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HP ENVY 6 Sleekbook Review; AMD's Mobile Trinity APU Arrives

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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12,857
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Montreal
Intel’s Ultrabooks currently dominate the Windows-based ultra portable notebook market, but AMD now has their own range of competing products that have been built around the new Trinity architecture. While there are several new notebook series which have taken up the AMD torch, HP’s new Envy 6 Sleekbook is among the most popular due to its affordable price and wide ranging feature set.

Currently, thin and light are two must have items for most notebooks due to today’s on-the-go yet connected lifestyle. No one wants to be lugging around a seven pound laptop in their backpacks, nor do we want the dubious reputation of pulling out a thick and ugly slab at the local Starbucks. Tablets and so-called “superphones” may have taken over in some areas but the good old fashioned notebook has gradually evolved into something infinitely more adaptable. Intel Ultrabooks are evangelized for exactly these situations but they typically go for about a thousand bucks. Students and most other end users typically don’t want to invest this kind of money in a single device so AMD and HP came up with an alternative called the Sleekbook. While the name may not be sexy, the price for the Envy 6 is very, very tempting: it starts at just $599.


Currently HP’s 15.6” Envy 6 comes in a number of different configurations, running from $599 to $799 but every one of them is equipped with some form of AMD Trinity processor. Our $700 configuration came with a low voltage dual core AMD A6-4455M which certainly isn’t the fastest processor around but 8GB of memory should ensure that bottlenecks are kept to a minimum. In addition, the A6-4455M’s only requires around 17W to operate which should ensure excellent life from the Envy 6’s 4-cell 60 WHr battery pack.

AMD is quick to point out that the Trinity architecture shouldn’t be considered a simple processor since it incorporates a graphics core which can improve overall system performance. In the past GPUs have been tied at the hip to, HD decoding and other forms of entertainment but AMD’s “Accelerated Processing Units” can leverage both the CPU and GPU for increased data throughput in everyday applications. Without the inclusion of a HD 7500G graphics core, the A6-4455M within this notebook would have a hard time standing out from the Intel competition.

Storage options have been severely curtailed in an effort to keep pricing down and as a result, a 500GB hard drive operating at a pedestrian 5400RPM is included. We do have some concerns that the decision to forego a simple cache drive could seriously hurt the Envy 6’s overall responsiveness when compared against Ultrabooks. However, an expensive stand-alone SSD was simply out of the question due to the cost involved.

The warranty included with the Envy 6 is rather basic at a single year but HP’s Concierge customer service is still among the best in this industry. Additional upgrades are available if the Sleekbook is purchased directly through HP’s site.


HP’s Envy 6 Sleekbook may cost less than $800 but it is surprisingly well built. We typically associate low prices with corner cutting but this is actually one of the best-built notebooks we’ve come across this year. Instead of a sea of plastic and faux metal HP has used a hybrid aluminum material with a brushed black finish for the Envy 6’s topside and the effect is spectacular. Now, it may attract fingerprints quite quickly but the aluminum has been coated in a clear matte lacquer that effectively repels scratches while ensuring the Sleekbook remains easy to clean.

Despite the excess of aluminum and the relatively wide chassis necessary for a 15.6” screen, the 4.5lb Envy 6 discards the heft normally associated with larger notebooks. On-the-go users will also appreciate its mere ¾” thickness.


The inner areas of HP’s Envy 6 very much follow the same design direction as the outside with a tight fitting aluminum chassis that looks and feels great. The only hint of plastic is around the slightly inset keyboard but even here the seams between materials are literally nonexistent.


Directly above the keyboard is a slim strip of plastic which acts as a sound bar for the Envy’s two built-in Beats Audio certified speakers and also houses an oblong power button. Like every other piece on this notebook it is well integrated into the aluminum chassis.

Some have complained about the Envy 6’s hinges creaking from time to time but throughout our 4 weeks of continual testing, we didn’t have any issues. The hinges on our model proved to be durable and securely held the screen in place.


Speaking of the Envy 6’s 15.6” screen, it uses a glossy coating which will cause your eyes fits if used outside or in other well lit environments. When used in the Detroit airport for example, we had to increase its brightness in order to compensate for the reflections and that in turn killed this notebook’s otherwise phenomenal battery life.

