HP Pavilion dv7 6b04ea review

If the HP dv7 looks slightly familiar, it's because it's the latest version of the 17-inch Pavilion, updating the model we looked at a few months back. There have been changes to both the spec and the styling, which fits the design HP is rolling out across its entire notebook range.

It's still a substantial machine that looks and feels good, with a big bright screen; can it fix the slight disappointment we felt with the previous model?

Design

The new look is stylish rather than an extreme design, with a silver-grey brushed metal on the lid and chassis, with a neat black plastic base - and a plastic edge to the lid that improves the wireless signal.

Build quality is excellent with no flexing. A sturdy metal edge runs all around the chassis; the ports are set neatly into the edge and it protects the large dropped hinges. Good to see, because, after all, good design is practical as well as pretty.

The slight curve behind the keyboard that makes room for the silver speaker bar gives the new HP line a distinct look, open or closed, and it also stops the isolated keys of the keyboard from pressing too hard against the screen. But we're not fans of the shiny black plastic underneath the keyboard and around the screen; the reflections are irritating and intrusive - and they don't make up for the lack of a backlit keyboard. Oddly, the touch pad does have a backlight, as well as a button you can double-tap to turn the pad off temporarily - an orange warning light makes that obvious rather than confusing.  

There are hardly any other buttons or lights to interrupt the clean lines of the system. There's a power light on the tiny power button - don't mistake it for the unlabelled quick start button next to it, which opens a Linux fast-start environment when the PC is off or a Web browser when you're running Windows. There are also indicator lights on the function keys that control the wireless and mute the volume. Other lights are relegated to the side, and we very much like having the charging light next to the power socket, so you can see straight away if the power cable isn't plugged all the way in.

Ergonomically sound

The brushed metal makes a comfortable wrist rest and there's plenty of space to rest your wrists, with the metal curving down to put the keyboard in a slight well. The isolated keys are well-spaced, with plenty of travel, and good action. They keyboard has also changed the hard-to-read font of the previous model.

The up and down keys are half-height but you have a numeric keypad if you need fast four-way control and all the other keys are sensibly laid out, with a slight but helpful gap between the main keyboard and the numeric keys. The function keys aren't cluttered with options; just help, brightness, volume, wireless, switching to an external screen and media control keys.  

The large trackpad has two distinct physical buttons, a surface that's not too smooth and not too textured and a sensible and responsive set of multitouch gestures for zooming and scrolling. The three-finger application launch and navigation swipe are more accurate than on many laptops we've tried.

Nice big screen

Going from 17-inch to a widescreen 17.3-inch gives you plenty of room to spread out, especially at 1600x900. But while this is a huge and beautiful screen, it's also shiny. Very shiny.

Between the glossy screen and the ultra-glossy surround it can be difficult to avoid distracting reflections and the range of viewing angles is on the disappointing side. Contrast is generally good but only fair in dark areas, but colours are bright and vivid without being too saturated to look natural. Detail on our streaming 1080p video test was exceptionally crisp and clear, and playback is smooth with no stuttering or artefacts. Streaming 720p video upscales well, again with good detail.  

The dv7 isn't as obnoxiously branded with the beatsaudio logo as some HP models, and the sound quality is good, without being too overblown. Stereo separation is excellent thanks to the width of the speaker bar, which both looks and sounds good - and is titled forward slightly to get the sound going towards your ears rather than the ceiling. The default settings leave sound a little flat, but the beatsaudio control panel makes it easy to tune this to bring out crisp treble, rich midrange and fair bass. With the subwoofer underneath, you'll notice the difference when you have the dv7 on a flat surface rather than on your lap.  

Plenty of power

The quad core A8-3510MX CPU - which you might know better by its Llano codename - is nothing to complain about for the majority of tasks, although we've seen some Intel Core i7 systems that outclass it, and the performance of the Radeon HD 6620G Graphics is a definite improvement over the graphics we saw on the previous model.

Multi-tasking and GPU-accelerated software like modern Web browsers both take advantage of the horsepower here. What AMD has done is combine this year's CPU with the equivalent of last year's dedicated graphics. It's better than the integrated HD graphics you get with Intel Core systems, but not as good as the dedicated Nvidia cards you find in Optimus systems - and the battery life is somewhere between the two.

Battery

With Wi-Fi on and a mixed load of applications, including frequent Web browsing and streaming audio and video, we saw four and a half hours battery life, which is good for a screen this size, and better than many Core i7 systems. You can play modern games in medium to high detail at high frame rates, just not at the full resolution of the screen (save that for watching movies). Switching from the energy efficient basic graphics to the far faster GPU isn't as seamless as with Nvidia Optimus, but it is much easier than before, because you can switch for individual applications now rather than restarting everything.   

One major difference from the previous dv7 model; even with more cores and better graphics there are none of the heat problems we noticed last time. HP says it's used materials that are better at dissipating heat, redesigned the layout, and added sensors and smarts so that if a vent is blocked - by a pile of papers next to the PC or by being on your lap - it redirects the air through the other vents. The combination means that we never found the dv7 getting noticeably warm.

Epic storage

Storage is frankly phenomenal, with two 750GB hard drives. The selection of ports is both generous and well arranged, there are two USB 2.0 ports on the right side, with the Blu-ray drive and power. On the left are VGA, HDMI, Ethernet - annoyingly stuck in the middle of the other ports - two USB 3.0 ports and two headphone sockets as well as the microphone jack.

Minor irritation; the USB 3 ports aren't labelled but you'll notice the difference as soon as you start copying files with a USB 3 device. The memory card slot is at the front, which is fine as long as the dv7 isn't on your lap (because the size makes it awkward to reach).  

Bundled software

The bundled software is an average mix of the expected Office Starter and Windows Live, the less welcome WildTangent Games and Norton Internet Security, a slew of utilities from HP and licenced from Cyberlink. The most useful is the SimplePass fingerprint security tool that not only stores your passwords, but loads the Web site you want automatically when you swipe the finger associated with it, and the strangest Magic Desktop, which locks Windows down with parental controls and a cheesy child-friendly interface.

Verdict

The new dv7 is a definite improvement on the previous model. It's still a 3.4kg knee-cruncher but now it has an understated design that minimises the bulk of the system and the audio quality is far better.

We still have some quibbles about the glossy screen and ultra-shiny screen bezel, and about having a backlight for the trackpad but not the keyboard. Storage, memory and ports are all top notch. And while we're delighted that the heat issues are gone, the AMD processor doesn't always match up to Intel Sandy Bridge with dedicated graphics for gaming.

On the other hand, AMD systems are normally cheaper; if you're wondering about the £849 price tag, remember you're getting Blu-ray and a stunning amount of storage plus great design and build quality for what you'd pay for a 15" Core i5 from mid-range manufacturers. This isn't the right system for everyone but depending on what you want your PC for, that could be a bit of a bargain.