HP Envy 14 review (2011)

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The last time we reviewed the Envy 14, we concluded, by and large, that HP got it right. The company succeeded in delivering good performance and graphics punch, all while correcting a teensy overheating problem and adding an optical drive and backlit keyboard. Then there was that rock-solid, engraved metal chassis that made it one of the most attractive notebooks on the market -- a distinction it still holds to this day. So as you can imagine, when HP refreshed the Envy 14 this summer, there wasn't exactly a lot to improve. What we have here is a nearly identical machine, with the same stunning design -- not to mention, $1,000 starting price. Now, though, HP is selling it with Sandy Bridge processors and USB 3.0 -- the kind of tweaks laptop makers have been rolling out for the better part of this year.

Normally, that kind of speed bump wouldn't warrant us re-reviewing a laptop. In fact, we probably wouldn't be revisiting the Envy 14 if it weren't for two things. For starters, we've received an unusual number of emails, tweets and comments from readers, imploring us to weigh in on the Sandy Bridge version before they pull the trigger. Secondly, in addition to that processor swap, HP has fine-tuned the touchpad drivers, and assures us the trackpad isn't the flaky mess it was the last two times around. So how much better is the Envy 14 in the year two thousand and eleven? Let's find out.

Look and feel

With the exception of screen size, the 14's design has barely changed since the first generation of Envy laptops arrived on the scene two years ago. As always, its tough metal body, black chiclet keyboard and giant clickable trackpad make it near-impossible to avoid comparisons with the MacBook Pro -- a machine HP is surely going after here anyway. Still, the Envy retains its own personality, thanks to a copper-colored body covered in divets arranged in a sort of paisley pattern. Like any MacBook Pro, it has a glowing logo on the lid and a sparse keyboard deck with almost no buttons, though the Envy does have a band of silver-colored metal encircling the chassis -- a touch that keeps it from looking too much like Apple's unibody wares.

A year after the Envy 14 went on sale, we're still seriously impressed by its build quality. Everything -- the lid, the palm rest -- feels rigid, and you've got the added benefit of metal surfaces that both repel fingerprints and aren't likely to get scratched. Over the past year, though, we've seen more 15-inchers like the Dell XPS 15z, 15-inch VAIO S and Acer Aspire TimelineX AS5830 that measure less than an inch thin, making the Envy 14's 1.16-inch-thick body seem a tad plump by comparison. Still, at 5.69 pounds, it's on par with the 5.6-pound MacBook Pro and the 5.54-pound 15z.

HP's kept pace when it comes to port selection, though. This go 'round, a USB 3.0 port takes the place of a UBS / eSATA combo port. In addition, you'll still find two USB 2.0 sockets, Ethernet, HDMI, DisplayPort, a Kensington lock slot and dual headphone jacks, one of which doubles as a mic port. As you can imagine, with each year that passes HP is that much less likely to add a VGA port to its Envys, so it shouldn't surprise you that this generation lacks one, too. That's a bummer for the PowerPoint crowd, though if you're dead-set on an Envy, that's a problem you can easily remedy with an HDMI to VGA adapter (we're seeing some for less than ten bucks on Amazon).

Keyboard and trackpad

There's really a lot to like about HP's keyboard, but since we have to start somewhere, let's talk about the sound. Yes, the sound. The panel feels as sturdy as the chassis itself, and typing produces a deep, quiet noise that inspires confidence in the machine's build quality -- an improvement over the bendy keyboards and high-pitched clacks you'll find on lots of cheaper systems. But more than that, the keys' soft finish and balanced spacing make them a joy to type on. And while you wouldn't necessarily look at this keyboard and deem the keys cushier than what you'd find on a Sony VAIO, they do, indeed, have more travel -- a kind of tactility that allowed our hands to fly across the keyboard as we typed. In the end, we chose to write large swaths of our review on this machine, not so much because we felt obligated to, but because we felt comfortable where we were.

