Birthed as an obvious MacBook Pro competitor, HP's Envy has skittered away sideways with the Beats Edition, forgoing the metallic shell for rubberised black plastic, which is usually found on video gaming peripherals, and a silver trim. Ignore the seeming sheen on the images above — this thing is matte black.
It feels slightly weaponised as a result — if you like to feel like you're about to head into combat while wearing Dr Dre headphones, this might be your solution.
Beat it! Just beat it!
Ah yes, if you so choose, you can have it bundled with Beats by Dr Dre Solo headphones; they're lightweight, with a foldable, detachable audio cable and their own travel case. There's even a separate cable with volume controls and call answer button for mobile phones, but you have to plug the right-angled 3.5mm plug into your device to get it to work, while the straight plug goes into the headphones. For comfort we'd prefer a straight plug on both ends.
While they may look the part, the audio isn't great. Massively overemphasised bass leaves clarity in the mid range and high end to suffer, with complex musical pieces resulting in a muddled mess. They're also extremely low impedance — this isn't a bad thing, as it will mean they'll work on just about any device, but remember to turn the volume down on your laptop dramatically before plugging them in, or your head is likely to explode from the decibels. Twice.
Things are slightly better with the Beats enhanced audio coming from the laptop. Hold down the Fn and b key, and it'll slightly expand the sound stage and offer a little more bass. The sound is still let down largely by speakers simply not up to the task, but the Beats audio does present a noticeably better, if slight, experience.
The non-audio bits
Showing that it's with the times, HP's documentation is supplied on a 2GB SD card rather than dealing with DVD. There are a few other nice touches too to help it stand apart from the norm: the charger includes a USB port; a dot at the top left of the touch pad turns the pad off when double tapped; the backlit keyboard is very much appreciated; and HP has gone Apple, making the secondary functions of the F keys now primary. That is, volume, screen brightness and the ilk can now be changed with a single button press along the top row of keys, while to get F1-F12 you'll have to hold down Fn key instead. It should be mentioned that typing on the keyboard is a fantastic experience — this is something HP has absolutely gotten right.
The touch pad is also Apple inspired, integrating the left and right mouse buttons into the touch pad entirely rather than having separate physical buttons. It works for Apple because there's only one button, and it doesn't matter where you click. The segmented, two-button approach is less elegant. Precise clicking is a pain, as the cursor can skitter about while you try to depress the pad. It also doesn't cope with multi-touch well — while two-finger scroll is enabled, if you leave a finger resting on a "button", it won't scroll at all.
Features are fairly standard for the 14-inch category, offering 2x USB, 1x USB/eSATA, VGA, GbE, an SD card reader, 802.11n, Bluetooth, a DVD+-RW drive and, interestingly, mini-DisplayPort.
While companies that don't think tend to put hot air vents on the left, and those that do think put them on the rear, HP has stepped up to the ineptitude plate and put a vent on the right-hand side, ensuring that all right-handed mouse users will have their paw made uncomfortably warm by the Envy's emissions. The black rubberised wrist rest also gets quite warm after extended use — a no doubt unintended property of the material.
The biggest letdown of the Envy though is the 1366x768 screen: poor off-axis viewing, faded colours and the glossy screen had an odd glazed look about it, as if it was a touchscreen.
Running off Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit, HP also bundled Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements 8.0, significantly contributing to the value of the bundle.
The Envy 14 is also reasonably specced, with a Core i7 740QM @ 1.73GHz inside, 8GB RAM, 750GB 5400rpm hard drive and ATI Radeon HD 5650 inside. Putting it through the 3DMark06 hurdles, it gave back a score of 6989, making it a respectable gaming machine. It won't play the latest games on the highest details, but scale it down to around medium detail and you should get away with quite a bit.
PCMark05 followed up with a score of 6483, which means that the Envy is likely to run most workloads without struggling.
What's immensely disappointing though is the battery life. With all power-saving features turned off, screen brightness and volume set to maximum and an XviD file played back at full screen, the Envy lasted one hour and 10 minutes. While this is a worst-case scenario figure thanks to the taxing test involved, it's at least 40 minutes shy of where it should be for a laptop of this size, spec and price.
HP's Envy 14 is an exercise in branding, ignoring the fact that a premium brand should also have premium performance. Give this one a miss.