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.
The HDX 18 ships with an Intel Core Duo P8400, but upgrading to the T9600 processor is well worth the extra money. Operating at 2.8GHz, it’s good for a Windows Vista Home Premium bootup time of 1 minute, 15 seconds, and a Windows Experience Index rating of 5.6 out of 6. (The computer’s overall WEI rating was 5.) The 320GB hard drive, at 7200 RPM, is also an upgrade, from the standard 250GB platter at 5400rpm. The HDX 18’s free upgrade from 2GB of RAM memory to 3GB give Windows Home Premium and its programs plenty of room to roam. Applications load quickly on this bad boy, even memory-hoggers like Microsoft Word 2007 and Adobe Photoshop CS4. Even Mozilla Firefox 3.0, rendering four fairly intense home pages at startup, gets up to speed in only a few seconds.
The news from the gaming department is similarly favorable. The oft-maligned NVidia 9600M GT video adapter (with 512MB of on-board RAM) yielded good, if not fantastic, performance from Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, as well as EA’s Command and Conquer III: Tiberium Wars. The video elements on both games were set to maximum (all except for the anti-aliasing in C&C), and except for a little choppiness, performance was flawless. Quite an achievement for any laptop south of an Alienware, especially at a full 1920 X 1080 video resolution. And when you consider that HP has traditionally been pretty much all business in its PC computer offerings, it’s downright impressive.
I’ve never been a huge fan of computer benchmark tests myself, mainly because their results can potentially be skewed by Windows processes that run in the background. Even if you know for sure that you’ve ended all processes and process trees, there could be Windows services running that you don’t even know about, affecting system performance. But Notebookreview.Com gave me some links to a few benchmarking programs, and they were a snap to download and install, so here they are, in no particular order.
Everest 2.20 HD Tune 2.55 Super PI 1.1 Everest memory read: 5915 MB/s HD Tune average transfer rate: 48.7 MB/S Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 128,000 digits: ~1 second Everest memory write: 2098 MB/S HD Tune burst rate: 57.3 MB/S Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 256,000 digits: 3 seconds Everest memory latency: 0.0 ns HD Tune CPU usage: 12.8% Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 512,000 digits: 7 seconds Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 1 million digits: 16 seconds Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 2 million digits: 39 seconds
So there it is, for what it’s worth to you. Hey, at least now I can brag to my friends that I’ve calculated the value of PI out to 2 million digits!
HD Tune 2.55
Super PI 1.1
Everest memory read:
HD Tune average transfer rate:
Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 128,000 digits: ~1 second
Everest memory write:
HD Tune burst rate:
Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 256,000 digits: 3 seconds
Everest memory latency:
HD Tune CPU usage:
Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 512,000 digits: 7 seconds
Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 1 million digits: 16 seconds
Super PI time to calculate the value of PI to 2 million digits: 39 seconds
Heat and Noise
Not much to report in this area for the HDX 18. As we know, the three major sources of noise for a laptop are the hard drive, the fans, and the disc drive. The hard drive on this laptop can be heard, but only just. You can certainly hear the Blu-ray drive when there’s a disc in it, but it’s no louder than any other laptop drive that I’ve ever heard. Let’s put it this way: I’ve watched numerous Blu-Rays and DVDs on the HDX 18, and the sound emanating from the disc drive has never been a distraction.
Applications, utilities, web browsers, etc. tax the processor only enough to evoke a minimal speed from the cooling fan at room temperature, and only a modicum of heat can be felt from the vents. Gaming on the HDX 18, however, produces a very different result. Within minutes of launching a game, the fan begins spitting out warmer air at a much greater rate, and the laptop’s lower left corner produces enough heat to be a discomfort. The fan isn’t loud or particularly distracting; it’s that lower left corner that’s the real problem. Why? As any gamer will tell you, 1st-person shooters involve heavy use of the A, D, W, and S keys to move the character left, right, forward, and backward, respectively. Go ahead and place your fingers on those keys now. Notice where your left palm ends up? Right on that lower left corner. And believe me, unless you play with your palm up off of that corner’s surface, you will feel the heat.
So while the overall heat output of the HDX 18 isn’t problematic, a cooling pad is definitely in order if you plan on gaming with it.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The best thing about the HDX 18’s keyboard is, well, that it’s not really a laptop keyboard at all. The machine’s large form factor allows for a keyboard that meets or surpasses the size of a typical desktop keyboard. The keys provide good tactile feel, and the edges are rounded off, providing the effect of space between them (which helps with accuracy). On the down side, the keys are somewhat shiny, and therefore can be hard to see in certain light. This effect is even worse in the dark; the black lettering against the shiny gray keys makes the keyboard almost impossible to see without some light source beyond the illumination from the display. A backlit keyboard would have been nice at this price point, or at least the option to pay extra for one. But the HDX 18 keyboard does offer something that most other laptops can’t: a full-size numeric 10-key keypad. Bean counters rejoice!—no need for an external USB keypad pad here.