The trackpad is, to our delight, much improved, though it's still imperfect. For the most part, it did what we wanted it to, though at times we noticed a little more friction than we would have liked. The buttons, too, generally felt tactile -- ever-so slightly stiff, perhaps, but on the whole, easy to press. Multi-touch gestures -- everything from two-fingered scrolling to pinching and zooming -- work smoothly... most of the time. Our main gripe is that to pull off the scrolling bit, we often found ourselves applying extra pressure with our fingers. We also wish we had a little more vertical room to stretch our fingers, particularly when pinching and zooming.

Like the Envy 14 we reviewed last year, the refreshed model has a sensor tucked in the upper left corner of the trackpad that allows you to disable it entirely. That works as promised, responding promptly even to light taps. That's not to say it's too sensitive, though -- we never once activated it by accident.

Display and sound

Regardless of how much money you sink into it, the Envy 14 has a 1366 x 786 display -- a clear let-down from the 1600 x 900 screen we were treated to last year (those sold out and weren't replaced, tragically). If this were a $700 system we wouldn't be complaining, but on a system that costs northward of a thousand bucks, we'd expect more. 1366 x 768 is the mark of a budget machine, not a premium one.

Given the glossy finish, we were pleasantly surprised by the viewing angles. Which is to say, they weren't terrible. We had the best luck watching head-on, either with the display sitting at a right angle, or dipped forward. When we watched from oblique side angles, though, the contrast became too severe, and a lot of color and detail dropped out.

The Envy 14, like its predecessor and pretty much every other PC that HP makes, it comes loaded with Beats Audio, promising lower lows and deeper bass notes. That's the promise, but the reality is that the sound likely only provides a marginal boost over what you're used to. Even when listening to "Rapper's Delight" we could hear some tinniness creeping through. And when we sampled tracks with a higher-pitched quality ("Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," for example), instrumental music took on a faintly metallic quality. The sound is loud, but somehow not enveloping. No worse than what you'll find on most laptops, mind you; just not worlds better.

Performance and graphics

Our Envy 14 ($1,080 as configured) came loaded with a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 750GB 7,200RPM hard drive and dual graphics cards, including Intel's integrated HD option and AMD's Radeon HD 6630M with 1GB of video memory on the discrete side. Starting with benchmarks, it delivered a score of 6,735 in PCMark Vantage, which is on par with the score we got from HP's Pavilion dv6t with the same processor and 6GB of RAM. And while its 3DMark06 score of 7,214 falls about a hundred points short of the Dell XPS 15z (admittedly, a $1,534 machine with a Core i7 CPU), it's still a healthy improvement over the pricier Sony VAIO S we recently tested (see the chart below).

Even more than raw numbers, though, we continue to be impressed with how HP's managed to keep the heat under control. Even after extended active use, the machine -- meaning, the chassis, the keyboard, the bottom side -- all felt cool to the touch. If you bothered to put your finger on the vent on the right side, you'd notice it gets warm, but even then, it's hardly pants-scorching.

As for anecdotal usage, we were quickly able to settle into a typical routine of juggling YouTube and Grooveshark streaming, and bouncing among myriad open tabs in Chrome, including ones for email and GChat, various news outlets and the service we Engadget editors use to compose stories. The machine also boots in 40 seconds -- a fast time for any Windows machine with an HDD, but especially this one, which comes with a decent amount of software pre-installed.



Battery Life

2011 HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M)




15-inch Sony VAIO S series (2.40GHz Core i5-2430M, AMD Radeon HD 6630M)



3:59 (stamina mode) / 8:58 (stamina mode, slice battery)

Acer TimelineX AS5830TG-6402 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M)




Dell XPS M15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M)



3:41 (Optimus disabled) / 4:26 (Optimus enabled)

HP Pavilion dv6t (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)




Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Battery life

Quite average, really. In our standard battery test, which involves playing a movie on repeat with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent, the Envy 14's eight-cell lasted three hours and 55 minutes. That's squarely mediocre when you consider the 15-inch VAIO S series lasted a near-identical three hours and 59 minutes with its integrated graphics card enabled, while the Dell XPS 15z made it three hours and 41 minutes with Optimus turned off. The one major exception we've seen lately in this category is the Acer Aspire TimelineX AS5830T, a 15-inch laptop that squeezed out almost six and a half hours of juice. The point is, the Envy 14 should be fine for working on your couch for a few hours, but remember the charger if you're planning on staying out of the house all day.


