Tools Of The Trade: The HP Compaq nc4200 laptop

Of course, it is possible to pay substantially more for a multimedia computer with plenty of extras, but for regular business use, that increasingly looks like an indulgence.

HP's Compaq nc4200 laptop illustrates why this is the case. The machine is a perfectly capable, relatively lightweight and efficiently designed laptop. It has a bright 12.1-inch screen, a reasonably quick (1.86Ghz) processor and plenty of scope for expansion. And all this comes with a good deal of change from a grand.

The nc4200 weighs in at a reasonable 1.8kg, so it will not become a burden, either commuting or on business trips. The dark grey casing should stand up to knocks, and the overall build quality of the computer appears sound.

Battery life is a claimed 5.5 hours on the standard battery unit (expect around 3.5 to four hours in practice, running standard business applications). An ambient light sensor, designed specially by HP, adjusts the screen to maximise working time.

The nc4200 is also quite modular in its design: it is easy to add a second battery, attach the unit to a desktop docking station or even remove the hard drive unit. The hard drive is protected against shocks, as well as data corruption, and there is a local recovery solution built in to make it easier to retrieve data, if the machine does suffer damage.

As a no-nonsense business portable for someone who is on the road a lot, but does not need cutting-edge features, the nc4200 fits the bill well enough. But designing a laptop of this size and weight, and keeping the price down, does mean some sacrifices.

The nc4200 has just one PC card expansion slot, and no built-in optical or floppy drive. Optical drives can be added either on their own or as part of one of HP's docking stations, but this measure adds to the cost and also to the weight.

Anyone planning to work with graphics, or even watch DVDs, might find that the PC's built-in video hardware is rather pedestrian, not least because it shares video memory with the main system.

On the plus side, Bluetooth and WiFi networking are built in.

There are three USB ports but no parallel port (for older printers) and no Firewire/iLink port for connecting fast hard drives or peripherals such as video cameras. That the nc4200 comes with a wired network card capable of up to a gigabit in speed does rather give the game away: this is a laptop designed mostly with office use in mind.

The nc4200 is a capable performer, rugged but light enough to suit regular travellers. However, for use at home or as a main computer, the lack of a built-in CD or DVD drive, and the fact that no external unit comes with the package, remain drawbacks.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Pros: the right size and weight for regular travellers; reasonably priced.

Cons: basic video performance and no bundled CD/DVD.

Price: from £874 (plus VAT).