Sunday, 20 January 2013

HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 review: fast, capable but heavy Windows 8 Ultrabook

Budget laptops, in general, used to be clunky hunks of plastic, more three-dimensional than thin, a collection of loosely grouped computer parts. Because of the recent Ultrabook (Intel’s thin-and-fast laptop) craze, even mid-to-low range computers sport a durable, solid build. In order to bill a computer as an ultrabook, manufacturers have to place a strong emphasis on maximizing the space and efficiency of laptop internals. The Envy 4 isn’t Macbook Air thin, but it’s close, and it’s a lot nicer than a chunky desktop replacement. It’s because of this that the HP Envy 4 is a great laptop. It’s not the best laptop out there, but it’s incredibly useable on a daily basis, and I can certainly recommend it over almost all laptops at its price point made last year. If a rising tide raises all boats, the HP Envy 4 is a ship you want to be on.
While the fit and finish is great on the HP Envy 4, you can’t help but feel as if there’s some corners that have been cut. HP has declared its high end laptops the Envy Spectre line, and left the Envy 4 as a mid-budget laptop. It’s billed as an ultrabook, but it’s two-part construction outs it as a laptop’s laptop: solid, heavy, but portable. And it’s running Windows 7, which is going to be superseded by the cutting-edge Windows 8 in October. It might not be the lightest, the fastest, or the newest, but could it be the right computer for you?

Industrial Design

The HP Envy 4 cares about its looks. It’s wearing a rarely seen (nowadays, anyway) red-and-black color scheme, which is a welcome departure from the common aluminum-gray and black color schemes currently ubiquitous in the Ultrabook set. The top case is made out of black anodized brushed aluminum, and the body of the laptop is made of a red polycarbonate. The color scheme is a nod to the Beats Audio partnership, which also produces a large speaker grill on the underside on the back end of the laptop. That speaker grill, by the way, has the words Hewlett-Packard right above it, looking like a classic American hood ornament. It’s a nice touch, I thought HP wasn’t using the “Hewlett-Packard” trademark anymore.

There’s a satisfying click and feeling of old-school mechanics when closing the screen. There isn’t much resistance until the final 20 degrees, but then the hinges take over and the screen shuts with a soft thud. Ports are generous: you get an HDMI port, two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 port, a card reader, and a gigabit ethernet port.
My primary aesthetic issue: the Envy 14 employs a glossy screen. Then the designers added an intensely glossy bezel, too. The combination is less than impressive. Visually, it looks like it’s plastic, not glass. If HP’s engineers were trying to distinguish this computer from its higher-end, glass-clad brother Envy Spectre, they succeeded.
“fingerprint magnet”
One other problem: The entire computer is a fingerprint magnet. It’s every surface–the glossy plastic bezel, the screen, the keys, the trackpad, the case and the palm-rest. After my first day of light use, there didn’t seem to be a single smudge-free surface. Later days combined all the smudges into a “patina,” but who wants a thin layer of visible dirt on their laptop?


The keyboard is a modern, efficient entry into the current chiclet keyboard competition. The keys are well sized, large and easy-to-read. There isn’t much travel, but touch typing is accurate. There’s no flex, either. It’s a good keyboard which can certainly make your life pleasant on a daily basis.
The F-Keys are another entry into the current laptop trend of having convenient one-touch buttons on the F-row. And the keyboard is backlit, which isn’t the most important feature, but it still contributes to the sense that the HP Envy 4 is a well-built laptop.
One problem I have with the keyboard is the backlit keys. When they’re on they glow and let you see what key you’re pressing, but when they’re off, the F5 stays on. It’s the key that controls the backlit keyboard, so I could understand why it has a persistent light, but it’s rather distracting.


This trackpad has a brushed metal surface which is quite pleasant to scroll up and down pages with.
It’s not a glass trackpad, but I think the brushed metal is a legitimate alternative that is potentially better for some users. It does look quite good on the HP Envy 4 and the grooved aluminum feels textured and nice as opposed to glass trackpads of other computers.
But it still, overall, this trackpad is one of the weaker elements of the HP Envy 4. It’s not a clickpad (the whole surface is a button), like Apple and Lenovo have been using, but rather an old fashioned two button mouse. Pinching and zooming rarely works. The two-finger scroll works most the time, but I wished it worked all of the time. It’s okay the way a standard two-button mouse is okay, but there are bigger and better trackpads out there.


The display is the Ultrabook-standard low-end 1366×768. On a 14-inch-screen, it’s okay, but it’s possible to pick out individual pixels. Personally, I’d like to see computer makers in Q3 2012 try to limit 1366×768 to 13-inch or smaller screens. The colors are fine, but perhaps a little saturated. I think most users intending to do graphics or video work would be wise to pick another laptop. Other Ultrabooks have screens like 1600×900 or 1080p equivalent. Also, as mentioned earlier, the glossy bezel doesn’t do the screen any favors. As the primary thing you’ll be looking at while using this computer, it’s a shame that the chassis is so beautiful and the screen is so average.


In terms of performance, the HP Envy 4 does well. It scores solidly in it’s category when benchmarking its Intel Core i5 processor, and the 32GB of SSD really helps its HDD scores.
In terms of the PCMark Vantage Productivity and HDD tests, the HP Envy 4 does well, but not as well as the leaders in the class. Those are laptops like the MacBook Pro with Retina and and the Samsung Series 9, so they’re a different category of laptop. The HP Envy 4 does handily smoke the Lenovo U310 and the Acer S3, though, so it’s not a laggard. It exceeds expectations thanks to 32GB of built-in SSD which is invisible to the user.
Like many of the Ivy Bridge-based Ultrabooks coming out, the HP Envy 4 relies on the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics built into the processor. Among other laptops that have this configuration, the HP Envy 4 is solidly in the middle of the pack. On the other hand, that means that the HP Envy 4 doesn’t have a discrete graphics processor. People who want to play newer games like Starcraft 2 should stay away.
Just Cause 2, a graphically intense game, managed a measly 14.99 FPS at default settings, which isn’t playable. If you turn down all the settings, you may be able to play, but the HP Envy 4 certainly won’t excel. However, the HD 4000 graphices are more than good enough to stream or watch any HD video you throw at it.
Perceived performance: The HP Envy 4 feels like a speedy machine. A large part of that is the integrated 32GB of solid state storage, which helps with wake and boot times. But web pages render quickly, daily processing tasks don’t stutter, and daily use is a joy. If you’re the kind of person who uses a computer and rarely wonders if there’s enough processing power, you’ll like the HP Envy 4’s performance.

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