Now, as with the last generation of Envys, you're going to stumble across more pre-installed software than perhaps you're used to seeing on consumer laptops (and that's saying a lot). The list includes: Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements 9, Bing Bar, CyberLink PowerDVD 10, Microsoft Office 2010, Power2Go and RoxioNow Player. There's also a spate of motley HP-branded programs -- everything from Quick Launch to MovieStore to Power Manager. To be fair, though, HP's utilities interrupted us less than they have on past systems we've tested, though we still had to postpone a reboot of the computer (and shoo away a pop-up dialog box in the system tray) more than once.

Configuration options

The Envy 14 starts at $999.99 with that Core i5-2410M CPU, along with 6GB of RAM, a 500GB 7,200RPM drive, an eight-cell battery and the same switchable graphics we tested. If you're so inclined, you can step up to a 2.0GHz Core i7-2630QM or 2.3GHZ Core i7-2828QM processor ($100 / $500), up to 16GB of RAM ($560). When it comes to storage, you could opt for larger 640GB or 750GB 7,200RPM HDDs ($40 and $80, respectively), but HP's also offering a 128GB SSD ($350) as well as drives combining solid-state storage with an HDD. These have combined capacities ranging from 580GB to 878GB and add between $175 and $330 to the total cost.

Some things, such as the eight-cell battery and backlit keyboard come standard. However, US customers, at least, are locked into the glossy 1366 x 768 display and Radeon HD 6630 graphics card we told you about. Blu-ray still isn't an option either (you'll have to step up to the 7.3-pound Envy 17 for that amenity). And yeah, we know, Apple has made it crystal clear it won't be adding Blu-ray drives, but we still have hope for Windows machines. After all, when we see systems like Sony's 15-inch VAIO S, it's easy to cling to this expectation that if you're paying enough money for a Windows machine (one with a not-that-small 15-inch screen, at that), you can opt for Blu-ray if you darn well please.

The competition

To keep things simple, if you're considering the Envy 14, we're going to assume you're in the market for something in the 14- to 15-inch range -- preferably something with a built-in optical drive. If you're willing to forfeit that, you could easily find something thinner and lighter. Not just the MacBook Air (an obvious choice in that category), but any of the emerging Ultrabooks about to hit the market.

So let's say you do want that optical drive. You're probably also considering the MacBook Pro -- a machine that looks like this, sure, but is also trying to lure the same performance-minded user. The real problem is that price. The 15-inch MBP starts at $1,799, and even the smaller 13-incher costs northward of $1,199. For the money (we're talking about the 15-inch version here), you get a 2.0GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive (c'mon, Apple!) and dual Intel HD / AMD Radeon HD 6490M graphics, along with two USB 2.0 ports, a Thunderbolt socket and an SDXC slot. The difference in price should give you pause, and we suggest you think hard about how much you need that quad-core CPU for whatever it is you'll be doing. (We'd also suggest considering the MBP's rated seven-hour battery life, and how much that kind of performance-longevity combo floats your boat.) We're just saying, depending on your routine, the Envy 14's base specs could be enough, and for all we know, the battery life will be acceptable, too. And you know what? Even for those of you dead-set on Macs, we'll say yet again: think twice whether you need that built-in optical drive. After all, the Air excels at the everyday stuff at a more palatable starting price of $1,299 (for the 13-inch model, that is).

