Review: HP EliteBook 8540w mobile workstation

By David Cohn

In test after test, HP’s portable powerhouses have led the pack in features, functionality and performance. And so we looked forward to reviewing the HP EliteBook 8540w mobile workstation equipped with a DreamColor 2 display.

HP’s DreamColor technology was announced in 2007, developed from work done with DreamWorks Animation SKG to deliver digital color consistency. It uses an RGB LED backlight and 10-bit graphics card to produce 30-bit color accuracy, providing more than 1 billion colors (compared to a more conventional 24-bit or 16.7 million colors). The DreamColor display comes factory-calibrated, and can be recalibrated using HP’s Advanced Profiling Solution (APS) kit. The company’s first DreamColor display cost more than $3,000, but DreamColor 2 is now a $425 option on this new HP mobile workstation.

The HP EliteBook 8540w is housed in a gunmetal gray HP DuraCase, a brushed anodized aluminum exterior bonded to a magnesium alloy chassis. We first encountered this new design of HP mobile workstations when we reviewed the HP EliteBook 8530w in the March 2009 issue. But while that system appeared more svelte than its predecessor, the 8540w looks bigger and feels bulkier. And it is, on both counts.

This new EliteBook measures 14.7 x 9.9 x 1.7 in., and tips the scales at nearly 7 lbs. The large (6.5 x 2.7 x 1.6-in.), 150-watt AC adapter supplied with our evaluation unit added nearly 2 lbs. more (including cords) to the total package.

Benchmark Comparison Results

The reason for the increased size and heft became readily apparent as soon as we raised the lid. While its predecessor came with a 15.4-in. display with an aspect ratio of 5:4 or 16:10, the 8540w has a 15.6-in. display with a more modern 16:9 aspect ratio. This enabled HP engineers to include both a full-size, 80-key keyboard and a separate 21-key numeric keypad. HP also touts the keyboard as being spill-resistant—a thin layer of Mylar film under the keys can capture and drain small spills. This is a feature we elected not to test. A touchpad with dedicated scroll zone and three dedicated buttons is centered below the keyboard.

A strip above the keyboard contains the power button and touch-sensitive controls with LED indicators for quickly accessing your email and Web browser when the system is running, or activating HP Quicklook 3 or QuickWeb to access and edit MS Outlook data or open a Web browser, respectively, without actually booting the operating system. With QuickWeb, we were surfing the Internet within about 25 seconds.

Other touch-sensitive buttons enable you to turn wireless functions and the touchpad on and off, adjust sound volume, and access the Windows calculator. There’s also a black pointing stick above the B key in the keyboard, with its own complement of three buttons just below the spacebar, as well as a fingerprint sensor in the lower-right corner of the palm rest. Indicator lights for wireless, power, battery and hard drive activity are located on the front-left edge of the case.

Our evaluation unit was powered by an Intel Core i7-720QM processor, a 1.60GHz quad-core CPU with 6MB of L3 cache, matched with 1,333MHz RAM. Although it can reach speeds of 2.8GHz with turbo-boost, this is a much lower clock speed than what HP provided in the 8530w we previously reviewed. Other CPU options include 1.73GHz and 1.86GHz quad-core processors. The EliteBook 8540w is also available with dual-core processors up to 2.66GHz. All systems use the Intel QM57 chipset.

The quad-core version of the 8540w comes with four dual in-line memory module (DIMM) sockets, whereas dual-core versions provide just two sockets. Our evaluation unit came equipped with 8GB of system memory, installed as four 2GB DIMMs.

HP EliteBook 8540w Features

• Price: $3,657 as tested ($2,261 base price)• Size: 14.7 x 9.9 x 1.7 in. (W x D x H) notebook• Weight: starting at 6.37 lbs., 6.9 lbs. as tested, plus power supply• CPU: 1.60GHz Intel Core i7-720QM quad-core with 6MB L3 cache• Memory: 8GB 1333MHz DDR3 SDRAM (32GB max)• Graphics: NVIDIA Quadro FX 1800M with 1GB memory• LCD: 15.6-in. diagonal 16:9 LED-backlit FHD anti-glare DreamColor (1920×1200)• Hard disk: 320GB, 7200rpm Seagate 2.5-in. Smart SATA II• Optical: DVD+/-RW SuperMulti DL LightScribe• Audio: microphone and headphone jacks, built-in microphone and speakers• Network: integrated Intel Gigabit Ethernet (10/100/1000 NIC); Intel 802.11 wireless LAN; optional integrated Bluetooth 2.1; optional Mobile Broadband (requires separate mobile service)• Modem: 56K V.92 modem • Keyboard: integrated 101-key keyboard with numeric keypad• Pointing device: integrated three-button touchpad and pointing stick, fingerprint reader• Other: three USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, one mini IEEE 1394a FireWire, eSATA, media card reader (SC, SD, MMC, MS/Pro, XD), one Express Card/54 slot, one smart card reader, DisplayPort, 15-pin VGA, 2-megapixel webcam

While that was more than enough memory for our purposes, if you envision needing more in the future, you could spend $175 more for two 4GB memory modules, leaving the other two sockets available for later. The quad-core versions of the EliteBook 8540w can accommodate up to 32GB of memory using 8GB DIMMs, but that would add a whopping $9,071 to the base price.

