Wednesday

HP Envy Ultrabook 4-1015dx review

Finding the sweet spot, though, has never been tougher. Exhibit A is the HP Envy 4, a 14-inch laptop that's part of a line of Intel processor-bearing ultrabooks and AMD processor-bearing "Sleekbooks." These thin laptops represent a different part of the thin-and-light landscape than the stylish and expensive HP Envy 14 Spectre released earlier this year, or the thinner Spectre XT. This Envy 4 and its brethren are the affordable ultrabooks. AMD versions of the HP Envy lineup cost less (the 15.6-inch Envy Sleekbook 6 is available for as low as $599), while the Intel versions have an accompanying markup.
The $679 HP Envy 4-1015DX (this exact model is a retail configuration available from Best Buy) has a last-gen Intel Core i3 processor, a 500GB hard drive, and 4GB of RAM in a body that feels like the Editors' Choice Award-winning HP Folio 13 ultrabook I loved last year and the HP dm4thin laptop combined together, with little bits of Beats Audio design touches.
Design

On a whole, the HP Envy 4 is a larger ultrabook, one of those slightly thicker, bigger, and heavier laptops that you would perhaps expect to have an optical drive, or discrete graphics. It's in a similar category to the Toshiba Satellite U845, but better-designed. And, yes, it's a replacement of sorts for the highly versatile HP Folio 13. But December 2011 was a different time than August 2012.
Having an SD card slot, an Ethernet port, and a long-life battery for a reasonable price was rare for an ultrabook back then. Not anymore. If I were buying the admittedly nicely designed HP Envy 4, I'd pay up for a more full-fledged configuration. Or if I wanted to save money, I'd opt for the more affordable AMD-powered Envy Sleekbooks, instead. Or perhaps I'd just consider paying up for the HP Envy Spectre XT. That's the problem with having too many choices: suddenly, the ultrabook landscape becomes no different from, or less crowded than, the rest of the midrange consumer laptop universe. And that's not exactly a great thing.
In the $679 entry-level Core i3 configuration I reviewed, the total product feels decent, and certainly ample for most people, but it's not a standout. It'll get the job done, and it has good speakers. Back-to-school shoppers, take note: this could be for you, if you don't mind not having a DVD drive. I only have one question: didn't the Envy brand used to be high-end? Not anymore. It makes me wonder how Envys will co-exist with rest of HP's Pavilion products.
Weren't ultrabooks supposed to restore sexiness to the laptop? Don't tell that to this Envy. Hey, I've seen this design before. So have you, if you've been window-shopping for HP laptops over the last year or so. The brushed aluminum and black plastic look of the HP Envy 4 feels like a hybrid of recent Envy designs and laptops like the Pavilion dm4, with more than a touch of the HP Folio 13. It's not a bad look at all -- in fact, it's far better than most laptops -- but it doesn't exactly break the mold.
Desplay

The Envy 4 has a bigger screen than the Folio 13 (14 inches instead of 13.3 inches), and is somewhat thicker and heavier, too. At 3.9 pounds and 0.78 inches thick, the Envy 4 isn't obese for an ultrabook, but it feels bulkier all around, much like the Toshiba Satellite U845.
The 1,366x768-pixel glossy 14-inch display feels strictly budget; black levels were weak on my review model, and viewing angles were less than ideal. The resolution's also a step down from what's starting to appear on higher-end laptops, but 1,366x768 is still the mainstream baseline for everyday computing, and will get the job done.
With a different size class come different expectations. There's no DVD drive on this laptop, but it feels like there could have been -- the Dell Inspiron 14z and Acer Timeline U M5 both managed to include one. The chassis tries to look high-end, with premium-style finishes from the angled top lid to the soft-touch underside, but the whole package feel more budget than that. The aluminum keyboard deck feels like a finish, not solid metal. The keyboard itself flexes, and far more than I'd like. The back lid is brushed aluminum (available in black/red or silver/black finishes, both with black back lids), but the screen itself is surrounded by generic, glossy black plastic.
keyboard

The backlit keyboard isn't the best I've seen from HP, mainly because it exhibited flex in the middle, causing me to miss keys on more than one occasion. Pressing down harder was the solution, encouraging me to aggressively type out this review. Results improved, but the added column of right-side keys cramping access to Enter, Shift, and Backspace feels unnecessary.
Media control keys assigned to function buttons above the keyboard are function-reversed, meaning they'll work directly without the Fn key. Above that, a single thin power button lurks near the lid hinge on the left.
A multitouch Synaptics clickpad below is slightly recessed from the keyboard deck and amply sized. Two-finger gestures like pinch-to-zoom didn't always register. It was hard to tell whether the problem was the touch-pad hardware's clickzones or Windows 7 itself.
Audio
A Beats-branded speaker bar above the keyboard angles upward slightly, affording better projection of sound than the standard ho-hum ultrabook. However, the sound quality of those speakers, while loud, wasn't particularly great. It lacked force and depth, and was distorted at high volumes.
Software
Also, take note: HP has preinstalled a good chunk of trialware and other software on this Envy, creating more than a fair share of pop-up windows.
Webcame
A 1,280x720 Webcam looked good enough to have effective Web chats on, with decent light sensitivity.
ports and connections

The HP Envy 4 has all the basic necessary ports and connections, including a pull-down compact Ethernet port, USB 3.0, and an SD card slot, plus Bluetooth. There's no DVD drive.