The trackpad on the HDX 18 shines, in more ways than one. HP has adopted the growing trend of using a glossy, nearly frictionless surface for the trackpad, and the result is a more fluid and more accurate trackpad experience for the user than can be had from a traditional trackpad with a matte-type surface. I’m all thumbs with most laptop trackpads, but even I can use the HDX 18’s trackpad with ease. The buttons are big, if a bit wobbly inside their enclosures, and the scroll bar on the right side of the trackpad is smooth and predictable. The trackpad itself could be bigger, though, especially given the huge amount of Windows desktop surface the cursor must traverse.
Another minor oddity: between the trackpad and the keyboard is a button that turns the trackpad on and off. It’s not even a touch-control button like the others; it’s mechanical, and fairly sizeable at that. Had HP made the button a touch-control and placed it above the keyboard along with the other buttons, or even forsaken it altogether in favor of a software on/off solution, there’d have been room below the keyboard to make the trackpad bigger.
The Synaptics trackpad software on the HDX 18, however, makes excellent use of the trackpad space you do have. You can set up “tap zones” in the corners of the trackpad, so that tapping in a corner performs some commonly-used function (opening the Start menu, minimizing or maximizing the current window, that sort of thing). Another nice feature, for large documents or web pages at least, is the Coasting feature, where you swipe your finger upwards or downwards across the pad, and the current window scrolls up or down automatically until you touch the pad again. The various trackpad functions are well laid out, and are explained in great detail right there in the control panel window, rather than in some obscure “Help” feature.
Input and Output Ports
As one would expect from a laptop of this caliber, there’s a port for pretty much every occasion. As mentioned earlier, the ports are clearly labeled and all on the sides or front, none in back where they’re hard to get to. For audio, you’ll find two headphone ports and a microphone port. Video-wise, there’s an HDMI port, a good ol’ analog VGA, and what HP calls an “Expansion Port 3”. The user guide states only that it “connects the computer to an optional docking device or expansion product, so that additional ports and connectors can be used with the computer.” For connecting external devices, you get two USB 2.0 ports on the left side of the HDX 18, and two on the right. In a stroke of genius on HP’s part, one of the USB ports doubles as an eSATA port for connecting a so-endowed external hard drive, should you want or need the extra disk space. There’s also a Firewire 400 port and an Ethernet networking port, and if you choose the optional TV tuner when purchasing the HDX 18, there’s also a port for the external antenna.
Rounding out the HP HDX 18’s port offerings is an ExpressCard port and a memory card reader. The memory card reader will gladly accept a Memory Stick or Memory Stick Pro, a MultiMedia Card (MMC), a Secure Digital (SD) card, or an xD-Picture Card (xD). Noticeably absent, though, is a MicroSD reader, something that many digital camera owners will likely miss.
The HP HDX 18 ships with an Intel Next-Gen Wireless-N card; Bluetooth wireless costs extra, though it hardly breaks the bank. We have a Linksys wireless G router in our basement, and the HDX 18 can connect to it from any room in the house, always with full or nearly full signal strength. Every once in a while, maybe once every half hour to an hour or so, the wireless will disconnect and then reconnect. The process only takes a few seconds, and for normal web surfing and Internet activity, it isn’t a problem. It’s rather annoying, however, in an Internet-based game like an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game); those few seconds of disconnect from the game’s server, needless to say, can have a rather deleterious effect on game play, particularly if you’re in a situation where other players are depending on you. Overall, though, the HDX 18’s wireless works well.
I’m not going to pay too much lip service to the battery life of the HP HDX 18. Other reviews of this laptop have put battery life at just over three hours with the screen brightness at maximum. I haven’t tested this myself, but there seems little reason to doubt the accuracy of this figure. Here’s the thing: to me, a good battery life is something you’d want from a laptop that you’ll be taking with you a lot on the road, on the plane, anywhere that you can’t plug it in.
To me, though, the HDX 18 just isn’t that kind of laptop. It’s big, it’s heavy, and its performance and capabilities far exceed those needed by most road warriors (who likely use their laptops mainly for e-mail, proprietary business applications, maybe the occasional Word or Excel document, etc.). The HDX 18 really comes into its own in a home, an office, anyplace where it would only have to be moved around occasionally, if at all, and therefore where it’ll be connected to AC power most or all of the time. I may be completely off base here, but I just don’t see battery life playing a major role in the decision-making process that a buyer of this kind of laptop would use in making their choice of which laptop to buy.
