by Brian Dolezalek
I thought of my first personal computer as I was unboxing my new HP HDX 18 laptop. There in front of me was the sexiest computer I had ever laid eyes on since my first computer 20 years ago. (And believe me, folks, I’ve used a LOT of computers in that time!) A quick tip of the hat to HP seems in order. Many a computer company has come and gone in 20 years, and many an economic boom and bust, yet HP marches on after all these years, making solid products at competitive prices. I purchased this laptop direct from HP, courtesy of their user-friendly web site. I configured it with a T9600 Core 2 Duo processor, 320GB hard drive, 3GB of RAM (a free upgrade from the standard 2GB), 802.11N wireless, an over-the-air TV tuner, a fingerprint reader, a Blu-Ray player/DVD burner, a remote control for the multimedia functions, and a gigantic 18.4” HD CineBright display (coupled with an NVidia 9600M GT graphics adapter with 512MB of on-board RAM), all driven with Windows Vista Home Premium for $2,200 and change, with a 2-year pick-up-and-drop-off warranty. Here’s a full review of the HP HDX 18, for your perusal.
First and foremost, this laptop is BIG. We’re talking Texas big here. As you may or may not know, the biggest players in the laptop game are known as “desktop replacements”, because their sheer physical size rivals that of a desktop computer. The HDX 18 definitely qualifies as such, at over 17 inches across the lap, and about 11 inches deep. It weighs in at 8.94 pounds, which actually isn’t as heavy as one would expect a laptop of this size to be.
Every surface on the laptop has a glossy, polished feel, from the keys on the keyboard, to the trackpad mouse, to the display. Almost all of the non-keyboard buttons on the HDX 18 are touch-sensitive controls, backlit in bright pearly white, and you can adjust the volume, bass, and treble controls by moving your finger across a slider scale (a la iPhone). In addition to the standard-fare multimedia transport controls (stop, pause, play, track forward, track back, and eject), there are buttons to mute the sound, to activate and deactivate the 802.11N wireless adapter, and to activate HP’s simple-yet-elegant MediaSmart multimedia control strip.
And then there’s the chrome. This thing has more of the stuff than your granddad’s Cadillac; every major component on the laptop is framed in shiny chrome (OK, its chrome-colored plastic, but you get the idea), even the trackpad buttons. The HDX 18’s panels are charcoal grey in color, and they all have a subtle line-and-curve design printed on them, giving the overall machine a modern, classy look.
Once you start using the HDX 18, you get the impression that you’re at the controls of something really cool, and really powerful. The backlit 18.4” display is a vast playground of Windows desktop space, at 1920 X 1080 pixels of resolution. There’s just enough gloss to the display to make everything you see look, well, sexy, yet not enough to cause undue screen reflection. The display’s dot-pitch (which is a measure of how “crisp” text and graphics look) is delightfully low, and even the smallest of visual elements never look pixilated the way they can on laptops with lower-end displays. This is a premium product, and nothing about it gives you the impression that you got anything less than every penny of your money’s worth. Whether or not $2,200 for a laptop computer seems reasonable is in the eye of the beholder, of course, but you could very easily spend a lot more and get a lot less laptop from other companies.
Build and Design
The newest Apple MacBook Pro laptop is the standard by which I compare the build and design of all other laptops. Its unibody aircraft-aluminum frame gives it the ultimate in structural rigidity combined with light weight, and I was seriously considering buying one at the time that I ran across the HDX 18. The HP’s build cannot match the MacBook Pro’s, to be sure; the only metal you’ll find here is that on the numerous connection ports (USB, Firewire, etc.). The rest is all plastic, on the surface at least. That being said, though, the HP is a well-constructed, solid-feeling laptop, and that’s no mean feat for a machine of this size. It’s one thing to achieve good structural integrity and rigidity for a small laptop with, say, a 14” or 15” screen, but it takes real engineering to endow a big laptop such as the HDX 18 with such traits. HP has succeeded, though, and succeeded admirably.