The screen is housed within a highly reflective bezel which also incorporates the Envy’s TrueVision HD webcam. This glossy finish certainly isn’t an optimal solution but it will stand out on most retailers’ shelves.



This notebook’s thin side profiles house an impressive connector selection with a single USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 connectors, a full sized HDMI 1.4 output, a multi card reader and a LAN jack. Unfortunately, the LAN jack uses a flap which maintains the chassis’ overall sleek look and we’re slightly concerns about its durability since it uses plastic hinges. There’s also a headphone jack and microphone input.

Unlike some of their competitors, HP has decided to place the power connector in a sensible location, on the right-hand side of the Envy 6, making it easily accessible.


HP’s use of a bold red finish for the Envy 6’s underside may turn off some potential buyers but it has been coated in a soft-touch finish that protects against scratches while also dispersing heat.
 

SKYMTL

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Keyboard & Touchpad / Upgrade Options

Keyboard & Touchpad



The Envy 6 is a sub-$800 notebook which is incredibly thin so our expectations weren’t all that high for the keyboard’s overall quality. Surprisingly, this full-sized keyboard surpassed our wildest hopes by providing excellent tactile feedback, just the right amount of key travel and more than enough space between the individual key “islands” to make touch-typing become second nature. The large Enter and right Shift keys were particularly welcome since most smaller slim and light products compact these in order to upsize other areas.


Is this the perfect keyboard? Not quite since at times the keys feel a bit too “springy”, causing accuracy to suffer but the textured metallic finish of the palm rests ensure that touch typists will be pleased. We also loved the fact that HP has included fully backlit keys which is something of a rarity on budget friendly notebooks these days. They may only have two options –either Off or On- but the illumination is even and will certainly aide with typing in darkened quarters or on an overnight flight.

We should also mention that HP has carried over their function key design from the Spectre series. This allows for full system control over keyboard backlighting, media functions, screen brightness and a myriad of other items without pressing and holding the Fn key. If you use the standard function keys (F1 to F12) for program shortcuts in applications like AutoCAD or Photoshop, they can be easily remapped to their default inputs through HP’s control center.


With such a high quality keyboard, we were hoping HP had put some thought into their Synaptics ImagePad as well. Unfortunately, it is the one thing about HP’s Envy 6 which feels incomplete and unrefined. Granted, the single slab of polished aluminum may look great and it actually incorporates tiny ridges to give just the right amount of resistance but the actuation of each virtual button leaves a lot to be desired. Instead of a muted “click” every time the trackpad is pressed a muted “clunk” can be heard, sounding a lot like a piece of metal being thrown around in a plastic box.

From an input perspective, this is actually one of the better touchpad’s we’ve encountered since it responds quickly and the dual integrated buttons are blissfully responsive but the sound it makes is just embarrassing. The finish also gets blistering hot if the Envy 6 is being used outdoors in direct sunlight.


Upgrade Options


Due to the very nature of these Ultrabooks / Sleekbooks, HP has integrated the battery directly onto the motherboard so an end user won’t have access to it. Even memory upgrades are nearly impossible without giving the Envy 6 a warranty destroying frontal lobotomy since there aren’t any integrated panels that grant access to the innards. So the conclusion in this section is quite straightforward: try upgrading HP’s Envy 6 at your own risk.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Screen & Audio Quality

Screen Quality



The screen on HP’s Envy 6 uses a standard TN panel with a highly reflective coating but despite this notebook’s bargain price, the display is quite respectable. Colors aren’t overly saturated (they actually move towards toneless in some cases), contrast is quite good and its response times in games results in virtually no ghosting and only minimal input lag. We did notice a slight blue shift but the only application this affected was Photoshop editing during the writing of this review. Panel uniformity was also top notch without any of the clouding and backlight bleed normally associated with edge lit LED screens on most low-end notebooks.

