If there's one thing we took away from our jaunt at CES, it's this: consumers' appetites for mainstream laptops haven't waned all that much. Even in the Ultrabook category, Intel expects half of the models to go on sale this year will have 14- and 15-inch screens -- as strong an indicator as any that lots of folks aren't yet ready to give up their slightly larger screens, their discrete graphics, their (gasp!) optical drives. While HP recently announced its first Ultrabook for the consumer market, the Envy 14 Spectre, it's fully fleshed out its premium Envy series to include two additional models for people who crave more oomph.

The Envy 15 is the medium-sized member of the crew, with a 15.6-inch screen and the same overhauled design you'll find across the Envy lineup. Delightfully, too, it marks the return of HP's eye-popping Radiance display, and also comes with a generous two-year warranty and full copies of Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements. And with a starting price of $1,100, it sharply undercuts the 15-inch MacBook Pro, while taking direct aim at other high-end 15-inchers, like the Dell XPS 15z and Samsung Series 7 Chronos. So how does it stack up? Meet us after the break to find out.
Gallery | 39 Photos

HP Envy 15 review (early 2012)


Look and feel


As a rule of thumb, saying a laptop looks like a MacBook Pro is akin to a reviewer falling back on adjectives like "cool," "fun" and "crappy": it's imprecise, and not particularly helpful to our readers. Besides, "It looks like a Mac!" is often shorthand for "it has a chiclet keyboard!" or "it's painted silver!" Usually, we're talking about overarching similarities, at most. Does the XPS 15z bear a resemblance to a now-discontinued Mac? Kind of. Would you ever mistake that keyboard lettering and embellished hinge for Jony Ive creations? No way. And until the suits over in Cupertino start suing rival PC makers for their flattery, we're going to assume Apple understands this too.

Still, it's painfully obvious where HP drew its inspiration for its newest Envy laptops. It's not because of any single design choice, like the aluminum unibody chassis, island-style keys, glowing logo or giant clickpad; it's all of the above! HP's latest 15-incher is the most flagrant Mac imitation we've seen in some time, and the resemblance is close enough that you could, at first glance, mistake the interior for an MBP. Of course, HP threw in some flourishes that keep it from being a total facsimile: the lid and underside are black, not silver, the keyboard area has a thin red ring around it and there are Beats-branded volume controls on the laptop's right side. HP also rounded the edges so that they feel more like a butter knife than a steak utensil. Even so, tacking on an analog volume dial feels like the PC-making equivalent of Honda adding wings to the Civic and calling it the Civic Type R. What we're saying is, the Envy 15 is hardly identical, but HP doesn't deserve points for originality either.


In any case, the Envy 15 is attractive, uncluttered and well-made. The hinge feels sturdy, and the metal used in the palm rest seems less vulnerable to scratches than the aluminum casing on the MacBook Pro. Thanks to HP's CoolSense technology, the laptop also does a marvelous job of shifting heat off the bottom side of the laptop, so that you can rest it on your legs for hours without fear of first-degree burns. Still, you might hear some creaking when pressing your fingers against the right side of the palm rest. This is hardly a deal-breaker, though, especially since the laptop's too unwieldy to lift with one hand anyway.

As you'd expect, it's easy enough to shuttle the Envy 15 around the house, or to and from the office. At 5.79 pounds / 1.1 inches thick, it's bulkier and heavier than the 5.54-pound Dell XPS 15z as well as the 5.6-pound MacBook Pro and 4.4-pound Sony VAIO SE series though it's more in line with the Sony VAIO SE series, which clocks in at 5.77 pounds. It's also about as wide as its competitors, save the MBP, which means you shouldn't have a problem toting it in a backpack or some over-the-shoulder bag. Basically, unless you have the dough to drop on the 15-inch Samsung Series 9 and can do without that optical drive, this is more or less what you can expect from a laptop this size.
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HP Envy 15 vs. the MacBook Pro


Continuing our tour around the Envy 15's imposing frame, the bottom side has a reasonably clean look, but still gives you access to the battery and hard drive. A long vent takes up the back side, with the left and right edges consumed by a wide selection of ports, including three USB ports (one 2.0 and two of the 3.0 persuasion), HDMI, DisplayPort, an Ethernet jack, a memory card reader, Kensington lock slot, a microphone port and dual headphone jacks. A slot-loading DVD drive lives on the left side (sorry, no Blu-ray option on this model.) In terms of the layout, HP did Apple one better, stacking the ports on two sides instead of one, with the two USB 3.0 sockets on the left edge, and the lone 2.0 port on the right. Good news for anyone who hates the sight of all their peripherals growing out of a tightly packed cluster of USB ports.

