The world of the ultrabook is becoming increasingly varied, with every laptop manufacturer offering its own take on what a good super-portable machine should be like.
HP's Envy 4 Ultrabook is an affordable, slim and stylish machine that hopefully won't wipe out all your savings. But to keep the price low, HP has sacrificed processing power. My review model came with an Intel Core i3 processor from last year's range of Sandy Bridge chips, rather than the newer Ivy Bridge variety.
The Envy 4 is available now to buy. With an atttractive price tag of only £650, is it worth the cut corners?
Design and build quality
While there are some razor-thin ultrabooks on the market that threaten to slice atoms clean in half, none of them are made by HP. Its Envy 14 Spectre ultrabook measures 20mm thick, which is rather more portly than super-sleek models like the Asus Zenbook UX31 or Apple's MacBook Air.
You won't struggle to slide it into a thin sleeve though, and with a width of 340mm and a depth of 236mm, it's easily carried in your backpack.
HP has stripped off the sleek Gorilla Glass top of the Spectre and replaced it with a brushed metal lid. The minimal look is pretty stylish, although it doesn't have the stand-out design that made the Spectre special. If you're really into mad patterns and bright swirls, the Envy 4 won't be for you, but if you prefer a more subtle design, perhaps for office work, it might be up your street.
To give it an 'edge', HP has made the entire bottom and sides of the Envy 4 bright red. It's not immediately noticeable but it's a pleasing effect that's on the right side of garish.
The brushed metal top feels rather sturdy, as does the rubberised base, but the screen itself feels a little flexible. It therefore seems much more protected against the elements when it's all closed up -- which is fine, given that it will be shut while travelling, when it will be at its most vulnerable.
Around the edges you'll find two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 socket, HDMI and Ethernet outs, an SD card slot and headphone and microphone jacks.
The Envy 4 is carrying the Beats name so you'd be right to expect some good audio from its speakers. While I've heard worse from other machines, the speakers really aren't up to anything more than playing back YouTube clips or the odd TV show. If you want an immersive sound experience, you'll need to grab a good pair of headphones.
Keyboard and trackpad
Under the lid is more of that black brushed metal seen on the lid. You'll find it liberally applied all over the wrist rest and around the keyboard. Like the lid, it feels particularly sturdy and satisfyingly free of flex when you press down on it. Annoyingly though, it's a total fingerprint magnet so make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before sitting down to work. It wouldn't hurt to have a pack of wet wipes on standby either.
The keyboard looks like the standard-issue tray you'd find on most HP laptops, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's very simple in terms of looks but it's comfortable to type on for long periods and doesn't split the right shift key in half like some ultrabooks.
For some reason, HP is calling the trackpad an 'Imagepad', which is a ridiculous attempt to shoehorn in some marketing nonsense. It's just a trackpad, and sadly not even a very nice one. While it's responsive enough, the texture isn't particularly good for sliding your finger across and the button click is far too firm, which quickly becomes annoying when web browsing.
The 14-inch screen packs a resolution of 1,366x768 pixels, which is the minimum I'd expect to see on a laptop of this size. Ideally, I'd want it pushing 1,600x900 pixels or even Full HD, but it's a fair compromise to keep the price down.
The display is reasonably bright and sharp but it lacks the vividness of more expensive screens so it's probably not going to be the best choice if you're a dedicated movie fanatic. If, however, your computer needs are more about web browsing, playing music and watching the odd YouTube clip, it'll do the job fine.
Vertical angles are typically poor -- as they are on most laptops -- and horizontal angles are adequate. You can't watch from the side, but you don't need to be totally square-on to get the best picture.
Inside that red casing you'll find an Intel Core i3-2367M clocked at 1.4GHz, along with 6GB of RAM. The eagle-eyed among you will notice it's the older Sandy Bridge processor. The more recent Ivy Bridge chip promises significantly improved onboard graphics and USB 3.0 as standard. Most new machines tend to come packing this new silicon so it's a big shame to not see HP using the latest tech. So if you plumped for the Envy 4, you'd be paying top dollar for a machine with outdated components.
Still, last year's Core i3 processors are still capable of pleasing performances so I was looking forward to seeing what the Envy 4 can do. I booted up my benchmark tests, PCMark05 and Geekbench, and was given scores of 6,852 and 3,757 respectively.
Those aren't mindblowing totals. By comparison, the Spectre managed 5,699 on the Geekbench test, although it's considerably costlier than the Envy 4 so you'd expect more grunt for your cash. If you're looking for sheer raw power though, Toshiba's Satellite L875 might be a better bet. It achieved an impressive 7,669 and costs only £680 -- although it's far less portable than the Envy.
It might not be a powerhouse, but I still found it to be reasonably nippy. Programs and windows opened responsively and it put up with some fairly stressful multi-tasking involving numerous browser tabs and high-definition video playback. If you intend to run demanding programs like Adobe Photoshop CS6, you might want to stretch your budget to something more powerful though.
As Sandy Bridge doesn't offer the improved graphical performance of Ivy Bridge, you shouldn't expect much in the way of gaming power. There's also no dedicated GPU (which is to be expected with most ultrabooks), so you shouldn't hope to boot up Crysis 2 on a train when you're bored of talking to your friends. It might handle much older titles though, if you dial the settings down.
I ran my battery benchmark test to see how long the Envy 4 can keep chugging away from the plug. It lasted 4 hours 40 minutes, which is fairly good. I've seen better, but it's not a bad time and you needn't be in constant fear of losing power as soon as you leave the house.
If you want to conserve battery life on a long trip, keep the screen brightness down, turn off all wireless networking and don't do anything too demanding of the processor -- playing constant HD video will see off the last of your power very quickly.
The HP Envy might be a reasonably affordable ultrabook, but it's sadly let down by poor benchmark performance results from older components and an awful trackpad. If you need to watch every penny and badly want the 'ultrabook' name in your bag, it's a possible option. But your money could be more wisely spent elsewhere. Check out Toshiba's Satellite L875-10G for around the same price, or read my round-up of the best laptops under £1,000.