Stepping back into the world of Windows, there are more premium 14- and 15-inchers to choose from than you can shake a stick at. Starting with Dell, there's that XPS 15z we told you about, which also starts at $999.99. At that base price, it matches what the $1,000 Envy 14 has to offer with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M CPU, 6GB of RAM, eight-cell battery and a 500GB 7,200RPM hard drive. At that price, the graphics option isn't switchable cards but rather, NVIDIA's GeForce GT 525M with a gigabyte of video memory. All things considered, you'll get comparable battery life, too, though we can't speak for the difference in performance since the machines we tested weren't well matched in price or specs. And, finally, both look like Macs in their way, except the Envy 14 reminds us of he current model, while the 15z takes after a years-old MacBook Pro or even PowerBook.

We'd also throw Toshiba's Satellite P750-BT4G22 ($899 and up) in the ring, even though some of you are bound to dismiss its design as safe, and its 1.4-inch-thick chassis as chunky. Even at that starting price, you get a quad-core 2.0GHz Core i7-2630QM processor, 6GB of RAM, a 640GB hard drive (albeit, a 5,400RPM one), NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M graphics with 1GB of video memory, a USB 3.0 port and a USB 2.0 socket with Toshiba's sleep-and-charge technology. From there, you can upgrade to a 500GB 7,200RPM HDD, Blu-ray player or burner, a 12-cell battery or a 5,600mAH six-cell (the default battery is 4,400mAh). A promising option for people who couldn't care less about forfeiting the Envy 14's engraved aluminum.

Finally, there's the Acer TimelineX AS5830TG-6402, which undercuts 'em all at $800. For the money, it offers the same processor and 6GB of RAM as our HP Envy 14, though its 640GB has a slower speed of 5,400RPM. In our tests, we found it kept pace with the Envy 14 in the benchmark PCMark Vantage, though its NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M lagged by almost 2,000 points in 3DMark06. The big draw here, as we said, is the battery life. Although its six-cell would appear to pale against the Envy 14's eight-cell, it lasted two and a half hours longer in the same rundown test, and steamrolled pretty much every other 14- and 15-incher we've handled recently. In short, we'd recommend this for the battery life or that aggressive price. For design panache and overall performance, the Envy 14 still wins.

If you wait until next month, you'll also have Sony's 15-inch S series to think about. Suffice to say, when we tested a $1,230 system we dug its performance, which comes courtesy of a 2.4GHz Core i5-2430M processor, 6GB of RAM and a 640GB 5,400RPM hard drive. We can also get behind its bright 1080p display, though depending on whether you opt for the $150 battery slice, you might find its longevity to be disappointing -- to say nothing of its ho-hum design. It's not without merits, but its price might be a tough pill to swallow when the Envy 14 and XPS 15z offer similar specs for hundreds of dollars less and -- in the case of the Envy, at least -- are arguably better-looking.


It's been thirteen months since we first reviewed the Envy 14 and while that's dog years in the gadget world, we're still pretty pleased with the thing, though we'd be exaggerating at this point if we said we were smitten. On the one hand, its well built, beautiful design hasn't changed and frankly, most competitors haven't delivered anything as memorable in this size / price class. The performance remains more than adequate for everyday use and while the battery life isn't anything to write home about, it at least keeps pace with the competition. This time around, too, the trackpad is actually usable, even though it's not without its quirks.

And yet, one of the things we loved most the first time around -- that stunning display -- just ain't what it used to be. Its resolution is lower, for one, and the entire screen simply isn't as eye-popping now that HP has discontinued its 14.5-inch Radiance panels. Also, it's worth repeating that 2011 has turned out to be the year of the skinny, surprisingly capable laptop, so if you can do without that built-in optical drive, you might find the Envy 14 a bit clunky -- not to mention, lackluster in the battery life department. But who are we to tell you what you need or don't need in a laptop? If what you want is a well designed, strong performer with all the screen real estate of a 15-incher, it's still tough to argue against the Envy 14.