HP Envy 15 review

There are laptops and then there are laptops. The Envy 15 has fallen into that second category ever since we got our hands-on: it's the first PC we've seen that really equals the MacBook Pro's unibody design and it packs a scorching-fast Intel Core i7 processor, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4850 graphics and Beats speakers. On paper, this is easily the hottest laptop we've seen in some time, but has HP really managed to deliver on that promise? We spent a few days with this $1,800 monster, so read on to see if it lives up to the hype. %Gallery-80038%


Yes, we know -- at first glance, the Envy 15's aluminum body and rounded edges bear more than a little resemblance to the 15-inch MacBook Pro. But HP's latest is actually a bit more daring than the Apple, with a floral-like pattern of laser-etched divots arrayed across its lid. Not to worry, no one's going to get the impression that this thing is sissy -- especially because the magnesium-alloy frame is incredibly solid. It's surprisingly thin and light for a 15-incher at 5.2 pounds and one-inch thick, but it lacks an optical drive, which is built into the slightly heavier MacBook Pro. (You can buy an external standard DVD drive for $75 or a Blu-Ray for $225 when configuring online).

The Envy 15 packs plenty of muscle with a 1.6GHz Intel Core i7-720QM processor, 8GB of RAM, an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4830 and speedy 7,200rpm hard drive. It's a powerful system, but that Core i7 generates a lot of heat -- more on that later. Ports-wise it's pretty much all laid out on the right side of the laptop with a hybrid audio plug for headphones and/or a mic, a eSATA / USB combo jack, two USB ports, HDMI and Ethernet, while an SD card slot is nestled on the front bottom lip. (The Envy 15 actually comes with its user manual on a 2GB SD card, which we... read thoroughly. Right after we popped it into our camera.)

The 15.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution screen under the lid is incredibly nice on the eyes, and although it's not as intensely bright as the Envy 13, we found it to still be super crisp. Watching a downloaded 1080p clip of a Killers' concert made us feel like we were front row at the show; we could see the beads of sweat beaming off of Brandon Flowers' forehead. We would have preferred if the screen had a flush glass bezel, rather than the thick raised plastic border that surrounds it, however. Above the screen is a a "nightvision" VGA camera that uses infrared LEDs to provide illumination in dark environments. We'll let you, kind reader, imagine what this could be used for, but we will report that the cam lives up to its promise; a Skype call made in the dark was actually visible and our face was illuminated and discernible.

What blows the HD video experience out of the water on the Envy 15 are its stellar Beats Audio speakers. (All the Envys have Beats speakers, but you can also get a $2,299 Beats-branded bundle that comes with a special black paint job, a pair of HD headphones, an ultra mobile audio interface, and Traktor DJ software.) By far the best-sounding speakers we have heard on a laptop in a long time, that same Killers clip sounded incredibly full with a surround quality that was better than any typical cheap headphones or speakers we've heard.

We'll admit that we're happy to see the keyboard deck is void of any finicky brightness or volume touch controls, though you can change those settings with function keys. There's also a column of dedicated shortcut keys for opening the browser or e-mail client. Overall we enjoyed the typing experience; the keys themselves feel sturdy and had a nice bounce as we wrote this review on them. But HP, why no backlight?

The award for most improved touchpad goes to HP's ergonomics team. The trackpad itself is the same glass multitouch unit with integrated mouse buttons found on the Envy 13, but the software's thankfully been updated since our last experience with it -- it takes a bit of getting used to, but most of the issues have been sorted out. Pinching to zoom gestures were responsive, but two-finger scrolling was still a bit choppy in Firefox and Internet Explorer.

Still, we generally plugged in a mouse when we used the Envy 15 -- the trackpad might perform adequately now, but the palm rest got hot. Uncomfortably hot. And this wasn't just when the system was under a lot of stress: the wrist rests and bottom would heat up with just a browser open, and temperatures got hot enough after an hour that we took it off our lap and set it on a table. We surmise this is a result of the Envy's very thin design and hardcore performance parts -- there could just be too much going on underneath its short-on-space-hood. We aren't the first to complain of the heat either, users who have purchased the system also find it quite toasty.

Software, performance and battery life

When you boot up the Envy 15 you have two choices – you can enter the instant-on HP QuickWeb OS or head right into Windows. The pre-boot environment is a nice touch and we had no problems getting connected to a WiFi network to check our Gmail, but we doubt we'd spend much time in this interface when it takes just 20 seconds more to get into Windows 7. Speaking of Windows 7, we continue to wonder why HP feels the need to brand the entire operating system with its colors and themes. More peeving is the amount of junk on the system itself, including Norton pop-ups, semi-automated HP software updaters/assistants and HP's MediaSmart toolbar and software -- after a while we were longing for our pristine install of 7 Home Premium. We'd even go as far to say that it would take less time to install a clean version of the OS rather than uninstall each of HP's preloaded craplets.

Software complaints aside, multitasking was incredibly snappy; running iTunes, TweetDeck, Skype, a number of tabs in Firefox all while a DVD played in the background was no challenge for the Core i7. Though not a likely scenario, playing a 1080p video in QuickTime with a DVD playing in HP's MediaSmart software didn't cause either of the videos to lag. As for gaming, our WoW gnome his new 1080p life, running around quite happily at 35fps. Of course, playing games meant the system once again got insanely hot -- we simply couldn't use the Envy on our lap while slaying orcs.

Performance comes with battery sacrifices, however. While writing this review in Google Docs with a few additional Firefox tabs open, the system lasted just under two hours on a charge. That's pretty abysmal for a larger laptop: the Core i7-equipped Dell Studio 17 gets close to three and a half, while the 15-Inch MacBook Pro gets just about 4 hours. And without the ability to switch off the discrete graphics, there are no battery saving measures. We'd be more forgiving if the power brick weren't so damn large and heavy. It's the kind of charger that belongs underneath a desk, rather than stretched across a bed. Sure, you can always get HP's neatly designed nine-cell slice which fits right on the bottom of the laptop, but that will cost you an extra $125 bucks, and add additional weight and size.

Wrap up

We don't mean to sound like a broken record, but we're just as conflicted about the 15-inch Envy as we were about its 13-inch little brother. The multimedia and gaming experience blew us away -- rarely do we see such performance out of a laptop this sleek and thin -- but all that power results in incredibly high temperatures and below-average battery endurance. If you're willing to put up with hot metal and less than stellar battery life for a pretty awesome multimedia experience, the Envy 15 may be worth a try, but in the end it's hard for us to recommend a laptop that actually became uncomfortable to use and hampered our everyday computing experience. Unfortunately for HP and us, these sorts of dealbreakers seem to be a common trend across its products these days.