generously-sized keys — particularly the bottom row, which features a vertically oversized spacebar, CTRL, ALT, Windows, 0 and Del keys. As a side effect you end up with squished arrow keys, which although passable aren't particularly fun to use.
This is a full-sized business laptop, so a numpad is present, along with dedicated home, end, page up and page down keys. HP has also included a generously-sized touch pad, but the whole thing is a double-edged sword. In an attempt to ape the MacBook, the entire surface can be treated as a pointing area; rather than the buttons being separated from the pad, the physical actuator is found under the pad itself. Press down near the bottom of the pad, and it makes a satisfying click.
There's only one hardware button — whether you left- or right-click is detected in software, so long as you hit the right area on the pad. It's easy to prove this — pressing in the dead centre of the pad activates the physical button, but Windows doesn't register a click.
While it works, it feels clunky. This isn't so much HP's fault as Synaptics, the manufacturer of the pad, as the software simply isn't as polished as you find on Apple's laptops. It is a multi-touch pad, but as usual only two-finger scrolling really works (and even then, isn't the best experience) — pinch zoom and rotate are unpredictable, and if you have two fingers on the pad at the same time it won't register a tap click. There's still no elegant way to execute a right-click tap as per Apple's excellent double-finger tap.
The ProBook sports a 15.6-inch, 1366x768 matte screen, although we would have preferred something higher res. While its speakers have volume, like most laptops it's heavily treble weighted and doesn't give a good experience — you're best using external speakers or headphones if you want to listen to music.
A standout is the webcam — at 2 megapixels it provides a crisp and excellent image in good light situations. It copes reasonably well in low light situations as well, although the frame rate predictably suffers, the side effect being obvious image blurring.
Well, that's a lot of software
While we're somewhat numbed to the crapware that's piled on PCs these days, we still get the occasional specimen of particular effluence. For a business laptop, the ProBook 4520s is particularly overridden, which will have you running for PC Decrapifier quick-smart.
Let's start with HP's own software; like many vendors, HP now puts a dock at the top, intending to give quick access to all the other crap it's installed on the PC and sell other software to you, without actually being useful. You can, of course, customise it by dragging and dropping your own software in, but all this does is replicate the functionality already present in the Windows 7 taskbar. HP, Dell, Sony, please — no more docks.
HP's other tools do mostly serve a purpose. HP Advisor includes useful diagnostics for your PC, although still attempts to advertise software at you. ProtectTools is by far the most useful, acting as a password manager, face recognition tool, data destruction and encryption tool, can restrict device usage and for a little extra money can activate software called LoJack Pro, which allows you to track your computer if it's been stolen.
There's a link to eBay, an attempt to sell an online collaboration tool called Huddle, and as a blast from the past, WinZip is installed as a by-product since a trial of Corel's Home Office is also there. This is odd, as the ubiquitous Microsoft Office trial is included as well.
ArcSoft's Total Media Suite is included to create and watch movies, burn CDs and DVDs, manage photos and use the webcam, while McAfee Total Protection is the default included security software. As with all security suites it lets you know it's there in no uncertain terms through overlays, pop ups, annoying nags to activate and a toolbar in Internet Explorer. A Bing bar has also sneaked its way into IE, stealing valuable browsing real estate. As is becoming more common, Norton Online Backup has found a way in too, as has Skype and PDF Complete SE.
Thank the stars that unlike many mobile phones, you still have the ability to remove all this junk. As a final criminal offence, HP includes only a 32-bit version of Windows 7 — which while is common among business laptops, the lack of an option to upgrade is vexing.
The usual 802.11n and Bluetooth are present, as is gigabit Ethernet, although with a twist — the port isn't active until you plug a cable in. While this is great for saving power, it's a pain in the arse for troubleshooting, and despite turning off several power-saving features, the laptop continued to remove the port from Device Manager once the cable was disconnected.
Four USB ports are provided, one of which comes with eSATA integrated. As a throwback, a modem jack is included, a DVD+-RW is built in, ExpressCard 34 is supplied and video options are handled by an HDMI and VGA port. An SD/MS/MMC/xD card reader is mounted on the front lip, next to the headphone and microphone jacks. A hard drive activity light sits uselessly on the lip — you'll never see this until you raise the laptop to eye level.
Our particular sample turned up with a Core i7 M640 clocked at 2.8GHz, 4GB RAM (of which only 2.98GB was usable thanks to using 32-bit Windows), a 640GB hard drive and the entry-level ATI Mobility Radeon HD 530V as the graphics card. This is a business machine through and through, not a gaming machine, although the lack of docking mechanism would say otherwise.
As such, the 3DMark06 score of 3244 indicates that it might be able to tackle some older games, but the experience wouldn't be fantastic. More promising is the PCMark05 score of 7256, meaning the laptop should handle most productivity desires quite well.
Battery life was reasonable considering the size of the laptop — with all power-saving features turned off, screen brightness and volume set to maximum and an XviD file played back, it lasted three hours and 32 minutes, a good result for a high stress test, most likely down to the nine-cell battery included.
The ProBook 4520s is a nice looking, well-built laptop. What leaves us cold though is the under-delivery of the complete package, when at first it seems to promise so much more.