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HP Envy 15 review:

HP Envy 15

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The Good The updated HP Envy 15 has premium design and performance for a decent price, plus swanky extras such as a backlit keyboard and physical volume control wheel.

The Bad Despite the big touch pad, multitouch gestures are still finicky, and the new look is so MacBook-like, it's like HP isn't even trying to pretend otherwise.

The Bottom Line HP's Envy line has always been a reliable high-end PC laptop line, and this new redesign adds some useful features, such as a volume wheel, while keeping the upscale look and feel.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

CNET Editors' Rating

8.1 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 9.0
  • Performance 7.0
  • Battery 8.0
  • Support 8.0

One of the few consistent 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. With this new revision, the Envy has finally gotten its first serious makeover since the original.

Inside our 15-inch test unit was a standard set of components, weighted toward multimedia and midlevel 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, but drive up the price considerably.

Even with some upgrades, that's a lot less than a comparable 15-inch MacBook Pro. And, the inclusion of a physical volume control wheel is truly inspired, giving the Envy 15 an edge over the other big-brand premium 15-inch, Dell's XPS 15z, which is thinner, and starts at only $999, but lacks the big click pad and Beats Audio features of the Envy 15.

The biggest downside is HP's just-announced Envy Spectre 14-inch from CES. With an entirely new glass-covered design beyond that of the Envy 15, it's already got this model beaten on looks before even hitting stores.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,249 / $1,099
Processor 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 2430M
Memory 6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 7,200rpm
Chipset Intel HM65
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 7690M/Intel HD 3000
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 14.9 x 9.6 inches
Height 1.1 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.6 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 5.8/7.1 pounds
Category Midsize

The new look is quite a departure from that of previous Envys. Made of aluminum and magnesium, in a dark gunmetal gray with a black base, the original Envy laptops had a subtle pattern of imprinted squares covering the wrist rest and the back of the lid, creating an overall unique signature. The new version has more of a two-tone design, with a 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, perhaps.

As a fan of the original Envy design, I have to admit I'm not quite as sold on this new look just yet. It certainly isn't ugly, but it also doesn't feel as sophisticated as HP's even newer Envy Spectre laptop, spotted at CES 2012 and coming soon in a 14-inch version. If anything, the new look of the Envy hews much closer to the MacBook Pro than before. While open, it's nearly indistinguishable from a MacBook Pro at first glance. Only the sunken keyboard and red accents give it away.

The keyboard felt familiar--this flat-topped island-style setup has been used on many HP laptops before (and it's found in slightly different variations on laptops from Apple, Dell, Sony, and others). 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, and the four corner keys lose a little surface area to create a rounded-edge look, but it doesn't hinder typing.

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. Hit the F5 button, and the keys light up row by row, which is a nice visual flourish, but has no practical impact.

The click-pad-style touch pad was large--slightly longer and squatter than you'd find on a MacBook. Basic multitouch gestures are supported, but still not as smooth as the finger-control action in OS X. Particularly frustrating is the two-finger scroll, as basic a touch-pad move if there ever was one. Few, if any, Windows laptops do this well, but the Envy line has always been especially stuttery with that gesture.

The biggest improvement in the new Envy 15 is the inclusion of a physical volume control wheel. Real-world volume controls are very rare. Occasionally, you'll get a couple of tiny volume-up/volume-down buttons above the keyboard, or a few years ago, capacitive touch strips were popular (but never responsive enough to use). Most of the time, you're stuck fumbling with alternative functions of the Fn keys for volume and muting.

This is an actual wheel, built into the right edge of the system. It's small, but just the right size for flicking with a finger while playing a game or video. A separate mute button sites right below it (and could perhaps be a bit larger). The top of the volume wheel clicks as well, but that command brings up the Beats Audio menu, with access to input and output levels for different devices, EQ settings, and even the ability to flip the volume wheel control direction between clockwise and counterclockwise.

Audio quality is excellent for a laptop, and the speakers get incredibly loud, but the front-firing speakers still lack bass, a problem more of the physics of small laptop speakers than anything else.

The 15.6-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, but note that this is an upgraded display on our review unit. The base model has a 1,366x768-pixel screen--fine for most uses, but less than one would expect from a $1,000-plus laptop. Put another way, if you're considering the Envy 15, the higher-resolution display, which is an extra $150, is a must-have add-on.

HP Envy 15 Average for category [midsize]
Video HMDI plus DisplayPort VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone (x2)/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 3.0, 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

Despite being a full-size 15-inch laptop, the ports and connections on the Envy 15 are limited. Only two USB ports are offered, along with an SD card slot--no eSATA, as found on previous Envy laptops. The twin headphone jacks are a nice extra, but usually more useful on a smaller laptop, for example to share video playback while flying. Adding a Blu-ray drive, instead of the standard DVD burner is $75 more.

While our test unit had the base CPU and RAM (actually, according to HP's Web site, you now start with an Intel Core i5 2450M, instead of our 2430M), both are upgradable, up to a quad-core Core i7-2860QM for $450 and 16GB of RAM for $460 (with several steps in-between for both). A wide variety of HDD/SSD combos are available as well, topping out at $500 for a 128GB SSD plus two 1TB 5,400rpm drives.

With its more mainstream specs, this test unit performed as expected in our benchmark tests, along the lines of Lenovo's Core i5 IdeaPad Y570. Midsize laptops with an Intel Core i7, such as the Samsung Series 7, did better in our multitasking tests (but single-app testing was more of a mixed bag). In all but our Photoshop test, a Core i7 15-inch MacBook Pro from late 2011 was the top scorer among similar systems.

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