There’s very little give to the panel or the screen when I apply pressure, and I can lift the machine up by a corner or a side with little creaking from the structure. There’s some flex when I open or close the display by its corners, but no more than I would expect from hinges that have to support an 18.4” display. The display itself seems quite strong as well. One big caveat in all this, however: an 8.94-pound laptop would hit the ground awfully hard if dropped, so one must use extreme caution when moving it. You know what they say about the bigger they are. You’d expect such a heavy machine to become uncomfortable on your lap after a while, but I’ve really not found this to be the case with the HDX 18.
The ports are all clearly labeled and easy to get to, and there are no ports on the back panel, so you never have to worry about tilting the laptop backwards. That’s a good thing, because the HDX 18 tends to do just that (tilt backwards) if the video display is open too far and/or the laptop is angled too far away from you on your lap. The display itself can be opened almost 180 degrees to the laptop body.
The aforementioned gloss and polish on all surfaces and parts of this laptop, though aesthetically pleasing, carries with it one minor disadvantage: every inch of it is a magnet for all things dirty. Fingerprint smudges, dust, even those little beads that result from liquid droplets—you name it and it’s going to get on the HDX 18. So frequent cleanings are a must.
The CineBright 18.4” screen is without a doubt the signature component of this laptop, and though it has some flaws, in the end it does not disappoint. The display’s native resolution, 1920 X 1080, also happens to be the native resolution for Blu-Ray HD video playback, making it a perfect counterpoint to the laptop’s Blu-Ray player/DVD burner. As one might imagine, Blu-Ray playback is gorgeous, and DVD playback is pretty much as good as it can be, given the considerable difference in resolution between the DVD content and the display on which it’s being viewed. There’s some pixilation and some video artifacts here and there with DVD, but nothing that I would consider a distraction.
All is not roses with this display, however. The colors appear somewhat washed-out, and black-level performance is mediocre at best. The illumination is adequate and evenly-distributed across the display; the corners are just as bright as the center, something that has traditionally been a challenge for bigger laptop displays. But compared to most laptop displays I’ve seen (and desktop video monitors, for that matter), the colors and black levels are decidedly muted. Fortunately, however, these attributes can be strengthened considerably through the always-excellent desktop color controls that come standard with all NVidia video adapters. Just right-click on the Windows desktop, choose NVidia Control Panel, turn up the Digital Vibrance control, and turn down the Gamma control a bit—and voila! A noticeable improvement in color representation.
It seems a shame to have to go through these steps to get good color representation from a high-end laptop display, and for me, it was the only real sore spot about the HDX 18. But once you tweak the aforementioned NVidia color settings the way you want them, you can save them in a profile that gets applied automatically when you load Windows, so you never have to do it again. Meantime, you’re left with a bright, crisp, evenly-illuminated display that’s as usable as any full-sized video monitor display.
The HDX 18 employs an IDT sound driver and control panel, paired with Altec Lansing speakers plus a subwoofer. The speakers sit right above the keyboard and fire upwards into the room, and the subwoofer sits on the laptop’s underside. Like all laptop speakers, they’re diminutive in size, and the enclosure in which they’re housed is anything but conducive to good sound. So not surprisingly, they have a somewhat tinny quality to them, and they tend to buzz and distort at louder levels. Said distortion can be reduced considerably, though, by enabling the Optimize Bass Routing feature in the IDT sound control panel. For all you audio geeks out there, it’s essentially a low-pass filter, sending low sound frequencies to the subwoofer and higher frequencies to the speakers. No, the subwoofer won’t shake you out of your chair or anything, but it does serve to round out the frequency range of the overall sound.
The IDT sound control panel is simple yet highly capable, sporting a 10-band equalizer with Dolby Headphone noise reduction and Dolby Natural Bass, as well as a sound mixer. The HDX 18 has not one, but two built-in microphones, for true stereo recording. They faithfully recorded every sound I could throw at them, and there’s even a microphone level-boost control, very handy when using the microphone with applications that give you either anemic microphone level-boost capability, or none at all. There are two headphone jacks as well, along with a microphone jack if you want to use an external mike. A graphic in the IDT control panel tells you which jacks are currently in use, a feature that would admittedly be much better suited to a desktop computer than a laptop. The sound on the HPX 18 is overall well above average for a laptop, and for those who need help finding ways to use it, there’s even a web link to Pandora.com, an excellent (and free) Internet radio service that lets you tailor the music to precisely what you like—much like the iTunes Genius sidebar.
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