Small Business Notebook Review: The HP Envy 14

by Gerry Blackwell

The HP Envy 14 isn't for everyone. But if you're looking for a high-performance small business notebook that rivals a MacBook in design -- but not price -- the Envy fits the bill.

For small business owners looking for a luxury small business notebook -- something to show off in the customer’s boardroom – Hewlett-Packard's Envy line, and in particular the new Envy 14 ($999.99 and up), may be just the ticket.

HP Envy 14; small business notebook
The HP Envy 14: a high-powered, elegant small business notebook for the image-conscious SMB.
(Click for larger image)

While HP (NYSE: HPQ) pushes the Envy's superior gaming and multimedia performance, most of the premium features that make this possible -- fast processors, high-end graphics, gobs of memory -- also make it a hot-performing small business notebook.  

The name is an over-obvious attempt to plant that notion of show-off-ability in prospective buyers’ minds, but this small business notebook really is worth bragging about. We liked almost everything about the HP Envy 14.

A Notebook PC Alternative to the MacBook

The Envy should also appeal to small business owners who like the idea of Apple’s stylish MacBook Pro, but not the prospect of migrating to the Mac platform or paying premium Apple prices. Like the MacBook Pro, the Envy 14 comes with power to spare, premium components and great looks.

Comparing MacBook Pro and Envy on price-performance is inevitably an apples-to-oranges exercise (pun intended), but on paper at least, the Envy 14 arguably comes out on top.

The Envy 14, which has a 14.5-inch display, is available in models with anything from a more-than-adequate-for-most-purposes 2.4GHz Intel i3 dual core processor to a muscular 1.86GHz Intel i7 quad-core processor with 8MB L3 Cache and Turbo Boost to 3.2 GHz. Hot diggity.

Prices based on processor selection alone -- there are other i3, i5 and i7 options -- range from $999.99 to $1,599.99.

HP Envy Versus MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro isn't available with a 14-inch-screen. The 13-inch-screen model comes with nothing faster than a  2.66GHz Intel dual core processor -- again, adequate for most purposes -- for which you pay $1,499. The MacBook Pro 15, with a 15-inch screen, does come with a powerhouse i7 processor but it’s priced at $2,199. (And don’t bother looking for a discounted price on a Mac.)

Note that there is also a 13-inch Envy model -- priced from $1,099. The fastest processor available, however, is a relatively feeble 2.13GHz Intel dual-core, for which you pay $200 extra.

If you want to continue the price-performance comparison, consider memory. Adding 4GB of RAM to a MacBook Pro 13, going from 4GB to 8GB -- the only upgrade option available -- will cost you $400. Going from 4GB to 8GB on an Envy 14 costs half as much, and there is also a $100 4-to-6GB option.

An Elegant Design for a Small Business Notebook

Good looks in a small business notebook are largely in the eye of the beholder, of course. The Envy 14, with its elegant contours and etched metal alloy case in shades of slate gray gives MacBook a run for its money, with a decidedly more sober, executive appearance.

It’s also thin -- just 1.1 inches. (The slot-load DVD helps makes this possible.) And it’s reasonably light for its class, starting at 5.25 pounds. (The MacBook Pro 13 is 4.5 pounds and the MacBook Pro 15 weighs in at 5.6 pounds.)

Unfortunately, HP decided to include a lighted version of its logo on Envy’s cover. It’s such obvious mimicry of recent Apple designs -- and the HP mark simply doesn’t have the same cachet.

On balance, the MacBook Pro’s industrial design is more appealing, but Envy comes close and does have a more business-like look. And while some people think the way a small business notebook looks is beside the point, these machines have become part of our lives -- not just our business lives -- and the way they look does matter.

Small Business Notebook Performance

Performance unquestionably matters more. Our test unit came with a 2.27GHz i5 processor, 6GB of memory, standard-issue ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics adapter and 1600x900-pixel HD+ HP Radiance Infinity LED display, a $300 upgrade.

The display is absolutely brilliant, the best we’ve seen on a non-Mac laptop. Colors pop, text and graphics are sharp, HD movies look like, well, movies. With default settings, it was actually too bright for work -- we had to damp it down.

On relatively processor-intensive tasks such as streaming high-definition video and applying special effects filters to large uncompressed image files, this Envy 14 delivered stunning performance. Running lots of applications simultaneously with multiple browser windows open didn’t faze it one bit, either.

It’s hard to imagine needing more power -- but if you want a small business notebook that will last, you should probably over-buy on performance because future applications and peripherals are bound to demand more resources, and the number of applications you run is sure to grow.

The Battery Life of a Small Business Notebook

How long will you continue to get that hot performance when you’re running the Envy 14 on battery power?

HP says the standard-issue 8-cell Lithium Ion battery will last up to three hours and 45 minutes. In our testing, it lasted 2 hours and 25 minutes while playing continuous, mostly full-screen video at the brightest screen setting. That's not a great showing.

A $200 option will get you an additional 6-cell battery to extend battery life -- by how much, the specifications don’t say, and we didn’t have one to test. Of course, it also increases the size and weight of the small business notebook.

Small Business Notebook Ergonomics

Envy is unquestionably a winner on looks and performance. If it falls down anywhere it’s on ergonomics, which is, in our view, an important aspect of a laptop. It must be comfortable. But comfort, again, is subjective.

The Envy's full-size keyboard floats under the hinge, with four inches below it for resting wrists, and an extra-large touchpad. The Chiclet-style keys have a fairly positive feel but not as much travel -- they don’t press down far enough -- as we would like.

The fact that we received a unit with a multilingual keyboard with a slightly different layout than standard U.S. keyboards may have slightly skewed our perceptions of the keyboard -- it was annoying to type on.

When the Envy 14 is on your lap, slanting slightly downward -- usually the case when you’re sitting in a chair -- hand position on the keyboard with its wide wrist rest is very comfortable. We were also pleased that the notebook PC doesn’t overheat like some laptops we’ve tried, even over long sessions.

But the experience using the Envy 14 on a standard-height table isn’t quite so good. The front edge dug uncomfortably into our wrists.

We're also not wild about the touchpad. The jumbo size is good in some respects, and scrolling by sliding your finger across it works well. But the larger size also increases chances of fingers straying and making the cursor jump on the screen. You can train yourself to minimize this problem, and it’s not as bad as with some touchpads we’ve tried, but it’s still there.

We also found the touchpad somewhat unresponsive at times. This was true both when pressing the buttons -- which are hidden under the pliable surface of the pad rather than being separate keys, and require a fair amount of pressure -- and tapping on the pad to click. It’s likely these problems would go away as you grew more accustomed to the feel of the machine. But then again, maybe not.

Small Business Notebook Connections

The Envy 14 has almost all the connectivity and networking you could want, including three USB 2.0 ports (one of them doubling as an eSATA port), HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface -- for connecting to an HDTV), RJ45 Ethernet, 2-in-1 memory card reader and combination Wi-Fi 11n and Bluetooth wireless network adapter.

It even has a mini Display Port, the Apple video connection used in Macs. The only thing missing, and perhaps it’s forgivable in this day and age, is a standard VGA port for connecting to an analog external monitor.

Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a showy, high-performance small business notebook to reward either yourself or maybe a highly valued employee, the Envy 14 fits the bill. It’s not perfect, but it does deliver distinctive good looks, a superb screen (if you’re willing to pay for the upgrade) and knock-out performance.

And even though they’re not exactly business applications, it can’t hurt that the Envy 14 does a superb job on video streaming and music play-back with HP’s Beats audio technology.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Oct 20th 2010
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