Even a cursory glance will tell you the HP Envy 13 is a very nicely made premium 13-inch laptop. It's a solid slab of aluminum and magnesium, etched with interesting visual details, and filled with capable components, such as a dual-core low-voltage Intel CPU and discrete ATI graphics.
It's also clearly a shot across the bow of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, even if Hewlett-Packard leaves that challenge unstated. The edge-to-edge glass over the display and oversize multitouch touch pad all add to a Mac-like look and feel. Unfortunately, the Envy 13 is priced more comparably with ultrathin systems such as the Dell Adamo or even Apple's MacBook Air, starting at $1,699 (our test unit was $1,799, or $2,149 if you include the external Blu-ray drive and secondary battery).
With a better display (1,600x900-pixel resolution), newer CPU, and more options--the Envy 13 certainly makes a compelling case against the $1,199 13-inch MacBook Pro, but the $500-and-up price difference makes it a tough sell. That said, if price is no object, this is a great mix of power and portability, and sure to attract envious (no pun intended) stares in coffee shops and airport lounges.
While the Envy originated as part of HP's premium Voodoo line, that Voodoo branding is now gone, leaving this a pure HP-labeled product. Indeed, compared to some of the more outre Voodoo designs, the Envy 13 has more of a traditional HP look and feel, although significantly spruced up. The aluminum body, with a magnesium base, is reasonably slim, and the anonymous gunmetal gray lid contrasts nicely with a semirandom pattern of imprinted dots on the wrist rest.
The entire package feels a bit heavier than it looks, and when you add the secondary slice battery, which is a thin flat battery that clips onto the entire bottom surface, it's positively bricklike at 5.2 pounds. Still, unlike some of the thinner 13-inch models we've seen, the Envy 13 feels extremely solid and like it could withstand a lot of abuse.
The system interior is sparse, with a sunken keyboard made up of widely spaced, flat-topped keys and a single power button. There are no quick-launch or media control keys, but the row of Function keys now has their media control and other attributes as their primary mapping, with the actual F4, F5, and so on, tasks requiring you to hold down the Fn key at the same time. Vital keys such as the Backspace, Tab, and Shift buttons are thankfully full size, and the only real keyboard compromise we noted was small up and down arrow keys. The keys have a solid feel and a pleasant matte finish that made them comfortable to use. However, we did miss the backlit keyboard--quickly becoming a standard feature on many even-slightly upscale laptops.
Its oversize touch pad is a welcome addition--it's our primary laptop navigation method, so it's a shame so many laptops keep them small and hard to use. This version has the left and right mouse buttons built right in at the bottom edge, with the lower corners of the touch pad clicking down when pressed. Touch the upper left corner for a few seconds and the entire touch pad deactivates when you're using an external mouse. However, because the touch pad is physically combined with the buttons, the entire thing had a bit of a floating feel to it--and tapping anywhere on the pad produced a tiny bit of movement and a barely audible clacking sound.
Some of its multitouch gestures also bothered us. Using two fingers to scroll up and down long Web pages and documents was frustrating, because unlike the MacBook, this touch pad requires your two fingers to be almost exactly lined up on the horizontal plane to register the gesture. When you bring your hand in from its usual position on the left or right, your first two fingers will naturally fall on a slight diagonal, which the touch pad won't register as a scrolling gesture. We had to unnaturally contort our hands to come straight at the pad--as one might do in a demo video for how use a multitouch touch pad. This seems like an easy enough firmware fix, and something HP should consider doing before the Envy 13's October 18 launch.
The 13.3-inch wide-screen LED display offers a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution, which is higher than you'd find on a comparable MacBook Pro (a lower 1,366x768-pixel screen will also be available).
The screen was one of the system's highlights, with impressive brightness and excellent off-axis viewing angles. Audio was also excellent, with special bass-boosting software provided by Beats Audio, and sounded especially good through headphones.
For a laptop, while svelte, it is not extraordinarily thin or light. We were also surprised to find only two USB ports and no internal optical drive. External drive options include a standard DVD burner for $100 or a Blu-ray/DVD drive for $250. However, no built-in mobile broadband option is offered, so a USB dongle would take up one of the available USB ports.
For a laptop with a 2.13GHz SL9600 low-voltage Intel CPU, the Envy 13 performed admirably, coming close to matching the performance of Apple's 13-inch MacBook. An ultrathin system like Dell's Adamo, which uses an older U9300 processor, was much slower, highlighting the importance of finding the right balance between performance and power management. In anecdotal use, we found the Envy 13 to be quick and responsive, and it likely benefited from skipping Windows Vista in preference of Windows 7.
The 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics are entry level, as far as dedicated graphics solutions go, but technically it is more powerful than the integrated Nvidia GeForce 9400 graphics found in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. At 1,280x800 pixels, we got a very playable 31.5 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3. It's not going to be a gaming monster, but for casual gaming, it should get you through some World of Warcraft sessions while waiting at the airport gate. The discrete GPU can also be switched off in favor of integrated graphics, or set to automatically switch off when running on battery power.
The HP Envy 13 ran for 2 hours and 59 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included battery. Our battery drain test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use. While the 13-inch MacBook Pro nearly doubles that, this falls within our general 3-hour minimum preference. Unlike Apple's laptops, this battery is removable and replicable.
We also received an optional second battery, called a slice battery, that is large, thin, and covers the entire bottom surface of the laptop. We're still testing this additional battery and will update the battery life results when they are available, but in an initial run, it added between four and five hours to the system's running time. Note that we're running the system with the discrete graphics chip enabled, and turning it off will provide additional power savings.
HP includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base and driver downloads, and Envy owners get a dedicated support number to call, manned by, "Envy product experts." Online support chat is also available, and, according to HP, e-mails to its tech support team should be answered within one hour.
Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds) (Shorter bars indicate better performance)