HP has offered a late-in-the-year surprise with the Omen, a new gaming laptop that might be the most inventive PC design to come from that company in years.
The Omen arrives at the tail end of what might be the most exciting year in recent history for PC gaming, with a flood of new hardware and components offering great experiences for almost any budget, from the $550 Alienware Alpha to the $5,000 Origin PC Millennium .
Somewhere in the middle lies the Omen, a slim 15.6-inch gaming laptop, starting at $1,499, (£1,299 in the UK and AU$2,199 in Australia). It's highly comparable with our favorite in this category, Lenovo's 15-inch Y50 series . Both are built around fourth-gen Intel Core i7 CPUs, offer upgrades to RAM and SSD storage, and are designed for gamers who seek something more portable, and less embarrassing, than the typical over-the-top look and feel of bigger gaming laptops. This review unit came packed with upgrades, including a big 512GB SSD and 16GB of RAM, for $2,100 (this configuration is AU$2,999 in Australia, but not currently available in the UK).
Lenovo's competing product offers touch and non-touch screens in multiple resolutions, and for the same price as the entry level Omen, you can get a Lenovo Y50 Touch 4K, which takes its screen resolution up to 3,840x2,160, while the Omen is only available with a single 1080p touchscreen.
Both systems are locked into a single choice in graphics cards, and that might be the only reason the most serious PC gamers would give pause. The Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M in both the Y50 and Omen is a very popular GPU, and certainly can play any current game at medium-to-high settings. But, it's far from the top of the line, even for mobile cards, and we've seen some laptops turn in incredible scores with the newer GeForce 980M, which has shown itself to be powerful enough to even push games at full 4K resolution.
But on a smaller 15-inch screen, at 1,920x1,080 resolution, the 860M here was able to handle any reasonable gaming test we threw at it. On top of that, the unique design, with sharply tapered sides and all the ports and heat vents on the back panel, is a decidedly different take on midsize gaming. The system offers a handful of user configuration options, including multi-colored lighting zones and a row of programmable macro keys along the left edge.
This is also very likely one of the last (if not the last) new HP products you'll see with Beats Audio branding. Since Apple acquired the audio company, HP can only release new Beats-branded products through the end of 2014, and sell existing ones through the end of 2015.
The last thing anyone expected from HP at this point was a bold, fresh, take on premium gaming laptops, especially as the only other notable HP PC of late has been the $199 HP Stream . The Omen is a very pleasant surprise, fun to use and reasonably priced (but not a bargain). I'm genuinely torn between recommending this versus the very similar Lenovo Y50, so my advice would be stick with the Y50 if you're especially interested in the 4K display, but if you're not, give the Omen a shot.
|Price as reviewed
|15.6-inch, 1920x1080 touchscreen
|2.5GHz Intel Core i74710HQ
|16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz
|4GB (dedicated) Nvidia GeForce GTX 860M
|802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
|Windows 8.1 (64-bit)
Design and features
Gaming laptops have thankfully gone from glowing alien heads and flame decals to basic black. In this case, it's basic black broken up over lengthy speaker grilles along the left and right side, and a punched-in pattern of tiny squares across the back of the lid. My wife, herself a longtime gamer, declared it "The least ugly gaming laptop" I'd brought home this year.
The most notable physical characteristic is the tapered edges. Both the left and right sides narrow to a point, creating a floating effect for the body beneath it, and giving the body the illusion of being even thinner than it is. In reality, at 4.7 pounds and 20mm thick, it's thinner and lighter than the Y50, but not by much.
Those tapered edges leave no space for USB or other ports and connections, so any plugs are relegated to the rear edge, a setup that's not unique, but definitely uncommon. The main fan vents are also along that rear edge, which means you won't fall into the old trap of having a hot side vent blowing directly on your hand when using a mouse.
Long speaker grilles line the tops of those tapered edges, with lights that can be set to pulse along with music or movie and game audio. The default for both those lights and the backlit keyboard is red (Do all gaming PC lights have to default to red?), but a user settings app can adjust those lights and several lighting zones across the keyboard, including one just for the WASD keys, frequently used in PC games. That same settings app can also assign multi-key commands to six preset buttons to the left of the keyboard.
