You might not know it from the range of notebooks on the market but Nvidia isn't the only graphics company with 3D technology. The HP Envy 17 3D pairs ATI's Mobility Radeon HD 5850 with a 120Hz 1080p LED backlit screen, active shutter glasses and Blu-ray to give you a big and beautiful multimedia laptop that also does 3D. But when we say it's hot, that's not just a compliment.
Although the Envy 17 features the same beats audio as the Envy 14 Beats Edition we looked at recently, it isn't branded to excess in the same way; just the beats logo on the screen bezel and by one speaker with the keytops the usual white (easier to read than low-contrast red, frankly), as is the keyboard backlighting. The aluminium case is sleek and stylish, with a chrome strip wrapping around the chassis and an attractive dot texture embossed into the bronzed finish on the lid and palm rest. Continuing the same metal under the black chiclet-style keyboard keeps the plastic keys from looking cheap and instead makes them match the black glass bezel around the screen. The same substantial hinges and subtle rubber lip make the larger case feel sturdy, although we did notice some flex on the screen (the price of having a slender screen at this large size). The whole unit looks slender for a 17-inch system - in fact the Envy wouldn't look bulky if it was a 15-inch model - but it is on the heavy side.
Instead of the almost too regular layout of the Envy 14, the keyboard makes great use of the space on a 17-inch system, with plenty of space between the keys, a logical layout for secondary keys (although it is a long way over to the Home and End keys) and a separate numeric keypad for gaming (although if you're serious about bashing numbers into spreadsheets you'd love this machine as well). The indicator lights are mostly built into the keyboard, which keeps the look minimal (another light shows you when you've turned off the touch pad, which you do by tapping the light itself). The function keys give you only the most useful options - like volume, wireless, screen brightness and the keyboard backlight - but oddly there are no media playback keys. Unlike the lid, there's no flex at all on the keyboard and while there isn't as much travel as on some keyboards, the action is firm and positive, ready to stand up to fast and furious typing when you're gaming.
The contrast between the very textured palm rest and the very smooth touchpad is noticeable (so you know the second you're touching it even though it's flush with the pam rest) and the sensitivity is very high. The touchpad is a single flat surface with the same widescreen ratio as the screen; click anywhere and you feel the same positive action as the buttons. The markings for the buttons are just printed on rather than being physical divisions but the button area is large enough that we rarely clicked in the wrong place even when we weren't looking. The touchpad is set a couple of millimetres up from the main palm rest and it's offset to put it in the middle of the QWERTY keys rather than the middle of the case, which puts your hands in the right place for typing. There's an almost imperceptible slope down from the palm rest to the keyboard and a distinct wedge shape underneath the chassis; together they give you a nice typing angle.
Although the Synaptics pad has the full range of gestures, as usual we could never get the three-finger gestures to work at all. Two-finger pinch zoom was very responsive, two finger scroll slightly less so; spend some time customising the settings for the best results.
The Envy 17 has the slightly slower Core i7-720QM and 6GB of RAM rather than the 740QM and 8GB we're seeing on many gaming laptops and really this is an entertainment system you can use for 3D gaming as well as 3D movies rather than a dedicated gaming rig. Core i7 really comes into its own with demanding software that can use all its cores efficiently but it has plenty of power for any application and the GPU acceleration for photo and video editing and browsers like IE 9 is impressive (it beats the Asus NX90, for example). One concern; sometimes we found the front left corner of the Envy 17 would warm up to a temperature that would only be comfortable to type on in the winter just from streaming music over the local network, sometimes the rear vent would feel more like a heater (and the fan noise became quite noticeable at this point).
Like the rest of the design, the ports are arranged neatly but not always conveniently; on the left the HDMI, mini DisplayPort and VGA ports are close together but the Gigabit Ethernet is in the middle of them when we'd rather have it on the right next to the power socket (because having cables on either side of a notebook ties you down more effectively). There are two standard USB 2.0 ports on the right, along with the memory card slot; on the left you get one combo USB eSATA port and one SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port (this is much faster than USB 2.0 but transfer rates were slower than on some systems we've seen). One of the two headphone sockets is marked for headsets and gets the beats sound, and the slot load optical drive is an combo DVD burner and Blu-ray that can play 3D. The same excellent webcam as the Envy 14 gives you accurate colours, good colour balance and masses of detail in the video. And next to the Webcam is the infra-red link that syncs the battery-powered (non rechargeable) XpanD active shutter glasses. Put them on, fire up 3D content and the shutters open and close to show alternate frames to each eye. Frame rates for 3D gaming are disappointing and you have to do some extra setup to make it work, but movies look great and play smoothly; the image is often brighter than on Nvidia systems.
Standard 2D content looks good on the excellent UltraBright screen, which has full HD resolution; colours are rich and bright and detail is crisp and clear, although contrast can be a little low in dark areas and the glossy surface does mean reflections that the viewing angle is always wide enough to let you get rid of. Streaming 1080p video from the Web was clear and detailed and played smoothly; streaming 720p video on the local network also played smoothly but we missed the upscaling software on systems like the Asus NX90 which adds detail you can appreciate on the 1080p screen.
The sound quality of the Envy 17 is excellent; it doesn't match the Asus NX90 and the Dell XPS 15 has sound that's both richer and brighter, but we're not hearing the bombastic bass of the Envy 14 beats edition either. Volume is perhaps a little on the low side but sound doesn't distort at high volumes and you can hear plenty of detail in the music, with strong bass from the subwoofer.
The big disappointment is, as often on these large notebooks, the battery life. This is rather less than comparable 17-inch notebooks, especially those with Optimus switchable graphics. In the recommended balanced power mode, streaming music over Wi-Fi and doing general Web browsing or watching a DVD with Wi-Fi off ran the battery down in almost exactly an hour; if you turn everything off or down you might get 2 hours. No 3D Blu-ray on the plane, then.
The bundled software is also similar to the Envy 14; the highlights are Photoshop and Premiere Elements - and that fact that you get the efficient Microsoft Security Essentials rather than a more bloated and intrusive anti-virus option.
The HP Envy 17 3D is a premium machine, with flaws. There are notebooks with slightly better 3D that can't match it for style or build quality. Apart from potential heat issues and a laughable battery life there's little to complain about apart from the price, and there are few alternatives that have this spec at lower cost - and even fewer that are this desirable.