HP Envy TouchSmart 15 £949
25th Sep 2013 | 08:01
Well-judged blend of quality, price and features
HP's Envy line is the company's high-end range - the top-class stuff, in theory - but has produced mixed results recently. We were impressed by the Spectre XT and Envy X2, but weren't so sure about the Envy 6 or Envy 4.
But the HP Envy TouchSmart 15-j004ea is closer to what the Envy line originally stood for, so we always had high hopes for it. It's simply a highly spec'd machine, fitted into a smart chassis.
Inevitably for a Windows 8 laptop, it has a touchscreen. But it's generally aiming straight at being a regular premium machine, without gimmicks or being incredibly small and light. Think MacBook Pro or Samsung Series 7 Chronos rather than MacBook Air.
Indeed, at 29.9mm thick and weighing 2.56kg, it's far from being an Ultrabook. But what you get in exchange is a superb spec sheet. There's a quad-core Intel processor, a 2GB Nvidia graphics card, a colossal 16GB of RAM and a generous 1TB hard drive.
That's all combined with a 1080p screen, Beats Audio speakers, a full-size keyboard and multitouch trackpad, and four USB 3.0 ports (most laptops will only give you two SuperSpeed ports).
It's all particularly impressive for the price. At around £1,000, it's great value for pros, making the extra £500 you'd spend on a MacBook Pro or Razer Blade Pro seem steep if the core specs are what you want.
HP isn't just applying the premium features to what's inside the machine, though - it's taken a stab at upping the build quality on the outside, too. The casing is partly aluminium, specifically on the top and sides of the bottom half of the machine, making it feel solid and high-quality in use.
It's a little bit of a cheat, because it reverts to plastic on the bottom, but that's not to the detriment of the overall build quality. There's very little of the creaking or flex you get on cheaper laptops - except for on the back of the screen, where the case does bend quite a lot. We doubt it would be enough for the screen to get damaged in normal use, though.
There's also a little bit of give beneath the keyboard, but from our time with it, we don't see any effect that would have on durability.
Envy laptops of the past were aptly named in part for the power they packed into small cases. The TouchSmart 15-j004ea is built to that principle. It may not be the smallest laptop in the world, but you can't argue with its specs.
The processor is an Intel Core i7-4700MQ, which means it's a quad-core chip running at 2.4GHz, capable of boosting itself to 3.4GHz using Intel's Turbo Boost technology. It also features Hyper-Threading, meaning that it can act as eight virtual cores.
The 4700QM is from Intel's latest generation of CPUs, named Haswell, meaning that it's much less battery-hungry than an equivalent processor would have been in the past.
Being quad-core, and from Intel's newest and greatest line-up, the processor is as good a statement as any for the purpose of this machine. For most home users it's simply overkill, but for gamers, video editors and other intensive users, it offers lots of horsepower. It's not the highest-end chip you can get in a laptop; but it's not all that far off, and is great for the price.
Room to manoeuvre
That CPU grunt is backed up with 16GB of RAM, which is a rare thing to see in laptops, especially in ones that can be found for under £1,000. It gives the 64-bit Windows 8 vast quantities of headroom, especially for photo or video editing. It's no coincidence that HP pre-loaded CyberLink PowerDirector and PhotoDirector on it.
The GPU is similarly impressive. An Nvidia GeForce GT 740M chip provides the graphics power, packing in 2GB of dedicated video RAM. It's based on Nvidia's Kepler technology, meaning that, like the CPU, it's latest-generation stuff. That said, also like the CPU, it's not right at the top end. It uses GDDR3 memory instead of the faster GDDR5, and is intended as a fairly mid-range laptop gaming card in Nvidia's range.
However, with integrated graphics from Intel currently being what you're most likely to find in new laptops, it's a pretty huge boost to have this graphics card. It's easily capable of playing the latest games, just not at the higher settings. It'll also provide a good boost for graphics-heavy programs, again including image or video editing.
The 1080p screen is also nice to see for both creative and document work. It gives a big desktop working space, as well as plenty of detail.
The 1TB drive is the one area where we feel a little bit disappointed. The size is excellent, of course, but it's a standard 5,400 RPM laptop drive, and it isn't paired with an SSD to offer faster boot and wake times. Basically, with all of these fast components around, the hard drive may well hold back the TouchSmart 15 from being quite as snappy as it could be.
At least, if you end up adding more storage, you've got four fast USB 3.0 ports (two on each side). For video out, there's an HDMI port, as well as an Ethernet port, for working in an office or hotel. There's also an SD card slot and a headphone jack.
There's Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, of course, as well as a webcam with a dual-array microphone, for more accurate audio capture.
Cinebench 11.5: CPU: 6.58 OpenGL: 42.34fps
3D Mark: Ice: 15419 Cloud: 7050 Fire: 1041
Battery Eater: 79 minutes
Going by the HP Envy TouchSmart 15-j004ea's spec list, we were expecting good performance - and that's exactly what we got. While it's not a perfect machine, the problems didn't come from what's on the motherboard.
The quad-core Intel Core i7 processor was predictably powerful, clocking a hugely impressive 6.58 score in Cinebench. For a laptop chip, this is really strong - consider the Lenovo IdeaPad U410 Touch, which costs only around £200 less, but achieved 1.95 in the same test. That's less than a third of the score.