Keyboard and trackpad


When we first got hands-on with the Envy 15 back in the fall, we came away impressed by its deep, pillowy keys. Having used them for almost a week, though, it's clear the keyboard suffers from the same fundamental problem as a lot of its shallower brethren. Which is to say, despite having lots of travel, it feels sticky, and we got used to typing with concerted effort in order to ensure every letter registered. If, like the Engadget crew, you get paid to write thousands of words at a time, this could be an occupational hazard, but perhaps it won't be as annoying for pecking out short web searches. In the grand scheme of keyboards, it's eminently usable, but we recall a more natural typing experience on rival machines like the Dell XPS 14z / 15z.

The keys sure are pretty, at least. Like other laptops in the Envy lineup, the 15 has a backlight underneath each individual key, allowing for a brighter glow than what you'll find on most other laptops. If you'd rather save your battery power, you can press F5 to deactivate this feature, in which case only that function button will glow white -- a helpful reminder of how to turn it back on again.


While we muddled through with the keyboard, though, we never did make peace with the trackpad. For starters, the surface offers a bit too much friction, and even dragging the cursor across the screen can feel like a two-step process. Two-fingered scrolling requires a good deal of pressure, and even then, we often found ourselves pawing at the trackpad in vain. Pinch to zoom doesn't demand as much pressure, but the pad is so sensitive to this gesture that it's easy to overshoot and accidentally scale text so that it's too large or too small. Worse, the touchpad often mistook right clicks for left ones, and dumped the cursor on random spots in the page. Sometimes this happened even while we were typing, and our palms happened to graze the pad. Even if HP and Synaptics could cook up a driver update to make for a smoother experience, there would still be one lingering pain point: as with the Folio 13, the clickpad mechanism here is stiff, and difficult to press. You can avoid the button somewhat by tapping to left click, but who wants to have to re-learn how to interact with a PC?

Display


Though the base Envy 15 comes with a humdrum 1366 x 768 panel, you can upgrade to a 1080p, IPS Radiance display for an extra $150. And really, you should. Not only is the screen worth it, but we'd go so far as to say this is one of the more likely reasons you'd choose this over any of the other umpteen 15-inch laptops on the market. It's not just the 1920 x 1080 pixel count (though that's certainly welcome); it's the deep blacks, the rich colors and that bright backlighting. Not to mention, those versatile viewing angles. Whether you're pounding away at a Word document or going on a Netflix bender, you won't spend too much time futzing with the screen angle before going about your business. While the contest remains consistently balanced, though, that reflective finish can get in the way of easy viewing if you dip the lid forward, or watch a movie from an off-kilter position. It wasn't a constant annoyance, but use the machine long enough and you'll eventually catch the display at the wrong angle, in the wrong light, and find yourself staring down pockets of glare. This varies depending on the brightness level, as you'll see in the gallery below.
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HP Envy 15 review (display)


There's no doubt this is one of the most arresting displays you'll find in a laptop, and we're glad HP came to its senses after discontinuing the Radiance panel offered on the last-gen Envy 14. Still, it's worth noting that the VAIO SE series starts at $1,000 with a 1080p display and it has a matte finish. The XPS 15z is also offered with a 300-nit, 1920 x 1080 screen, though in all fairness we weren't enamored with the contrast or viewing angles. And though the MacBook Pro's standard 1440 x 900 display leaves room for improvement (a bump in brightness and wider viewing angles on the glossy panel top our list), it's at least offered with an anti-glare finish, giving fans of matte screens yet another option.

We should also warn you that we're hearing complaints from early adopters who say their Radiance panels are showing some inaccurate color calibration -- specifically, that shades of red appear more orange than crimson, while violet looks more blue than purple. In a statement, an HP spokesperson told us, "We are looking into this. We'll get back to our customers because we're committed to earning their satisfaction." In the meantime, then, we'll offer the gallery below as a sampling of what you'll get on the Envy 15 versus other laptops. We'll admit: the hues here skew more red-orange than red, though the pink-reds you'll see elsewhere aren't necessarily pitch-perfect either. We'd be willing to concede the color reproduction here is different, to say the least, and likely in need of some fine-tuning. We're guessing a lot of folks will notice the vibrant, saturated colors first, and the orangey reds second, if at all. Then again, once you know what to look for, it's impossible to ignore.
Gallery | 9 Photos

HP Envy 15 review (Radiance display calibration)


While we're on the subject of the Envy 15's dense, sprawling screen, the laptop comes loaded with Intel's Wireless Display technology for mirroring your desktop and streaming 1080p movies to a monitor or HDTV. To do this, you'll need to spring for an adapter like this. Once you've procured that, you'll find the setup easy and the streaming fluid. Just be sure to keep the laptop outside your peripheral vision, as playback between the laptop and monitor tends to be slightly out of sync.

