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HP Envy 14 Laptop Review

by The Review CrewAugust 17, 2010

The good: Less expensive than last year’s Envy models; highly configurable; solid design and construction.

The bad: Heavy; ATI switchable graphics not as seamless as Nvidia’s; funky volume controls don’t play well with games.

The bottom line: HP’s updated Envy 14 is a well-built high-end laptop with impressive components and a surprisingly reasonable price.

Review:
HP’s high-end Envy line of laptops is one of the few bright spots for laptop design in an industry currently filled with midprice plastic boxes. With a solidly built (but slightly too heavy) aluminum and magnesium chassis and a capable collection of components, we liked the original 13- and 15-inch versions of the Envy, but they were priced out of reach for most.
The new 14-inch Envy 14 (we always love logical product names) adds discrete graphics to last year’s 13-inch Envy 13, while dropping the starting price by about one third to $999. That gets you an … Expand full review

HP’s high-end Envy line of laptops is one of the few bright spots for laptop design in an industry currently filled with midprice plastic boxes. With a solidly built (but slightly too heavy) aluminum and magnesium chassis and a capable collection of components, we liked the original 13- and 15-inch versions of the Envy, but they were priced out of reach for most.

The new 14-inch Envy 14 (we always love logical product names) adds discrete graphics to last year’s 13-inch Envy 13, while dropping the starting price by about one third to $999. That gets you an Intel Core i3 CPU, but upgrading to a more powerful Core i5, as in our review unit, only bumps the price up to $1,049 (Core i7 and quad-core options are also available, at prices up to $1,600).

The Envy 14 looks great and generally runs great, but there are also a handful of minor frustrating issues that seem out of place on a high-end laptop. Using the volume control buttons automatically brings up an on-screen volume bar that bumps you out of full-screen games; the multitouch touch pad still has trouble with its two-finger scroll functions; and this laptop had occasional trouble waking up out of a sleep state–more so than we’ve seen in a Windows 7 laptop in some time.

Like last year’s Envy 13, the new HP Envy 14 is made of aluminum and magnesium, and comes in basic gunmetal gray. The same subtle pattern of imprinted squares covers the wrist rest and back of the lid, making the two systems hard to tell apart, aside from the slight size increase to accommodate the 14-inch display.

The Envy 14, like its Envy predecessors, feels solid and rugged, but is also dense and heavy compared with other laptops of a similar size. At 5.3 pounds, it’s not exactly something you’d want to carry in a shoulder bag during a daily commute (and a 14-inch laptop is already just over the line of what we’d consider truly portable), but we could see it working for semiregular trips to the office or coffee shop.

The interior consists of a slightly sunken keyboard tray, with a keyboard made up of widely spaced, flat-topped keys and a single power button. Though there are no quick-launch or media control keys, the row of Function keys has their media control and other attributes as the primary mapping, with the actual tasks of F4, F5, etc. requiring you to hold down the Fn key at the same time (a setup HP and others are using more frequently). One big advantage the Envy 14 has over the older Envy 13 is that the new keyboard is backlit, which is one of our must-have features in any high-end laptop.

As previously mentioned, the volume controls have the unfortunate side effect of jumping to the onscreen volume indicator when you hit the volume down, up, or mute buttons (F7, F8, and F9, respectively). So if you try to use them while playing a game or watching certain kinds of full-screen video, you’ll be kicked out of the full-screen mode or even back to the desktop–which is an incredibly frustrating experience.

The Envy’s oversize touch pad is now common on many HP laptops. The look and feel are great, and it rivals Apple for sheer size. But having the left and right mouse buttons built right in at the lower corners of the touch pad (clicking down when pressed) cuts down on the actual usable space.

Unfortunately, every HP laptop with this new touch pad we’ve tried has the same problem: the multitouch gesture controls don’t work consistently, especially the all-important two-finger scrolling move. Scrolling down long documents or Web pages with your index and middle fingers almost never works, as one rarely holds those two fingers evenly enough on the horizontal plane to activate the scroll function. We had better luck with our middle and ring fingers. The touch pad also lacks the inertial scrolling that helps MacBooks (and iPhones, iPads, etc.) feel so natural.

The 14.5-inch wide-screen LED display (notable, as most 14-inch laptop screens measure only 14.0-inches diagonally) offers a 1,600×900-pixel native resolution, which is better than the almost universal 1,366×768 pixels found on most laptops with screens from 11 to 15 inches. The screen had impressive brightness and excellent off-axis viewing angles, and audio was also a high point. HP has teamed with Beats Audio to include special bass-boosting software and hardware that purportedly works especially well with Beats-branded headphones, but certainly also sounds clear and hefty with other headphones or through the system speakers.

The HP Envy 14 has a much better selection of ports and connections than the Envy 13. This time around, you get three USB ports, including one USB/eSATA port, both HDMI and DisplayPort, plus a slot-loading optical drive–a feature conspicuously missing from the 13-inch version.

The $999 base model has an Intel Core i3 CPU, and a variety of Core i5 and Core i7 upgrades are available, adding anywhere from $50 to more than $500 to the price. We tested a version with the most basic upgrade, to a Core i5-450m, which seems like a very worthwhile investment. As one would rightly expect from the current Core i5 laptop, the HP Envy 14 performed well in our benchmark tests, but slightly slower than systems with the more common and slightly faster version of the Core i5, the i5-520M (which is available as a $150 option). Still, for all but the most heavy multitasking or gaming, the Envy 14 is more than capable.

The included ATI Radeon HD5650 is a midrange graphics card suitable for mainstream gaming. Playing Unreal Tournament III at 1,600×900-pixel resolution, we got 57.8 frames per second. In Street Fighter IV, at the same resolution, the system ran at 29.6 frames per second.

The Envy also features switchable graphics, which means the ATI card can be turned off to save battery power when not needed, instead running the default Intel HD graphics. It’s a nice option to have, but unlike Nvidia’s Optimus solution for laptops running Nvidia GPUs, you have to manually switch the graphics here by clicking an onscreen button, which frankly feels archaic at this point (although you can configure the system to automatically jump to the integrated graphics when using the battery).

The HP Envy 14 ran for 3 hours and 20 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included 8-cell battery. That’s good for a midsize laptop, and note that we kept the switchable discrete graphics card engaged, as many casual users would. Remembering to switch them off would lead to improved battery life.

HP includes an industry-standard, one-year, parts-and-labor warranty with the system. Upgrading to a three-year plan starts at $399, but includes accidental damage protection and on-site service. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line, and a well-maintained online knowledge base and driver downloads.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.



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