Sitting at the higher end of HP's new Envy sub-brand, the HP Envy 15 offers blazing speed in a thin and light metal chassis that will turn heads. Thanks to Intel's powerful Core i7 processor and ATI graphics, this $1,799 notebook blows away all other machines in its weight class--including the MacBook Pro--making it potentially well suited for creative pros on the go. However, this 5.2-pound system ultimately isn't very portable because it lasts only 2 hours on a charge with the standard battery. And though it has a beautiful high-res screen and great sound, hot temperatures makes this system uncomfortable to use. Despite offering some benefits, the big brother to the Envy 13 falls flat.
Editor's Note: Read our review of the 2012 HP Envy 15.
Like the 13-inch Envy 13, the Envy 15 has a brownish-gray aluminum and magnesium body that reminds us of a MacBook Pro. Its lid has an attractive etched pattern that looks like the skin of a robotic rattlesnake. At 15.0 x 9.6 x 1.0 inches and 5.2 pounds, the Envy 15 is 0.2 pounds lighter than the 15-inch 2009 MacBook Pro (14.4 x 9.8 x 1.0 inches; 5.4 pounds), though the latter has an internal optical drive. The Envy 15 is both thinner and lighter than the multimedia-centric Sony VAIO NW (14.6 x 9.8 x 1.2 inches; 5.6 pounds) and the gaming-focused Alienware M15x (14.9 x 12.2 x 1.9 inches; 9.0 pounds).
Keyboard, Touchpad, and Heat
The color-matching keyboard has brown, island-style keys that offer decent responsiveness and no flex, but typing is still an unpleasant experience. Somewhat unique among notebooks, the Envy 15 has two extra columns of keys: on the far left is a column of shortcut keys that launch apps such as the calculator, e-mail client, and Web browser; on the right is an extra column for the Page Up/Down, Home, and Delete keys.
Because the touchpad is shifted to the right of center, we found it too easy to miss the home row and accidentally hit the wrong keys when touch typing. It was also easy to accidentally brush up against the touchpad when typing. When we tried to use the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor (www.tenthumbstypingtutor.com), our wrists kept brushing against the pad (which itself is clickable) and taking us back in our browser so we could not complete the test. We finally resorted to holding our hands in the air to avoid the touchpad, managing a weak 74 words per minute and 2 percent error rate--below our normal 80-wpm rate.
Similar to a MacBook, the Envy 15 swaps discrete mouse buttons for a touchpad that clicks right or left. While the pad looks attractive, it can be be difficult to use. Those who use only a single hand or finger to navigate will find the pad acceptable, but those who use the finger of one hand to click and another to move the cursor will have a frustrating experience. Because the buttons are built-in, two-handed users may find the pointer jerking down or to the side slightly at the moment they click. Updating to the latest touchpad driver improved the experience quite a bit, but clicking was still jerky. The pad supports multitouch gestures such as pinching to zoom in/out and rotating images by rotating one's fingers.
More unpleasant still was the hot temperature of the wrist rest, which made typing uncomfortable. When the Envy 15 was doing nothing more than downloading a file in Firefox, we measured the wrist rest temperature at 103 degrees Fahrenheit, the touchpad at 100, and between the G and H keys at 95. When performing other tasks, the air being vented out of the system heated the desk it was sitting on to 110 degrees. Despite its portability, this is not a notebook that we would use in our lap.
Display and Audio
The 15.6-inch screen on the Envy 15 produced brilliant images and bright colors at a full HD resolution of 1920 x 1080. Its extraordinary 300-nit brightness level allows for great viewing angles even at a full 90 degrees. The screen also has a light sensor that adjusts the brightness based on surrounding light. We found the results to be distracting; even when sitting in the same room with unchanging light conditions, the brightness would cycle up or down every minute or so.
If you can get past its lack of a built-in optical drive, the Envy 15 offers incredible multimedia playback. Images were bright, sharp, smooth, and free from noise when playing a DVD of Dark City from an external drive, as well as when streaming a 720p episode of Fringe from Fox.com and playing a series of 1080p WMV files we downloaded from Microsoft's WMV HD Content Showcase. If you want to play DVDs or Blu-ray discs, however, you'll just have to purchase an external optical drive.
