Inside HP’s laptop torture chambers

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The stereotypes are true: The wide-laned roads on the way to HP’s Houston campus jam packed with pickup trucks. Silverados. Rams. Even a Nissan Titan here or there. They shoot past parking lots full of more pickup trucks, pickup truck dealerships, and pickup truck mechanics.

Love or loathe the Texan obsession with heavy haulers, it seems oddly appropriate that HP’s EliteBook R&D labs are situated in the heart of pickup country. Though you’re more likely to spot a Prius after turning down Compaq Center Drive than an F-150, HP’s revered business notebooks have a lot in common with the heavy haulers of the road: They’re tough, built for work, and wind up in the hands of fiercely loyal buyers who beat the living hell out of them.

Which means that, not unlike Ford loading trucks up with gravel, driving trucks over washboard pavement, and up 45-degree inclines, HP needs to put its EliteBooks through the ringer before they ever end up in the hand of professionals. Inside an otherwise unassuming network of buildings, a dedicated team of HP sadists do just that.

Home in the heartland

The mirrored windows, grandiose glass atriums and manicured lawns make HP’s Houston campus seem more like a sleek Silicon Valley campus than the dreary office park Mike Judge’s Office Space taught us to expect in Texas. From inside the glass walkways that lace together the buildings like human hamster tubes, the only evidence you’re not cooking in the heat of the Valley comes from the sweat of condensation that runs down the windows in the sticky, 95-degree September heat.

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This used to be Compaq territory, and it still bears the bright red railings and motivational posters to prove it. HP snapped up the native Texan brand nearly 10 years ago, and now its former headquarters play home to the R&D facilities for the EliteBook brand, along with a handful of HP’s other operations. Row after row of empty cubicles on the ground floors still indicate the place is in some sort of transition a decade later, but below ground, where pink granite gives way to cinder blocks, it’s another story.

The thing with business notebooks, as with pickup trucks, is that people expect them to last. And last. And last. While consumers jump from style to style and replace working laptops to gain features like sharper displays, business users expect to drive their notebooks into the ground. So a dedicated crew of HP gurus have made it their jobs to simulate the same abuse before consumers do.

Prepare for the worst

Part of use is abuse, which means HP actually accommodates for much more than a trip to the office and back in padded briefcase every day.

Down a labyrinthine hall, James Woods handles the goriest bits of notebook testing in a lab that seems almost hidden intentionally from the rest of the building, as if to shield engineers from the brutal abuse of the products they painstakingly design. An imposing figure with a graying goatee, Texas drawl and heavy work boots that contrast with the loafers scampering around the rest of the building, Woods has the demeanor of a shop teacher gone mad, maniacally focused on destroying notebooks.

First up, a good old-fashioned drop test. Woods places a notebook on two fork-lift-like prongs 30 inches above a sheet of plywood. With the press of a button, they swoop out from under it, leaving it clattering to the ground. It still boots up – this time – but it’s just the beginning. All told, Woods will put a single notebook through the mini Tower of Terror ride 26 times to test different angles before declaring it fit.

Nearby, a table jolts up and down furiously with a packaged laptop strapped helplessly to the top. It’s an electromechanical machine – literally a giant speaker diaphragm — generating not room-rattling bass but brutal vibration. All the shaking emulates the abuse a package would receive on a cross-country ride in a semi truck. As engineers continually whittle down packaging to save on both costs and improve environmental footprints, the new designs get strapped to Woods’ torture tester to make sure they haven’t removed one chunk of cardboard too many.

As multiple bootprints on one test notebook illustrate, it takes more than a 300-pound man to defeat the magnesium-reinforced skeleton engineers have concocted for the EliteBook. All that footprint actually spreads out the weight nicely. Things get medieval in a larger room, where an industrial press acts like a supsersized vice, crushing down on the lid of a closed laptop with a small stamper. Woods admits this isn’t the machine they actually use. With 25,000 pounds of force on tap – the maximum capacity on many commercial elevators — it’s overkill. But fun to watch. With the notebook in place, the stamper slowly lowers onto the lid and begins delivering pressure. At first, nothing happens. At about 30 pounds, it begins to deform. At 190, a pop signals the destruction of something, but on removal, the LCD is still intact.

In another room, an atmospheric test chamber simulates bringing a notebook from the altitude of Mount Everest to the subterranean pressure of a mine one mile beneath the Earth’s surface – both of which EliteBooks have actually seen service. The same oven-like box can produce extreme temperatures from below freezing to over 100 Celsius, simulating both ends of the temperature spectrum and the thermal shock that happens when you quickly jump between them. (Think of retrieving your laptop from the trunk of your car in the dead of winter then firing it up in a heated living room.)

The most intriguing bit of equipment at Woods’ disposal may be an ominous-looking box with a bubbling tube of fluid attached to the side and a vent gently wafting whisps of white mist out the bottom like the world’s worst fog machine. That’s actually what it is: a salt fogger, which simulates corrosive marine environments. Your 1995 Ford Escort might not handle it well, but an EliteBook will: neither aluminum nor magnesium rust.

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