HP EliteBook 820 G1 review £1100
3rd Feb 2014 | 15:03
Sturdy, streamlined, secure: HP packs business features into a lighter-weight, 12.6-inch laptop
Not every business user needs a super-light, super-thin notebook, or a hybrid, convertible, 2-in-1 tablet plus notebook option. HP thinks plenty of workers want a sturdy, powerful laptop with good specs that can shrug off fingerprints, stand up to the rigours of the road (and any passing hacker) and keep going all day.
That's the promise of the HP EliteBook 820 G1. It's a 12.6-inch business notebook in functional black and grey that's crammed with ports and security features. It's got options for everything, from a backlit keyboard and SSD storage, to a smartcard slot and 4G. It's also rated to the kind of military specifications that mean you don't have to worry about knocking it off the table or spilling coffee on the keyboard.
It's not a clever-clogs like the Fujitsu LifeBook E743, with its component-swapping module that can fit in a Blu-ray player or LED projector. The EliteBook 820 is more straightforward. It's also more up to date than either the LifeBook or the Lenovo ThinkPad S431 Touch. What we've got here is a Haswell notebook that's under three pounds and packing the smallest battery, despite its unibody magnesium alloy chassis (although it doesn't have the touchscreen option of the ThinkPad).
It's targeting the same business users as the latest Toshiba Portege Z30 and Dell XPS 13 (both with Haswell), but it beats the measly two USB ports of the Dell offering hands down. It's also a little more portable thanks to the smaller screen. The Portege Z30 has the closest spec, but with a larger 13.3-inch screen (although Toshiba's experience in ultraportables means the Z30 weighs a little less than the EliteBook 820, depending on which options you choose).
For a business user, the EliteBook 820 is a solid system, in both senses. It's been tested to military specs for drop, shock, vibration, dust, temperature and altitude, and the keyboard drains away spilled liquids safely. But it's also easy to service: the whole base clips off for easy access to the components for repairs and upgrades.
Usually, making notebooks thinner and lighter means fewer connection options. HP bucks that trend with a business-like selection of ports. Four USB ports (three of them USB 3.0) mean you can plug in all your peripherals. VGA means you can drive any projector. You can pick DisplayPort or a smartcard slot depending on what you need to connect to most, while the docking connector (compatible with the full EliteBook range) is on the side. Putting it there keeps the chassis thinner but HP still fits in a full-size Ethernet port, thanks to a clever fold-out port that doesn't feel so flimsy that you worry it will snap off in your hand.
You can choose from lots of storage options, from a fast SSD to a traditional 1TB hard drive (we tested the 500GB model). The standard Wi-Fi adapter gives you a, b, g and n, but you can choose an Intel 802.11 ac adapter and 4G module instead. HP has a deal for roaming connectivity at local rates, so the 4G option won't be an expensive liability for your company.
HP keyboards are always well-designed and comfortable. The isolated keys on the EliteBook 820 are large and well separated, with a firm typing action. The trackpad is a good size and very slightly textured, making it smooth and responsive.
Glass trackpads may look sleeker, but they can also jump around annoyingly. There are two sets of mouse buttons, so you don't have to move your fingers so far away from the keys if you're typing and clicking (filling out a form, say), plus there's a trackpoint in the middle of the keys if you prefer that for control. On the 12-inch model we tested, a touchscreen isn't an option.
The fingerprint scanner is fairly well positioned on the right side of the palm rest, but it's the older-style swipe scanner rather than a new touch sensor and we found it accurate but a little slow.
The backlit keyboard dims to save power if you don't hit a key for a few seconds, and has two brightness settings that you control from the function keys. These have the usual volume and screen brightness controls, as well as keys to switch to a projector or external display and to mute the dual-array microphone - handy in a business laptop where you'll be making Skype calls and joining online meetings.
Two separate buttons control Wi-Fi and mute the volume, so you can turn the sound off without fumbling through the keys.
Like all of HP's business notebook range, the EliteBook 820 comes with Windows 7 installed. The licence is for Windows 8 if you want to run that, but HP expects most businesses will prefer Windows 7, so it comes pre-downgraded.
You also get Microsoft's free Security Essentials (which offers excellent protection without the annoying pop-ups and processor load of much anti-virus software), Skype, CyberlinkPowerDVD 12, PDF Complete (for editing and annotating PDFs), Page Lift (an HP utility for rotating and unskewing photos of documents so they look more like scans), 50GB of free storage with Box, a trial version of Office 365 (oddly, it's Home Premium rather than the Pro Plus business version) and HP's Trust Circles and Theft Recovery security tools.
