HP Envy TouchSmart 4 ultrabook review

The HP Envy TouchSmart 4 is Hewlett Packard’s first ultrabook with a touchscreen display. It ships with Windows 8, features an Intel Ivy Bridge processor, and measures less than an inch thick.

HP sent me a demo unit to review, and I’ve been surprised at how often I find myself using the touchscreen. Not only is Windows 8 a touch-friendly operating system, but some things are just easier to do with a touchscreen, even when you’re running desktop apps.

HP Envy TouchSmart 4

On the other hand, the Envy TouchSmart is the latest notebook that makes me question exactly what an ultrabook is supposed to be. Intel coined the word, trademarked the heck out of it, and sets guidelines for PC makers. Ultrabooks have to feature Intel processors, solid state disks (or at least solid state cache drives), and thin designs.

But comparing the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 to the Samsung Series 9 or Asus Zenbook UX21A just seems silly. Those Samsung and Asus notebooks are incredibly thin and light notebooks which weigh less than three pounds and measure less than two thirds of an inch thick.

Meanwhile the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 measures 0.9 inches thick, weighs just over 4.5 pounds, has a 14 inch display,  and generally just looks like a traditional notebook. Nobody’s going to mistake it for a MacBook Air.

There’s a lot to like about HP’s first touchscreen ultrabook. But it’s best to think of it as a versatile, reasonably powerful notebook with decent battery life and support for touch — and not as a so-small you can throw it in your bag and forget it’s there kind of laptop.

So I’ll try to save my lament that Intel doesn’t impose weight limits on ultrabooks for another time and get on with the review of this notebook PC.

The HP Envy TouchSmart 4 is available from HP for $749 and up. There’s also a version without a touchscreen which sells for $649 and up.

The unit featured in this review has a Core i5 processor, backlit keyboard, and Windows 8 Pro, and sells for $975, while the base model has Windows 8 standard, a Core i3 CPU, and a non-illuminated keyboard.

Overview

HP sent me a demo unit with a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB hard drive and a 32GB solid state cache disk. It runs Windows 8 64-bit.

The notebook also features a 14 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display with a 10-point capacitive touch panel.

The laptop has 802.11b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth, and Intel WiDi wireless display features.

HP also offers the Envy TouchSmart 4 with a Core i3 processor or up to 8GB of memory. The company also says that an optional AMD Radeon HD graphics card may be available in the future.

At the moment, HP is also throwing in a free Barnes & Noble NOOK Simple touch eReader when you buy qualifying laptops.

Design

The Envy TouchSmart 4 is a good looking laptop with a brushed aluminum lid and a silver/gray brushed aluminum area around the keyboard.

The sides and bottom of the notebook feature a black soft-touch plastic finish. And the keyboard features a island-style black flat keys.

Around the sides you’ll find 2 USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port, full-sized Ethernet and HDMI ports, mic and headphone jacks, and an SD card reader.

About the only thing missing is a VGA port, but that’s getting harder and harder to find on laptops.

On the bottom of the laptop you’ll find plenty of vents, which do a pretty good job of helping keep the Envy TouchSmart 4 cool. What you won’t find are any access panels.

The hard drive, memory, and battery are all tucked away under lock and key, and you’ll  have to perform some minor surgery to disassemble the laptop if you want to perform any upgrades.

In other words, if you think you might need more than 4GB of RAM, it’s probably a good idea to configure the laptop that way before hitting the checkout button.

The notebook features a 14 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display. While it’s certainly not a huge screen by traditional laptop (or desktop) standards, I tend to focus on portable notebooks — which makes this one of the largest laptops I’ve ever reviewed.

Yet it has the same display resolution as virtually every 11, 12, and 13 inch notebook I’ve reviewed in the past few years. The good news is that means everything looks a bit bigger — making it easier to tap icons or other graphic elements on the touchscreen with your finger. But if you’re the sort of person that doesn’t like to be able to pick out individual pixels on a computer screen, the Envy TouchSmart 4 might not be for you.

The screen also features a glossy finish, which means that it reflects glare when used near a bright light. Sitting in a coffee shop, I was able to see what was going on behind me while facing the PC to type this review. While that’s a nifty skill to have, it can also be a bit distracting.

The problem is exacerbated a bit by the fact that the Envy TouchSmart 4 has a touchscreen — which means that your oily fingerprints will be all over the screen, where they’re nice and visible when the screen is well lit.

Viewing angles also leave a bit to be desired. While the screen looks reasonably good when viewed from the left or right, when you tilt the screen back a bit colors start to look washed out.

In other words, you can watch a movie with the person sitting next to you on the bus — but only if they’re the same height as you. If they’re too much taller or shorter, they’ll have a hard time picking out the action on the screen.

Touchscreen, keyboard, and TouchPad

It’s the touchscreen that sets this notebook apart from probably any other laptop you’ve ever used. The HP Envy TouchSmart has a touchscreen… but it’s not a tablet. You can’t pull the screen away from the keyboard and use it like a slate, and you can’t fold the screen over the keyboard to use it in tablet mode.

