The latest member of HP's ENVY family features a TouchSmart display and Windows 8 combined with premium components. Is this an Ultrabook worth buying?
The HP ENVY 4 TouchSmart -- also called the HP ENVY TouchSmart Ultrabook 4t -- is the latest 14-inch laptop from one of the companies that founded Silicon Valley. The key element that makes this laptop worth talking about is the inclusion of a touchscreen that allows direct control over the Windows 8 tile interface.
This Windows 8 laptop is arguably the "easy sell" in HP's new Windows 8 line; you essentially get a traditional Windows laptop at a starting price of just under $800 with the added benefit of a touchscreen so you can experience the new tiles the way Microsoft meant them to be used.
Build and Design
HP engineers have been pretty consistent with the design philosophy for HP's line of Ultrabooks and the ENVY TouchSmart 4t is no exception. This laptop is wrapped in plastic with brushed aluminum plates covering the screen lid as well as the top of the chassis around the keyboard and palm rests. Although the bottom half of the notebook is plastic, it is covered in a "soft touch" rubberized paint which gives this Ultrabook a more premium look and feel compared to the lower-priced HP Pavilion notebooks.
Like the rest of the Ultrabooks in the HP lineup, the ENVY 4 TouchSmart is about as thin and light as it can be. The notebook itself is just 23 mm (.9 in) thin with the screen closed and weighs only 2.1 kg (4.77 lbs) so it's actually as small or smaller than most 13-inch laptops from a few years ago. The ENVY 4 could be a little slimmer and lighter if it used a standard display instead of one with a touch-enabled surface, but the minor increase in thickness isn't likely to be noticed by most consumers. Again, this Ultrabook is still thinner and lighter than most of the laptops that people are currently using.
The previously mentioned aluminum covers and rubber-coated plastics should make the ENVY 4 more than durable enough for average home and student use. The screen lid is strong and we didn't see any screen distortions or "ripples" when we applied pressure to the back of the screen.
While we're talking about the screen, it's also worth mentioning that since this Ultrabook was designed with the understanding that users would regularly touch the screen, HP moved the majority of the internal weight (battery, hard drive, etc.) to the front half of the chassis beneath the palm rests so you won't have to worry about the laptop "flipping over" even when you are pressing on the screen.
If you take a quick look at the bottom of the ENVY 4t, you'll see it's pretty standard for an Ultrabook. The bottom half of the notebook looks clean with no quick access panel for removing the hard drive, RAM, or other components. This Ultrabook uses two standard RAM slots and a 7mm hard drive as well as a mSATA SSD slot, so upgrades are possible ... you just have to be prepared to remove all 13 Phillips head screws so you can get inside.
Ports and Features
The 14-inch ENVY 4 TouchSmart features most of the major ports you expect to find on a modern laptop on the left and right sides of the chassis with no ports on the front or back edges. You'll see a 4-in-1 media card reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC, and MMC), headphone and microphone jacks and HDMI, but no VGA port for older external monitors and projectors. There are also two USB 3.0 ports and a sleep-and-charge USB 2.0 port. HP used a folding Ethernet jack on the left side of the chassis to keep this Ultrabook as thin as possible. On that note, the ENVY 4 lacks a built-in DVD drive but an optional external DVD drive is available from HP at the time of purchase. All the port descriptions below are listed from left to right.
Left: Ethernet, HDMI, two USB 3.0 ports, 4-in-1 card reader, status lights
Right: Kensington lock slot, microphone jack, headphone jack, USB 2.0 port, AC power jack
Screen and Speakers
The 14-inch glossy screen on the ENVY 4 is a pretty average LED-backlit HD display with a 1366 x 768 resolution ... with one exception: this is a touchscreen. While we would have been more impressed if HP used a higher resolution 1600 x 900 screen, our editors were pretty impressed by the accuracy and sensitivity of the TouchSmart display.
This really is one of the main reasons to purchase this Ultrabook instead of one of the cheaper traditional laptops running Windows 8; the new Start screen and tile interface were designed with touch in mind. Yes, you can still use a touchpad or mouse to move the cursor on the screen and control Windows that way, but most people will likely discover that touching the tiles and moving things around with your fingertips just feels more intuitive in Windows 8.
In terms of viewing angles, the underlying screen on the ENVY 4 is just a standard TN-type display panel so you'll start to notice varying degrees of color shift as soon as you tilt the screen forward or back since color fidelity is only maintained when your eyes are viewing the screen from straight ahead. Brightness is fine indoors but the backlight just isn't bright enough to overpower the sun when you're outdoors on a bright day.
The ENVY 4 features Beats Audio software for improved audio output and uses two 2W stereo speakers located just above the keyboard and between the screen hinges, as well as a third 2W speaker located inside the bottom half of the chassis that acts as a subwoofer. Still, the third speaker (which is essentially sealed inside the notebook and lacks any output holes) can only provide a little extra bass given its size and wattage. While the "subwoofer" might not be particularly massive, it is there and the overall listening experience is quite enjoyable. You won't have any trouble hearing the subtle nuances in the background of your favorite music or hearing the dialogue while watching a movie on Netflix.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The ENVY 4t comes with either a standard Chiclet-style ("island style") keyboard or one with LED backlighting. The keys have a relatively deep travel for a Chiclet-style keyboard with good tactile feedback for an enjoyable typing experience. The key action is smooth and quiet and there is no keyboard flex at all (because there is no room inside the Ultrabook for flex). The LED backlighting (a $20 upgrade option) is helpful if you want to see the keyboard in a dark room or on a dimly lit airplane, but we noticed quite a bit of backlight bleed around the edges of the keys.
On a personal note, I also appreciate the fact that the Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys are all located in a row on the right side of the keyboard rather than being spread apart in various locations. The palm rests are comfortable and smooth thanks to the fact they are part of the single piece of aluminum used on the top half of the chassis.
The Synaptics touchpad is nice and large for a 14-inch laptop (larger than the one found on the HP Pavilion dm4) and is actually a "clickpad" -- a buttonless touchpad surface that lets you click anywhere with multi-gesture support. The smooth mylar touchpad surface has a faint spiral pattern etched into it and is surrounded by a silver-colored trim piece. My only complaint is that I'd appreciate a dedicated touchpad on/off button to prevent accidental activation of the touchpad while you're focused on using the touchscreen.
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