These are both part of the HP security suite that lets you log in (to Windows and websites you've saved the passwords for) using the fingerprint reader on the palm rest. It also adds security questions you can use if you forget your password, turns on BitLocker full disk encryption and manages the recovery key.
Trust Circles is an encrypted cloud storage service (run for HP by CryptoMill to separate from the Box storage). The theft recovery tool is the familiar Computrace remote tracking service, which you need to subscribe to separately. Several of these options are already built into Windows, but it's certainly more convenient for a small business to have all this wrapped up in one friendly interface that walks you through everything. On the other hand, having USB drives blocked by the default settings doesn't do much for productivity and we ran into problems with some browser add-ons (like the on-demand Office 2013 apps) so it's not a security panacea.
HP has also added security to its BIOS. If it detects tampering by malware, it will refresh the BIOS from a secure copy and reboot. Again, that won't protect you from all attacks but it could mean the difference between getting back to work straight away and sending your laptop off to be fixed.
3D Mark 11: P766
Graphics Score 696
Physics Score 2783
Combined Score 577
CPU performance: 2.47
OpenGL graphics performance 13.13fps
3 hours 27 minutes
The dropped hinge and metallic grey-black styling of the HP EliteBook 820 conceals a reasonably powerful 1.6GHz Haswell Core i5 4200U CPU, with 8GB of RAM. What that gives you is great business performance. The 1366x768 screen and Intel HD Graphics 4400 mean this isn't a high-powered gaming system. To be sure, rendering was visibly slow in our 3D and graphics testing, but it's fine for everyday work in productivity software (including Photoshop) and movies, with reasonable sound – and plenty of volume – coming from the soundbar behind the keyboard.
Even if you don't take advantage of the Windows 8 licence included with the system, we'd suggest upgrading to IE 11 for performance improvements. Even the Intel graphics subsystem is fast enough to speed up web pages with hardware acceleration and the HP EliteBook 820 scored a very acceptable 9.2 on Microsoft's informal PirateMarrk benchmark for HTML5 rendering.
HP promises up to 12 hours' battery life for the EliteBook 820 G1, but that's with the higher-capacity battery slice. The standard battery we tested came in with a reasonable four to five hours of working time with Wi-Fi on and the screen set to full brightness (we'd expect that to increase by 30-60 minutes with Windows 8). Dim the screen to get longer battery life. In our run-down test with no power saving options and the screen on full brightness, we measured three hours and 27 minutes. And while it's not a tiny USB charger, the power brick is fairly small and neat, and delivers an impressively fast charge – you can get 25% charge back in about as many minutes.
HP isn't going to win a style prize for the EliteBook 820 G1, especially compared to sleek-looking hybrid notebooks from Lenovo or the VaporMag-coated Surface Pro 2. But for the business user, a laptop with all the ports you need that can keep going on the road is more important than high-fashion styling. HP's notebook fits in the same docking station as all the other current EliteBook models and lets you pick from a wide range of options. The company is betting its easy-to-crack-open notebook will hit the spot for users who want the familiar Windows 7 experience.
On a business notebook you spend a lot of time typing, mousing around the screen and plugging in peripherals. The HP EliteBook 820 G1 has a great keyboard you can type accurately on with plenty of choice for clicking and swiping. The trackpad is smooth and the twin sets of buttons plus the trackpoint mean you're always in the right place to make a selection, no matter how big your hands are.
The backlit keyboard will come in handy when the lights dim for a presentation. And it's great to have enough USB ports and a full-sized Ethernet connection when you need it. Usually that means a boxier, blander notebook but HP manages to balance specs, features and a design that looks modern without trying to be too edgy. And it's great to get a system free of nagging 'free' software that only slows you down. The tools here are basic but useful – mostly.
Although businesses will like this, we found the security defaults too restrictive. If you just need to get some work done and you can't read your USB drive, you're going to start turning off the security tools rather than tweaking them. And although there are plenty of other options you can pick, a touchscreen isn't one of them. If you're used to reaching up to scroll through web pages, you'll need to remember to keep your hands on the keyboard. If you need that full 12 hours of battery life, budget for the bigger battery.
There are some very nice touches on the HP EliteBook 820 G1, especially the way it fits an Ethernet port into something much thinner than many business travellers are used to. This isn't the brick you'd expect from a business-class notebook. The design isn't groundbreaking, but it still looks and feels good, especially with the backlit keyboard. And being able to snap off the back without needing any tools to change the battery, swap out the storage for an SSD or swap in new modules will make whoever fixes your business's PCs far happier.
It's not the cheapest business-grade notebook but it is good value if you need the sturdy, secure but still somewhat stylish option.