Basically, it’s just a laptop… with a touchscreen. And you know what? That’s OK. Because the idea isn’t to use the touchscreen instead of a keyboard and touchpad. It’s to use it in addition.

Sometimes it’s faster to reach up and touch the screen to choose an app, resize a window, or pinch to zoom in and out of a photo. And the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 has a decent touchscreen with support for 10-point input. It’s pretty responsive and works at least as well as the touch panel on any phone or tablet you’ve ever used.

You just wouldn’t want to use it to type using an on-screen keyboard or to do anything else truly tablet-like on a notebook. Your arms would get tired if you tried holding them up that long. But reaching up from time to time to perform a few actions is pretty easy.

I was also pleasantly surprised to note that some desktop style apps and websites work as if they were designed for touchscreens. Dragging and dropping tabs in the Google Chrome browser was just as easy as on an Android tablet. And scrolling through stories in the Google Reader web app felt a lot like using the mobile version of the site (although a “mark previous as read” button would be nice).

The one problem with this laptop’s touchscreen is really a problem with the screen hinge, not the touch panel: the screen wobbles a little bit when you poke it. If you’re gentle when you touch the screen you might never notice. But if you jab the screen with just a little too much pressure, the screen will shake a bit, which can be disconcerting when you’re using the laptop.

Then again, some notebook displays wobble when you simply type too hard.

Speaking of typing, the keyboard is large and comfortable, and features a dedicated row of keys on the right side for functions such as Home/End, and PgUp/PgDn.

There are also special function keys in the top row for brightness, volume, media playback, and more. Some of those keys are illuminated, making it easy to tell which features are enabled. That means you’ll always know if the volume is muted or the backlight is turned on.

The entire keyboard is backlit — meaning you can hit the F5 key to turn on lights that make the keys glow so they’re easier to see in low-lit conditions. Unfortunately when the backlight is turned off the F5 key itself is brightly lit.

Let me re-iterate: HP decided that you need a brightly lit key to tell you that the keyboard backlighting is turned off.

Yeah, I know that makes it easier to find the F5 key in a dark room… but I would still prefer a way to turn off all the lights on the keyboard at the same time.

So if you prefer an entirely dark keyboard, you’re kind of out of luck. Something is always going to be glowing.

If you press down on the center of the keyboard you’ll notice a bit of flex. But the keys are well responsive and well spaced, and I found I could type about as quickly on this laptop as on any other computer I’ve used recently.

Below the keyboard is a large touchpad with support for Windows 8 gestures. There are no dedicated left or right buttons, but you can click on the lower right corner to trigger a right-click, or click anywhere else for a left-click.

You can also go into the touchpad settings to enable additional multi-touch features including placing two fingers on the screen at the same time to emulate a right-click. In other words, you can “click” by tapping gently on the screen.

You can also disable the touchpad entirely by double-tapping the little square in the upper left corner. You’ll know the touchpad is off when the little indicator light to its left glows orange.

The touchpad is just large enough and just awkardly placed enough that I found myself swiping it with my palms all the time while typing on the keyboard. This caused the cursor to jump so that I’d start a sentence typing in one line… only to find that mid-word I was now typing on a different part of the screen, or writing over text I’d already written.

There is a pretty simple fix: Go into the Synaptics touchpad settings and adjust the sensitivity under the “pointing” settings. Basically, the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 has a pretty decent touchpad, but it’s a little too sensitive using the default settings.

When you’re actually using the touchpad for its intended use, it’s responsive, comfortable, and supports a wide range of gestures. But it has a habit of getting in the way when you’re trying to type.

Windows 8 

This is the first laptop I’m reviewing to ship with Windows 8. I don’t want to spend too much time dwelling on the operating system. On a laptop, I use it much the same way I use Windows 7 — primarily with a mouse and keyboard. But since the Envy TouchSmart 4 has a touchscreen, from time to time I find myself reaching up to the display to tap, swipe, or drag-and-drop.

While some folks are disappointed that Microsoft killed the Start Button and Start Menu in Windows 8, after using the new operating system for a few days, I found I don’t really miss them. I even installed a third-party Start Menu replacement, but disabled it almost right away after I realized that I don’t need it and that it just seemed to get in the way.

Here’s the thing: on a reasonably fast notebook the new Windows 8 Start Screen is at least as good as a Start Menu. Just hit the Windows key to bring up a full-screen menu with icons and tiles for your apps. But you don’t have to scroll though that screen to find the apps you’re looking for.

Just type the name. Windows will find those app after you’ve typed just a few characters and you can get on with your business without even lifting your hands from the keyboard. Just hit enter.

Things are a little trickier if you’re trying to open something that’s not an “app,” because you may have to switch to the Settings or Files tab using the menu on the right side of the screen. But overall, Windows 8 makes opening apps, files, and settings at least as easy as it was in earlier versions of Windows. It doesn’t take much getting used to at all.

If you do want to scroll through the Start Screen and view content on the live tiles and run full-screen “Windows 8 style” apps like Mail or Weather, the touchscreen does make that easier to do. But you can also the notebook’s touchpad, which supports gestures such as swiping from the right to bring up Charms, or swiping from the left to switch between Windows 8 style apps.

