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HP Envy 15 (late 2011) review

How many corners do you have to cut for a $1,100 MacBook Pro competitor?

Six years after the introduction of the MacBook Pro, it appears the PC industry has finally realized that Apple was onto something. With laptops like the Dell XPS 15z and Samsung Series 7 Chronos, the incumbents are scrambling to build a cheaper MacBook Pro for the Windows set, and in more ways than one: not only do the Windows machines have similar metallic builds, they also attempt to copy Apple's design language. HP was one of the first to attempt to capitalize on the Apple formula with the original Envy 15 in 2009, but shied away from an outright clone with a curvier riff on the aluminum case. As you can see above, the company's not so shy anymore — the new Envy 15 looks almost exactly like a MacBook Pro when open. If HP's going to throw down with Apple on its own carefully polished aluminum turf, we're going to judge it accordingly: is the new Envy 15 as much of a Windows MacBook Pro as its looks suggest? Or is HP just banking on Apple's image to sell a lesser product? Read on to find out.

Update, January 24: There seems to be a problem with the HP Envy 15's 1080p Radiance Display where it doesn't properly display red and violet colors. We're currently awaiting a full response from HP.

Update, March: HP says the Radiance Display is "functioning properly," another way of saying that there is no way, or at least no plans, to fix this issue. It's minor, but we've docked the laptop's score as a result.

Design

Hardware / design

Like a MacBook Pro, for people who want more control

Lift the Envy 15's smooth black lid and you'll be greeted by a most familiar sight: HP's computer has a nearly identical silhouette to Apple's famous design. There's a rather striking red ribbon coursing around the edge of the keyboard tray, and a shiny silver knob built into the right edge that's just begging to be touched (more on that in a bit), but it's clear that the Envy is more than a homage to Cupertino's creation: it's more of a rip than ever.

If you ask me, though, the Envy 15 actually improves upon the MacBook Pro when it comes to industrial design. While Dell was content to make the XPS 15z look like Apple's machine, the Envy 15 copies rather more desirable traits, starting with the same rock-solid, wonderfully smooth aluminum deck without more than a hint of flex anywhere. Then, HP literally cut some corners in a very welcome place: along the edge of the machine where your wrists rest while typing, smoothing them to reduce chafing. Perhaps you're familiar with the way the MacBook Pro and its copycats typically have only a small variety of ports, all on one side? Not the Envy 15, which sports a pair of USB 3.0 jacks, two 3.5mm headphone sockets and a 3.5mm microphone port on the left, alongside the DVD drive, and another USB 2.0 port, full-sized DisplayPort and HDMI sockets, a Gigabit Ethernet jack and an SD card slot on the right. Perhaps most surprising of all, HP didn't seal in the battery here: both the 14.8V, 4780mAh pack and the hard drive are accessible from a latched compartment, though you'll need a screwdriver if you want to swap out either one.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
HP Envy 15 (2011) 14.9 x 9.6 1.1 6.3
Samsung Series 7 14.3 x 9.4 0.94 5.05
Dell XPS 15z 15.2 x 10.3 0.97 5.54
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch) 14.4 x 9.8 0.95 5.6

You'll pay a price for that additional flexibility, though: the Envy 15 weighs half a pound more than Apple's laptop, is half an inch wider, and is noticeably (though perhaps not meaningfully) thicker, too, measuring 1.1 inches from top to bottom. Part of that extra girth is due to a slightly thicker lid, but it's also the sandwich-like construction. Both the lid and the base are metal, but only the center piece appears to be carved out of a single piece of aluminum. Honestly, I find the overall aesthetic refreshing: when it's closed, it doesn't look like an Apple product at all. To me, it looks like a tasty ice cream sandwich just waiting to be eaten. It's just a shame the sandwich had to be so hefty.

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Keyboard and trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

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The original Envy 15 had a great keyboard, and it only got better in the following Envy 14 incarnation: exceedingly comfortable chiclet keys with excellent spacing and a luxurious soft-touch coating, not to mention a nice bright LED backlight for dimmer environments. I didn't have either of the predecessors around for a direct comparison, but as far as our photos and recollections can take us, little has changed with the Envy 15, except that the entire keyboard tray is submerged to be nearly flush with the wrist rest — yes, now that you mention it, just like the MacBook Pro — and the Up and Down arrows have been replaced by half-height versions in favor of a longer Shift key. In practice, I'm typing every single word of this review on the keyboard, and I'm finding it quite satisfactory.

If only I could say the same about the Envy 15's single-button ClickPad. I've never really understood what laptop manufacturers have against discrete physical mouse buttons these days, but like its predecessors, HP's latest touchpad uses a large-single-button Synaptics unit without the programming or engineering chops to back it up. First, while single-finger tracking is good and palm rejection is fairly decent here — I rarely had the mouse cursor jump around while I was typing this review — the latter is due to an overzealous, hamfisted hack rather than a clever algorithm.

