Windows fans no longer need to pine for a MacBook Air: HP’s Envy Notebook is thinner and less expensive than the Apple offering, and provides a number of unique features. Is it the ultimate Ultrabook? It comes very close.
Indeed, the only thing holding it back is the lack of a touchscreen option. The problem with touch is that once you experience it, you expect it. And I still find myself reaching out to touch a screen that is not receptive to such interactions.
But the MacBook doesn’t offer touch either, you protest. And fair enough. But then the MacBook doesn’t offer many of the unique features of HP’s wonderful Ultrabook. And that, coupled with its low cost, is why the HP is such a tremendous value.
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Starting at just $850—or $800 at the time of this writing—the HP Envy Notebook provides 6th generation Intel “Skylake” Core i5 and i7 processor options, 8 GB of RAM, 128 GB or more of SSD storage, and a 13.3-inch 1080p or QHD+ (3200 x 1800) IPS screen. You also get a fast and accurate Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint reader, an SD card reader, 3 (yes, 3) USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI-out port, and decent (for the form factor) Bang & Olufsen stereo speakers. It comes with Windows 10 Home or Pro, depending on the model or customization.
What kind of MacBook Air can you get for that price? None, unless you look in Apple’s refurbished store. Or on Craigslist.
The cheapest 13.3-inch MacBook Air will set you back $1000, $150 (normally $200) more than the HP. For that price, you get an older and slower Intel processor and chipset, less RAM (4 GB), a lower-res (1440 x 900) non-IPS screen, and less connectivity: Two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card reader, and Thunderbolt 2. It has no fingerprint reader, or any other simple way of signing in. And the Air is further hampered by Mac OS X, which is both harder to use than Windows 10 and less compatible with the software most people need. On the plus side, it has a light-up Apple logo, and you can stand in line at the local store if you ever need service. And in fairness, the MacBook Air gets better battery life as well.
Indeed, we can and should credit Apple with creating the Ultrabook category, of course. And it’s fair to say that the HP Envy Notebook would never have existed had Apple not shown the way. But where other PC makers are content to ape Apple’s hardware designs, today’s HP has taken a page from the Apple playbook instead, and has improving on what came before. And the HP Envy Notebook is in many ways the apex of what I now think of as the “traditional” Ultrabook. Which is to say the thinnest and lightest possible design, with a non-touch screen.
And the device itself is incredible. It’s as light as the MacBook Air, at about 3 pounds. But it’s even thinner, shaving off some precious millimeters courtesy of the unique and flexible ports on each of its sides. That there are more of these ports than on the thicker Air speaks to the wonderful utility of Envy Notebook.
HP also improves on the MacBook Air norm by providing a unique screen hinge that angles the keyboard and base upwards towards the back as the screen is opened. This creates a somewhat better typing position that the Apple design, but the biggest improvement is that the screen doesn’t poke up as high as it would otherwise. This makes it easier—and less dangerous—to use the Envy Notebook in cramped spaces, as you might find on a plane.
Some may, however, take exception with the amount of bezel found on the HP, especially below the screen. This is fair, and while HP is classy enough to provide face-saving dark plastic on that bezel, much as automakers do with dark glass to hide too-large pillars, it’s a strange anachronism in this age of ever-smaller bezels. (The Air is just as bad, and I find its large light gray bezels more distracting.)
Look past the bezels, however, and you’ll find a gorgeous and non-glossy 13.3-inch IPS screen. The review unit is 1080p (1920 x 1080) at my request, but you can outfit the Envy Notebook with a QHD+ (3200×1800) IPS panel for just $50 more if you’d like. I’ve made much of my preference for larger screens—14-inches or more—but the total package here is compelling, and the 13.3-inch screen meshes nicely with this thin-and-light form factor.
The backlit keyboard is excellent and full-sized, and while HP points out that the thinness of the design required slightly less “throw” on the keys, I have had no major issues typing. I did have one minor issues, however: My ham-handed tendency to mis-tap the Caps Lock key and START TYPING IN ALL CAPS by mistake. That’s probably my fault: I tend to mash the keys when I type. But it’s worth noting that the entire keyboard flexes in a curiously soft way when I press down hard enough on its center. This is not an issue in day-to-day use.
The touchpad is excellent, and in keeping with HP’s recent designs. it is disarmingly wide. When I first encountered this type of touchpad on the Spectre x360 a year ago, I was nervous that the extra width would lead to mis-clicks while typing. But HP seems to have cracked this nut, and its touchpads are about the best I’ve ever used on a PC and are closing in on Apple’s excellent trackpads from usability and reliability perspectives.
Battery life has been mixed, with between 5.5 and 7 hours of real-world battery life depending on the day. HP tells me that this is because of the device’s single-minded pursuit of providing the thinnest and lightest possible package in a 13-inch Ultrabook. And that if you want more battery life—along with the resultant additional weight—then you might turn your attention to the Spectre x360, which was my favorite overall Windows portable compute from 2015.
OK, a MacBook Air can deliver two or more additional hours of battery. But the HP will get you through a cross-country flight, and I think that should be the baseline these days.
Overall, I’m impressed by the HP Envy Notebook, and believe that those who value size and weight above all else could do no better. Add in its reasonable pricing, a fast fingerprint reader, great touchpad, and superior screen, and the Envy Notebook starts to look like a no-brainer. Highly recommended.