HP Envy 15 (2012) Review

The HP Envy 15 finally provides Windows users with a product that can go toe-to-toe with what Apple offers.
The HP Envy 15 finally provides Windows users with a product that can go toe-to-toe with what Apple offers.
The HP Envy 15 finally provides Windows users with a product that can go toe-to-toe with what Apple offers.

Highs

  • Excellent all-round performance
  • Above average battery life
  • Beautiful 1080p display
  • Class-leading audio quality
  • Competitively priced

Lows

  • Derivative design
  • 1080p display strains the GPU

It’s a new year, and HP has a new Envy.

For those who’ve missed out on the last few years of the Envy line, this is HP’s stab at the high-end consumer laptop market. Apple dominates in this market, often stripping away attention from perfectly good (or even great) high-end laptops running Windows — including older Envy laptops.

A new model provides opportunities to include new features, but internally the HP Envy 15 hasn’t changed much. Our review unit, which is a base model with a display upgrade, has a Core i5 2430M processor paired with 6GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 7690M discrete GPU. For this, you’ll have to pay $1099 – just $20 more than the Envy 14, which was $1079.

Certainly, this appears competitive at first glance, but the real news here is the external redesign. Keeping up with the gold standard (Apple) is an uphill struggle. Let’s see if HP has brought the right tools

Predictable elegence

From a distance, you’d have trouble telling the difference between the new HP Envy 15 and older models in the line. All of the design elements are the same. Most of the interior is light silver metal except the lid, which has a darker tone. An island-style keyboard is laid across the interior, and the touchpad blends into the chassis. This broad description could be used for most Envy laptops sold within the last two years.

hp-envy-15-2012-review-angle-screen

Upon closer inspection, however, the differences become obvious. The flat black lid is an improvement over the subtle designs that decorated some previous models. Interior materials are slightly brighter than before, lending a less serious tone and providing better contrast with the keyboard, which features simple black keys. A touch of color has been added, as well, thanks to a small red strip of material that rings the keyboard.

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hp-envy-15-2012-review-bottom
 
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hp-envy-15-2012-review-left-side-ports

The end result is both clean and functional. Striking? Not quite. Metallic laptops are starting to become a bit common, so the simple black-lid on silver-interior design of the Envy 15 is no longer enough to stand out from the crowd. Other new designs like the Lenovo U400 are more distinctive, but not more functional. This is a solid, well-built laptop that easily lives up to the expectations of luxury set by the price tag.

Two USB 3.0 ports and one USB 2.0 port flank the Envy 15’s chassis, making this one of the few laptops where USB 3.0 outnumbers the older standard. HDMI and DisplayPort outputs are included for external displays, and audio equipment can be hooked up to not one but two headphone jacks, as well as a single, separate microphone jack. A card reader rounds out this impressive suite of connectivity.

A pleasure to touch

As mentioned, this laptop uses an island-style keyboard. So did the older models, but this keyboard has been revised. It offers somewhat small keys with decent travel and a smooth cap, creating an overall experience that’s strikingly similar to the MacBook 15. Which is the point, we suppose.

The layout of the keyboard is conventional, but there’s no numpad. That’s unusual for a 15-inch laptop. It’s also a good decision. Laptops that attempt to cram in a numpad have to make sacrifices to do so. Either other keys need to become smaller, or the numpad is half-sized, making it difficult to use. Here, the keyboard layout suffers from no such issues. It is spacious and enjoyable to use.

hp-envy-15-2012-review-keyboard

The spacious touchpad on the Envy 15 is one of the better ones you’ll find on any Windows notebook, but still gets confused from time to time. For instance, two-fingered scrolling is almost MacBook smooth after you get it started, but we frequently had trouble getting it to recognize a scrolling motion. Laying a second finger in the “button” area while you’re moving the cursor usually induces a slight twitch, and getting the pad to physically click takes a bit more force than we’re used to.

Pushing audio quality forward

Stock Envy 15s ship out with a glossy 1366 x 768 display, but our review unit came with the upgraded 1920 x 1080 panel, which will set you back $150. Given the huge increase in display resolution (the number of pixels nearly doubles) it’s not a bad price, but you can obtain a nice 1080p display for less with other laptops, such as the Sony Vaio S 15.5-inch.

Image quality didn’t grab us as instantly as did the Sony Vaio S 15.5-inch, perhaps because HP ships this laptop with much less visually stimulating wallpaper. Upon further use, however, it became apparent that display is well above average. Black levels are not excellent, but white saturation test images revealed excellent results, contributing to great overall contrast. Gradient banding test images were butter-smooth as well. Subjectively, both games and movies are beautiful on the Envy 15, though again not quite as good as the 1080p display on the aforementioned Vaio S.

hp-envy-15-2012-review-front-screen

HP has once again included Beats Audio branding on the Envy, and there’s a new extra this time: a volume control knob along the right side of the laptop featuring a Beats Audio logo. Branding aside, it’s a nice tactile extra that adds a touch of luxury and creativity to the design, not to mention more control than simple up and down buttons.

As for audio quality, well — it’s excellent. In fact, it’s probably the best we have ever heard from any laptop. Maximum volume is so loud that it may offend the sensibilities of some users, yet distortion is kept mostly in check, resulting in clear and crisp reproduction. However, the limits of laptop design are still apparent whenever you listen to a bass-heavy track. There’s just not much punch available. This holds true in movies and games, too — explosions sound a bit flat.

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