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HP and Apple face-off: EliteBook vs. MacBook

As Hewlett-Packard considers its options for the PC business--the world's largest--it's a good time to take a look at one of the company's premier business laptops and compare it to the MacBook Air, Apple's premier notebook.

As Hewlett-Packard mulls the fate of its PC operations, this is a good opportunity to contrast HP's ultraportable workhorse with Apple's popular MacBook Air.

Just before the news broke about Hewlett-Packard considering a spin-off of its PC operations, I received an EliteBook 2560p from HP to try out. Call it uncanny. Or, better yet, call it an opportune time to take a high-end HP laptop for a spin and compare two competing design philosophies from two of the most successful--and biggest--computer companies in the world.

HP EliteBook 2560p in the foreground. MacBook Air  (13.3-inch) and Dell Adamo in the background.
HP EliteBook 2560p in the foreground. MacBook Air (13.3-inch) and Dell Adamo in the background. Brooke Crothers

And, yes, I wondered for a moment if this was the last opportunity to handle a new HP-branded laptop. But that thought quickly vanished. HP Executive Chairman Ray Lane has said--as recently as Thursday--that the $40 billion PC operations will either be spun off as an "HP branded" company or kept inside.

With that preamble, let's get down to business. First, some quick notes about the EliteBook 2560p. Among the business models announced in the last six months or so, the 2560p is the closest that HP gets to the Air. (Some might argue that the ProBook 5330m or Pavilion dm1 are closer, but I'm sticking with the 2560p as the best point of comparison for reasons cited below--besides, that's all I've got to work with.)

(Note: this is not a formal review but general impressions of the 2560p after using it for about three weeks. And also note that I am not comparing it to the latest MacBook Air with Intel Sandy Bridge chips inside. I'm sure the MacBook faithful will cry foul on that account. My everyday machine is the MBA spec'd below.)

Again, the 2560p next to a second-generation 13-inch MacBook Air (which I use as my backup).
Again, the 2560p next to a second-generation 13-inch MacBook Air (which I use as my backup). Brooke Crothers

The 2560p is the most recent offering in a long line of high-end business ultraportables. Before the 2560p came the 2540p, 2530p, 2510p--and before that, models like the Compaq Armada m300. Previous models were actually lighter. For example, the 2510p was about 3.4 pounds. The 2560p weighs about 3.7 pounds. That said, it's HP's most portable business laptop (excluding Netbooks). And HP is all about business computers. That's its bread and butter: supplying laptops to Fortune 500 companies.

I've always thought that HP's business laptops were underexposed (if not underrated). They get relatively little media attention despite wide use. As I've said before, at airports, conferences, and hotels, the most widely used laptops I see are MacBooks, ThinkPads, and HP's business laptops. And it's obvious that HP ships a lot of these as it's the largest PC maker in the world.

So, let's get the spec comparison out the way.

HP EliteBook 2560p:

  • Weight/size: 1.08 inches thick, 3.7 pounds
  • Chassis build materials: plenty of aluminum and magnesium (military spec'd MIL-STD-810G)
  • Processor: Core i5 "Sandy Bridge" 2410M, 2.3 GHz.
  • Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 3000.
  • Display: 12.5-inch LED-backlit HD antiglare (1,366x768).
  • Storage: 320GB 7,200RPM hard disk drive.
  • Optical drive: built-in
  • Memory: 4GB.
  • Ports: USB 2.0 (3), DisplayPort, VGA, Ethernet, docking connector, among others.
  • 3G: option for internal AT&T or Verizon broadband card
  • Battery: 6-cell rated at up to 8 hours
  • Input: Touchpad with gestures and pointstick
  • Operating system: Windows 7 Professional
  • Price: $1,099

Apple MacBook Air:

  • Weight/size: 0.68 inches thick, 2.4 pounds
  • Chassis build materials: aluminum.
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo ULV 1.6GHz.
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce 320M
  • Display: 11.6-inch LED-backlit glossy widescreen display (1,366x768).
  • Storage: 128GB solid-state drive.
  • Optical drive: N/A
  • Memory: 4GB.
  • Ports: USB 2.0 (2), Mini DisplayPort.
  • 3G: N/A
  • Battery: rated at up to 5 hours
  • Input: Touchpad
  • Operating system: OS X
  • Price: when purchased in 2010, $1,399

Build quality: The EliteBook is built like a tank. It seems practically indestructible. And that's what corporate road warriors need. The HP product manager who oversees the EliteBook line said in a phone interview that it is tested to withstand a dead drop from desk-level height at every different angle (it's dropped 26 times during testing). I believe him. And I have a feeling that I could drop kick the 2560p across my front lawn and see no appreciable damage. The Air is of course well built too, but it's not military-spec'd to the max like the EliteBook.

Performance: I'm not going to cite EliteBook and MacBook Air benchmarks (you can get that in any formal review) but, rather, give a subjective opinion. Despite its having a "faster" Sandy Bridge processor, I didn't feel that the EliteBook was faster than the Air (equipped with an Ultra Low Voltage 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo). In fact, I noticed no difference bouncing between the two on a daily basis. My work routine includes tab-intensive Web surfing (usually 20 tabs open), flash video, photo editing, MS Office-related tasks, and audio and video encoding.