When playing a high bit rate audio file provided by HP and whenstreaming both hard rock and jazz tunes from Napster, the sound was rich and true, though volume on the embedded speakers is not loud enough to fill a large room. Sound was also rich and pleasant during all of our video playback tests. The quality sound is due to HP's Beats technology, which uses both hardware and special software to improve the system's audio output. HP also makes a limited Beats Edition of the Envy 15 that comes with Beats by Dr. Dre headphones and a suite of DJ tools.
Ports and Webcam
The Envy 15 has all the ports you'd expect, with the exception of a VGA-out connector (though an HDMI-to-VGA adapter is available from HP for $50). It features HDMI, two USB ports, an eSATA/USB combo jack, a combined 3.5mm audio in/out port, Ethernet, and a Kensington lock slot; all are on the right side of the system. The 2-in-1 memory card reader takes SD and MMC Cards.
HP boasts that the integrated webcam can operate in "very dark" conditions, and the Envy 15 lives up to its billing. Colors were muted when chatting on Skype in a dimly lit room, but our conversation partner was able to see a sharp, detailed image of our face.
The Envy 15's strong combination of a 1.6-GHz Intel Core i7-720QM CPU, 6GB of DDR3 RAM, and discrete ATI Radeon HD 4830 graphics gave the system very strong performance, both in real-world and synthetic testing. In PCMark Vantage, a benchmark that measures overall system performance, the notebook scored a whopping 6,173--nearly double the mainstream notebook category average of 3,267 and the 15-inch 2009 MacBook Pro's mark of 3,525. Among other systems we've tested, only the Alienware M15x (6,543) gaming rig scored higher.
While its 7,200-rpm, 500GB hard drive booted Windows 7 Home Premium in 1 minute and 13 seconds, the operating system's slowness should probably be blamed on the preloaded software rather than the drive itself. On the LAPTOP Transfer Test, in which we copy 4.97GB of mixed media from one folder to another, the Envy 15's hard drive managed a rate of 25.4 MBps, which is well above the mainstream notebook average of 19.9 MBps, though not as good as the 32.8 MBps turned in by the MacBook Pro running OS X or the 27.2 MBps offered by the ASUS G51J.
The Envy 15 took a mere 3 minutes and 10 seconds to encode a 5:05 MPEG-4 video to AVI using HandBrake. That's more than twice as fast as the category average of 6:59, but still not as speedy as the MacBook Pro running Windows Vista (1:08) or Alienware M15x (2:40).
We also used Oxelon Media Converter, a multithreaded transcoder that takes full advantage of all four CPU cores. The Envy 15 completed this test in a remarkable 1 minute and 6 seconds. The Alienware M15x finished the same test in 54 seconds, while the ASUS G51J took a similar 1:01.
The Envy 15's ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4830 graphics chip and its 1GB of dedicated video memory allowed the notebook to return some impressive graphics results. In 3DMark06, a benchmark that measures overall graphics prowess, the Envy 15 managed a scpre pf 7,236, which more than doubles the category average of 3,208 and also miles ahead of the MacBook Pro (5,921). However, the gaming-oriented ASUS G51J managed a higher score of 9,424. Likewise, in 3DMark Vantage, the Envy 15 scored a very good 4,113, but it still came up short compared to the G51J (5,197).
Considering that the Envy 15 is not a gaming notebook, it performs remarkably well. When playing Far Cry 2 at 1024 x 768 resolution, the notebook managed an amazing 95 frames per second, more than three times the category average of 30 fps and well above the 59 fps provided by the MacBook Pro, and almost as good as the ASUS G51J (99 fps). At the Envy's native resolution, that rate dropped to a still-playable 27 fps, which is above average but behind the Alienware M15x's 41 fps. When playing Call of Duty: World at War, we saw similar results, getting a rate of 69 fps at 1024 x 768, and 25 fps at 1920 x 1080.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
Don't even think about leaving home without the Envy 15's large power brick, or the optional slice battery. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi, the notebook lasted a mere 2 hours and 5 minutes, which is 1 hour and 26 minutes less than the category average of 3:31. The 15-inch MacBook Pro lasted a whopping 8:06 on the same test running OS X, while the more powerful ASUS G51J lasted only 1:15. The good news is that HP offers an optional nine-cell battery slice ($125 extra) that the company claims will add up to 5 hours of endurance. However, it also addstwo pounds to the weight.