Stunning DisplayThe EliteBook 8540w is available with a less-expensive display, but ours came with the 1920×1080, native resolution LED-backlit Full High-Definition (FHD) DreamColor 2 display with anti-glare finish and in-plane switching (IPS) technology that allows colors to be seen more accurately at different screen angles.

HP also offers a choice between an ATI FirePro M5800 graphics accelerator—which supports up to five displays with a docking station, or three without—and the NVIDIA Quadro FX580M or FX1800M, all of which feature 1GB of dedicated video memory. Our evaluation unit came with the FX1800M, which uses GDDR5 memory. The combination yielded the most beautiful display we’ve ever seen in a mobile workstation. But DreamColor isn’t necessarily for everyone.

Systems equipped with the DreamColor display must also include an integrated 2-megapixel webcam, an option we would have included regardless—but it requires the large 150-watt power supply. The DreamColor display also has a significant impact on battery life.

A small LED light located above the display, just to the right of the webcam, pops out at the press of a button to illuminate the keyboard in low-light conditions. An ambient light sensor below the display can automatically adjust the backlight for changing lighting conditions.

Our evaluation unit came with a 2.5-in. 320GB Seagate 7200rpm SATA drive. Other options include 250GB and 500GB SATA drives and 160GB and 256GB solid-state drives. HP also included a DVD+/-RW SuperMulti dual-layer LightScribe drive. Other options range from a standard DVD-ROM drive to a Blu-ray Disc DVD+/-RW drive, or you can opt for a second 500GB, 7200rpm SATA hard drive.

Connection OptionsThe EliteBook 8540w offers an assortment of connections. Along the right side of the case are an integrated smart card reader, the optical drive/upgrade bay, two USB 3.0 ports, an RJ-45/Ethernet port for the integrated Intel Gigabit Network, an RJ-11/modem port for the built-in 56K V.92 modem, and a Kensington Security Slot. Along the left side are three USB 2.0 ports, a DisplayPort, an eSATA port, a 1394a/Firewire port, stereo microphone in, stereo headphone/line-out, and an ExpressCard/54 slot.

Across the front are the system’s integrated stereo speakers, a media card reader (for SD, MMC, Memory Stick and xD-Picture Card), and a slot to hold a business card (which can then be scanned using the webcam and supplied software). The back of the case has a power connector and external VGA port, with the remainder taken up by the battery. The bottom provides access to the battery release latches, docking port connector, optional battery connector, hard drive bay, and compartments for the memory, WWAN and Bluetooth modules.

Our evaluation unit came with an 8-cell, 73WHr lithium-ion battery for which HP claims up to 5 hours and 30 minutes of life. But in our battery run-down test, our system shut down after just 1 hour and 21 minutes (under Windows 7) and 1 hour and 28 minutes (under Windows XP).

HP provides new Power Assistant software that works in conjunction with Windows 7 to provide better power management for people who are not as familiar with the various settings in Windows 7. But the Power Assistant can’t do anything to extend battery life if you’re accessing the hard drive or optical drive continuously. HP also offers an extended life battery ($159), which it claims can increase total battery life to 10 hours.

While the built-in display can handle resolutions up to 1920×1080, the VGA port supports resolutions up to 2048×1536. The DisplayPort can pump out up to 2560×1600 pixels and 30-bit color depth at 60Hz, and supports FHD (1920×1080) monitors with 24-bit color at 120Hz. DVI-I output is also available with the optional docking station ($299).

Mixed ResultsOur test results show how powerful Intel’s latest mobile quad-core i7 processors can be despite their slower clock speeds.

On the SPECviewperf test, which looks solely at graphics performance, the HP EliteBook 8540w turned in very good numbers—although not as fast as some other systems with less-powerful graphics accelerators, thanks to the slower CPU.

Similarly, in our SolidWorks test (which can only be run under Windows XP and breaks out graphics, CPU and I/O performance separately), the EliteBook 8540w also lagged a bit, again because of its slower CPU clock speed.

But when we ran our AutoCAD rendering test, the system showed the advantage of having a quad-core CPU with hyper-threading. Here, the processor appeared as eight separate CPUs, and while they may have only been running at 1.6GHz, they powered through the rendering in less than 2.5 minutes under Windows 7—the best results we’ve seen to date for a mobile workstation. The slower results for Windows XP were likely due to the fact that we were running the 32-bit version, so all of the extra RAM in the system could not be used.

HP backs the EliteBook 8540w with a limited 3-year warranty on parts and labor, and offers more extensive coverage for additional charges. Buyers can choose from 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP, or even purchase a system with FreeDOS pre-installed. The system is certified for SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop, and like most HP workstations, is ISV-certified for virtually all major CAD, DCC, GIS and oil and gas exploration software.

EliteBook 8540w prices start at $1,349 for dual-core systems or $1,749 for quad-core. As configured, our evaluation unit priced out at $3,657, but a 24% discount (available at the time of our review) would reduce the cost to $2,779. Even at that price, though, there’s a lot to consider. While beautiful, the DreamColor 2 display adds additional weight and cost while reducing battery life.

With or without DreamColor, the HP EliteBook 8540w is a true mobile workstation, capable of taking any professional application with you on the road.

David Cohn is the technical publishing manager at 4D Technologies. He also does consulting and technical writing from his home in Bellingham, WA, and has been benchmarking PCs since 1984. He’s a contributing editor to Desktop Engineering and the author of more than a dozen books. You can contact him via email at [email protected] or visit his website at