Operating System and Software
The HDX 18 ships with Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit or Home Premium 64-bit (including Windows Media Center), or you can pony up 99 more beans for Vista Ultimate 64-bit. As to the software that shipped with the laptop, the only rotten apple in the bunch was Norton Internet Security. Uninstalling it netted a significant performance increase with the HDX 18, as it has with other NIS-laden computers I’ve used. No disrespect to my man Peter Norton, understand, but I’ll take AVG Anti-Virus and the good ol’ Windows Firewall, thank you. You can get system recovery discs with the HDX 18, at $20 a pop (didn’t recovery discs used to be included with computers?).
The HP-proprietary software that shipped with the computer was, for the most part, unobjectionable. Manufacturer-proprietary software is often referred to as “bloatware,” because of its size and complexity and because in many cases, it provides a lot of functionality that the average user doesn’t really need. But HP’s software offerings are a compliment to the computer; they feel integral to the system at large, not an afterthought, and they don’t feel bloated with unnecessary features. There’s an HP battery tester, PC health checker, system information, the HP MediaSmart software for audio, video, photo and TV playback, along with a simple agent program that checks periodically for updated software.
It’s the MediaSmart software that’s deserving of the most kudos here. The applications have a simple, handsome look and feel to them, and they’re similar enough that there won’t be a huge learning curve between, say, the photo app and the music app. One minor gripe: the MediaSmart button on the HDX 18, the one that’s supposed to bring up a control strip containing buttons for the MediaSmart applications, works for me only occasionally. Most times, hitting this button produces only a right-mouse-click menu in whatever application I’m running at the time. It’s not really a problem though; there are shortcuts to the MediaSmart applications in the Start menu.
The HDX 18’s list of bells and whistles (some standard and some optional) is impressive, and they integrate well with the laptop. Standard equipment includes a webcam, a fingerprint reader, and a nifty little remote control that you can store in the machine’s ExpressCard port when you’re not using it. Optional equipment includes an analog/digital TV tuner and a Verizon 740 broadband ExpressCard, which provides broadband Internet connectivity anywhere inside the Verizon wireless network. I configured mine with the TV tuner but not the Verizon card.
The webcam and fingerprint reader perform their respective duties well. I’d never used a computer with a fingerprint reader before, and I was fairly blasé towards the whole idea going in. So I can log into Windows without having to type a password. Big deal. Except that the HDX 18 ships with the DigitalPersona fingerprint recognition engine, which works with your web browser(s) to let you log into web sites using the fingerprint reader. That’s fairly huge for me; no more having to remember dozens of different passwords for web site logins. Heck, I even have a DigitalPersona login for NotebookReview.com!
The remote control duplicates most of the HDX 18’s buttons, plus a few extra functions, like turning on and navigating in the HP MediaSmart or Windows Media Center software. I know what you’re thinking—how lazy can ya get, that you’d need a remote for a laptop? Thing is, though, the HDX 18’s video display is big enough that it’s perfectly feasible to set it up on a coffee table and have your friends over to watch video on it from a nearby sofa. Which makes the remote control a handy feature indeed. It’s not the best remote on the planet by any means; it’s black with gray lettering, making it tough to see without good light, and the buttons are small and hard to differentiate by touch. But it serves the purpose, and plus it’s just so darn sexy.
The optional TV tuner can pull in analog or over-the-air HD signal, and it works with the aforementioned HP MediaSmart software or with Windows Media Center. You need to connect an external antenna (included) to get signal; for the sake of convenience and portability, I’d have preferred a built-in antenna. The quality of the video offered by the tuner itself, not surprisingly, is highly dependent on how close you are to your area’s television stations. I’m fairly distant from our stations here in Denver, and analog video is too snowy to be usable, but the digital HD stations I get come in quite well. Any loss of signal will of course cause the video to freeze for a second or two, but again that’s a function of the overall OTA signal strength. The video itself is only the beginning, however; there’s a program guide, and you can record video from the tuner on the hard drive. (You can even schedule programs to be recorded, a la Tivo.) There’s integrated support for a Slingbox, which lets you view your (real) TV’s video signal over the Internet, and HDX 18 owners can get special pricing on a Slingbox from www.slingbox.com/hp. You can even get Internet TV stations, like ClassicTV from TV4U, Next.TV, and TVU.
Overall, the TV tuner is a fun toy, and it serves to round out the HDX 18’s already-impressive multimedia capabilities.
With dozens of computer manufacturers offering dozens of different laptop models, in every size, speed, and price point imaginable, true standout models are hard to find. Downright sexy laptops are even harder to come by. I can truthfully say, however, that the HP HDX 18 is one such machine—and at a very attractive price to boot. It gives you everything you’d ever want from a desktop computer—great performance for games and applications alike, plenty of Windows desktop space, good sound, and enough input and output ports for true versatility—yet gives you the convenience and portability of a laptop at the same time. If you aren’t put off by the HDX 18’s considerable size—which in this writer’s opinion enhances the user experience rather than detracting from it—then this laptop may be for you. And all for around $2,200.