Deep inside the trackpad properties page, there's a setting that does exactly this: it ignores the top, right, and bottom edges of the trackpad if you stop touching it for a few seconds. While that sounds well and good (and you can turn it off, or adjust it as you like), the stock settings meant that sometimes my finger wasn't recognized until I touched the pad in a particular, deliberate way, and I also generally found two-finger scrolling unreliable. Pinch-to-zoom worked fairly well, though. The bigger problem is that the giant touchpad is extremely stiff and hard to press, much harder than the MacBook Pro or most other laptop I've used. I often had to press hard enough that my finger would slide along the surface, in fact, making highlighting text extremely difficult. Tap-to-click works fine, but only for the left-click button. There were very, very few moments using the Envy's trackpad when I didn't wish I had a mouse instead, and it's a shame the company can't get it right after all these years. If you're a mouse user, it's not a big deal, but for the rest of us that's no excuse for the lack of a good touchpad here.

Of course, we can't discuss that Envy 15's controls without highlighting the notebook's most distinctive feature: the Beats Audio-branded dial on the right edge of the machine. It's a delicately ridged metal ring, circling a dedicated Beats button, and it's a pleasure to use, effortlessly adjusting the volume with what looks and feels like a miniature record on a turntable. You can even "scratch" to adjust the audio, if the ridges of your finger catch the groove, but it's not quite as substantial as it looks in photos and won't keep spinning if you give it a whirl. Press down on the button, and up comes the Beats audio menu, with graphical equalizers and individual volume adjustments, and another press sends it back whence it came. There's also a dedicated mute button below it, with an orange status LED.

Buy a mouse
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Speakers

Speakers

Beats Audio isn't just branding on the Envy 15
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You're going to be using those Beats controls a lot, by the way, to control the Envy 15's relatively fantastic sound quality. This notebook has six speakers and a miniature subwoofer, and while none of them is a substitute for a good set of headphones or most dedicated speakers you'd care to use, they provide perhaps the best audio quality I've ever heard from built-in drivers on a portable computing device. Whatever you might think of the Beats Audio software, it certainly delivers extra depth and boom, and it does a fairly good job of disguising the inherent tinniness of the tiny drivers that HP is using here, too. Thinking back, I seem to recall that Dell's XPS 15z produced slightly less tinny sounds, but the Beats processing gives the Envy's audio extra bass and depth.The way it compensates, though, can be a little offputting: I often noticed that when an instrument-heavy song went to a vocal solo, Beats would automatically (and abruptly) pump up the volume and vice versa. You'll want to keep Beats on, though, because the speakers sound pretty terrible with the processing turned off. I'm also not completely sold on the position of the front-facing speaker holes: I often ended up blocking the sound field simply by having my arms resting on the keyboard.

The Envy 15 also has a built-in Kleer transmitter to connect with wireless audio gear, but we didn't have any Kleer speakers or HP's $100 Wireless Audio receiver handy to test it with.

Display

Display

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We were originally told that the HP Envy 14's luscious Radiance Display would come standard on the new Envy, but I'm sorry to say that's not the case: the stock $1,100 Envy 15 comes with a 1366 x 768 "HP BrightView" screen, or you can pay an additional $150 for the 1920 x 1080 Radiance option. Our review unit came with the Radiance, so I can't tell you how well the BrightView performs, but let's face facts: if you can't afford $1,249 for the real deal, you're missing out. This bright, crisp, clear 1080p screen is one of the prime reasons to buy an Envy, and it's a clear advantage over the 15-inch MacBook Pro, too, which tops out at just 1680 x 1050 resolution. Besides, trust me, 1366 x 768 just doesn't cut it on a 15-inch screen.

In movies, games, and even simple photo viewing, the 1080p Radiance screen let me see fine detail in my multimedia and marvel at their colors, while angling the screen however I liked without fear of disgusting off-angle quirks. You will have to deal with a glossy glass panel here, but it's not too bad indoors, as it seems HP applies an anti-glare coating of some sort. It's just a shame that there's no slot-loading Blu-ray drive for movies that do justice to this screen.

Update: There is one issue with the Radiance Display, though: it can't properly display red or violet colors.

1080p is the place to be
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Performance

Performance and graphics

The HP Envy's a fairly potent rig, as you might expect: with a dual-core 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-2430M processor, 6GB of DDR3-1333 memory, and Radeon HD 7690M graphics with 1GB of VRAM, even the $1,099 starting config is capable of great things. I fired up two 1080p iTunes trailers simultaneously, along with active Pandora and Gmail accounts and nearly a dozen other Chrome tabs, and didn't notice so much as a hint of stutter from either video. (The third simultaneous 1080p video did the trick, though.) It's got a few extras, too: while you'll have to pay extra for a quad-core processor or solid state storage, dual-band 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Intel's Wireless Display tech, and HP's infrared HD webcam come standard. What's more, for a machine with magnetic storage, the Envy boots fairly quickly from its 500GB, 7200RPM hard drive, making it to the Windows desktop in under 40 seconds and fully loading startup programs in just over a minute.