Unfortunately, HP finds their Sleekbook fighting an uphill battle on the resolution front. While corners had to be cut in order to allow the Envy 6 to meet a lower price point, they used a 1366 x 768 display that’s been spread over a 15.6” diagonal area. This results in a relatively poor dot pitch ratio when compared against the 1600x900 or higher displays many Ultrabooks are currently shipping with. We didn’t notice a drastic drop in image quality when upscaling such a low resolution to a larger screen size but were some drastic clarity differences in movies and games when placed next to a Sony Vaio S’s 1080P screen.


Being a TN-based panel, miracles can’t be expected and viewing angles do tend to suffer when the Envy 6 is seen from extremes on the vertical or horizontal planes. However, we didn’t notice a significant drop in contrast and color reproduction until our eyes moved about 40 degrees off center. This is actually a respectable result considering most inexpensive notebooks face serious image quality degradation when viewed at anything but head on.


Audio Quality



HP has moved towards upgrading their notebook sound system design with the integration of Beats audio processing and certified hardware. The Spectre Ultrabook used a potent one / two combination of a Beats software stack which included a full-band equalizer, a headphone amplifier and high performance down-firing speakers but the Envy 6’s goals are slightly more pedestrian. While it does use a straight forward-pointing speaker setup that blended seamlessly into the chassis and upgraded headphone processing, the Beats mixer software has been left out. Fortunately, the effect is still quite impressive for a budget-friendly mobile product.

While the Envy’s speaker system doesn’t push out rich highs and deep low tones, it is capable of filling a room with sound. We did notice some quality breakdown when higher octaves were reached but for the most part the sound quality was decent, albeit far below our experiences with HP’s Spectre and the B&O system on ASUS’ older Zenbook line.

The speaker quality may not be class-leading but some serious upgrades have been performed on the Envy 6’s headphone output. It has been grounded, thoroughly shielded from EM interference and runs in conjunction with a small dedicated hardware amplifier. Plugging in higher end headphones will allow for the crystal clear, distortion free sound normally associated with stand-alone audio amplifiers. We find this concentration on headphone capabilities more suitable for a highly portable mobile platform than speaker upgrades so HP receives our kudos here.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Included Software

Included Software




For the most part, HP provides their customers with a relatively clean Windows installation that includes very little in the way of annoying add-ons. Unnecessary items like the Blio reader, HP Games, Evernote and some trial-only Adobe and Microsoft software are thrown in for good measure but this is a long shot from the space gobbling payloads some notebooks ship with.

The actual number of running processes isn’t that bad either 1.07GB of the Envy’s memory taken up by necessities and Norton’s resource hogging Internet Security application. As usual, we recommend you uninstall the pay-for-use Norton and replace it with Microsoft’s excellent Security Essentials.


HP’s CoolSense technology does exactly what its name suggests: it augments the Envy 6’s performance and fan speeds in order to best suit a given situation. Unlike other technologies, CoolSense actually monitors exterior temperatures and strives to keep things within lap-centric comfort limits. As you’ll see in the exterior temperature testing, it works remarkably well without increasing fan noise.


Running hand in hand with CoolSense is HP’s Power Manager. This takes the place of Windows’ own power settings and the different modes can be changed through the use of keyboard hotkeys or a few mouse clicks on the system tray. In our experience, the HP Recommended mode gives a perfect balance of power consumption and performance but make sure not to overlook Power Saver when you’re running on the battery.


According to HP, the customer service experience offered on the Envy series is second to none and in some respects, we’re inclined to agree. Take their Support Assistant for example. Here a user can go through basic –yet handy- maintenance routines to ensure their notebook is running in tip-top shape or they can go through a point by point troubleshooting guide which dynamically adapts to the answers input and suggests realistic solutions to basic issues. There’s also a product knowledge catalog that gives some helpful hints and guides about how to best optimize your computing experience. Finally, if all else fails, the Get Assistance section allows for direct interaction with a dedicated HP customer service representative through either instant messenger or over the phone.