The Envy 15's Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11n wireless card returned below-average transfer rates of 18.7 Mbps and 10.9 Mbps when positioned 15 and 50 feet from the router, respectively. These numbers are well below the category averages of 20.1 Mbps and 16.8 Mbps, as well as the 23.8 Mbps and 16.2 Mbps offered by the MacBook Pro. The Alienware M15x did worse from 15 feet (17.8 Mbps), but better from 50 feet (14.2 Mbps).
The Envy 15 isn't the greenest notebook on the block. It took 3 hours and 17 minutes and 10697.0 watts to charge, or an average of 54.3 watts per minute. If you divide the total charging wattage by the battery life, you get a LAPTOP Green Efficiency Rating of 85.6, which is approximately half as efficient as the category average of 44.8.
The Envy 15 starts at $1,799, but HP offers numerous options that increase the price and performance. Instead of the 1.6-GHz Intel Core i7-720QM CPU our review unit had, you can pay an additional $400 to upgrade to a 1.73-GHz Core i7-820QM. You can also add $100 to go from 6GB to 8GB of RAM, or spend $900 to go all the way up to 16GB. The single hard drive can be upgraded to a 160GB SSD / 250GB hard drive combo for $270 or to dual 160GB SSDs for $500.
While these upgrades seem extravagant, we definitely recommend adding the nine-cell battery slice ($125) if you plan on carrying your Envy 15 anywhere at all. Also, if you want to play movies or create back-up discs, you'll need the external DVD drive ($75) or Blu-ray drive ($225).
HP also offers a Beats Limited Edition version of the Envy 15, which has an all-black chassis and a red Beats by Dr. Dre logo. This setup, which starts at $2,299, also includes Beats by Dr. Dre headphones, two stereo outputs, an external DVD burner, and Traktor DJ software.
For those who can't wait for Windows to start, the Envy 15 includes IOS, an HP version of the popular instant-on Splashtop OS we've seen on many other HP, ASUS, and Lenovo notebooks. When the notebook first powers on, users are confronted with a splash screen that gives them 15 seconds to choose between loading Windows or one of several Splashtop apps: an instant messaging client, music player, photo viewer, Skype, and a Web browser. Calendar and e-mail icons, which point the Web browser to your choice of Web mail clients and online calendars, are also available. Of all the Splashtop apps, the browser is definitely the most useful for those times when you need a quick piece of information from the Web and your computer is off. If you don't plan to use IOS, you can shave 15 seconds from your boot time by disabling it through a Windows utility.
Software and Support
HP includes a fair number of useful utilities on the Envy 15, including HP ProtectSmart (which safeguards the hard drive against shock damage), HP MediaSmart (for pictures, photos, and videos), and Corel Video Studio and Paint Shop Pro Photo for doing basic video and photo editing. You also get Beats by Dr. Dre audio software, which allows users to assert finer control over the notebook's audio output; it even gives you an equalizer to adjust. Perhaps the least useful utility is the StarDock UI, an application launch bar that has quick-launch icons for some of these utilities. Considering that Windows 7 already allows you to pin icons to its taskbar, we find an additional launch area to be a waste of space.
The Envy 15 comes with a standard one-year warranty and 24-hour toll-free technical support. Accidental damage protection is available starting at $119 for one year, and you can also extend the warranty up to four years for as much as $389. To see how HP faired in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
While it offers a brilliant screen, awesome performance, and a unique design, the Envy 15's short battery life (with the standard battery), hot temperatures, and awkward keyboard will turn many buyers off. If you're a graphics designer or video editor, the Envy 15 is more powerful than a 15-inch MacBook Pro, but you'll probably prefer the Apple machine's longer endurance and more comfortable keyboard and touchpad. And if you want to play games, the ASUS G51J, which is $300 less expensive, will be more to your liking. Overall, the Envy 15 has the guts to be a MacBook killer, but we'd like to see HP provide longer battery life--without adding 2 pounds of weight--and cooler temperatures.