HP joins the small but growing number of PC makers entering what I call the tabletop PC space. That's shorthand for a big-screen all-in-one desktop PC that includes a battery for short-haul portability, plus an ability to lie flat on a surface, creating an optional face-up view. These are essentially mega-tablets with either built-in kickstands or desktop docks, and they represent one of the only truly unique and interesting things going on in desktop computer design right now (at least until Apple's Mac Pro hits).
The HP Envy Rove aims to bring a big 20-inch tablet/desktop to the masses at a very mainstream price. It does this by keeping the CPU on the low end, with a new fourth-generation Intel Core i3 and restricting the 20-inch display to a middling 1600x900-pixel native resolution (some competing systems have full 1920x1080-pixel screens).
Sony's very similar Vaio Tap 20 offers essentially the same deal (including the 1600x900-pixel screen), although the Core i3 offered is a last-gen chip and upgrading to match the HP Rove's 1TB HDD brings that system up in price.
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Other entries in this field are either larger or smaller, with the Dell XPS 18 dropping two inches from its screen size and the Lenovo Horizon 27 bumping it up to, you guessed it, 27 inches. The Lenovo Horizon, while a favourite, is a much different animal just based on its size and price, but Dell's version presents an interesting choice.
A comparable model costs slightly more, has a last-gen Core i3 CPU, only 500GB of HDD storage and of course, the screen in smaller (although it's a full 1080p screen). The interesting part is that while the HP Rove and the Sony Tap 20 both weigh around 5.4kg, the XPS 18 manages to be an essentially similar machine at only a bit above 2.3kg. If you put them side by side (as we did), it's a pretty stunning difference, making one an essentially desk-locked system you can lug from room to room occasionally and the other a reasonably portable lap-size tablet that can also stand upright when needed.
But if weight isn't your main concern, the HP Rove does have some serious advantages. The built-in kickstand is rock solid and adjusts to different angles easily, while the Dell XPS 18 relies on a couple of wimpy plastic fold-out fins (or you can buy a metal docking stand). The Rove also features HP's standard Beats Audio subsystem, more USB ports and a clever on-demand screen rotation button that keeps Windows 8 from flipping the image around every time you jostle the screen.
I think this is a very interesting and growing field, with plenty of practical family and entertainment possibilities. The lie-flat tabletop PC is an entirely different animal, with features of a personal computer, a piece of consumer electronics equipment and even living-room furniture. Not everyone needs a tabletop PC on their coffee table, and I'd be inclined to lean toward the smaller, lighter Dell or the massive 27-inch Lenovo, but HP's new Rove 20 also gets a nod for providing the best price, most hard-drive space and the latest Intel processors.
Design and features
The Rove 20 is closest in design to the Sony Vaio Tap 20, so much so that the pair feels like an old Spy Magazine "Separated at Birth" column. Both models take a large 20-inch glass screen and match it with the kind of thick metal-backed body you'd see on a typical all-in-one desktop and then add a heavy-duty metal fold-out kickstand.
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It's that kickstand that certainly adds some of the thickness and weight to the Rove 20, and it serves to make the entire system feel very secure at almost any angle, even though it's easily adjusted with one hand. It's my favourite of the kickstand designs so far (I found the one used on the Lenovo Horizon clunky and hard to deal with) because once you reach behind the screen and depress a large hand-size trigger, the spring-loaded C-shaped hinge deploys and offers easy adjustment.
The hinge is stiff enough to instantly stay at any angle between fully flat and just short of 90 degrees but also gives enough that you can push it back with the firm press of a single finger. The trade-off is that it weighs about double what the 18-inch Dell tabletop PC does, although that system has just two fixed-angle plastic flippers that are not nearly as secure.
The Rove 20 includes a matching wireless keyboard and mouse set. Both are fine but plasticky, and oddly, the designs of the two components don't seem to mesh perfectly. The mouse is made of glossy black plastic, while the keyboard is matte black plastic. Unlike a lot of other pack-in keyboards, or most laptop keyboards, the keys here are deep and offer a satisfying click under the fingers. The curved mouse is ergonomically friendly and fine for casual surfing and even basic gaming.
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The 20-inch screen is an LED-backlit IPS display and looks great with bright colours and good off-axis viewing. It's covered by edge-to-edge glass that extends across the thick black screen bezel, and touch is, as on nearly every Windows 8 machine to date, very responsive.
The big complaint here is that the screen's native resolution is only 1600x900 pixels, and for such a big display, anything less than 1920x1080 feels out of place. It's still fine for Netflix and HD video viewing, but you won't be seeing the full resolution of 1080p content.
Like most midrange and up HP systems, the Rove 20 includes a Beats Audio technology, along with dual speakers and a subwoofer, making it a great-sounding portable PC that gets plenty loud without distorting and with decent bass.
Thanks in part to its hefty size, you get a very comparable set of ports and connections on the Rove 20 to what you'd find on a standard all-in-one desktop, including three USB 3.0 ports and an SD card slot. I wasn't a fan of offloading the Ethernet jack to a USB dongle, but I liked the easy to access volume up/down rocker on the right edge and the manual screen rotation button on the left. Like the most recent Apple MacBooks, the Wi-Fi is of the newer, faster 802.11ac variety, although you'll need a new router to take advantage of that.
HP only has a single configuration available right now, which includes a fourth-generation Intel Core i3-4010U processor, 4GB of RAM and a sizable 1TB HDD with an 8GB SSD cache. In our benchmark tests, the Rove 20 was slower than each of the other tabletop PCs we've tested, all of which use an Intel Core i5 CPU, although those are from the previous generation of Intel's Core i-series chips.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
Despite that, the Rove 20 felt perfectly fast when used for everyday tasks, such as web surfing, social media, video playback or work processing, and it should handle any task you'd use a mainstream all-in-one for without slowdown or stuttering.
One issue is that these tabletop PCs, especially when folded down, are great for tabletop gaming. But, with a slower CPU and no discrete graphics card, there's very little serious gaming you're going to be able to do on here. A few built-in apps, such as a visually bland chess/checkers/backgammon app, at least give you something to do for family gaming, and the Microsoft app store can give you casual games, including the new Halo: Spartan Assault, that work well.
While these tabletop PCs are not intended to run all day away from an outlet, it's nice to be able to carry one to another room and have it last long enough to watch a film or to use one in the kitchen as a virtual cookbook. By those standards, the Rove 20 did very respectively, running for 3 hours and 47 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. The very power-efficient new Intel generation of CPUs help with that, no doubt.
The HP Rove 20 doesn't break much new ground in the newish tabletop PC category, but it's built like a tank, has a great adjustable kickstand hinge and gives you a full 1TB of hard drive space for less than anyone else. That said, I'd be tempted to spend more on Dell's 18-inch version. Despite having a slightly smaller screen, the Dell version includes a full 1080p display and weighs half as much as the Rove 20.