For the price, this is excellent performance. Go up a few hundred pounds and you'll find slightly more power on offer, such as in the Schenker XMG P703, but it's only a marginal difference in CPU performance. For a laptop listed at under £1,000, the Envy TouchSmart 15 is great for power users.
The graphics really haven't been left out either. The Nvidia GeForce GT 740M perhaps isn't exactly a gaming enthusiast's ideal card (again, go up a few hundred and you can get something like the GeForce 770M), but it's nothing to be derided.
The potential Achilles heel for it is that it's got to power a 1080p screen, which is a lot of effort for a mobile card that isn't right at the high end. Yet it still acquits itself nicely. We could play Bioshock Infinite at medium settings perfectly smoothly - no noticeable framerate dips at all.
It does well in the OpenGL Cinebench tests too, again showing the difference between integrated graphics and a proper GPU. HP's own Spectre XT TouchSmart achieved roughly a quarter of the score, for example.
It does get rather warm in the top left corner when you're playing games, but it's hardly unique in that. Still, we'd think twice about having it on your lap during intensive sessions.
In terms of power for your pound, the Envy TouchSmart 15 does a great job - especially with that 16GB of RAM backing everything up.
The rest of the machine gets plenty right, too - although not quite everything. The screen is a prime example of this.
At Full HD 1920x1080 in a 15-inch machine, it's brilliantly crisp and clear. When viewed straight on, it's bright and pleasant, though perhaps just a tad uneven in the backlighting. This is then compounded by really quite disappointing viewing angles.
From side to side, it's not too bad, but when viewed from above, it drastically washes out quickly. What's particularly irritating about this is that the screen doesn't lean back quite far enough - in use on the lap, we frequently tried to push it back further after noticing it getting faded, only to find it was at full.
Straight on, the 1080p screen is lovely, with the sheer volume of pixels it offers being great for video editing, office work and games. But photo editors or graphic designers might want to see if they can track one down in real life to assess it before buying - the viewing angles may prove to be a real pain when working with colours.
The trackpad is another area of irritation. It doesn't have the best feel to it (it's a tad rough), but you can generally live with that. What's more annoying is inconsistent click detection on the bottom left. Sometimes it wouldn't register either physical clicks or tap-to-click in the bottom left of the trackpad. Other times it was fine, but it seems like a perfectly normal place to click to us, so having so many non-responsive attempts quickly drove us nuts.
The keyboard, at least, is very good. As we mentioned, there's a little bit of give to the panel under the keys, and they keys themselves are a tad soft, meaning that it's all a little on squidgy side, but the travel and bounce of the keys is excellent. It's really comfortable to use.
The hard drive is one area that might have disappointed, but proved not to be a problem for us. Without an SSD, there was a chance the Envy TouchSmart 15 would struggle to be as snappy as Ultrabooks, but it was great during our testing period, coming on from sleep in just a couple of seconds.
That said, there's no denying that games weren't exactly fast to load, and over time, the lack of SSD is likely to become more of a problem.
It's also really quite loud when the fans spin up properly for gaming. Even the Beats Audio speakers struggle against it - though they're extremely good for laptop speakers. Deep and clear, they're better than a cheap external pair.
Battery life, though, is pretty abysmal under intensive tests - there are no two ways around that. Performing lighter tasks, you'd no doubt get more than this, but when using pro software or gaming, you're not going to reach the two-hour mark.
But we don't see that as a critical flaw here. It's not ideal, but it's simply aimed more at being a powerful computer you can carry around to new locations than one designed for on-the-go working.
Recently, the Envy line has been a bit hit and miss, but the Envy TouchSmart 15-j004ea is definitely a hit with us.
It packs strong performance and great features at a price that's pretty reasonable: a 1080p screen, decent graphics card and latest-gen quad-core CPU are a great combination for under a grand. There are some slightly better value machines for power (Lenovo's IdeaPad Z500 Touch, for example), but you won't find quite this balance of specs for any less.
It's not perfect, of course – anything that impresses on price is probably going to have a downside - but it's a great choice for those who want a Full HD screen and the power to back it up without breaking the bank.
The Intel Core i7 CPU isn't the top of the line, but it's one of the more powerful we've seen in a sub-£1,000 laptop. It's more than capable of handling the likes of video editing and Photoshop. The graphics are also a high point. They're not super high-end, but they've got plenty to offer for games and graphical applications.
The specs in general are really solid, with 1TB of storage, a 1080p screen and four USB 3.0 ports. It all adds up to a package that seems thoroughly reasonable for the price, especially with the nice build quality and good keyboard.
The viewing angles on the screen are really disappointing – they kind of undermine its use for some of the apps it should be ideal for. The trackpad's inconsistency was frustrating, too. The thing is, these aren't two minor points. These are vital for how you interact with your laptop, and while they're not deal-breakingly bad, it's a real shame that they're so iffy.
It's also a shame there's no SSD, though we understand why not, and it certainly isn't the lightest machine around. And there's no getting around the fact that the battery life is rubbish.
The TouchSmart 15 is potentially a great option for creative pros, or someone looking for a premium entertainment laptop that can do games and Full HD movies. It's a shame this its most notable issues are in such important areas, but they're by no means fatal flaws.
HP has struck a great balance of quality, features and price here. If the problems sound like the kind of things you can live with, we think it's a great option.