A powerful laptop option, with a 30-bit, billion-color display

Editing video on a laptop computer has always been something of a kluge. If you do find a good solution, it’s likely to weigh more than you’ll want to carry and have too short a battery life. It won’t have the processor and display needed to do more than a cursory edit. And forget about editing hi-res video on location as it’s being recorded. Getting the files in and out of the laptop would take way too much time. For most projects, it’s a desktop computer or nothing at all.
That may change with the introduction of the HP EliteBook 8740w Mobile Workstation. Perhaps you’ve looked into so-called mobile workstations before, but did any of them offer a 1,920×1,200-pixel 30-bit color display combined with a fast Intel Core i7 dual-core or quad-core processor? You can equip the 8740w with a speedy ATI or NVIDIA graphics subsystem and fill it with 16GB of SDRAM. Even the 7.8-pound weight isn’t that bad, given what’s inside. The battery life? It’s acceptable considering what the battery has to power. The standard 8-cell battery is rated for up to three hours and 30 minutes. If you attach the optional high-capacity 12-cell battery, the two batteries combined will give you as much as 8 hours of activity. Though we all know that “up to” or “as much as” means you probably won’t see the full length of time with a typical workload.

Mix and Match

You can configure the laptop online with a fairly broad range of components. Our review system included a 30-bit (10-bits per color) DreamColor 17-inch LCD panel, though you can shave about $475 off the price by opting instead for a more-standard 24-bit (8-bits per color) LCD panel. Both are LED backlit. Our review unit was configured with a quad-core Intel Core i7-820QM processor (1.73GHz with an 8MB L3 cache) and 4GB of 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM. The other components included an ATI FirePro M7820 graphics chipset with 1GB of dedicated GDDR5 video memory, a 320GB SATA II hard drive (running at 7200rpm), a backlit keyboard and Windows 7 Professional 64. All in all, a very powerful system for a sizable, but not-unreasonable price.

The outer construction of the 8740w feels solid and well-built. Measuring 15.6-inches wide, 11.2-inches deep and 1.4-inches high, you would be hard pressed to fit it into a standard laptop case or small backpack. You also wouldn’t want to carry it around all day. The main chassis has a magnesium base for extra protection, and the display enclosure is constructed of aluminum with a magnesium frame inside for increased rigidity. The hard drive accelerometer, which parks the head when sensing a sudden drop, works with both vertical and horizontal movements. And the three-year warranty includes a provision for onsite repairs. There’s no loaner program, however, so you’ll be on your own if the parts aren’t available.

HP seems to have had video production in mind when it designed the 8740w. Need to back up the massive video file you just edited? The unit has one eSATA port and two USB 3.0 ports, which let you quickly save your work to a similarly equipped portable drive. You can also configure the laptop with a Blu-ray R/RE DVD+/-RW SuperMulti DL Drive. Alternatively, you can outfit the drive bay with a DVD+/–RW LightScribe drive, a non-writing DVD-ROM drive or a second hard drive (a 500GB drive running at 7200rpm).

Rainbow of Colors

A major selling point for this model is the DreamColor display option, which combines IPS (In-Plane Switching) panel technology with 30-bit color. The screen is absolutely gorgeous. Having a 30-bit display on a portable computer is an incredible advance for visual content creation. Windows 7, Windows Vista, Windows XP, and even Linux support 30-bit color at the operating system level, assuming your graphics subsystem and display can handle it. With the 8740w, you’ll be covered as far as the hardware and OS are concerned. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to pin down software developers as to whether their programs support the full 30-bit palette of more than a billion colors. Adobe has added 30-bit support with its CS5 applications, including Photoshop, Premiere Pro and After Effects. Other 30-bit compatible programs include Avid XPressPro HD, Avid DS, Assimilate SCRATCH, Tweak Software RV and Eyeon Fusion 6.1.

Having a 30-bit display isn’t just about the breadth of the palette. It’s also about color accuracy. Even if your camera isn’t capable of recording the full palette, a 30-bit display could ensure that you actually see the colors as they were captured, as well as how they may eventually be displayed. And if you do any kind of color corrections or adjustments, you’ll want your display to correctly reproduce the changes in tint, saturation and contrast.

I viewed some photos captured by a Leica M9 camera in the RAW uncompressed DNG format. The colors were richer with more subtle gradations on the laptop’s DreamColor display than on a high-quality 24-bit desktop monitor. When you use a predefined color space, such as sRGB or Adobe RGB, the red you see on a 30-bit display should be the exact red that’s contained in the file—not a nearby red with slight tinge of yellow. No display can be 100 percent accurate (that’s why we need to regularly recalibrate our monitors), but at least with a 30-bit display, you have a fighting chance to maintain the same colors throughout the creative process.

If you’re concerned that the complexity of color spaces goes well beyond your current job description, you’ll be pleased to know that HP provides a helpful color display utility with the 8740W. The HP Mobile Display Assistant lets you switch among different color spaces and see the results immediately using a test image. The test image features a variety of colorful fabrics and skin tones. The same utility can track the number of backlit hours that remain before your next scheduled recalibration.

The HP Mobile Display Assistant utility lets you choose a preset color space, adjust the luminance level, and track the number of backlight hours before the next recalibration.

Emphasis on Speed

A high-end mobile workstation should offer the kind of performance speeds associated with a modest desktop computer. Or put another way, you might expect your new mobile workstation to perform much like your desktop workstation from a couple of years ago. Either description could apply to the 8740w. It’s very fast for a mobile workstation, but will likely feel somewhat slower than your recently purchased desktop workstation. On MAXON’s CineBench R10 benchmark test, the 8740w scored 10,235 points on the CPU render test and 7,380 points on the OpenGL render test. With the 3DMark Vantage benchmark, it scored a P8184 overall with 10,776 points for the CPU and 7,576 points for the GPU. If you’re not familiar with mobile workstations, don’t be put off if these scores are well below the scores for your current desktop. There are inherent design constraints that cause laptop computers to lag behind their desktop counterparts.

A portable computer’s battery life can depend on many factors, including the brightness of the screen, the intensity of the graphics, and the activity of the disc drive and hard drive. Setting the screen brightness and volume to 50 percent, I ran The Matrix, on DVD, until the 8740w shut down due to lack of battery power. It ran for 1 hour and 42 minutes with the standard 8-cell battery. You should consider that to be a worst case scenario, as the activity was intense and non-stop. I didn’t have the 12-cell battery to test, which—in theory—would have more than doubled the runtime if both batteries were attached.

This is an impressive mobile workstation, especially if you choose the outstanding DreamColor display. The CPU and GPU, though less impressive, are cutting-edge for a laptop computer (the term notebook computer doesn’t seem quite right, given the size and weight for this model). HP has also added some excellent features to the mix. The two USB 3.0 ports could be especially handy, as portable hard drives supporting the new standard are already available. The only downside for this model? Although you can also play Blu-ray discs on EliteBooks configured with that option (the WinDVD playback software comes standard on those units), the size and weight make it unwieldy for a cramped airline seat—unless you’ve lucky enough to have scored a first-class ticket.