By far, the best and most convenient piece of software included on the Envy 6 is the Launch Box Manager. With it, customized program lists can be built and each application will launch in order once Windows starts. If you want to completely disable typical Start Up programs, simply use My Launch Box and disable every item. Granted, many of these options can be controlled through the MSConfig dialog box but LBM ensures that newcomers to customized Windows installations won’t go around turning off things that should have been left on. It really is brilliant but unfortunately, some built-in programs can’t be disabled.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







In our first round of tests, the Envy 6’s slow processor and 5400RPM hard drive contribute to drag performance down into the very bottom of our charts. System responsiveness in feels quite sluggish since HP hasn’t even included a small cache drive to speed up your most used programs and Windows startup times. This is certainly not a great start against Intel’s Ultrabooks but it seems like from a performance standpoint, HP has certainly priced this notebook in line with reality.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






Some of you may remember our initial desktop Trinity review where Intel processors tended to walk all over AMD’s competing architecture. The same can be said about the mobile space as the Envy 6 remains significantly behind but we have to remember that every one of the notebooks shown above costs well over $800. When price is taken into consideration, the dual core A6 provides adequate performance for its intended market in most scenarios.
 

SKYMTL

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Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.




With the HD7500G helping accelerate media playback, the Envy 6 is able to post excellent results here. More importantly, the integrated video quality controls within AMD’s Catalyst Control center really help allow this notebook to stand out from the Intel competition. While most of the Intel notebooks exhibited some image quality issues during 1080P playback through HDMI, the Envy 6 simply cruised along with spotless image recreation.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



In this test, the Envy 6 is a middle of the pack performer with relatively good wireless strength which is something of a rarity among slim and light notebooks. We did however notice an odd tendency for it to drop or “forget” connections every now and then. Since this occurred randomly when the system was at idle, it didn’t affect our file transfer tests since they constantly access the WiFi card.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.







Gaming is one area where the Envy 6 and its Trinity APU shine. The A6 and 7500G combination results in performance that’s roughly equal to a quad thread Intel processor alongside an NVIDIA GT 520. Considering the Intel / NVIDIA combo is usually found in higher end notebooks that cost well over $1000, we’re suitably impressed.

With that being said, throughout testing, we couldn’t shake a feeling that AMD’s x86 processing stages were holding back graphics performance. There were several instances where framerates would simply hit a plateau and stay there for the majority of our benchmark. Situations like this typically point to CPU bottlenecking going on behind the scenes.
 

SKYMTL

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GPU Compute Benchmarks

GPU Compute Benchmarks


With many CPUs using integrated graphics processors, parallel co-processing has become a hot topic of conversation. More and more applications now include support for OpenCL, DirectCompute and other features which help speed up performance in order to quickly finish certain tasks.

In this section, we will be benchmarking a number of applications which support (or claim to support) GPU compute in an effort to highlight the performance benefits which come with this technology.


Photoshop CS6


In our previous Photoshop CS6 benchmark, we deliberately disabled the GPU acceleration features so we could get an apples to apples CPU comparison. However, in this test, we are enabling that acceleration to see what affect it has upon the benchmark numbers. Please remember: Photoshop’s GPU features only improve performance on SOME (rather than all) editing tools so performance will not scale in a linear fashion due to the CPU still playing a role.



WinZip 16.5


As of version 16.5, WinZip now supports OpenCL acceleration for some of its file compression features. Unfortunately, it only works on AMD’s graphics processors for the time being. In this test, we compressed (using the maximum compression routine) a 2.6GB folder with random files and logged the time it took to complete.


As we can see, if the right applications are chosen and GPU acceleration is enabled, the AMD APU within HP’s Envy 6 can really shine. Unfortunately, only a few programs currently feature OpenCL or other forms of compute support but the list is expanding at a rapid pace as both AMD and Intel begin focusing on this area.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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12,857
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Montreal
Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



Count us impressed. With a 4-cell battery, expectations for HP’s Sleekbook weren’t high but it delivered spectacular results in every test. In everyday browsing it was able to deliver just over 5:30 of life which should get you through a full day of school or most flights without recharging. The battery life when gaming was a particular standout, with the Envy’s nearly three hours handily beating an 8-cell ASUS notebook. Even the Heavy Workload rundown showed a noteworthy result of nearly four hours.

We really couldn’t have asked for more here as the Envy 6 demolished several preconceived notions about battery life and budget notebooks.
 
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