HP Envy 13 review

In more ways than one, the HP Envy 13 seems like a "new generation" of PC laptop for HP or even the industry. Intentional or not it bears more in resemblance with Apple's lineup than its own predecessors, it's part of the very first wave of computers with Windows 7 pre-installed, it places a large emphasis on battery life but still manages great performance, and it's a "luxury" PC that actually provides some pretty good excuses for its inflated pricetag. We've spent a nice solid week with the laptop, so find out if the Envy 13 can live up to its promise after the break.


As is our wont, we're writing up this review on the laptop itself, providing us with a great vantage point for taking in all of the laptop's triumphs and flaws. The entire laptop runs very cool to the touch, especially in the palm rest, which is textured with an odd (but not distracting) pattern of dug out squares. The curved metal edge that runs around the laptop comes to a rather sharp edge, similar to that of a MacBook Pro, and is slightly uncomfortable if our wrists are laid heavily across it. Ports-wise there's very little to keep track of, with a power plug and SD card slot on the left (the Envy 13 actually comes with its user manual on a 2GB SD card, a nice touch), and two USB ports, HDMI and hybrid audio plug for headphones and / or a mic on the right side. Quite similar to the MacBook, there's actually a bit of opportunity for pinching yourself in the dropped hinge, though HP opted for vents on the left and right side of the laptop instead of up through the hinge -- obviously to good effect. The fan is usually on, but quiet enough not to be a bother. The back of the lid is plain gunmetal, with just a bit of indication of which way is up to help us find the little lip to lift the display open -- it's held in place by a just-right magnetic latch. The whole laptop is quite light "enough" for the size, balances well on a lap, and can be carried one-handed open quite easily for that impromptu relocation from armchair to couch.

The keys are a lightweight, dull, squared-off plastic, and encompass all the laptop's functionalities -- none of those pesky capacitive-actuated brightness or volume controls here. You actually have to hold the function key to use one of the F1-F12 keys for its original purpose, but that's hardly a loss, since we do a lot more volume adjustment that archaic function commands. Unfortunately, the keys feel a little "weak" for our taste, bordering on a cheap feel due to the slightly loose, plastic clack of them. There's not a lot of push-back when typing, making touch typing a bit less pleasant. It's not horrible, just not our ideal keyboard -- and the lack of a backlight seems odd in this otherwise "luxury" package.

We've already mentioned the stunning screen, and we really can't overstate how nice it is. It's very bright, and the colors are just ultra-rich -- though out of the box it's tinted a tad red to our eyes. Oddly enough 1600 x 900 seems like a near ideal resolution for a 13-inch screen. We've got significantly more information than a regular WXGA resolution at this size, but no real eye strain at the pixel density. The glare is annoying, however. At the moment we're sitting far away from daylight windows, and some utterly boring overhead fluorescents are providing a significant enough nuisance to be a bother. Sure, there are plenty of other computers that are just this bad, but that doesn't make it right. There's also auto-dimming of the display when on battery, which can't be easily overcome with the brightness keys, a slight annoyance.

HP has "Beats" branded sound, which apparently means artist-approved circuitry -- though there's nothing particular like a more powerful amp or any particular added component to separate the sound output from a regular laptop. Compared to a MacBook Pro, a golden-eared friend of ours detected a slight improvement in stereo separation and clarity, along with just a touch of "punchier" bass. If you're really after this laptop for its sound properties, you'll be best served testing it out yourself or finding a more detailed review of that aspect, but most people probably won't be able to detect a difference in quality. At least there's nothing bad like a buzz coming off of the 1/8-inch plug as we've had with some shoddier laptops.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Envy 13 is the optional slice battery, which promises to more than double the battery life of the computer. Even better, it doesn't do too much damage to the thickness or weight of the laptop -- basically turning it from a thin-and-light 13-inch laptop to a "regular" 13-incher, which isn't that bad of a tradeoff. Unfortunately, HP's battery life predictions are woefully overstated compared to what a typical user will get untethered. For instance, we ran down a full charge on the standard battery in a bit over two hours with the screen at near-full brightness and WiFi on, merely listening to iTunes and typing into a Google doc. Sure, there are a bunch of optimizations that can be done to milk more out of the battery, but we were hoping for a little more with the discrete graphics off (the default when the laptop is unplugged, though you can override) and this small of screen to power. The slice more than doubles that battery life, so we're looking at 5+ hours using this thing full tilt, and with lowered brightness and WiFi off (like on an airplane) we'd say 8+ hours is totally reasonable. What's unreasonable is that HP markets this with an "up to 18 hours" figure (16ish with our non-ULV configuration like ours) from a Mobile Mark benchmark -- which is kind of like lying. Just because everybody does it doesn't make it right.

And at last we arrive at the real bone to pick with this laptop: the horrible trackpad. At first blush it doesn't look too bad, since it's large, non-glossy and relatively unadorned. It's lacking buttons, like Apple's recent MacBooks, but that didn't end the world or anything, did it? Well, somebody botched this part bad. HP apparently forgot that axing the buttons means making darn well sure the software is pitch-perfect. And it isn't. Whether Synaptics is to blame for its drivers or hardware, or HP for the configuration, at the end of the day HP is the one that's selling this $1,700 laptop to people with a basically non-usable trackpad. The primary problem is that the pad is designed to be clicked when there's only one finger on it, so if we're using an index finger to mouse and a thumb to click, we have to lift the index finger when we click. The other problem is that when the thumb is present, it has a tendency to throw off the tracking of the index finger. There are also problems with sensitivity when it comes to scrolling and other gestures, but we find ourselves getting better at tracing gestures over the soft touch material -- it just takes a steady hand and a little bit of luck. We're sure some crazy person could eventually become adept at the trackpad, and we could see how some executive at the company could've rubber stamped the part after spending 30 seconds with it and declaring "it kind of looks like Apple's pad," but we're not sure how a computer company that's been building laptops for a couple decades could really send a computer out the door in good conscience with a primary input device that's this abysmal.

