HP ENVY 14-1195ea Beats Edition review

From the stylish packaging to the aluminium case emblazoned with the Beats logo to the impressive specs (which include colour-coded Beats Solo headphones courtesy of Dr Dre), the HP Envy 14 is a desirable beast. Even the power supply has thoughtful touches like a USB port for charging your phone. The screen is bigger than the original Envy 13 (at an unusual 14.5 inches), the style is a million miles away from the usual dreary plastic laptop, the sound is something special and the build quality is still fantastic; so is this your dream laptop? Maybe.

The Beats Edition looks very different from the standard Envy 14; the lid is satin black metal and the red Beats logo is much larger than the shiny (and stylish) HP logo. There's a chrome band around the laptop base, perforated for the various ports, vents and slots and labelled in red. The screen is glass side to side - including the black bezel which is decorated with another HP logo, this time in red - with a thin rubber edging, to protect the screen and keep dust out. The interior is a matte black with a rubbery feel that's very comfortable to rest your hands on.

The keyboard has a satin finish on the keys with matching red lettering (and a warm red backlight behind the keys for use in dark studios) and it's a clean and uncluttered layout, without only the power button and none of the usual spattering of buttons, indicator lights and stickers to spoil the look. Even the base is unusually clear and good-looking, with a sliding latch to release the battery and a single neat cover that you can unscrew if you want to add memory (up to 8GB total) or replace the hard drive. The Windows logo is under there too (in matching red), and the connector for the optional slab battery; read on to discover why that’s one accessory you might want to order.

That unusually uncluttered keyboard layout looks good but it has disadvantages. Having an usually small left Shift key and the backslash and hash key next to keys you press frequently (left Shift and @) makes for a few more mistypings than usual and seems to sacrifice efficiency for style. The “b” key has the stylised Beats logo on it instead, which you'll either find cool or confusing. The vertical row of Delete/Home/Pg Up/Pg Down and End keys looks neat but it makes it easy to confuse the small Delete key with Home. The keys are large, the action and travel is good - but it's definitely style first and efficiency second here. Plus the function keys are crammed with so many marginally useful tools like bringing up Windows Help, your browser and the dialog to extend onto a second screen that there's no room for multimedia player controls, which is an odd decision for so multimedia a notebook.

The trackpad has the same widescreen ratio as the screen, which makes sense; but it's also placed nearly an inch up from the edge of the case and we sometimes found ourselves trying to click the wrist rest instead of the button, so we'd rather have had a larger area even if it wasn't in proportion. We like that you can double-tap the indicator light in the corner of the trackpad to turn it off or back on (although a button might be clearer).

The trackpad has a more textured feel than the pleasantly rubberised wrist rest and keyboard surround but only the edge next to the keyboard is raised; the other trackpad edges are flush with the wrist rest so it's not quite as easy to find with your fingers when you're looking at the screen. The single button is divided in two by a printed line and it's responsive but again you have to keep an eye on where your fingers are to make sure you click the correct button. And the trackpad is far too responsive, especially if you turn on the multi-touch gestures; brush your finger the wrong way as you scroll and you've accidentally zoomed in 25%. You can tweak the sensitivity to make it a little less twitchy but it was still disconcerting to use and you can't do much about it being in slightly the wrong place or having a single button (which again is sleek, stylish but demanding to click correctly).

Especially if you're writing and mixing music, it's nice to see the slot-load DVD±RW. There's a reasonable selection of ports; three USB ports, including one that doubles as an eSATA port for connecting fast external drives, HDMI and mini DisplayPort plus Ethernet and two headphone sockets (one of which works with a headset microphone). You don't get the new USB 3.0 ports, which are likely to replace eSATA in time and there's no option for a Blu-ray drive. We're a little surprised that a laptop aimed at audio enthusiasts doesn't have an analogue audio input, SPDIF audio out or any other specialist options. There's a memory card slot at the front and the system comes with a 2GB SD card for the manual. For once we'd agree with a manufacturer when they call the webcam HD; this could be the best notebook webcam we've used. Colours are bright and accurate, colour balance is good and detail is crisp.