Sound


Though HP's Beats-branded laptops occasionally fall into gimmick territory, we've generally found the bass-rich sound lives up to Dr. Dre's marketing hype. The Envy 15 is no exception, with six speakers and a miniature subwoofer that deliver some of the best audio you'll find on a laptop. Sure, we might still prefer a dedicated set of speakers to do our old Roots records justice, but that said, it's a clear step up from the tinny, metallic sound we've encountered on most other laptops.

We were also pleased with the volume on this guy -- so much so that we rarely felt the need to push it above the lowest setting, which equates to the 12 / 100 mark in the Windows volume slider. We also like that there's a dedicated mute button next to the volume dial; we just had to get used to the fact that it was there, and not hidden among the other multimedia controls built into the Function keys.

In a cute touch, the Beats volume dial is shaped like a disc, which you can spin like a record by running your finger over the top surface. Sometimes, though, when you do that the computer won't register your touch; we found that rolling the dial built into the side of the laptop is much more reliable. Press down on that spinning disc, and a dashboard will pop up, allowing you to make some minor tweaks to the settings. Suffice to say, it would seem that users aren't meant to do a deep dive in customizing the EQ profiles; that's Dre and Company's job, of course.

The Envy 15 also supports HP's new Wireless Audio technology, which lets you stream music from your PC to as many as four KleerNet-compatible speakers. Alas, though, we weren't equipped with Kleer-powered speakers or HP's $100 adapter, so we weren't able to test this feature.

Performance

PCMark Vantage
3DMark06
HP Envy 15 (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, AMD Radeon HD 7690M 1GB) 7,210 8,839
Dell XPS 15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M) 8,023 7,317
15-inch Samsung Series 7 Chronos (2.2GHz Core i7-2675QM, Intel HD 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6750M 1GB) 7,824 8,891
Sony VAIO SE series (2.4GHz Core i5-2430M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB) 5,632 6,898
2011 15-inch MacBook Pro (2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM, Radeon HD 6750M / Intel Graphics 3000) 8,041 10,262
Acer TimelineX AS5830TG-6402 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M) 6,475 5,330
Dell XPS 14z (Dell XPS 14z (2.8GHz Core i7-2640M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / NVIDIA GeForce GT520M 1GB) 7,982 5,414
2011 HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB) 6,735 7,214
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Though it starts at $1,100, we tested a slightly more tricked-out $1,250 configuration with a 2.4GHz Core i5-2430M processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200RPM hard drive and a 1GB AMD Radeon HD 7690M card. Getting those benchmarks out of the way, we're off to a good start in PCMark Vantage: the 15 managed to blow past the similarly priced VAIO SE series by more than 1,500 points, even though the two have some comparable components, including 6GB of RAM, the same CPU and discrete AMD graphics cards with 1GB of video memory. On the graphics front, the Envy 15's 3DMark06 score of 8,839 bests many of the other 15-inch configurations we tested, and falls right in line with what we got from Samsung's $1,099 Series 7 Chronos.

The biggest obstacle standing between us and our productivity was that half-baked touchpad.

During our test period, we used the Envy 15 for writing stories, surfing the web, chatting in Pidgin and plugging numbers into a Google spreadsheet. When the work day ended, yours truly spent hours at a time streaming back-to-back episodes of Arrested Development over Netflix, along with the occasional YouTube video. Through it all, the machine kept pace, booting into Windows in a speedy 27 seconds (with an extra 10 until we had full control of the desktop). In the disk benchmark ATTO, it hit peak read speeds of 105 MB/s, and top writes of 104 MB/s. As we said earlier, the machine also manages heat well, even through heavy streaming sessions. Sure, the palm rest is likely to get lukewarm, but it never gets uncomfortable to touch, and that bottom side in particular stays nice and cool.

If anything, the biggest obstacle standing between us and our productivity was that half-baked touchpad. Were it not for the awkward, stiff button and its poor palm rejection, we would have been better able to concentrate on our work, instead of dwelling on why PC manufacturers give clickpads so many chances.

