HP Envy eclipses the Apple MacBook

The Hewlett-Packard Envy 13 moves past the Apple MacBook Air in some important respects, but the price tag is a problem.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
5 min read

The Hewlett-Packard Envy 13 offers an excellent example of what a cutting-edge ultraportable should be--and it moves past the Apple MacBook Air in some important respects, despite its overly ambitious price tag.

First, let me say that I use a MacBook Air as my main machine and am well aware of its merits. That said, it is beginning to look a little long in the tooth when juxtaposed with the Envy 13--which, like the Air, offers an aluminum chassis. I will also draw comparisons with 13-inch MacBook Pro since the Envy seems to fall somewhere between this and the Air.

(See CNET review of Envy 13.)

Let's start with the Envy's engine. The Envy offers a ULV (ultra-low-voltage) processor option that you won't find in any Apple MacBook: a 1.6GHz Core 2 Duo SU9600 that draws a mere 10 watts. This is Intel's highest-performance 10-watt dual-core processor--a crucial power-saving and heat-reducing option for ultra-thin designs like the Envy or MacBook Air. The more widely used SL9600 (which many reviewers mistakenly refer to as ultra low voltage) draws 17 watts.

But HP charges a premium for this processor, too. Selecting the power-sipping SU9600 adds $200 to the cost of the Envy. But at least it's an option.

HP Envy 13 is more advanced than the MacBook in some important respects.
HP Envy 13 is more advanced than the MacBook in some important respects. Hewlett-Packard

Next, graphics. The Envy has switchable graphics. What does this get you? More battery life. When plugged in, the Envy uses the "discrete" (standalone) ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics processor. When unplugged it switches to the less-power-hungry--and lower performance--Intel integrated graphics.

The truth be told, most of the time users don't need discrete graphics. But it can be a godsend in Windows 7, for example, when doing transcoding--which converts, for instance, a movie on a PC to a format that makes it viewable on an iPhone or iPod. And, of course, discrete graphics is needed for playing demanding games.

The ATI 4330 graphics seem to be more capable than the Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics used in both the 13-inch MacBook Pro and Air, according to reviewers. "Technically it is more powerful than the integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400 graphics," according to CNET Reviews.

And the Envy has a high-resolution screen option, yet another Apple-trumping extra. The 1,600-by-900 resolution screen is a step up from the MacBook Air's and Pro's 13-inch, 1,280-by-800 display.

In the storage department, the Envy has a more reasonable pricing scheme compared with the 13-inch MacBook Pro. HP has just begun offering an Intel 160GB solid-state drive option. This adds $200 to the standard 5400RPM hard disk drive.

Though the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers both 128GB and 256GB solid-state drive options, these add a whopping $350 and $800, respectively, to the price. That's almost a deal-breaker, in my opinion. Especially if a consumer adds this option to the $1,499 13-inch MacBook model. And the $1,799 MacBook Air offers only a 128GB SSD.

HP Envy 13:

  • $1,699
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Intel 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo SL9400 (w/ 10-watt SU9600 option)
  • 250GB 5400RPM hard disk drive (w/ 160GB Intel solid-state drive option)
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 Graphics w/512MB
  • 4-cell battery (w/ extra 6-cell battery option)
  • 3GB DDR3 memory
  • Aluminum chassis
  • No built-in optical drive
  • Weight: 3.8 pounds

Apple MacBook Air:

  • $1,499
  • Mac OS X v10.6 Snow Leopard
  • Intel 1.86GHz Core 2 Duo (w/ 2.13GHz processor option)
  • 120GB 4200RPM hard disk drive (w/ 128GB solid-state drive option)
  • Nvidia GeForce 9400M graphics
  • Battery rated at 5 hours
  • 2GB DDR3 memory
  • Aluminum chassis
  • No built-in optical drive
  • Weight: 3 pounds

(Note: options add cost to the listed Envy and Air base prices.)

Battery life may offer the starkest contrast. Here, once again, the choices that HP offers make the MacBook's feature set look limited by comparison. A 6-cell option boosts the battery life to an almost-unheard-of 14 hours, according to reviews. This is roughly three times the battery life offered on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The MacBook Air, by comparison, delivers, at best, four hours, in my experience.

There is one slight drawback, however. Adding the optional 6-cell battery bumps up the Envy's weight to just more than five pounds (because the extra 6-cell battery is used in tandem with the built-in 4-cell unit), thereby pushing it out of the ultraportable category.

Now we get to the possible deal breaker for the Envy: price. As other reviewers have said--including CNET Reviews--this may be big barrier for some consumers who would be leaning toward the Envy. It starts at $1,699 with a configuration that most consumers won't see as that different from the $1,199 13-inch MacBook Pro. Throw in the Pro's built-in optical drive, at it looks even worse for the Envy.

A comparison with the MacBook Air is a little better, but not much. The Air starts at $1,499 with a 120GB (4200RPM) hard disk drive. Adding a faster processor and solid-state drive to the Air hikes the price to $1,799. Even at that price point, the Air still looks better to me--because it's thinner and weighs almost a pound less--despite the Envy's technological advantages described above.

Some consumers looking for the latest and greatest in ultraportable design will of course buy the Envy 13 or its high-powered 15-inch cousin, which packs a quad-core mobile Intel Core i7 processor. But HP appears to be artificially elevating the Envy 13 to the rarefied ultra-elite category of laptops like the new Dell Adamo XPS, which offers a truly radical physical design starting at $1,799.

If HP drops the price a little it has a very competitive product and may bring prospective MacBook buyers into the HP fold.

Updated at 1:40 p.m. PST: with additional specifications.

Updated on December 5 at 7:35 p.m. PST with additional notes (below).

After reading some of the comments, let me repeat, the Envy "eclipses" the MacBook (Air and Pro), in my opinion.

The post states up front the areas where I believe the Envy beats the MacBook technologically. (1) The wider selection of low-power processors, (2) the switchable, discrecte graphics, (3) battery life (with the extra battery), and (4) screen.

But technology isn't everything so I put in a qualifier about price. In other words, the HP Envy 13 bests the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air on technology (in my opinion) but is too expensive and therefore fails to deliver both a technological and pricing KO.