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.