Software / performance

So, this is the first Windows 7 pre-installed laptop that we've gotten to play with extensively, and it's a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it's been nice to not worry at all about drivers -- everything "just works" to an even greater extent than before. On the other hand, once Windows 7 has been bogged down with all the trappings of a shipping system, it starts to lose a bit of its allure. For instance, we're looking at a roughly one minute boot time (usually a bit under 59 seconds, and we're tracking all the way to an actually responsive desktop) -- we said "snappy" in our first impressions, but that's probably because we're not super picky once things get near the one minute mark. So, not terrible, but it's not exactly that sub-30 second holy grail we've all been waiting on. There are other little annoyances brought on by a commercial install, like the fact that Norton would really, really like us to install it -- and in fact won't let us dismiss its installation warnings. We know, we're playing with fire by avoiding anti-virus, but the fact that we have to install Norton before we can uninstall it is pretty crazy. What if we had our own anti-virus software we wanted to install? The copy of IE 8 is also pretty laughable, packed with a space-wasting HP toolbar with Bing search, and then of course IE's regular Bing search box and then an HP-branded AOL as the default homepage.

Part of that start-up time is the instant-on Linux, though it's a very brief pit-stop on boot if you just click the friendly Windows icon on the bottom left corner instead of waiting for the 20 second countdown. It can be deactivated, but we kind of find it reassuring that we can do the Linux thing whenever it strikes our fancy. Unfortunately, one of the large drawbacks of the instant-on system is that there's no two-finger scrolling with the track pad, which makes web browsing a bit of a chore. Interestingly, when you use a Google account to set up email or a calendar, it actually creates a web applet for viewing Gmail or Gcal directly, instead of importing the info into an app -- bad for offline use (it's Google Gears incompatible) but great for consistency in experience.

Speaking of consistency, and back on the Windows side of things, we found it weird that the volume controls have a screen overlay "progress bar" style indicator, while brightness did not. There was also no visual indication of the playback control buttons, and they didn't have any impact on iTunes when it was a background app.

HP's own MediaSmart apps are kind of hit or miss. They're pretty light on features compared to regular desktop counterparts, have controls that are designed for a touchscreen, and don't integrate well with the rest of Windows. Still, the webcam app with its Photo Booth-style effects and YouTube upload is pretty nice, and at least HP is keeping an eye out for these sorts of value-adds. Also shipping with the computer are a pair of much-more-helpful Corel apps: Paint Shop Pro Photo and VideoStudio.

One concern on the software side is that as 64-bit really becomes popular with Windows 7 and new hardware, general users who just buy a computer aren't going to necessarily know which version of applications to download -- it's not like there's a sticker that says "64-bit" anywhere on the machine. We suppose we'll have to see how much of a problem that presents for compatibility going forward, but it already has meant one trip to our system info just to make certain-sure which version we were running.

The hide-away system tray is surprisingly non-cluttered, with a reasonable collection of icons corresponding to major bits of hardware and their respective vendors: ATI for video card settings, Synaptics for the trackpad, IDT for audio, Intel for integrated graphics, and the (angry) Norton, WiFi and Bluetooth icons. With those all tucked away in the fly-out tray for hidden icons, there's just a "solve PC issues" flag (due to our lack of anti-virus), battery indicator, WiFi indicator and volume indicator in the main bar.

As for that video card and overall performance, we're plenty pleased. The laptops ran some near current-gen games like The Witcher and Quake Wars with passable frame rates at reduced graphics settings -- more than we can say for most of the competition at this form factor. It also is a big help with Blu-ray. Using integrated graphics we were able to play a disc, but it took a painful 55 or so seconds to get to any video, whereas with discrete graphics on we got to the good stuff in about 33 seconds. HP has included a DVD / Blu-ray playback app that fits in nicely with its MediaSmart lineup, which is a nice touch, though it does disable Windows 7 Aero when playing aBlu-ray. The HDMI plug makes the Blu-ray playback doubleplusnice, and we're glad HP didn't go the currently trendy route of DisplayPort for a media-savvy laptop such as this. The included HDMI to VGA display adapter, however, is a bit of a head scratcher. Most people we know willing to drop $1,700 on a thin-and-light have a DVI-capable monitor, and we actually couldn't find a VGA cable within arm's reach the last time we checked, making the archaic plug format officially dead to us.


Overall we're very conflicted about the Envy 13. Hardware wise it's one of our favorite laptops ever, but the trackpad almost destroys all of that good will built up by the other elements -- no matter how great a laptop is, if it's painful to interact with on the go (without an external mouse), what's the point? We also have to say that Windows 7 doesn't make this laptop crazy delicious in any particular manner. It's certainly a better OS than Vista, but it's not so much better to make it a huge selling point in our book or a lure for folks who don't normally walk the Windows path, since many of the traditional pitfalls are still present. All we can say in summary is that we hope HP manages to update the trackpad drivers very, very soon, and that other PC manufacturers steal a bit from HP's and / or Apple's in other respects, since it seems to be working.