The HP Envy 4-1015dx Ultrabook PC offers connectivity options such as Intel Wireless Display; 2 USB 3.0 ports and 1 USB 2.0 port; Built-in high-speed wireless LAN (802.11b/g/n); Bluetooth interface; Built-in 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet LAN; VGA and HDMI output port.
Configuration
Finding the right configuration price and bang-for-the-buck value on the new Envy ultrabook isn't easy. A ton of processor, RAM, and hard-drive configurations abound, including an optional AMD discrete graphics option. HP's site doesn't exactly make shopping easy to figure out, and there are two different types of HP Envy ultrabook-like models out there: one with Intel processors, and one with AMD. Even more confusingly, having an Intel processor doesn't even technically make the HP Envy 4 an ultrabook; according to HP's site, upgrading the 500GB hard drive with a 32GB solid-state drive (SSD_ cache ($50) is what transforms your Envy 4 into an ultrabook, adding Intel Rapid Start technology and faster bootup times.
The version of the Envy I reviewed, the HP Envy 4-1015DX, is an entry-level retail configuration from Best Buy. At $679, it undercuts most other Intel-powered ultrabooks out there, but there's a big caveat: this laptop config has a Core i3 processor that's last-gen versus current-gen (Sandy Bridge, not Ivy Bridge), along with a 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive and 4GB of RAM.
The Intel Core i3-2377M processor is similar to the one in the Asus Zenbook UX32A, but a little faster (1.5GHz versus 1.4GHz). And, in that sense, you're getting a better deal: the UX32A costs about $779 for that older processor plus a 320GB hybrid hard drive, while the HP Envy 4-1015DX has a 500GB standard hard drive for $679. It's a bigger laptop, but still easy to carry around.
On HP's Web site, upgrading to a current-gen Intel Core i3 processor over last year's version only costs $25; you can upgrade all the way to a third-gen Intel Core i5-2467M processor plus AMD Radeon 7670M graphics for an extra $150, which isn't such a bad proposition. I'd certainly take that option. RAM can be upgraded up to 16GB, but there are no SSD-only drive upgrades, only the 500GB + 32GB SSD hybrid drive option.
You can see on our comparison charts that the last-gen Core i3 processor in the HP Envy 4-1015DX is slower than the average current-gen Core i5 processor by a significant margin; it's actually pretty close to the performance of the HP Envy Sleekbook 6's AMD A6 processor. That AMD Sleekbook version only costs $599, which raises the question: why not get an AMD version of this same HP laptop instead? At the low end, that's exactly what I'd do. HP does offer current versions of the Core i3 processor and faster Core i5 configurations of the HP Envy ultrabook, and while I haven't tried out those models, they're probably worth the upgrade if you're serious about making the Intel version your laptop of choice. The model I tested didn't feel like an ultrabook, and behaved more like the regular laptop it really is. A cold bootup took about 30 seconds, and while programs loaded up and ran decently enough, this Envy never felt all that zippy.

Spaces
Price as reviewed$679
Processor1.5GHz Intel Core i3-2377M
Memory4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive500GB, 5,400rpm
ChipsetIntel HM65
GraphicsIntel HD 3000
Operating systemWindows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD)13.4x9.3 inches
Height0.78 inch
Screen size (diagonal)14 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter3.9 pounds / 4.7 pounds
Categorymidsize

Features
This HP Envy 4-1015dx Ultrabook PC also features 14 inch LED-backlit high-definition display with BrightView technology and 1366 x 768 resolution; Beats Audio with 2 speakers and a subwoofer; 500GB hard drive (5400 rpm) with 32GB solid state drive cache with Intel Smart Response technology helps you start up in seconds; Built-in TrueVision high-definition webcam and dual-array digital microphone; Multiformat media reader that supports Secure Digital, MultiMediaCard, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO and xD-Picture Card formats; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM and comes in Brushed aluminum finish in midnight black and natural silver style
Graphics
Graphics do take a hit on this Core i3 configuration, because this laptop has Intel HD 3000 graphics as opposed to this year's improved HD 4000 integrated graphics. Street Fighter IV only ran at 15.9 frames per second at 1,366x768 resolution. That means, except for some basic casual titles, this Envy laptop is not ready to play most games. You could upgrade to HD 4000 graphics or even discrete AMD graphics in other configurations.
Warranty
HP includes a one-year parts-and-labor warranty. Warranty upgrades are confusing, with discounts that don't show up until you've added a specific plan and laptop to your shopping cart on HP's Web site. HP's service and support tools are perfectly navigable, and product manuals and software and driver downloads were easy to find. The 24-7 toll-free number can be tricky to spot, however. It's  800-474-6836.


Battery Life
The integrated battery in the HP Envy 4-1015DX lasted 5 hours and 58 minutes in our video playback test, and 6 hours for a budget ultrabook is pretty good indeed. The Asus Zenbook UX32A only lasted 5 hours and 15 minutes on the same test, although that's a smaller 13-inch ultrabook. You can at least rest easy that this particular HP Envy ultrabook's got enough juice to match more expensive models.
Conclusion
The HP Envy 4 is a curious ultrabook: it feels too big to be perfectly portable, but it's still nicely designed considering its lower-priced configurations. At $679, the Envy 4-1015DX is a hard deal to beat for what you get, even if that means an older Intel Core i3 processor. Still, upgrading to a faster CPU is a likely bet for most people -- or, you can save even more money with an equivalently powered AMD HP Envy Sleekbook model. However, even at its current price and configuration, the HP Envy 4-1015DX is a decent ultrabook-territory value.