Thinner, lighter and more versatile than a MacBook Air, HP’s new ENVY Notebook could regardless be overlooked in this era of transforming, 2-in-1 PCs. That would be a mistake, I think.
I’ve been using the HP ENVY Notebook—and seriously, HP, surely you could find a more descriptive name than that—for the past week, which is a lot longer than is typically the case for a “first impressions” article. I blame the general busyness of the past week on that, but then I also have a much better handle on how this device works in the real world.
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And this a wonderful Ultrabook.
First, the form factor, which is thin, light and beautiful. Like any Ultrabook, the ENVY Notebook rightfully owes some inspiration to Apple’s MacBook Air, but credit is due to HP for finally improving on the design. That is, the ENVY is notably thinner—you can really feel the difference at the back of the keyboard deck—while retaining virtually everything special about the Air’s core design.
What’s interesting is how different they actually are from each other. The HP’s keyboard is moved closer to the front, resulting in a shorter wrist wrest area and a wide, rectangular trackpad, compared to the Air’s square unit. Arguments over trackpads are semi-pointless as you will buy whatever PC/Mac and just use it, but the ENVY’s trackpad is about as good as they get on the PC side of the fence, and that is quite good.
The keyboard itself is mostly good. It’s full-sized, has backlighting, and is accurate. But there is some visible flex, especially in the middle of the key layout, and will likely be more obvious for those with heavy hands, like me. Typing normally, this hasn’t been an issue, but if you pound the keys like a Gorilla in a luggage ad, you might want a beefier PC.
The ENVY also includes a fingerprint reader—which, yes, is Windows Hello-compatible and quite accurate and fast—and HD and Quad-HD 13.3-inch screen options. (The Air is stuck at sub-HD resolutions, though I don’t actually mind that too much.)
The ENVY’s screen offers another interesting differentiator over the Air and other Ultrabooks: As you open it, it tucks under the back of the keyboard deck. This provides two benefits. One, the screen isn’t as tall as it would be otherwise, which is great for cramped spaces. And two, in doing so, it raises the back of the deck, creating a better typing angle. So it’s not just pretty, it’s useful and thoughtful.
The HP’s Bang & Olufsen-optimized speakers—seen at the edges of the excellent backlit keyboard—offer clear, loud sound. (I’d write “rich” sound there but that needs to be taken in context; the sound is rich compared to some laptop speakers, but of course lacks the deep sound of external speakers.)
What’s interesting about the thinness of this machine is that you can see how HP achieved it, while still retaining full-sized USB (of which there are three, all USB 3.0-based) and HDMI ports. That is, while many have claimed that devices like Surface Pro 4 are as thin as they can be given the size of these ports, HP has found a way around this problem, and one that doesn’t require dongles: The bottom of each port is a separate piece that can flex a bit, allowing the ports themselves to be just a hair smaller than usual.
What this means is that USB devices and HDMI cables are quite tight, especially when you first start using them, and they’re particularly hard to unplug (again, at first). We’ll see how that goes over time, but there’s no denying how wonderful the thin and light form factor is, to use, and to carry.
Indeed, the ENVY practically disappears into my normal travel bag. I’ll be bringing this device to New York this week for our Windows Weekly live show at the Microsoft flagship store on Wednesday, but in carting it around over the weekend—you may recall that I had a two-day focus group—I barely registered its 2.8 pounds of weight.
I’ve not done formal battery tests yet, but HP claims 10 hours of mixed use life, and I can attest that it’s at least in the 7-8 hour range, which again is impressive given the size and weight, and the fact that my review unit is a Core i7-based version, albeit with a 1080p HD screen, which I requested. (Note that the screen resolution and brightness impacts battery more than the minimal differences between Core i5 and i7 processors.)
Speaking of which, the ENVY is interesting mix of high-end and pedestrian specs. The SSD is only 128 GB big (options to 512 GB exist), but the device packs 8 GB of RAM, a full-sized SD card reader, and the aforementioned (full) HDMI-out, 3 USB 3.0 ports (with sleep and charge support), and the fingerprint reader into a box that is thinner and lighter than a MacBook Air.
On the negative side of the equation, there’s no touchscreen, which might be off-putting to some—and yes, I did spend most of the week touching the screen to close a window or scroll a document. And HP has for some reason put two power lights on the device, one on the power button and one on the side, and they can be piercingly bright in the dark.
But here’s the thing. The HP ENVY Notebook is also less expensive than the MacBook Air, and starts at just $850. For that price, you get a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, a 128 GB SSD, and a 1080p screen. That is a great value.