HP Envy 14 Spectre review

4.5 out of 5
£1,200

For

Beautiful, great keyboard and trackpad, good battery life, powerful sound

Against

Glass makes it heavy, Beats is a bit overrated, no discrete graphics option, a bit pricey

What's in a name? In the case of the HP Envy 14 Spectre, a lot of really confusing nonsense. Of course, it's better than the model numbers you get with TVs, but even so it's very hard to work out what Spectre really has to do with anything - although we do understand why HP called it the Envy, because it will create some of that.

Technically, the Envy 14 is an Ultrabook, although we argue slightly on that point, becuase it's both thick and heavy. If it falls within the Intel spec for Ultrabooks, that's fine, but we still think if you buy it looking for a thin-and-light laptop, you'll be a bit disappointed. But we need to explain that in more detail, and we're certainly not trying to say the Envy isn't lovely, because it really is.

Utterly stunning design

From the first second you see the Envy, we think you'll struggle not to love it. For a start, it's unique. The body features quite a lot of glass - one of the reasons it weighs a little more than other Ultrabooks - which gives it an enormously funky exterior. We love the way the black body is given a new depth by the clear glass surface.

Of course, we don't love the way it gathers fingerprints, but even so we think it looks incredibly cool as a surface, although we're worried about how long it will last, and how durable it is. While it may not be any less tough than a normal laptop, it will look a lot worse once it gets banged around a bit. And if you do manage to crack the glass, it will look really dreadful. Still, most people are careful with their laptops, so that's unlikely to be a problem, and HP also includes a neoprene travel wallet in the box.

Also included is a travel-sized power adaptor. This might not be quite as small and chic as Apple's charging solution - Magsafe is incredibly useful - but it is a compact unit that is easy to carry around.

The keyboard is the now ubiquitous island-style affair. It's very good and although the keys don't have a lot of travel to them, they are quite large, and as such typing is very easy indeed. The keyboard is also backlit, which, while hardly new, does make using the machine in subdued lighting much more pleasant.

The trackpad deserves a mention too. It doesn't have a glass cover - presumably Apple has a patent that prevents anyone else doing that - but the surface of the pad is very low resistance. That means scrolling with it is very easy indeed, and we loved using it. Easily one of the best trackpads we've used on a laptop in a long time.  

Connectivity is good, but not amazing. There are two USB sockets, one of which is 3.0 capable. For your display needs, there is both DisplayPort and HDMI, which strikes us as a bit of a waste of space, given that 99 per cent of people are going to just stick with HDMI.

There is also a red headphone socket, which is part of the Beats Audio branding and you'll find Ethernet here too, with a compact socket, which pulls down slightly to allow a network jack. An SD and MMC card reader finishes off the sockets, and does so in a useful way. We struggle with laptops that don't have an SD card reader included these days. To complement the Beats headphone jack, there is a volume wheel, this is small and recessed into the body of the laptop. It is, however, easy to adjust. There is also a dedicated mute control, and a button which loads the special Beats control panel. It is here that you can adjust the sound of the laptop in quite some detail.

It might be a pointless little effect, but we also love the glowing HP logo. Not just because it glows, but because when it's not glowing, the logo looks silver. We just think that's quite clever, because the logo looks good when the machine is off, as well as when it's on.

The only thing we don't like, design-wise, is the way the laptop is festooned with various logos. The red Beats "b" is to be found in three places, with a fourth instance of the full "beats audio" trademark on the top left of the screen. When you add these to the HP logos and the names of the product, which are scattered here and there, it's quite a busy machine for logos and such.

Hard drives

We have honestly never seen a drive set-up as complicated as the one provided in the Envy. At the most basic level, there are two separate drives here. One for your system, the boot drive, and a second for your data - which is named as such.

The boot drive is then split into a hidden system partition - standard in Windows 7 - the 100GB boot drive, which houses Windows, and all your programs. Then there's the inevitable recovery partition, which eats 15GB but will allow you to restore Windows should anything go wrong.

And to finish off, there are two more partitions for HP Tools and the hibernation area, where your in-progress work is kept when the machine is sleeping.