Battery life

Laptop
Battery Life
HP Envy 15 4:07
Dell XPS 15z 3:41 (Optimus disabled) / 4:26 (Optimus enabled)
15-inch Samsung Series 7 Chronos 5:47
Sony VAIO SE series 3:59 (stamina mode) / 8:58 (stamina mode, slice battery)
2011, 15-inch MacBook Pro 7:27
Acer TimelineX AS5830TG-6402 6:25
Dell XPS 14z 4:54
2011 HP Envy 14 3:55

The Envy 15's eight-cell (4,780mAh) battery lasted through more than four hours of video playback in our standard rundown test, which bodes even better if you want a few hours of unplugged web surfing on the couch. All told, that's slightly better than what you'd get with the Sony VAIO SE series (sans the optional slice battery that Sony sells for $150). It's also notable that the Envy 15 manages to pull slightly longer runtime than the smaller, last-gen Envy 14.

Still, as respectable as that runtime is, we can think of a handful of similarly sized laptops that last longer. These include the Dell XPS 15z, which has a 20-minute lead; the Series 7 Chronos and Acer TimelineX AS5830T, both of which hover in the six-hour range; and the MacBook Pro, which squeezed out seven and a half hours in the same test. Of course, the trade-off to the MBP's epic battery life is that its battery is non-user-replaceable, which, as we all know, can be a pain when the capacity eventually depletes.

Software

In addition to the usual suspects (read: Norton Internet Security and Microsoft Office), the Envy 15 comes with full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements on board -- useful programs that OEMs tend not to throw in gratis. Other benign apps include CyberLink YouCam and Power2Go, and Windows Live Essentials 2011. As you might expect, though, HP's own tools comprise a fair chunk of the pre-installed software. These include utilities like HP Power Manager, Quick Launch, Setup, Support Assistant and Power Manager, as well as HP's own movie store. This time around, at least, these apps didn't get in our way as much as they have with other HP systems we've tested.

Configuration options


So what does $1,100 get you? That base model comes with a 2.5GHz Core i5-2450M processor, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200RPM drive and that Radeon HD 7690M graphics card with 1GB of GDDR5 memory. Upgrade options include 2.2GHz Core i7-2670QM, 2.4GHz Core i7-2760QM and 2.5GHz Core i7-2860QM CPUs ($100, $250 and $450, respectively) and up to 16GB of RAM ($460). As for storage, you can bump to a 750GB 7,200RPM HDD for $40, or a 1TB 5,400RPM number for $80. HP's also selling a 750GB 7,200RPM hybrid hard drive for $90 and a choice of 160GB and 300GB solid-state drives ($210 and $440, respectively). To repeat, that 1080p Radiance display is a $150 add-on.

More important than any upgrade, though, is the fact that Envy 15 comes standard with a two-year warranty. A great value when you consider the industry standard is one year.

The competition


The market is absolutely stuffed with 15-inch laptops, but the field narrows somewhat when we restrict ourselves to more premium machines, with discrete graphics and higher-quality displays. Let's start with the MacBook Pro, if only because HP chose to ape its design with this generation of products. The MBP isn't cheap, and on paper, its innards are modest given the high cost of entry: for $1,800, you get a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor, 4GB of RAM (upgradeable to 8GB), a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive, a 1440 x 900 display (glossy, by default) and a duo of graphics cards that includes Intel's HD 3000 integrated solution and AMD's Radeon HD 6750M with 512MB of GDDR5 memory. The ports include Thunderbolt and FireWire sockets, two USB 2.0 ports and an SDXC slot. It also has a slot-loading DVD burner. Again, not exactly $1,800 specs here.

To its credit, though, it performs well. According to benchmarks, at least, it leads its peers in both overall and graphics performance, and its battery life is about an hour longer than what even the Acer Aspire AS5830T has to offer. It also has a more comfortable keyboard than the Envy 15 -- not to mention, a smoother trackpad. Still, the 15 bests the MacBook Pro in a host of other areas: heat management, price, overall value, audio, port layout and the ability to replace components easily. It also has a brighter display with wider viewing angles, albeit with some likely color calibration issues we haven't seen on the MBP. So there's lots to love here, though we suspect the Envy's touchpad and inaccurate color reproduction will be deal-breakers for some shoppers.

As for Samsung, the Series 7 Chronos offers longer battery life than the Envy 15, along with a matte display, but this touchpad, too, has problems, and we weren't thrilled with the overall fit and finish either. Still, for $1,099, it offers a tempting collection of specs, including a 2.2GHz Core i7-2675QM CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 750GB 7,200RPM hybrid hard drive and two graphics cards: Intel's HD 3000 and AMD's Radeon HD 6750M card.


