Two laptops mean business: HP EliteBook 8460p vs. Lenovo ThinkPad L420

These new laptops offer the business traveler (and the IT staff) solid, up-to-date and durable technology

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Lenovo ThinkPad L420

Despite its traditional black case, Lenovo's ThinkPad L420 is actually a green machine that sips power while not skimping on security, reliability and manageability. Think of it as a business notebook with an eco conscience -- and it costs less than the EliteBook to boot.

Although at 1.6 x 13.5 x 9.1 in. the ThinkPad is thicker and wider than the EliteBook, at 5.3 lbs. it weighs 3 oz. less. When you factor in the system's lightweight AC adapter, the travel weight becomes a reasonable 5.8 lbs., nearly three quarters of a pound less than the EliteBook.

Lenovo ThinkPad L420
Lenovo ThinkPad L420

The ThinkPad's plastic case lacks the EliteBook's metal skin, but underneath it is rock-solid, using a magnesium frame to protect the system's motherboard. According to Lenovo, the ThinkPad passed the 810G tests for 30-inch drops, thermal shock, high and low temperature operations, dust, vibration and humidity.

On the bottom of the ThinkPad are three separate panels that you need to remove to get at all of the system's components (in contrast to the EliteBook's single access panel).

The ThinkPad I tested came with a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5 processor, but if you're pinching pennies, there's a $599 base system that comes with a 2.1GHz Core i3 processor. The system I looked at had 4GB of RAM (it can hold up to 8GB), a DVD burner and a 320GB hard drive; Lenovo also offers drives from 250GB to 500GB, as well as a 128GB solid-state drive.

The 14-in. 1366 x 768 display is driven by Intel's HD 3000 graphics chip, which doesn't provide the same visual power as the EliteBook's optional Radeon HD 6470M graphics engine. When using the laptop, however, I thought the display looked about as bright and rich as the EliteBook's. There's no graphics upgrade option for the L420, although the 15.6-in. ThinkPad L520 can be ordered with ATI's HD 565v graphics chip.

The keyboard lacks the EliteBook's handy night light for late work. At 19.2mm, its keys are slightly larger and are scalloped to match the contours of the finger. It has both a pointing stick and a touchpad; I liked the feel of the pad's textured surface, but it is one-third smaller than the EliteBook's.

The ThinkPad has a wider assortment of controls arrayed around the keyboard, including the microphone, buttons for audio volume and muting, and Lenovo's ThinkVantage emergency repair button, which starts diagnostic software that looks for the problem and connects you to a help desk.

The ThinkPad comes with 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and an Ethernet port, but it does without the EliteBook's dial-up modem. The review unit I looked at didn't have any integrated mobile data card options, but Lenovo does offer a version of the L420 with a mobile card built in.

The system includes Skype software, and its built-in microphone can be set to receive sound from a narrow cone (for a single user) or a wider cone (for a group). There's even a noise-cancellation program that can muffle the sound of the keys if you're typing during a VoIP call.

Besides its TPM security chip, the ThinkPad has a nice selection of management and security features. In addition to the ability to encrypt the hard drive, an administrator can turn off USB connectors or the optical drive's ability to burn data to discs. All management activities, including password changes, can be done remotely.

The assortment of ports offered on the ThinkPad isn't quite as varied as on the EliteBook, although they will be adequate for most business travelers. There are three USB ports, one of which is USB 3.0. Another port can be used as a USB or an eSATA connector. The system lacks the EliteBook's FireWire plug but includes a VGA port and a DisplayPort connection, along with a combo headphone/microphone jack.

Despite having similar hardware, the ThinkPad had trouble keeping up with the EliteBook on the benchmarks. Its PerformanceTest 7.0 score of 1267.0 was slower than the EliteBook's pace by 9%, while its CineBench graphics score was roughly half that of the HP system.

The system went through a week of continuous operation using PassMark's BurnInTest software and encountered no errors.

The ThinkPad's standout area was battery life. Its 4,760 milliamp battery pack may have less capacity than the EliteBook's, but it was able to run for 4 hours and 20 minutes between charges -- 38 minutes longer than the EliteBook. It's a power miser as well, requiring 40 watts of electricity to charge the battery while the system is running, half that of the EliteBook. This difference won't add up to more than a few dollars a year in office electricity bills, but it will mean that at least some carbon dioxide is kept out of the atmosphere.

Lenovo provides a one-year warranty; a two-year extension costs only $99, bringing the total price of the system to a reasonable $997, about $200 less than the cost of the EliteBook 8460p.

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