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After bemoaning the lack of laptops at any price with both a touch screen and discrete graphics, my attention was caught by something from HP. The $649.99 HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15z-b000 Sleekbook is slim, especially for a 15-inch midsize laptop, and certainly one of the sharper-looking Windows 8 laptops I've seen in this lower-end price range. The kicker is its included AMD Radeon 7600G GPU.
Despite the slim profile, the price is so reasonable because this is not exactly an ultrabook -- instead it belongs to Hewlett-Packard's proprietary Sleekbook line, which is a similar-sounding category HP invented to promote laptops that are similar to ultrabooks, but don't meet the official Intel requirements (Ultrabook is a trademarked Intel marketing term).
It's pretty clear why this isn't an Intel-approved ultrabook -- the CPU is actually a quad-core AMD A8-4555M. AMD calls its product an APU for "accelerated processing unit" rather than a CPU, because it combines a CPU and discrete-level graphics into a single package. In this case, the graphics chip is the previously mentioned AMD Radeon 7600G, which isn't a gamer-level part, but should outperform Intel's integrated HD 4000 graphics (at least on paper).
For $649, don't expect the HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15z-b000 Sleekbook to outperform Lenovo's recent 15-inch gaming laptop, the excellent(which can be found for under $900), or even any standard Core i5 ultrabook. It's not going to be your main gaming rig, but it can handle most current games at lower settings, especially as the screen resolution will be capped at a low 1,366x768 pixels.
I'm always a fan of laptops that look like they cost more than they actually do. While the 15z-b000's appearance is not going to convince anyone that this is a $1,000-plus high-end machine, it feels like it offers excellent bang for the buck. Just be warned, one of the reasons you don't see more AMD laptops is that they can't touch Intel on battery life, and this highly portable system ran for less than 3.5 hours in our tests.
|Price as reviewed||$649|
|Processor||1.8GHz AMD A8-455M APU|
|Memory||6GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||750GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 7600G|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.2x10.2 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||5.5 pounds / 6.3 pounds|
Design and features
We've seen a handful of less expensive Windows 8 touch-screen laptops to date, and while there have not been any real clunkers in the bunch in terms of design, you definitely can tell the difference between a $600-to-$700 laptop and a $999 one. The HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15z-b000 Sleekbook pushes the needle a little bit in terms of design versus price, thanks no doubt to incorporating design elements from HP's more expensive systems, from Intel-powered Pavilions to the higher-end Envy line.
This is still a black plastic laptop, and a glossy one at that, which almost never looks as good as a matte finish, but it's enviably thin, and the big 15-inch screen is surrounded by only a thin bezel, making it look even more dramatic. There's a slight taper toward the front, creating the illusion for the user that it's even thinner still, and the minimalist black-on-black interior wisely doesn't take any design chances.
When open, the laptop is dominated by a generous keyboard and touch pad. The flat-topped, island-style keyboard is the same style found on most current HP systems, with large Enter, Shift, and other important keys, and a separate number pad. The keys themselves are a little on the shallow side, but have less flex under your fingers than I'd expect from a budget laptop (although there's still a little flex, especially in the center of the keyboard). The Function keys are reversed, which means you can adjust the speaker volume or screen brightness just by hitting the corresponding F-key, without having to hold down the dreaded Fn key at the same time.
The touch pad is a good size for a 15-inch laptop, but it's not the island-style button-less clickpad found on more expensive current HP laptops. Instead, the pad here is demarcated by a tiny pattern of raised dots printed straight onto the plastic wrist rest, rather than having a separate low-friction surface. Some of the potential surface area is eaten up by two large mouse buttons, which feel surprisingly tight for a budget laptop, but give off a loud, hollow-sounding click each time they're pressed. Single-input navigation on the pad is fine, but multitouch gestures, most importantly the two-finger scroll, is sluggish.
Fortunately, the 15.6-inch 1,366x768-pixel display is a touch screen, giving you an easier way to navigate around some of the Windows 8 interfaces. We've seen touch screens come to several sub-$700 Windows 8 laptops, so there's no compelling reason for any Windows 8 system not to have one at this point. The slim body and thin bezel help the screen pop, although the edge-to-edge glass over the entire surface is very glossy and reflects light easily.
|HP Pavilion TouchSmart 15z-b000 Sleekbook||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Connections, performance, and battery life
It's not wise to expect too much from a budget laptop in terms of ports and connections. In this case, it's a pair of USB 3.0 ports, an extra USB 2.0 port, and HDMI, an SD card reader, and an Ethernet jack. The Ethernet jack fits into the slim body because of a hinged jaw. The 15z-b000 covers all the bases, but doesn't include any bells or whistles.
The biggest question mark for most people considering the 15z-b000 is going to be the AMD A8-4555M processor. Test-drive a bunch of laptops with friends or at a store (plus, read enough laptop reviews), and you'll get an idea of what a mainstream Intel Core i5 CPU can do in a modern laptop. The AMD chip here, while a quad-core chip, isn't as fast in our benchmark tests as even the mainstream Intel chips found in other budget laptops.