HP Pavilion dv7
Looking for something bigger and better than the HP dv6? It could be the HP Pavilion dv7, but we have more reservations about this model. This is a hefty machine, weighing in at just under 3.5kg and it's quite clearly the dv6's big brother; actually it feels as if someone took a bicycle pump to its smaller sibling, with the same shape and case design and many of our comments about that machine apply.
What lies beneath
The HP chiclet keyboard is the same as the dv6, complete with numeric keypad for gaming (or spreadsheet work), but it’s almost lost behind the massive palm rest - it’s over 4 inches deep, leaving room for a large touchpad. However the biggest difference between our test machines is in the silicon, with the dv7-6002SA using an AMD Phenom dual core processor that doesn't handle itself nearly as well as the dv6’s SandyBridge chip; it does mean you can get a 17-inch system for the same price as the dv6 though.
We still like the HP screen at 17-inches: it’s clear and easy to see, and with a 1600 x 900 resolution there's plenty of space for everything from photo-editing to writing your own code. We found the LED backlighting gave excellent contrast, showing up fine details in our HD movie trailer test even in dark areas. Video performance was also good when playing a 720p HD movie from a network share. The built-in Radeon graphics can operate in two modes, performance and low power, with an automatic switch between the two when you change from mains power to battery. However, like the dv6, you'll need to close all your applications before switching graphics card mode so it’s nowhere near as convenient as the Nvidia Optimus system.
Performance is generally good, with Windows Home 7 Premium on a dual core AMD Phenom CPU running at 3GHz. It is not as capable as the latest Intel Core processors, but with the Fusion motherboard and the Radeon HD graphics there's plenty of performance here for the most demanding home users. There is also a little more heat generated underneath and at the back of the unit than you might want for comfort (although the size of 17-inch systems tends to keep them on a desk).
A generous 6GB of RAM is more than enough for most needs, even if you're editing large RAW images in Photoshop or Lightroom, or editing hours of HD video, and the 750GB hard drive gives you plenty of space for files. We'd have preferred to see a 7200rpm drive, but we were pleasantly surprised with the performance we got with the stock 5400rpm unit. You'll probably want to use that option on battery, as using the dv7 with high power graphics for browsing over Wi-Fi, with some streaming video and audio gave us a battery life of around 1 hour 40 minutes; not unusual for 17-inch notebooks but still slightly disappointing.
The dv7 has the same generous ports as the dv6 (although in slightly different places), with both HDMI and VGA and a multi-format optical drive, but the highlight is two USB 3.0 connections. It's good to see HP putting support for this faster data transfer standard in consumer notebooks and it will make it a lot easier to use external drives for backup. There are also two USB 2.0 connections for older peripherals, and those that don't need the speed (like printers and ubiquitous USB sticks). While their side positioning makes sense with the drop hinge display, it does make it harder to fit the hefty dv7 onto a smaller desk (and it's a little on the heavy side for a lap).
If you're looking for quality audio on a budget, the dv7 this could be the machine for you, as sound quality was really rather good. The subwoofer adds richness to the sound but the Beats audio doesn’t have the sometimes overblown sound processing of the HP Envy systems and there’s little distortion, and plenty of dynamic range in the speakers.
We're not particularly fond of the combo wireless card that HP's using in its latest laptops. For one thing it makes it very hard to turn off Bluetooth when you only want a Wi-Fi connection. We had to disable the Bluetooth drivers manually which, while easy with Windows 7, is still more steps than we'd like. The radio is powerful though and you'll find the Wi-Fi connection fast and stable, even in the busy wireless environment of a suburban street.
Like most HP machines there's a lot of bundled software. You'll probably want to delete most of it (especially the child-friendly Magic Desktop). As usual you get the latest version of Microsoft's consumer tools, Windows Live Essentials 2011, which includes photo and video editing tools, along with a starter edition of Microsoft Office, which can be unlocked to install the full version. We found the fingerprint reader software a little aggressive, popping up to register our fingers the first time we reached a password protected web page, but given how well the stickers on the keyboard concealed the actual reader the reminder might be useful.
The HP Pavilion series delivers good performance at a good price, and the dv7 is no exception. Its 17-inch display is crisp and clear, and you get good sound quality. Two USB 3.0 ports are a welcome addition, and should make backing up and working with media drives a lot easier (and a lot faster). Like the dv6, this is an ideal home laptop - even if its weight makes it more suitable for a desk. For sheer performance we much prefer the dv6, but a 17-inch system of this quality at this price is a bargain - as long as you’re happy with the heat, the limitations of the AMD/Radeon combination and the sheer size of the beast.