The touchpad is wider than on a normal laptop of this size, one might even describe it as letterboxed. It's a design HP used on a couple of higher-end Envy laptops previously, although this version doesn't have specialized Windows 8 gesture control zones at the far ends that those models featured. The clickpad-style touchpad works well enough, and the extra surface area is nice to have, but for gaming, you're much more likely to be using a mouse or gamepad.
Any gaming laptop lives or dies by its display. The 15.6-inch one here has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080, still the universal standard, although some laptops -- gaming and otherwise -- are creeping past that, all the way up to 4K territory. The screen here is bright and clear, with a responsive touch surface, but it's also very, very glossy. So much so that we often had to adjust the angle or position to cut down on screen glare. The 1080p screen option in the Lenovo Y50 does not look as nice, being comparatively dim and washed out, but the 4K variant of the Y50 looks as good or better. If you're not interested in 4K, and plan to play at 1,920x1,080 on the laptop's built-in display (as opposed to outputting the signal to a TV or monitor), I'd pick the Omen over the Y50.
Audio from the Beats-branded sound system is excellent for such a small laptop, but still not room-filling. Beats provides audio-shaping software (essentially EQ presets) for many HP laptops, not the actual speaker hardware, but starting next year, HP will lose that partnership to Apple.
HP Omen ports & connections
|HDMI and Mini DisplayPort
|Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
|4 USB 3.0, SD card reader
|802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Connections, performance, and battery
Along the rear edge, you'll find a line of USB and video ports. That's a setup that will appeal to some but not to others, depending on how often you need to see and access those ports. It could especially be a problem if your laptop needs to fit tightly up against a wall. If you want Ethernet access, you'll have to use the included USB adaptor, but that still leaves you three for a mouse and other accessories.
Our high-end configuration still can't compete with the most decked-out gaming laptops you can get from Alienware, Origin PC, MSI and others, but in the growing category of mid-range, midsize gaming laptops, it's a strong performer in both applications and gaming. The Nvidia GeForce 860M GPU at the heart of the system is the same one found in Lenovo's Y50, and the Acer Aspire Nitro , and a variant model is found in the new Alienware Alpha console-style desktop.
The Omen played our BioShock Infinite test at 1,920x1,080 and high detail settings at 51 frames per second, and the challenging Metro: Last Light test at 19 frames per second. Dialing down the settings slightly on each game will give you an excellent real-world gaming experience. The Lenovo Y50 Touch 4K played the same two tests at 49 fps and 19 fps, respectively. The Alienware Alpha, a small desktop that costs only $550, ran the same two tests at 54 fps and 19 fps. Long story short, we've seen several gaming PCs this year built around Nvidia's 860M graphics card, and they all perform fairly similarly (although the Alpha ran our regular application performance tests very slowly, on account of its entry level Core i3 processor).
To see what a truly high-end gaming PC can do, look at the updated Origin PC Eon17-S we recently tested, with a bleeding edge Nvidia GeForce GTX 980MM graphics card, the current top of the line. In Bioshock Infinite, that system ran at 111 frames per second, and in Metro, 44 frames per second.
Despite the 860M used in the Omen being far from the fastest GPU on the market, I was able to find a good balance between detail settings and playability in new high-end games from Far Cry 4 to Shadow of Mordor, the latter running anecdotally at 38 frames per second at high settings, and 49 frames per second on medium settings, both at 1080p resolution.
In terms of battery life, shoppers expect a bit more of gaming laptops today than they used to when hulking desktop replacement laptops ran for less than 90 minutes on a charge. In this case, the HP Omen ran for 3:11 on our video playback battery drain test, which is less than the Lenovo Y50, but about 30 minutes more than the Acer Nitro. Battery life while gaming, of course, will be much lower.
Anyone counting HP out of the picture over the past year or two is going to be surprised by how well the high-end Omen comes together. It's especially gratifying to see a decent gaming machine come from HP after the company failed to capitalize on buying the well-liked Voodoo PC gaming company back in 2006.
To be a true go-to machine for gaming enthusiasts, I'd like to see configuration options for different displays and graphics cards. But with a few thoughtful upgrades from the $1,499 base price (such as a larger SSD) the Omen is a strong first appearance by what will hopefully be an ongoing brand.
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