With a new job comes a new work laptop. Last week a shiny new Hewlett Packard EliteBook 8460p was waiting for me on my desk at Institute Jožef Stefan.
From the outside it's one of the prettier PC laptops and it's hard to say HP industrial designers haven't looked at Apple for inspiration. Aluminum case dotted with small white LEDs, chiclet keyboard, black bezel around the screen, a round HP logo on the back of the display. If you've seen a MacBook Pro you can probably see the similarity. However, good looks don't necessarily mean good design and HP made some weird decisions that I find hard to believe for a machine that costs more than 1600 €.
First of all, I might say quality control seems a bit lacking. Left and right mouse buttons were out of level just enough to look sloppy. The "a" key keeps falling out. There's something wrong with the latches on the docking station since the cracking noise they make when I take the laptop off always makes me cringe. There are also some unfortunate design decisions: each time you pick up the laptop from the table you basically lift it up by the DVD drive door, which I fear is not good for its longevity. The Apple-like LEDs that shine through (laser-drilled?) holes in the aluminum are quite hard to see unless you bend down to the table and look directly at them.
What about the software side? Linux Laptop Wiki has some general information that gives a good overview of Linux support for this laptop's hardware.
Out of the box the disk had all 4 primary partitions already used. Sadly I had to retain the Windows installation, so I only deleted two partitions at the end of the drive that looked like they contained some HP restore and diagnostics software. Debian Squeeze installer then shrunk the remaining NTFS filesystem without further problems and Windows seemed to have survived the operation without any noticeable damage.
Getting the installer to boot however did take some experimenting: the laptop has 4 USB ports and will happily boot off a USB key in any of them. However for some reason all except one on the right with a thunderbolt icon are turned off after the boot. So unless the installation USB key was in that drive, the installer couldn't find the installation media. Funny, since after installation all USB ports work without problems.
To get the Radeon HD 6470M running in xorg I had to install a newer kernel from Squeeze backports (linux-image-2.6.39-bpo.2-amd64) and a newer Radeon driver (xserver-xorg-video-ati 1:6.14.2-1). The card also requires non-free firmware, which is shipped separately in the firmware-linux-nonfree package. Without it you will only get military-grade noise on the LCD panel. For 3D acceleration you also need libdrm-radeon1. With this setup everything seems to work fine except setting the display brightness (there's a kernel bug already reported): manual setup through the sysfs is ignored although the interface is there and I don't even know how to approach the ambient light sensor.
By the way, I've heard complaints about the low quality of the LCD. Mine looks great and makes my EeePC 901 look pretty dim in comparison.
Regarding other periphery, there is not much to say. Wi-Fi works with Intel drivers and requires firmware-iwlwifi. Compared to the Thinkpad monstrosity the dock is only a bunch of hot-pluggable USB devices, which means no additional headaches there. Web-cam for some reason isn't detected automatically and you need to insert uvcvideo kernel module manually for it to work.
The power consumption hovers around 25 watts at idle, which is 10 watts more than when booted up in Windows. With that battery lasts a little bit more than 2 hours. This might have something to do with that kernel PCI Express power consumption bug. Setting power saving profiles on Radeon doesn't affect the battery drain which makes me suspect that power management doesn't work there either. Also, GNOME power manager crashes because of an empty second battery bay. I've written a patch against the version shipped in Debian Squeeze, but I'm not that optimistic it will get applied, since it's now sitting in the bug tracker right next to another patch I've made 3 years ago.
I should also mention the weird phenomenon where the computer freezes for several tens of seconds sometime after boot. There are no kernel messages logged about that and it doesn't seem to affect the running processes. I've seen such freezes on my old Thinkpad and on the EeePC, but they were always connected to IO contention. These freezes occur on an otherwise idle machine and the HDD light remains off, which makes me think they have some other cause. Also, a colleague with the exact same hardware and the latest Ubuntu version isn't seeing this, so I'm guessing it has something to do with my setup.
As you can see, after a week with this machine I have very mixed feelings about it. On one hand the aluminum case gives you a solid feeling. I love the dead simple screwdriver-less access to all the components inside, Linux support is pretty good and of course I don't have any complaints about the performance either. But seriously, shipping a laptop in this price range with a broken keyboard, dock and cheap-looking track pad?