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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.

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.

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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.

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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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Nick Mokey
As Digital Trends’ Managing Editor, Nick Mokey oversees an editorial team delivering definitive reviews, enlightening…
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