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Inside HP’s laptop torture chambers

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hp-batteriesA battery of battery tests

In another lab that looks like it would fit right at home in a high school electronics class, John Wozniak plays the Battery Wizard of Compaq Drive. Wozniak is the Real Deal, the rare engineer whose passion for his work shines through with every grin and self-depracating joke. Were he not at HP, you might expect to find the lanky figure hunched over in his basement, still tinkering with batteries to find out what they can – and cannot – do. Which is exactly what he does at HP.

The problem with batteries, Wozniak explains, is the severity of what goes wrong when they go wrong. A bug or crash in software means calls to tech support, annoyance, unreliability. A faulty battery means much worse. Namely, heat. Swelling. Explosions. Even if it happens in a tiny fraction of total batteries, a tiny fraction of batteries exploding is still too many.

So Wozniak blows them up intentionally, in a hooded compartment blackened with the fumes of its victims, to discover the magic cocktail for catastrophic failure. Overcharging, extreme temperatures and low-voltage scenarios turn out to be the ingredients he needs, and within his lab he can recreate them all. When the dust has cleared, ultimately the data goes into tuning two levels of hardware protection and one level of software protection that prevent the same from happening in production notebooks. While leaving your notebook battery in a hot car for days on end can still take months off battery life, the conditions needed to recreate a meltdown are nearly impossible without intentional modification or severe drop that physically damages the components.

The daily grind

In a room mercifully removed from the destructive reach of either Woods or Wozniak, EliteBooks fill every one of the nearly 100 workbenches. It’s the largest lab on campus, and engineers here are busy stress testing hundreds of notebooks at a time, putting them to the virtual grind with video, batch processes and multiple operating systems. Believe it or not, they’ll test every possible configuration of hardware to make sure the parts play nicely together. The automated testing largely removes humans from the equation, which is good because it takes a long, long time. The highest counter on a monitor displaying combined hours of testing on a system shows 19,177, but they won’t quit until they reach 100,000.

In one of the noisiest labs on campus, notebooks sit in a chamber that drops a specific blend of ultrafine dust – Arizona road dust – from the ceiling every 10 or 15 minutes. Swallowing too much dust can choke up a system’s ventilation and cause overheating, just ask any soldier with a laptop in Iraq or Afghanistan.

hp-ultrafine-dust

Computers bound for northern climates won’t face much sand, but in the dry winter months, static shock presents its own threat. So an HP employee with a menacing-looking electrostatic gun shocks notebooks over as it runs, testing different points to see if he can get it to fry. Dangerous as it looks, the gun is only set to levels humans can generate on their own with a good carpet rub, and a properly grounded notebook will safely dissipate it every time without damage.

The most arresting test chamber is a dimly lit room studded floor-to-ceiling with massive foam spikes and a door that swings open like a bank vault. It could pass for a dungeon locked away in Guantanamo Bay, with a microphone dangling from the ceiling and a solitary wooden table in the middle, but it’s an actually an hemianechoic chamber, where sound goes to die.

hp-hemianechoic-chamber

Entering the room immediately produces a feeling akin to popping in ear plugs, but your ears are just fine: There’s just nothing to hear. Besides looking cool, the foam spikes absorb sound magnificently, producing a completely quiet room free of echo where a technician can scientifically measure how much noise a computer makes. From a control booth outside (you can’t very well have complete silence with a living, breathing person inside), he measures the output at idle and full throttle, with graphics cards running, hard drives spinning up, and optical drives accessing discs. Too much noise and it’s time to sit down with the thermal team to figure out how to back off the cooling without turning the EliteBook into a portable hotplate.

Of course, any thorough testing must involve robots, and HP has plenty. In a durability testing room, a robotic arm that wouldn’t look out of place in a car plant endlessly pokes the eject button on a CD-ROM like a kid with the world’s longest attention span. Open. Close. Open. Close. Nearby, a lifter mechanism tests hinges by opening and closing them over and over, with a pneumatic hiss every time. Another one prods the lid with five pounds of force, over and over again in different spots, a task so monotonous it almost makes you feel sorry for the little ‘bot.

Keep on keeping on

The EliteBook can tolerate drops, shocks, dust, heat, cold and salt fog, but its biggest challenge might be the volatile business environment in the emerging “post-PC” world. HP announced in August that it may be pulling out of the notebook business in the near future, but mobility PR guru Mike Hockey claims the EliteBook will live on.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Hockey confidently claims. “Even in the last month here, we’ve introduced brand new products.”

Ultimately, HP could decide to keep its PC business, spin it off into a new company, or sell it. But like IBM’s orphaned ThinkPad brand, the EliteBook will live on in. The real question will be whether it still has a purpose in a land of iPads, TouchPads, and PlayBooks. After all, who wants a notebook when they can have a sleek tablet that weighs half as much?

The same people who buy pickup trucks instead of sports cars. Working folks. As an incredulous pig farmer once told an Economist reporter when he questioned his allegiance to his truck, “I ain’t hauling hog shit in a car.”

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