Gaming

The first few times I fired up some games on the Envy 15, I was disappointed as could be. The Radeon HD 7690M didn't seem to be doing much of anything, pulling down pitiful framerates even in our softball HAWX benchmark. Then, one sleepless night, it occurred to me that the switchable graphics weren't turning on, and sure enough, one trek into a buried AMD Catalyst Control Center menu later, the Envy 15 averaged 47fps in HAWX, 29.24fps in the Just Cause 2 bench, not to mention respectable scores of P5558 / X2299 in 3DMark Vantage and P1274 / X412 in 3DMark 11.

The Radeon HD 7690M delivers mid-range settings on the latest PC games

What do those raw numbers mean when it comes to real-world gameplay? Good things: Skyrim is nearly playable at 1080p and medium settings so long as you turn off anti-aliasing, and Batman: Arkham City similarly runs at 1080p and medium detail if you turn down the DirectX 11 and ambient occlusion eye candy. Even Battlefield 3 is playable on the Envy 15, though you shouldn't expect much. At minimum settings, we were averaging under 20fps at 1080p resolution.

PCMarkVantage 3DMark06 Just Cause 2
HP Envy 15 (late 2011) 7,360 8,988 29.24
Samsung Series 7 7,620 9,849 34.24
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 12,079 7,960 25.96
Dell XPS 15z 7,303 N/A 24.95
MacBook Pro 15-inch (2011) 7,648* 10,359* N/A
Note: MacBook Pro benchmark results taken from LAPTOP Magazine's review.
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Heat and noise

One of the most unexpectedly pleasing surprises about the Envy 15 is how cool and quiet it is compared to similarly specced Windows machines. While the fans seem to always be on, I rarely noticed them speed up, and even when watching a DVD or playing intensive games, the spinning noises never got loud enough to disturb my session. The Envy does generate a bit of heat, of course, but it's quickly wafted away. Even when hot air is rushing out the notebook's many vents, the palmrests only get mildly warm, and typically remain comfortably cool to the touch. Interestingly, the right palmrest is always a bit warmer than the left, perhaps due to the hard drive inside.

Battery and software

Battery life and software

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If there's a minor disappointment with the Envy, it's the battery life. HP promises up to nine hours of use from the eight-cell, 14.8V, 4780mAh battery, but we got about four in use. We saw our battery life go from 100 percent to 50 percent during the course of an hour and forty minutes of nothing but web browsing — losing roughly two percent of juice a minute — and on our Verge Battery Test, which loops a series of websites and downloads high res images at 65 percent brightness until the battery fully drains, the Envy 15 managed four hours and 17 minutes of life before conking out. That's disappointing compared to a MacBook Pro running OS X, but about average for this class of Windows laptop, as you can see in the chart on the right. What's annoying is that you'll have to micro-manage the Radeon HD switchable graphics to get the same results I did. Several times, I caught AMD's Catalyst Control Center assigning games to the integrated Intel graphics, and other times picking the HD 7690M to run my web browser... and while you can override this on a per-application basis, the setting is buried in a menu. On the plus side, HP's chunky AC adapter charges the Envy quite quickly. With 30 minutes' charge, it went from 7 percent to 33 percent battery.

As far as software's concerned, HP's thankfully kept the bloatware level to an impressive minimum, though annoying tidbits do rear the ugly head from time to time, like the pre-installed Bing Bar and the copies of Norton Internet Security and Cyberlink PowerDVD that keep asking you to upgrade to a pricer versions. There's a welcome lack of desktop shortcuts, too, the polar opposite of the HP Folio 13 we just reviewed. In addition to those three apps, you'll find Microsoft Office Starter Edition, Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 and Premiere Elements 9, the Bing app, HP's MovieStore and Wireless Audio, Cyberlink YouCam for the webcam, and you'll find your toolbar populated by Intel's Wi-Fi manager, HP CoolSense and HP Wireless Audio, as well as a Beats shortcut.

Keep the charger with you
Battery Life
HP Envy 15 4:17
Samsung Series 7 4:24
Sony VAIO Z 5:27
Dell XPS 15z 4:36
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It might initially look like it's Designed by Apple in California, but the $1,100 Envy 15 is no MacBook Pro. Sure, HP's built a rock-solid, relatively inexpensive Windows computer from the same anodized aluminum foundations as Apple's machine, but don't be fooled: the Envy 15 misses on simple basics like long battery life and a no-nonsense touchpad. HP may have improved on the MacBook Pro in ways that are meaningful for Windows power users, but it's not going to tempt any Apple fans to jump ship, and it's not a PC for everyone.

If you're just the right kind of customer, though, the Envy is an extremely attractive machine. You'll have to pay extra to unlock its full potential — that $150 Radiance Display is a must, and the computer's just crying out for an SSD — but HP's still generated some impressive bang for the buck for Windows gamers or multimedia fans who don't want a tacky, plasticky frame. For $450 less than than a MacBook Pro, you can outfit the Envy with the very same processor and better specs across the board, although you give up Apple's excellent trackpad and a couple extra hours of battery life to do so. But if battery life and portability are what you crave, it might be best to hold off: like the rest of the industry, HP's moved on to making ultrabooks, and the forthcoming Envy Spectre might displace the Envy 15 the same way Apple's MacBook Air has displaced the MacBook Pro.

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