HP Pavilion dv6

There's a certain HP style these days, with curved edges, large trackpads and subtle engravings on the case. That signature style is there in the Pavilion dv6, a machine designed to look good in a modern home. Combining a Core i5 processor with AMD's Radeon graphics makes this a powerful enough machine for most use, including gaming and working with media (and with 64-bit Windows Home Premium and 6GB of RAM, there's plenty of performance to go around).

Design

The subtle grain pattern on the dv6's lid is much less defined than many other HP case designs, with a slightly raised HP logo that glows white when the dv6 is powered up. Open the lid and there’s a metal palm rest with the same slight grained pattern. It's comfortable and the groove of the grain means your hands aren't sliding all around the keyboard while you're trying to play Portal or fill out a complex spreadsheet. You'll find your hands neatly placed over the slightly recessed keyboard, making typing very comfortable - despite the lack of any real keyboard rake. The glossy plastic screen surround works well with the bright, glossy screen, and provides a distinct contrast to the slightly matt look and feel of the rest of the machine (and for once the difference in materials looks a deliberate contrast rather than bad match). At 2.9kg it’s slightly on the heavy side for a 15.6-inch unit but it’s well balanced and comfortable to hold.

Like most of HP's laptops, the dv6 has a chiclet-style keyboard, with widely spaced black keys that are easy to find, even if you have large fingers. There's plenty of travel and good action with a nice click to the spacebar. As this is a widescreen machine, there's enough space for a numeric keypad, though this does leave the keyboard slightly offset from the large, illuminated trackpad. Gamers will appreciate the option of using the numeric keypad as an additional, much larger, set of direction keys. The keys aren't backlit, something that's slightly distracting when compared with the glowing border around the trackpad, and combined with the narrow font used for the letters on the keys, this makes the dv6 a machine for brightly lit rooms.

The function keys are set as screen brightness, volume and media controls, with a Fn key to flip them back to their original mode if required. A dedicated web button opens your web browser, something that seems redundant with Windows 7's task bar pinning. We were surprised to find very few indicators, just a light on the Wi-Fi key to show that you're online, and a subtle power light on the power button. Amusingly there's a light on the fingerprint sensor that flashes when you power on - letting you know you can log in using your fingers, not just the traditional password in case you miss the sensor amid all the stickers.

The large trackpad is slightly offset from the centre, giving you a lot more palm space rest on the right (but not enough to be quite central for typing). It's surrounded by a very bright white LED illuminated ring, and has separate buttons - unlike many recent HP devices. It is responsive, with a slightly slick feel to the surface, scaling pointer motion in response to the velocity of your fingers. Move the pointer slowly, and a full traverse is only about 60% of the screen. Faster, and you're all the way across in no time at all. You can configure the usual range of two and three finger gestures, as well as managing scrolling areas; tap the top left corner of the trackpad to temporarily disable it (and to turn the surrounding glow from white to orange).

The 15.6-inch 1366 x 768 LED-backlit screen is better than most, with a clear, relatively high contrast display that's ideal for most day-to-day PC tasks. We did find some contrast issues when looking at HD videos, with dark picture elements lost in the background. Playback of 1080p web streamed video was good. A local copy of a 720p video played clearly, with no stuttering, and with good clear sound. A drop hinge lowers the screen behind the body of the dv6, giving you a good clear viewing angle.

The dv6's speakers are behind a narrow grille under the screen, angled to direct sound at a user. They're not the highest quality, but they're clear, and a lot better than those fitted to many machines at this price point. We did find audio distorting at high volumes, and the Beats audio processing hardware left things sounding a little bass heavy, with tinny treble. You can tune Beats, but it'll take time to get the sound just right.

HP's given the dv6 plenty of ports, on the left and right sides (the drop screen means the rear is inaccessible). The left side has VGA and HDMI ports for video, as well as Ethernet and a welcome two USB 3.0 ports. There are also two headphone jacks and one microphone, so you can share the sound of a game or a movie without disturbing anyone around you. The right has two USB 2.0 ports, and a LightScribe DVD drive. On the front you'll find a media card reader, with support for SD and MMC cards. Wireless includes Bluetooth and 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi.

Performance

Overall performance is good, with a fast second generation Core i5 processor and 6GB of RAM (there's space for another 2GB). There's plenty of storage, with a 640GB 5400rpm hard drive. It may not be the fastest on the market, but it's got plenty of storage, enough to make the dv6 suitable to be a family PC. Applications launched quickly, and performance is good even when running with integrated graphics (there's GPU acceleration on both of the cards). Battery life was reasonable; using the dv6 with Wi-Fi and using integrated graphics gave us around 3 hours of use before the machine hibernated.

The dv6 uses ATI's switchable graphics, which are able to automatically switch from the discrete Radeon HD6490M to Intel's integrated HD graphics when you swap between AC and battery power. Sadly the switch means you need to close all running applications - it's not something you can do on the fly as with Nvidia’s Optimus switching graphics. Even so, it's well worth doing, as switching to integrated graphics can nearly double battery life when using a balanced power plan, so it's something we'd certainly recommend for anyone wanting to take a dv6 out and about.

Like most HP machines there's a lot of bundled software, including Norton Internet Security and Microsoft's Office Starter. There are also installers for a range of Internet tools, including Skype and Music Station, and on screen links to eBay and HP's own games service. Perhaps the oddest piece of bundled software is Magic Desktop, a tool intended to provide a secure shell for children to use a PC - reminiscent of the much-derided Microsoft Bob. More usefully, there's also a copy of the latest version of Windows Live Essentials, including Photo Gallery 2011 and Live Mail 2011.

Verdict

HP has put together a capable, well-designed laptop in the dv6. It's fast and efficient, with a reasonable battery life and a large, clear display. Clearly designed for the home user on a budget, you're going to get a lot more bang for your buck than you'd expect, as HP is building on the work done in the high end Envy series and the styling is really a cut above most laptops and the chassis is sturdy without being bulky. Sadly the Beats Audio is let down by the integrated speakers, but as long as you keep the volume down you shouldn’t be affected. The Core i5 processor may not be Intel's most powerful, but it's more than capable and should support most common needs, from gaming to editing video. Just uninstall the bundled software before you start using it in anger.