The silver and black interior calls to mind Apple’s MacBook Pro, but with more Gorilla Glass across the wristrest, backlit keys and a Beats logo glowing at the bottom-right edge, it’s distinctive enough to stave off the patent lawyers. Yet next to the ultra-modern designs of Asus’ Zenbooks and Dell’s XPS 13, the Envy looks conventional. At 1.8kg, it’s around a half kilo heavier too – yet it feels flimsier. Grasp the case in both hands and there’s noticeable give in the base. It’s a far cry from the solidity of Asus’ and Dell’s efforts.
The Envy’s 20mm-thick chassis offers a generous selection of ports. There’s mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, USB 2, USB 3 and Gigabit Ethernet sockets, plus an SD card reader. Inside, Intel’s dual-band, dual-stream Advanced-N 6230 chipset delivers speedy Wi-Fi and Intel’s Wireless Display technology. KleerNet Wireless Audio lets you beam sound to compatible third-party devices.
A final addition is Near Field Communication (NFC): simply wave a compatible smartphone near the wristrest to ping data and files between devices. That’s the theory, anyway. In our tests the Envy refused to recognise our Samsung Galaxy Nexus handset.
Thanks to a narrow bezel, the Envy enjoys a larger-than-usual display – a 14in, 1600 x 900 panel, coated in glossy Gorilla Glass. At 261cd/m2, it isn’t the brightest Ultrabook screen – Asus’ Zenbook UX31E is almost twice as bright. But with a punchy 579:1 contrast ratio and impressive colour accuracy, the Envy delivers bold, realistic images. The extra size is welcome, too: small text is more legible than on Asus’ Zenbook UX31E, which squeezes the same resolution into a 13.3in panel.
Another strength is the keyboard. The Envy’s spacious Scrabble-tile letters have a crisp, pleasing feel. What’s more, each key has its own backlight. Switch off backlighting with the F5 key and the keyboard slowly dims – all apart from the F5 key itself; it’s a nifty trick. The shrunken cursor keys are less welcome, however. The tiny Apple-style up and down buttons are needlessly fiddly when it comes to scanning through documents and playing games.
We were similarly disappointed with the Envy’s touchpad. The “buttons” at the bottom form part of the touchpad surface, with a thin black pinstripe delineating the clickable area. They’re stiff and awkward to press, although enabling two-fingered right-clicks and tap-to-click in the Synaptics control panel makes things much more bearable. The smooth, glass surface feels great, and responds reliably to gestures.
When it comes to usability, the Envy has a few clever tricks. Double-tap the top-left corner of the touchpad, and a tiny amber LED lights up to show it’s disabled. Tap the mute button on the HP’s edge, and another light appears out of nowhere, just beneath the Beats logo. Flip the Envy 14 upside down and a panel slides away to reveal a removable battery – a rarity for an Ultrabook.
Alongside the mute button, there’s also a rotary volume dial – another rarity – and a button for quickly bringing up the Beats control panel. The Beats audio presets do an amazing job, turning a tinny and lightweight sound into something much fuller and more listenable. Some fuzz and distortion sets in at high volumes, but it’s good enough to listen to music or watch a movie without reaching for the headphones
The Envy 14 is the most expensive Ultrabook we’ve seen, so we expected strong performance. In our benchmarks, however, the launch model – sporting a Core i5-2467M CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB Samsung SSD – achieved an undistinguished overall score of 0.59. Serious gaming is out of the question: crank Crysis to its lowest settings at 1366 x 768, and the HP still manages only 23fps. Battery life was solid but uninspiring: in our light-use test, the Envy managed 7hrs 31mins. Push it hard and you’ll be back at the mains in 2hrs 9mins.
The HP Envy 14 Spectre is a high-quality device with a gorgeous display. It brings several unique features, such as NFC and the sliding battery cover, and, despite minor niggles with the keyboard and touchpad, it feels every inch the classy Ultrabook.
But there’s one insurmountable problem: its price. This base model sports a pricetag of $1899, making the Envy more expensive than Apple’s 13in MacBook Air. For a similar price you can get a 13in Core i7 based Asus Zenbook UX31E – an Ultrabook that’s faster, longer-lasting and more rugged. So while the HP Envy 14 Spectre is an attractive Ultrabook in its own right, its allure lies in its style rather than its pricetag, which sits right at the high end of the scale