The HP ProBook 6550b is a 2.6kg, 15.6in notebook designed for business users who want something solidly built and fully featured. It has everything from a built-in DVD burner to a FireWire port, and you even get a 56Kbps modem and a serial port, which are components from an era when terms such as 'BBS' and 'IRQ conflict' were in everyday use. It's this mix of old and new components that makes the ProBook 6550b desirable as a tool for professionals who need a laptop for more than just browsing the Web and updating an iPod.
Design and usability
The ProBook is designed to be an affordable business notebook that doesn't compromise on features and build quality, and it delivers on both of these fronts. Similar to the ProBook 6540b, a sturdy design is what's immediately noticeable when you start handling the ProBook 6550b: it has metal hinges, the base feels solid when you pick it up from either corner, the lid can take a fair bit of force before puddling appears on the screen and the keyboard has keys that are crisp and perfect for long sessions of typing.
The keyboard also includes a number pad. Just above the keyboard is a row of touch-sensitive buttons that can be used to manipulate the volume, launch your e-mail and Web browser applications, as well as disable Wi-Fi. We're not a fan of these buttons; not only are they too bright (the LEDs on most HP notebooks seem to be too strong) but they are also a little sluggish. Volume changes, in particular, take a couple of seconds before you can see the effect via an on-screen indicator. The response of the touch buttons is also not reliable and sometimes you have to press a button more than once to activate its function.
One thing we wish this ProBook had is a screen-mounted light that could shine down onto the keyboard, similar to what HP's EliteBook 8440p has. Another thing that's missing is a dual-pointing device, but there is an option to add one so that can use both a touchpad and a 'pointing stick' to move the pointer around the screen. We did find the touchpad to sometimes be 'sticky'. The screen itself uses LED backlighting and is reasonably bright. It has a native resolution of 1366x768, but an optional 1600x900 panel is also available.
Configuration and performance
Multiple configurations of the ProBook 6550b are available, but the one we reviewed used an Intel Core i5-540M CPU running at 2.53GHz; an integrated Intel HD graphics adapter; a 7200rpm, 320GB hard drive; and 4GB of DDR3SDRAM, around 1GB of which was used by the graphics adapter. The notebook ran the 32-bit version of Windows 7, so an update to the 64-bit version will be required if you want to install more RAM (the laptop supports up to 8GB). In our tests, this configuration performed very well. It can be used to run office applications and multimedia tasks with ease. Its real-time 3D rendering performance isn't great, but you could run World of Warcraft or StarCraft 2 if you wanted to.
In 3DMark06, the ProBook 6550b recorded a score of 1750, which is around what we were expecting. Our Blender 3D and iTunes MP3 encoding tests averaged times of 53sec and 59sec, respectively, which is a couple of seconds faster than what Dell's similarly configured Studio 17 laptop recorded in the same tests. Transcoding a DVD file to a 1.5GB Xvid file using AutoGordianKnot took 1hr 6min, which is what we expected. In our hard drive transfer tests, the 7200rpm hard drive averaged a result of 27.17 megabytes per second (MBps), which is around 4MBps slower than what the Probook 6540b achieved with its 250GB drive; we would have liked to see it go over 30MBps. You do have the option of installing a solid state drive (up to 160GB).
On the software and security side of things, the ProBook 6550b ships with HP ProtectTools, a fingerprint reader and a trusted platform module. You can use the fingerprint reader as a substitute for typing in passwords and HP Protect Tools allows administrators to lock down the machine so that certain devices can't be used, and also to encrypt the hard drive. We've talked more about ProtectTools in our review of the ProBook 6540b.
The ProBook's 6-cell, 55 Watt-hour battery lasted 2hr 12min in our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise the screen's brightness and loop an Xvid-encoded video. This is only two minutes off what the ProBook 6540b recorded with the same battery and only a slightly slower CPU speed. You could get a lot more life out of this battery by employing a balanced power profile, lowering the brightness and letting the screen switch off during idle periods.
With a base that's filled with features, a hardware configuration that supplies good performance and management tools that can be useful, the ProBook 6550b is definitely a laptop worth considering. It looks a feels a little bulky, but it's not overly heavy and, most importantly, it's easy to type on.
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