For a high-end midsize Windows laptop, HP's Envy line (starting at $1,049) is probably the first place you should look. Fortunately, a lot of what made those Envy laptops so good has trickled down to HP's more affordable systems, and today many of them have, for example, Beats Audio and backlit keyboards.
The Pavilion dm4 is an excellent example of this. Our fixed-configuration system, the 3090se Beats Edition model, looks almost as high-end as an Envy, but costs only $899. The body is a sharp-looking matte black, including the wrist rest, the touch pad, and even the keyboard. Offsetting this are red accents (the signature color of Beats Audio), including a unique red keyboard backlight.
The hybrid hard drive, which takes a 500GB drive and adds 20GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage for programs (on HP's Web site, that's been upgraded to 32GB), is a nice extra, but keep in mind that the Beats Edition of the HP Envy 14 is only $150 more. For that, you get the same 6GB of RAM and Intel Core i5 CPU, but a bigger 740GB hard drive and discrete AMD graphics. But more importantly, you get the Envy's superior metal chassis. The dm4 Beats Edition looks great, but is mostly plastic.
|Price as reviewed||$899|
|Processor||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M|
|Memory||6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 7,200rpm / 20GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13.3x8.9 inches|
|Height||1.0 - 1.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14.0 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.5 pounds / 5.3 pounds|
Easily one of the most distinctive laptops in recent memory, the HP Pavilion dm4 Beats Edition looks like a more expensive machine than it is. The back of the lid has a thin metal overlay, while the rest of the body is mostly plastic, but all the parts have a matte-black finish that looks top-notch. The Beats Audio branding includes some red accents on tiny port and button labels, as well as a large Beats logo on the back of the lid (and the letter "B" on the keyboard has been replaced with a Beats Logo).
That said, this is not an especially thin or light laptop, especially compared with the very slim ultrabook-style systems we've been seeing a lot of lately. It's not bulky per se, but our expectations are rapidly changing, even for 14-inch systems.
The most notable physical feature on the dm4 is its keyboard. This is the same flat-topped, island-style keyboard found on most consumer HP models, with the rounded corners on the four outer corner keys, separate vertical row of navigation keys (Page Up, Page Down, and so on) and the function-reversed F-keys, which control volume, screen brightness, and other features. What really makes it stand out is the red (that Beats Audio color again) keyboard backlight.
Backlit keyboards are always a welcome extra, and once you start using one, it's hard to go back to a nonbacklit model. But, the lights are almost always white (Alienware has an adjustable backlight feature), and sometimes way too bright. In this case, the deep red is not only distinctive and attractive, it's also subtle, and works much better in a dark room, where a traditional keyboard backlight might be too intense. It's easily my favorite feature of this laptop.
The touch pad isn't the large click-pad style found in HP's Envy laptops. Instead, it's a smaller pad with separate left and right mouse buttons. It's acceptable, but multitouch gestures, such as two-finger scrolling, are especially jumpy--something we find in a lot of HP laptops--and the physical mouse buttons are small and clacky.
The 14-inch display has a native resolution of 1,600x900 pixels, which is a nice step up from the 1,366x768 pixels you'll find on most 14- and 15-inch laptops. This is the idea resolution for a midsize laptop, as 1,366x768 pixels often feels restrictive, and 1,920x1080 pixels, which is found in only a handful of midsize screens, makes onscreen text too hard to read, and is often an expensive upgrade.
Also pleasing is the screen's matte finish. So many laptop screens are simply too glossy, and suffer from extreme glare under everyday lighting conditions. The antiglare finish used here certainly doesn't allow for colors and contrast as eye-catching at first as a glossy screen does, but in the long run, you get a lot more than you miss out on.
|HP Pavilion dm4-3090se Beats Edition||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||VGA plus HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, combo headphone/mic jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
For a laptop that sells itself on audio branding, one might expect separate headphone and mic jacks, but otherwise, this is a standard load-out of ports and connections for a midprice, midsize laptop. The two speakers are augmented by a subwoofer, a rarity in a 14-inch laptop to be sure.
The sound from those speakers is certainly heftier than you get from most other laptops, even larger ones, but there's only so much air you'll ever be able to push through a laptop speaker. The Beats Audio control panel has settings for different types of headphones, and its own EQ. Beats Audio hardware and processing can be a polarizing topic. Some love it, others find it too bass- and compression-heavy.
This fixed-configuration system includes a 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M processor, a very popular part for midsize laptops that cost $1,000 or more, along with 6GB of RAM. The most interesting component is probably the hybrid hard drive, combining 20GB of SSD storage with a traditional 500GB 7,200rpm drive.
In our benchmark tests, the HP dm4 performed well, beating other similarly priced midsize systems in both multitasking and single-app tests--although most other 14- and 15-inch laptops in this price range have slightly slower Core i5-2410 or Core i5-2430 CPUs. The extra RAM and hybrid hard drive (using the SSD portion for OS and applications) no doubt helped.
You are, however, stuck with the integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics, which is fine for streaming HD video and playing Facebook games, but not much more than that.