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HP Envy 13

HP Envy 13

It looks and feels like, but isn't, a MacBook ... Envy 13 is the PC's answer for slim, stylish computing--only more expensive

Snarky bloggers (ahem) could easily dismiss the HP Envy 13 as a MacBook Pro plus $300, say so in a tweet, and call it a day. Hell, I was certainly tempted. (The Envy 13 starts at $1699. As configured, our review unit would cost you $1799.) This handsome laptop isn't so much a tribute as it is a poke in Apple's eye saying, "We can design similarly sleek, sexy machines...and maybe charge people a little more." But the HP story here--and my review--has a bit more to it than that.

Before I start digging (or, should I say, "lacing"?) into the Envy 13, a disclaimer: We haven't had enough time to run the machine through our rigorous WorldBench 6 tests yet. But under the hood you get a decent amount of juice, comparable to that of a 13-inch MacBook Pro: a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9600 processor, 3GB of RAM, and an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 discrete GPU. (A $1499, 13-inch MacBook Pro--one of the cheaper versions--offers a 2.53GHz CPU, 4GB of RAM, and an nVidia GeForce 9400M GPU.) So, I will speak from my initial experience, from boot-ups to letdowns and everything in between--and update this review with full scores as soon as possible.

In the meantime, this MacB--I mean, the Envy--is an eye-catcher. Every place I popped open the laptop to try to get some work done--even near the Macworld zone in the office--people couldn't help but crane necks to check it out. The thin, metallic frame is a little on the heavy side, but I'm not offended (it measures 12.6 by 8.5 by 0.8 inches and weighs 3.1 pounds). A little meaty? Maybe, but I want a machine that feels like it can take a punch.

Anyhow, flipping the lid and firing up the machine, I get the option to start with HP's Instant On Linux shell. You've seen it before in other machines, and the slick little interface works here just as well. One-second access to pictures, MP3s, the Web, Skype, and the like--whether it is something sitting on the hard drive or popped into the SD card slot. Of course, you could opt to skip that insta-boot and go straight into Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit edition). It takes about 80 seconds to go to a fully-loaded OS. From a sleep state, this sucker is back in action in under 2 seconds.

The screen is a crisp, glossy 13.1-inch backlit LED with a native resolution of 1600 by 900. That resolution, however, is an upgrade option--the default panel resolution is 1366 by 768. Either way, HD video, here we come! The color is appropriately warm enough for video that shows fiery explosions against a black backdrop, and yet it won't wash out the darker colors.

Still photos similarly popped. If only that glossy screen wasn't fighting me. While images are certainly viewable, you'll notice reflections that'll distract you from what you're trying to type if you're parked anywhere near a window. (On the bright side, it's a great rear-view mirror.)

Now onto something else that's been celebrated in press materials about this machine: It has Beats audio. Yep, the high-def audio processing that's found it's way into high-tech hipster headphones is built into a custom DSP chip. The results: Well, you'll need headphones to even remotely appreciate what's going on. The two tiny on-board speakers are there for show. they sound decent enough, but even with the volume cranked, I needed to lean close in a noisy room just to hear a peep out of the Envy 13.

While I don't have Beats headphones for the "optimal" experience, I plugged in what most people would probably use--a pair of earbuds. Nothing fancy, and yet the sound is indeed noticeably crisper. Dre's "Nuthin' But a G Thang" (hey, it seemed an appropriate choice at the time) is more than just bumping bass--the headphone audio adds a meaty middle. The same song out of another notebook I had sitting around sounded a little sharper. Not nails on a chalkboard, but noticeable.

Speaking of inappropriate uses of hardware, I've never had such a love-hate relationship with a touchpad since....the newer MacBook Pros, I guess. First the love: the multitouch functionality. It works, I like it, done. Now the hate: With the mouse buttons tucked away underneath the touchpad's comfortable strike zone, I had a tough time pegging where the buttons ended and the touch controls began. At first I had to pound like a maniac on the corners just to highlight bits of text when writing this review. But over time, it became a little more manageable.

The keyboard, on the other hand, garners little to no complaints from me. In fact, the cut-out keys on this machine are a breeze to use. Well-spaced, springy, and solidly secured--this is a no-nonsense design. And, following the lead of machines like Dell's Studio 14z, the keys lining the top are multimedia and hardware toggles first (no button combos required), then F1 through F12 keys when combined with the "fn" button. The Up and Down arrow keys are a little too tiny, but if that's the only complaint about the keyboard on a 13-inch laptop, HP's doing okay.

Looking around the rest of the notebook, you'll see a couple of USB 2.0 ports, an HDMI-out, an SD flash-card reader, and a combo headphone/mic jack. That's it. No wired ethernet port or legacy VGA (those require dongles)--but you do get Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi under the hood. And an optical drive? That falls under the "extras" category.

The matching external optical drive starts at $100 for the DVD-ROM (or $250 for the BD-ROM), and the slick 6-cell battery slice that sits beneath goes for another $100.

A quick aside about this slice: It's just smart. The extra battery snaps on, and you'd have to look closely to know that it's even there, though it adds a little extra thickness to the profile--and, of course, an extra 1.4 pounds of weight. (We can't say anything about the length of battery life just yet. Stay tuned and we'll update that ASAP.)

We've given HP the nod for smart design all around--might as well mention the premium packaging (and the promise of premium support). It makes you feel like you're getting a first-class seat to Windowsville. You even get a 2GB SDHC card that contains the manual. But that makes me think, "Hey, why not just put all the lovely 'bonus' software on the SD card, not the hard drive?" (See my recent rant about the joys of shovelware in the Mobile Computing blog; I'll spare you here.)

But let me assure you that I don't care if Norton trialware is loaded on my machine. I don't own a Slingbox, and don't like the Flash ad for it on the machine.

All that aside, the Envy 13 has a lot of eye-catching touches. Let's not forget that last year's HP Voodoo Envy 133 (hmm, I wonder where that "Voodoo" name went off to, anyhow?) was even more expensive and was amazingly underpowered compared with a MacBook back then. This is a good machine for people that have money to burn. Once we get our performance results back from the labs, I'll circle back and tell you if it's fully worth said cash.


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