The only appreciable performance difference favored the Air. Which is testimony to the criticality of a solid-state drive. I can't say enough about the importance (necessity?) of having an SSD. Apple understands this. Everything feels faster with an SSD--and I'm not just talking about boot times and data reads. That said, put the optional 128GB SSD in the EliteBook (not the HDD that I got) and I guarantee you will have an extremely fast system that easily out-benchmarks the Air that I have (if not the newer MBA with the Sandy Bridge processor).

Keyboard: I like the feel and tactility of the MBA's keyboard but have no complaints about the 2560p's. Nothing really to say beyond this because I could easily adjust to the EliteBook's keyboard.

Touchpad: Big, big difference. The Windows camp does not seem to understand the significance of a good touchpad experience. The MacBook's multigesture touchpad is close to flawless. HP's is anything but.

Touchpad issue No. 1: The problems begin with the size of the touchpad. HP's is too small. (I mentioned this to the HP product manager. He said they have a limited amount of space to work with because they must also make room for two extra mouse buttons to use with the pointing stick.)

Touchpad issue No. 2: But size is probably the lesser of the two problems. For two-finger scrolling, unless your fingers fall in just the right place (at the top of the touchpad in the middle), the touchpad misfires, i.e., nothing happens. And that happened a lot. Granted, I got better at it over time, and it did become less hit-or-miss, but it is still far from fluid. And the blame doesn't lie only with HP. I have a Dell Adamo that has the exact same problem.

Docking station/port replicator: Big difference--in favor of the EliteBook. Apple doesn't like docking stations. I'm sure Apple engineers think they have good reasons, but I respectfully disagree. I loved the EliteBook's "hot" docking station (no need to power down the 2560p). It worked flawlessly and made grabbing the EliteBook and taking it somewhere else a pleasure. Not so with the Air. I have to undo four connections if I want to take the Air somewhere. That's a big disincentive. Point: a well-designed docking station is a godsend. In fact, this killer feature alone is almost reason enough to go out and buy an EliteBook of my own and relegate the Air to a backup machine. (Maybe.)

Display: The EliteBook's display is dimmer than the MBA's. But that's partly due to the EliteBook's being a matte display (not glossy like the Air's). Many people prefer matte displays. In fact, I do too as long as they're bright. The 2560p's was not bright enough for me.

Portability: The EliteBook's wonderful docking station aside, the Air wins this contest. Indeed, that's why I bought the 11.6-inch Air. A relatively high-performance laptop at 2.4 pounds is hard to beat for portability. For the uninitiated, I would suggest going to an Apple store and picking up an 11.6-inch MBA. A laptop doesn't get much lighter. By comparison, the EliteBook feels like a dead weight. This is all very relative, of course. Someone used to a 6-pound laptop would find the EliteBook light.

That said, I would strongly suggest to HP (and I mentioned this to the product manager) that it make the next rev of the EliteBook lighter. An "ultraportable" just south of four pounds in 2011 seems like a Luddite resisting progress. Even if it means making the EliteBook a little less indestructible.

Battery life: This may surprise some readers, but not a lot to say here. The HP has a 6-cell tube battery that protrudes from the back. But based on what I do with a laptop (discussed above), I found it roughly on par with Apple's smaller battery. In short, after four or five hours of use (depending on how processor-intensive), the Air and 2560p fare about the same.

3G: This is personal preference (I know some people don't care) and another big upside of the EliteBook (and many Windows laptops for that matter). In short, I have found that as a longtime user of built-in 3G (in previous HP laptops that I owned, and in my current Dell lappy) it is more convenient than hauling around a portable Mi-Fi router. Yes, I know that you can use Mi-Fi on multiple computers, which makes it cost-efficient. I still prefer built-in 3G. Especially when I'm traveling. Again, at least the option for built-in 3G makes the 2560p the big winner here.

Storage: Already covered above. SSD beats a rotating HDD any day.

Optical drive: The EliteBook has one, the Air doesn't. That said, I don't see this as an advantage for the EliteBook. And it's possibly even detrimental to the overall design. It makes the EliteBook heavier and bulkier than it needs to be. I have no need for a built-in optical drive these days.

Ports: The HP has lots of ports as cited in the specs above. A big advantage? I don't think so.

Conclusion: The EliteBook is designed for a corporate workforce and has all the hallmarks of a system designed by focus groups. That makes for a very practical laptop with almost everything you could possibly need crammed into a compact form factor. It also results in an awkward design that tries to please everyone. That said, give it a better touchpad and make it a little lighter and, in my opinion, you have an MBA killer. Because of the docking station, build quality, and 3G, I would certainly consider it. I am not wedded to Apple products by any means.

The MBA has the opposite design philosophy: To roughly paraphrase something Steve Jobs has said, focus groups are for losers. (I think he actually said, "users don't know what they want" or something along those lines.) Hey, he's right. Design something great and that's what consumers want. HP should try to incorporate more of that thinking into at least some its business laptops. I think the HP ProBook 5330m is a step in the right direction. Double down on a 5330m-like design and stick with it. Or tweak the 2560p as described above.