HP's design philosophy when it comes to the Envy series of laptops is to borrow liberally from Apple's Macbook line, then add some of its own flavor. The Envy 17 is no exception. At less than 8 pounds without the power brick, the Envy 17 is barely thicker than an inch and includes robust media playback capabilities - including Blu-ray movies.
The overall look of the latest Envy 17 hews to the understated nature of the product line, with muted grays and light, dimpled swirl details on the case. The packaging is quite plain and simple as well, and most of the documentation actually ships on an included 2GB SD card.
At one point, I fired up the HP Support Assistant. My past experiences with HP's efforts to automate support have been less than stellar, but this time around, it detected a BIOS update, a number of drivers and other HP software updates, installed them and rebooted cleanly. The whole process was simpler and more straightforward than Microsoft's Windows Update scheme.
The Envy 17 as tested by PC World arrived with an Intel Core i7-720QM CPU clocking in at 1.6GHz, with a peak turbo boost frequency of 2.8GHz. The 720QM is a true quad core CPU with Hyper-Threading, so supports 8 simultaneous software threads. Boosting graphics performance is an AMD Mobility Radeon HD 5850 with 1GB of video RAM, the fastest mobile Radeon GPU short of the high end units found in heavier, dedicated gaming laptops. Rounding out the specs were 8GB of DDR3-1066 memory. The price of the system configured as we tested it, with the Blu-ray drive and 8GB RAM upgrade, is a steep $1,825, while the base configuration starts at around $1,400.
It's worth talking about audio for a moment. Most laptop speaker setups are, simply put, terrible. The Envy 17's speakers actually sound pretty decent. While voices sound just a touch nasal, the overall tonal balance proved easy on the ears. Music material sounded good, as did movies. Overall, it's probably the second best audio we've heard on a laptop (a recent Toshiba unit with 50mm Harmon Kardon drivers were a tad better.) If I have any complaints, it's with the lack of bass (which is no surprise for a laptop) and the relative lack of volume with everything cranked up to eleven.
Headphone audio also sounded very good, and HP's software gives you control over the overall audio experience with a graphics equalizer. The integrated iDT audio codec delivered clean, distortion free audio.
Display image quality was also robust. After getting past my initial dislike of the glossy screen (I hate all glossy screens), the overall color balance in movies and games turned out to be quite pleasing. Also pleasantly surprising was the viewing angles. No laptop LCD offers truly wide viewing angles, but the Envy 17's were better than most - even vertical shifts didn't result in complete intensity falloff, as I've seen with many other units.
Movie and video playback quality was uniformly excellent. I popped in both the Serenity Blu-ray and Serenity DVDs, and noticed that the up-scaling on the DVD version was only marginally poorer than the Blu-ray transfer. The Blu-ray version of The Matrix also looked crisp and sounded great. HP's MediaSmart suite also gives you a variety of other options for internet-connected content, like Rhapsody, built with the same overall look and feel.
Optical discs slide into the right-side mounted Blu-ray ROM / DVD burner. Also on the right side are two USB 2.0 ports, the 5-in-1 flash memory card reader and the power connector. The left side offers up a single USB 3.0 port and a shared USB/eSATA port and not one, but two digital video outputs - a mini-DisplayPort connector and one for HDMI. Without needing a docking station, you could have access to a triple display setup - two external monitors and the 17-inch, 1080p Envy 17 screen. One of the monitors would have to have a DisplayPort connector, however. Using the VGA output together with the two digital outputs, you can even hook up three external monitors at once, albeit without using the laptop's display.
The overall feel of the keyboard is quite good, with excellent tactile feedback. The layout is mostly good, though I'm not happy about the compromises HP made with the arrow keys and with the overall lack of dedicated media keys - something a little odd in a laptop offering such rich media playback offerings. The trackpad seemed a little on the twitchy side.
Performance in desktop apps seems only average in a unit of this class, with a PC WorldBench score of 86. Games fared pretty well; Far Cry 2 delivered 42 frames per second in DX10 mode, optimal settings, at full 1080p resolution. The laptop delivered almost 27 frames per second in the demanding Just Cause 2 "Concrete Jungle" benchmark test. You'll likely have to dial down graphics settings a notch, but you should see relatively robust frame rates while maintaining good image quality.
One concern that's worth discussing about the Envy 17 is heat. The cooling fan became noticeably loud when game benchmarks were run, and the surface (keyboard) became quite warm in places. It wasn't too hot to touch, but there's clearly a lot of heat generated in a tight space that needs to go somewhere. That's the downside of building a high performance system into a compact package.
Overall, the Envy 17 looks to be an elegant, relatively compact laptop (as desktop replacement systems go) for digital photographers, music buffs, video enthusiasts, and gamers. Just make sure you keep it cool!