HP Envy 14: Power in a stylish package

Because I’m the editor in charge of laptop coverage here at PC World, I’m quite often asked, “Which notebook should I buy?” Only slightly less often am I asked, “Which model would you buy?” This is it. The Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) Envy 14 is the laptop I would buy for myself, were I in the market for one right now. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right laptop for you, because everyone has different needs, but I get my hands on a lot of laptops, so it’s high praise indeed.

The HP Envy 14 starts at $999 in its base configuration, with a Core i3-370M CPU at 2.4 GHz, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive. My test model came upgraded to a Core i5-450M, also a dual-core CPU with hyperthreading at 2.4GHz, but supporting Intel’s Turbo Boost technology. It also has a 500GB hard drive and HP’s Radiance display, a $200 option that gives you a higher-resolution screen (1600 by 900) and better brightness, contrast, and color. All Envy 14 models have a slot-loading 8X DVD-RW drive and ATI’s Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics card. To save battery life, you can switch graphics between the Radeon card and Intel’s integrated high-def video chip.

Cosmetically, the Envy 14 is a real winner. The fully aluminum body is attractive and rigid, giving the system a sturdy feel and a pleasant look with clean lines. You don’t find stickers and big logos all over the place. At 5.3 pounds, it’s not exactly lightweight, but neither is it unreasonably heavy for a laptop this size. The 14.5-inch screen makes it just a little smaller than many 15-inch laptops, but it’s still large enough to be great for watching video and playing games. It has three well-placed USB 2.0 ports (one is a combination USB/eSATA port), HDMI output, Mini DisplayPort output, gigabit ethernet, and an SD card reader. It also has a slot-loading DVD-RW drive, but I’m actually a bit disappointed by its inclusion; the Envy 13 (now at end-of-life) and the Envy 15 don’t have it. HP tells me it was added back into the design because customers demanded it–but I don’t use optical drives much anymore. Pulling it out would let the company save size and weight, or better yet, include a larger battery. I’m also a little bummed about the removal of USB 3.0, which is available on the Envy 15 and Envy 17.

Performance is fantastic for a mid-size all-purpose system. The Core i5-450M is largely responsible for this system’s excellent WorldBench 6 score of 106, and the speedy ATI graphics card is enough to run all the hot modern games quite smoothly at high-quality settings. This card chews through the battery, though; you’ll want to use the switchable graphics to enable Intel’s integrated GPU when you’re running on the battery. In general, battery life isn’t stellar. We measured about 4.5 hours in our battery tests, beating HP’s claim of 4 hours, but something closer to 6 would be better. For an extra $200, you can buy a “battery slice” accessory that fits neatly onto the bottom of the laptop, making the whole thing a quarter-inch thicker and a bit heavier, while doubling battery life. It’s probably a good investment if you plan to travel with the system.

The Envy 14 is a joy to use. The backlit island-style keyboard doesn’t quite have the “click” I look for, but the keys are well-sized and -spaced for quick and accurate typing. The touchpad is huge, and features a design where the bottom edge has clickable zones that act as buttons. I tend to leave my left hand’s index finger on the left button while I scroll around, which doesn’t work well with this arrangement, but if you don’t actually rest your finger on the button when you move the pointer around, it’s not a problem. It tracks smoothly and has good gesture support. The “Radiance” display option is definitely worth the extra money. HP makes a lot of noise about how bright it is, but it doesn’t seem dramatically brighter than other good laptop screens. It does, however, have excellent viewing angles and really good color reproduction for a laptop display. I only wish it was available in a matte finish, because the glossy screen coating, like all glossy laptop displays, produces more glare than I’d like. The integrated Webcam and microphone are only average.

You have probably seen the “Beats by Dr. Dre” commercial touting the HP Envy’s audio superiority. This is not a special chip in the system, nor is it a unique set of speakers or ports. The audio hardware is very much like what you get in other HP laptops. Rather, the Beats logo means that HP has taken special care in the design of the system to shield the audio codec from interference, while providing especially clean (and higher-power) audio output to the headphone jack. The audio driver has been tuned to get better sound reproduction out of the audio jack, too. HP works with artists at Interscope Records to tune the audio output. Beats audio on the Envy is aimed at headphone use, and I can confirm that the audio output via headphones is indeed a step above the usual. It’s clean, loud when it needs to be, and balanced pretty well (if a little too heavy on the bass). A quick key combination will disable the Beats software profile if you want to.

HP loads its Envy systems with software you won’t find on its other systems. Yes, you still have Norton Internet Security 2010 preinstalled and HP’s quick-launch options, along with a pretty nice support app that will search for updated drivers and the like and offer PC cleaning and tuning suggestions. They can all be easily disabled or uninstalled. HP also includes Hulu Desktop and Stardock’s MyColors app for skinning Windows. The default Envy theme is simple and attractive, and you can easily switch back to Windows 7’s default theme, if you wish. Also included is Stardock’s excellent Fences app, which helps organize and manage desktop icons.

No laptop is perfect, and I’ve never seen a model that really gives me everything I want in a system. I’d rather HP had kept the optical drive out of the Envy 14 and included a larger battery to improve the system’s longevity, and I prefer individual physical buttons on the touchpad to the one large integrated surface. Still, for a person like myself that wants a laptop of reasonable size and weight with plenty of muscle (including the ability to play the latest games), a high-quality display, and great style and build quality, the Envy 14 really fits the bill. Yes, “better” laptops are out there for a lot more money, as are plenty of cheaper laptops that don’t offer such consistently high quality, but precious few laptops hit the sweet spot in between as well as the HP Envy 14.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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