Hands-on with the HP Envy 15

What's new in the revamped version of HP's high-end Envy 15 laptop?

Editors' note, January 20, 2012: We posted our full review of the HP Envy 15. We also added our hands-on video to the bottom of this blog.
Sarah Tew/CNET

One of the few reliable high-end Windows laptop lines, HP's Envy series has always impressed with its sharp design, high-end components, and (aside from the too-expensive very first models) reasonable prices.

The Envy has gotten its first serious makeover for this new version, officially released in late 2011, but only now filtering into stores. The new look is quite a departure from previous Envys. Made of aluminum and magnesium, in a dark gunmetal gray with a black base, the previous Envy laptops had a subtle pattern of imprinted squares covering the wrist rest and the back of the lid, creating an overall unique look.

The new version has more of a two-tone look, with a matte-black lid and keyboard contrasted against a silver tray. The most unusual visual feature is a subtle red stripe around the inner edge of the sunken keyboard--a touch of retro-futurism to my eyes. As a fan of the original Envy design, I have to admit I'm not quite sold on this new look just yet. It certainly isn't ugly, but it also doesn't seem like a big step up in terms of creating an upscale look and feel. If anything, the new look of the Envy hews much closer to the MacBook Pro than before.

The red stripe along the sunken keyboard tray and the new Beats Audio volume wheel. Sarah Tew/CNET

Inside our test unit was a standard set of components, weighted toward casual gaming: an Intel Core i5 2430M CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 500GB HDD, and an AMD Radeon 7690M GPU. The series starts at $1,099 for essentially the same configuration, but this unit had its 15.6-inch display upgraded to 1,920x1,080 pixels, a $150 add-on. Intel Core i7 CPUs, SSD storage, and more RAM are all available.

Backlit keyboards are a great extra for any multimedia or gaming laptop, and really should be standard by now in all but the least expensive systems. The model included here is something HP calls the Radiance Backlit keyboard, and it uses individual LEDs under each key.

In anecdotal use, the keyboard felt familiar--this flat-topped island-style setup has been used on many HP laptops before. The individual keys are large and easy to hit, but the up and down arrow keys get unfairly shrunken down. Shift, Caps Lock, Tab, and other important keys are full-size, however (the four corner keys lose a little surface area to created a rounded-edge look, but it doesn't hinder typing).

The clickpad-style touch pad was large--slightly longer and squatter than you'd find on a MacBook. Basic multitouch gestures are supported, and they're passable, but still not as smooth as the finger-control action in OS X.

The large touch pad on the Envy 15. Sarah Tew/CNET

For some time now, HP has played itself up as a leader in laptop audio, thanks in part to a long-term partnership with Beats Audio, creator of the Beats headphone line. At this point, many HP laptops, both in the Envy line and not, carry the Beats logo, which in most cases means the inclusion of sound-shaping software to give better response (or the audio illusion thereof) to laptop speakers, long an issue because of their small size.

The Beats implementation takes a big step in the new Envy 15, with the inclusion of a physical volume wheel. Spotted only rarely on laptops (and these days, more rarely than ever), a physical volume control is much easier to use than Fn+F-key combos or finicky touch buttons. In this case, the wheel seems to run through 10 levels of volume rather than being truly analog, but one takes what one can get. A separate mute button is handily right below the volume wheel, and tapping on the top of the wheel brings up (or dismisses) a Beats audio menu for tweaking sound settings.

In anecdotal use, the system feels fast and responsive, and able to juggle several active windows and tasks at once, not that one would expect any less from a modern Core i5 laptop. Battery life also seems impressive in casual use, which would not be a surprise, as the Envy line has always done well in that category. CNET Labs is currently testing the new winter 2011 version of the HP Envy 15 and will bring you full benchmarks and a full review after CES 2012.

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