If you’re using a USB or wireless mouse, you lose support for some of these gestures, but you can move your cursor to the bottom left or right corners of the screen to bring up the Charms or Start Screen.

In short, while a touchscreen is a nice addition to a Windows 8 laptop, it’s not a necessity.

Performance

I’ve tested a number of notebooks with Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge processors at this point… and there’s virtually no different in performance. At all.

The HP Envy TouchSmart 4 may have a touchscreen and Windows 8 software, but its scores were pretty much indistinguishable from those of the Acer Aspire V5-171, Toshiba Satellite U845W, and Lenovo IdeaPad U310 — three other laptops I’ve reviewed in the past few months.

That’s true both for benchmarking tools like 3DMark06 and the Street Fighter IV benchmark, and for a few tests I’ve been running on every laptop I test for years — including an audio transcoding test and a video transcoding test.

The Envy TouchSmart 4 has a combination hard drive and solid state cache. That cache disk helps it boot pretty quickly and helps launch apps and perform some other tasks faster than you’d be able to do on a machine with just a hard drive. But SSD-only ultrabooks do some of those things even faster.

In other words, this is a mid-range ultrabook in terms of performance — but if it’s been a few years since you’ve bought a new laptop (or even desktop computer), it’s probably faster than anything you already have in your house.

What does that mean in terms of real world performance? It means that the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 is a pretty zippy computer that boots and shuts down quickly, handles multitasking well, and has more than enough oomph for editing documents (or video), playing casual games, surfing the web, or more.

The notebook isn’t designed as a high-end gaming machine — which helps explain the mediocre display. While it should handle many older games reasonably well, you’ll probably want a system with dedicated graphics if you really want a gaming laptop.

The laptop gets a respectable Windows Experience Index of 5.7. The overall score is based on the lowest score — which in this case comes from the notebook’s graphics performance.

HP includes Beats audio on the laptop. The speaker is above the keyboard, in a position where it won’t be easily covered up and muffled while you’re listening to audio. And there’s even a bit of a subwoofer.

All in all, that means that you get slightly better than average audio out of this laptop. Let’s face it… laptop speakers stink. These are better than most, but they’re not great. The good news is they’re reasonably loud and clear for laptop speakers and music sounds pretty good. It sounds even better if you plug in headphones though.

The notebook does generate a bit of heat thanks to the Core i5 CPU and hard disk, so there are a few cooling vents and a fan which blows air. It’s not the loudest laptop fan I’ve ever heard, but it’s also not silent.

HP says the Envy TouchSmart 4 should be able to run for over 7 hours on a charge. That might be true if you turn off WiFi, dim the display, and don’t use the laptop much.

In real world conditions, I found that I reliably got from 5 to 6 hours of battery life while using the notebook to surf the web, write documents, edit pictures, watch a video or two, and maybe listen to some music.

Your results will vary depending on what you’re using the laptop to do. Watching video or playing games will probably run down the battery more quickly.

Verdict

At 4.5 pounds, the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 isn’t the most portable ultrabook on the market. In fact, I’m not sure why Intel insists on grouping notebooks with 14 and 15.6 inch screens into the ultrabook category in the first place, but that’s Intel’s decision, not mine.

What you do get with the Envy TouchSmart 4 is a reasonably fast, reasonably affordable notebook with Windows 8 and decent, but not spectacular battery life.

You also get a touchscreen display — which turns out to be a pretty useful feature on a notebook. Not only is Windows 8 choc full of menus and apps that are clearly designed with touch in mind, but reaching up and touching the screen comes in handy more often than you’d think even when you’re running traditional desktop apps.

Sure, if you’re used to a keyboard and mouse or touchpad, you don’t need a touchscreen to get things done in Windows. But sometimes it’s faster to just reach up and tap the screen to launch a program, open a menu, or drag-and-drop than it would be to move your hand to a pointing device, slide a cursor around, and then click a few times.

We’ll probably see many more notebooks with touchscreens in the coming months. But if you’re looking for one right now (and touch and price are more important to you than portability), the HP Envy TouchSmart 4 is a decent choice.

  • nards barley

    “On the other hand, the Envy TouchSmart is the latest notebook that makes me question exactly what an ultrabook is supposed to be”

    Referring to it as a notebook threw me for a moment.

    • Mondo

      Ultrathins, Ultrabooks, Sleekbooks, Convertibles, Touchwhatevers, they’re not selling well because they’re overhyped, overpriced and paired with a questionable (at best) OS.

      “Nobody’s going to mistake it for a MacBook Air.” – that about sums up the entire Windows 8 Ultra/Sleek/Touch lineup. Macs are too appealing at this price point.

      • Smguk

        Blah blah blah you retarded cunt

  • TheHeadmare

    I am considering taking this laptop back. The touch screen doesn’t always respond & I do find the touch pad doesn’t work well either. The thing just freezes for a minute or so when doing basic tasks. Also not a big fan of Windows 8 .