In Sony's camp, the VAIO SE series ($1,000 and up) starts with a 2.4GHz Core i5-2430M CPU, 4GB of RAM (upgradeable to 8GB), AMD Radeon HD 6470M graphics with 512MB of video memory, a 640GB 5,400RPM hard drive, a matte, 1080p display, a 4,400mAh battery and a DVD burner. As you can see in our benchmark table up there, the performance is more than serviceable, but it trails our similarly configured HP Envy 15. We also had some trouble performing multi-touch gestures on the SE Series' trackpad, though you'll of course encounter similar problems with the 15. And again, there is something to be said for the SE's lovely, anti-glare display, which comes standard with 1080p resolution, something for which HP is charging an extra $150.

We can't talk about the Envy 15, though, without mentioning another oldie-but-goodie, last year's Dell XPS 15z. The 15z is home to one of the most comfortable keyboard-and-trackpad combos we've tested, and is both thinner and lighter than its competitors, at 5.54 pounds and less than an inch thick. And though its performance scores fall short of some other 15-inch laptops we've tested, we were impressed by how effectively the system dispels heat. Some things to keep in mind while you're shopping: it's not offered with any quad-core CPUs, the four configurations are barely customizable and, as with the Envy 15, there's no Blu-ray option. And though it has discrete graphics, its performance doesn't quite match other machines, while NVIDIA's Optimus technology doesn't translate to spectacular runtime. All that said, the $1,000 base model offers similar specs as the $1,100 Envy 15, including a 2.4GHz Core i5-2430M CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200RPM hard drive, a DVD burner, 64Wh battery and a 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 525M card with Optimus.

In some ways, the 15 improves on the notebook it so unsubtly imitates.

Of all the models here, Toshiba's Satellite P750 is the most aggressively priced, with a $499 starting point. Even if you move beyond that base model, which brings a quad-core AMD A6 APU, 3GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, you could still walk home with a quad-core Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive, 4,400mAh battery and a 1GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M card for $799. Hell, you could step up to a 500GB 7,200RPM hybrid hard drive ($80), 8GB of RAM ($140) and a Blu-ray burner ($150), and still pay just $1,170 -- less than the price of our tester Envy 15. Granted, there are some things money can't buy here, including a higher-res, higher-quality display, solid-state storage and a more striking design.

At last, and not to be discounted, Acer's TimelineX series continues to be a solid choice for people who crave discrete graphics and healthy battery life. Though it's available in a host of screen sizes, we'll focus on the 15-inch AS5830, which starts at $700 -- or $780, if you want those dedicated graphics. To this day, most mainstream laptops don't come close to topping its battery life, though the trade-off for that longevity is a humdrum 1366 x 768 display, middling performance (that discrete graphics card be damned) and a plainer design.

Wrap-up


Okay, time to get it out of your system. Say it with us: the Envy 15 unapologetically copies the MacBook Pro. Feel good, getting that off your chest? Excellent. Onto the business of evaluating the laptop for what it does. In some ways, the 15 improves on the notebook it so unsubtly imitates: it has a sharper (though imprecisely calibrated) display with wide viewing angles. Its speakers and miniature subwoofer produce exceptional audio for a laptop. The laptop comes with a generous two-year warranty, Intel Wireless Display and full copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements. It won't burn your legs, thanks to an effective heat management system. And at $1,100, it's more affordable than that other Envy.

But HP stumbles in several critical areas: the Envy 15 is heavier than other laptops in its class, and in exchange for toting that extra heft, you're rewarded with middling battery life. The keyboard's alright, but we did have to type in a deliberate way to ensure it recognized our every press. Then there are those color accuracy problems. Most importantly, though, the laptop's saddled with a finicky, stiff touchpad -- a nuisance large enough to slow down your entire workflow. A shame, since this is an otherwise speedy machine. Because of these shortcomings, the Envy 15 doesn't best the MacBook Pro, though it admirably undercuts its lofty $1,800 starting price. All told, the Envy 15 offers some compelling features for the money, but before you pull the trigger we'd suggest you also check out the Dell XPS 15z, which is lighter with a comfier keyboard / trackpad, as well as the long-lasting Samsung Series 7 Chronos. If you do go for the Envy 15, we hope you have a pretty stationary setup in mind: you'll want an outlet close by and also, a mouse.
HP

HP Envy 15

Pros

  • 1080p IPS display, excellent audio
  • Runs cool
  • Two-year warranty
  • Photoshop Elements / Premiere Elements included

Cons

  • Flaky trackpad with stiff built-in button
  • Middling battery life
  • Imprecise color calibration
Summary

The Envy 15 is a solidly built machine with compelling features, but its stiff trackpad and mediocre battery life dampen the user experience.