Most of these partitions won't trouble you, and most aren't actually visible, but it does seem like a very complicated set up, and one that uses a lot of disk space that you could be using for other things. Having said that, it's Microsoft's annoying lack of Internet install that means recovery has to be done from a hard drive. Apple has the right idea here; we'll just have to hope Windows 8 allows for cloud restore.

Wireless audio

One nice touch is the inclusion of a wireless audio system, which allows you to stream music wirelessly. There isn't really, as yet, a standard for music streaming about the home. HP here is using a system called "KleerNet". There seems to be quite limited harware available, but it would be nice to see more devices offering a way to send music around the home.

Of course, Apple has this licked with Airplay on its devices, and that functionality also works on PCs, via iTunes, or other more hacky methods.

Screen

Big round of applause for HP here for including a 1600 x 900 resolution screen in the Envy. This extra resolution gives everything a boost, and makes you feel like you're looking at a very high-end machine - which it is, of course.

The screen has a reflective cover. Given the glass used all over the case of this machine, to have a matte screen would have been outright weird. But, outside, in bright sunlight, the reflections become bothersome. You have to boost the backlight to see anything at all, and that means your power consumption is going to go through the roof.

Still, for most things, that built-in screen is gorgeous.

Performance

We certainly have no complaints with the Core i5 processor or the 4GB of included memory. This isn't a top-end spec, by any stretch of the imagination, but it's certainly a decent enough machine for day-to-day computing.

We check the UK and US websites for the Envy, and it seems our US cousins have better configuration options than we do. Ideed, the second drive we mentioned earlier doesn't appear on the UK site, leaving us to wonder if we have a US spec laptop. This sometimes happens with review samples, and we have asked HP to clarify for us.

However, the machine is powerful enough to cope with everything except games. Sadly, the lack of discrete graphics means this isn't a laptop for the Battlefield 3 lovers of the world.

We did check 1080p video playback from our Plex media server, and we're most pleased by the results. It's best to put the laptop in the high-performance power profile first, but with this done playback was flawless with almost incredible amounts of detail in the images. This is no doubt thanks to that epic screen, which we love.

Battery life

It's nearly impossible to give an accurate picture of battery life because it depends so much on the profile you use, the brightness of the screen, and what you're doing.

HP claims there's as much as nine hours of battery life to be squeezed from the Envy. While we're a little wary of that claim, we have to say that we really did find the battery in the machine pretty epic. Five hours is easily achievable, depending on what you're doing. We found that the energy-saving profiles slowed the machine down to the point where it was just useful for writing. But for a lot of people, that's what they want to do.

If you are like us, then you'll likely leave the laptop on, while you do other thngs. It is here that you'll see good savings, as the machine is pretty clever about turning the screen off to save juice. It uses a special motion detection sensor to tell when you're in front of the laptop, and when you've gone to the fridge to scoff a bit of cheese - it's a working from home thing.

Bundled software

Praise the lord, HP has finally managed to strike a balance between providing useful software and annoying nonsense that fills up your hard drive. Here you get two full years of Norton internet security, which is well worth having, even if Microsoft's free service is just as good. You also get Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements thrown in, for good measure.

We honestly wish all laptops had such good bundled software, and the HP should get some credit for providing things that people will actually use.

Verdict

What HP seems to have done here is make a terrific laptop that plays by its own rules. It's too big and heavy to really be called an Ultrabook and it's really expensive too, especially considering how much cheaper the Dell XPS 13 and Samsung Series 5 Ultrabooks are. But the HP has something that most laptops don't have these days: it has the appeal of premium features, and interesting design.

We love the display, and seeing higher resolutions on laptops has to be applauded in the wake of the iPad 3. The keyboard and trackpad are both excellent, and make using the machine a pleasure. Audio too, is pretty impressive, it's certainly loud and very, very clear from the built-in speakers. Beats, at least in this area, makes a difference worth having. We aren't so sure when it comes to headphones though - both sets we tried sounded empty and lacked much range.

Honestly, it's a lot of money to spend on a laptop, but HP has sweetened the deal with Beats Audio, the impressive screen and epic battery life. Connectivity is a little average for a normal laptop, but good for an Ultrabook and there's everything here you could need, including Ethernet and HDMI.

In terms of cool, it's a toss-up between this and the Dell XPS 13. Of course, they're both useful in different ways, but it's hard to decide which machine we'd rather spend our grand-and-a-bit on.