HP Envy 15 laptop

Last year’s Envy laptops were a bit of a disappointment. The design that wowed me in 2010 had grown stale by 2011; at that point, the rest of the world had caught up to and surpassed the Envy’s design, while HP was content to update only the system’s internal components. The new Envy 15 and 17, which Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ) released right at the end of 2011, finally feature a whole new design. For the most part, it’s great, but a few nagging issues keep the system from being an easy recommendation.

First, know that the new Envy laptops come in 15.6-inch and 17-inch sizes, with the 14-inch version transitioning to the new Spectre Ultrabook. Our review concerns the 15.6-inch Envy 15, which is pretty big as all-purpose laptops go. It’s 15 inches wide, 9.6 inches deep, and 1.2 inches thick. With a weight of 5.8 pounds, it’s not a back-breaker, but it certainly doesn’t qualify as “lightweight.” The silver-toned aluminum inside deck and edges are reminiscent of a MacBook Pro, but Apple’s 15-inch laptop is smaller in every dimension and just a tad lighter.

Our US$1250 review configuration (price as of January 25, 2012) is the base model with a single upgrade (more on that later). It features a Core i5-2430M processor, 6GB of RAM, a Radeon HD 7690M discrete graphics card, and a 500GB hard drive. Bear in mind that although the Radeon HD 7690 may carry 7000-series branding, it doesn’t actually use the new architecture, and it isn’t a product of the 28nm manufacturing process that AMD is using for the 7000 series of desktop graphics cards. Instead, it’s a “rebrand” of the previous 40nm generation, equivalent to the Radeon HD 6730M. Overall, this selection of hardware was enough to power the system to a decent WorldBench 6 score of 119, as well as to reasonable gaming frame rates, though you won’t be able to play at the highest resolutions and detail settings.

The aluminum keyboard deck looks and feels all right, but the lid, supposedly also made of aluminum, feels like cheap plastic, and the bottom is plastic. Overall the aesthetic isn’t bad, but it pales in comparison to, say, the upcoming Envy 14 Spectre. The full-size backlit keyboard is quite easy to type on, but I’m not as enamored of the touchpad. It is large and smooth, and it tracks movement well. It supports all the common modern multifinger gestures, too. But the bottom quarter or so, where one would click to activate the left or right buttons, is quite stiff. Worse, the palm rejection is horrible: No matter how I tweaked the touchpad settings, I couldn’t type more than a couple sentences without seeing the cursor jump around.

Our review unit does have one upgrade, and it’s a genuine deal-breaker. For US$150 more than the base $1099 price, you can upgrade the Envy 15’s 1366-by-768-pixel “BrightView” display to a full HD “Radiance” display with a resolution of 1920 by 1080. This upgrade not only increases resolution, but also greatly improves the panel technology from TN (Twisted Nematic) to IPS (In-Plane Switching). The upgraded technology gives the display bright and brilliant color, plus very wide viewing angles. Normally this is the kind of thing I would consider a must-have, so what’s the problem? It turns out that most users with the IPS panel upgrade have reported a color-calibration issue, in which red shades have an orange hue. And that’s certainly true of our review unit. The high-res, bright IPS display upgrade is a major selling point for the Envy 15, and this color problem is very real and very disconcerting. HP is “looking into it,” but until the company comes up with a satisfactory solution, I would steer clear of the display upgrade.

Ports and connectivity are real highlights. The left side of the Envy 15 features a slot-loading DVD-RW drive, but the system has no Blu-ray option. That omission is pretty odd, given that the machine’s thickness should be able to accommodate a Blu-ray drive, and the laptop is directly aimed at entertainment enthusiasts. Next to the optical drive are two USB 3.0 ports, a microphone jack, and two headphone jacks. The right side houses the gigabit ethernet jack, full-size HDMI and DisplayPort connections, a USB 2.0 port, and a multifunction memory card slot. Wireless support is excellent, with 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth, WiDi wireless display support, and even HP’s own wireless audio (compatible with KleerNet devices).

HP is proud of its Beats audio integration, and rightfully so. The analog volume knob at the right edge is a delight, and far easier to use than mashing a volume button up or down. The Envy 15 has a dedicated mute button, too, plus a Beats button that brings up the rich audio tools. You get full control over audio features such as volumes on various inputs and outputs, equalization, and echo and noise cancellation for the microphone. Play a movie or listen to music, and you’ll be pleased by the volume and clarity of the built-in speakers.

HP’s built-in software is improving, but still manages to annoy a little. All the custom menus and stuff are thankfully gone, and the included software is pretty good: You get Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements 9, CyberLink PowerDVD and YouCam, Skype, and lots of Windows Live items (Photo Gallery, Movie Maker, Messenger, and the like). Unfortunately, you’ll see nag notes from Norton Internet Security, which seems to go out of its way to wreck the user experience on new PCs. You’ll also encounter both the Bing Bar and the Norton Bar when you fire up the Web browser–that’s two bars too many. Overall, though, the Envy 15 has a lot less “cruft” than HP’s laptops used to carry, and it’s nothing that a couple minutes in the Add/Remove Programs control panel can’t fix.

The new HP Envy 15 is a fairly slick all-purpose laptop, if a little on the bulky side. It has lots of great wireless and wired connectivity options, fantastic audio, a very useful analog volume dial, and a good keyboard. HP has two major issues to work out before I can recommend it, though. The first is the color-calibration problem on the otherwise very desirable display upgrade option, and the other is the terrible palm detection and stiff clicking on the touchpad. If the company can address those two sticking points, it will be easy to give the Envy 15 a thumbs-up.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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