As well as the Beats tools, HP bundles more useful software than usual. The antivirus is Microsoft Security Essentials; excellent software that doesn't slow your PC down the way many AV tools do. You get the now-ubiquitous Office Starter but instead Windows Live HP includes Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements 8, Cyberlink DVD Suite to play movies, and customisation tools from Stardock. These are very welcome on netbooks with Windows 7 Starter because they let you change the desktop, but we're not sure how much you need them with Windows Home Premium; HP does supply a Beats skin that changes the taskbar, start menu and desktop icon layout that keeps the look of the design.

Appropriately for an audiophile laptop, there's also a copy of Omnifone's Music Station for streaming and downloading music. The Intel and Energy Star utilities barely deserve the name, as they simply replicate Windows functionality and seem rather pointless. You also get an HP video player and the MediaSmart music player and photo viewer, plus HP's own standard utilities, which make it very clear when you've turned off the Wi-Fi or altered the volume from the function key controls, by splashing a dialog on screen. Unfortunately that is annoying when it pops up on top of the movie you're watching and infuriating when it knocks you out of your full-screen game or YouTube video.

When you get the volume you want, the speakers sound far better than the average laptop, with more bass and volume. But what you're supposed to be listening with are the eponymous Beats Solo headphones; well-made full size headphones in the same signature black and red with nicely padded earmuffs that fold into their case for travel. As well as the detachable red Monster cable with a right-angled connector rather than sticking out - you get a second cable with a headset microphone and control to use with an iPhone. Plug them in to the colour-coded headphone socket and prepare to be shaken by the bass (literally, if you don't turn the volume down), pleased by the lovely warm colouration that the Beats give to any music and confused by what happens to the treble and detail.

Some music sounds rich and exquisite, especially when the Beats are compensating for thin-sounding over-compressed digital tracks; other tracks sound bombastic and far too rich, with bass added even when it overwhelms the detail. The sound is far better than the average notebook PC, you'll enjoy listening to music far more and much of this will be down to personal preference - especially as you can adjust the sound with the equalizer settings - but if you don't want so much bass and lush processing in your music, the Dell XPS 15 might be a better choice.

The 14.5-inch screen is annoyingly glossy (which means problematic reflections in daylight), with a slightly disappointing 1366 x 768 resolution if you're used to the 1920 x 1080 of 15-inch screens. And while the BrightView screen lives up to its name in brightness and we wouldn't complain about the image quality, it's not a patch on the superb 1080p screen on the Dell XP 15. The ATI Radeon HD5650 is a good midrange graphics card that gives you reasonable, if not exceptional gaming performance. It will also speed up GPU-accelerated apps like Photoshop and IE 9.

The standard HP Envy 14 has a Core i5 processor, which is a dual core chip at 2.4GHz; the Core i7 in the Beats Edition is a quad core processor so it runs eight threads at a time rather than four, but the model we tested runs at the slower 1.6GHz speed. That means that unless you're using software that really takes advantage of multiple cores like Photoshop, animation rendering, development tools, serious music processing or CAD, you're not going to actually see the advantage of the Core i7. For everyday computing it's fast, but not necessarily faster than a Core i5 - and it definitely uses up more battery. The model we tested didn't have switchable graphics either, so even in the low-power battery-saving mode we were getting as little as 2 hours of battery life, compared to a typical battery life of around 5 hours for the Core i5 Envy. The Core i7 also makes it a little noisy at times because of the fan cooling.

Verdict

All that metal adds to the weight; at 2.58kg it feels like you're carrying a 15-inch laptop, but without the screen resolution. This is on the borderline of what we'd call portable and the short battery life only emphasises that. The price might also make you think twice. It isn’t quite a full-on gaming system or a pro audio setup, although it’s packed with goodies. With this specification, the HP Envy 14 Beats Edition is much more like a mobile powerhouse for heavy professional users who still want a stylish system than a general multimedia laptop.