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Game on: 3 high-performance laptops duke it out

June 22, 2012 06:00 AM ET

HP Envy 17-3090nr 3D Edition Notebook PC

HP's Envy 17 looks nonthreatening, but packs enough of a punch to be a prime gaming notebook.

With a black magnesium and brushed aluminum case, the Envy 17 has the minimalist look that an Apple designer would be proud of. Its only adornment is a red stripe around the system's keyboard.

HP Envy 17
HP Envy 17

The Envy 17 measures 1.4 x 16.3 x 10.7 in., easily making it the smallest of the three reviewed here. Still, it overhangs an airline tray table.

At 7.6 lb., the Envy 17 was much easier to carry than the 12.1-lb. Panther. With its modest-sized AC adapter, the Envy 17 has a reasonable travel weight of 8.8 lb., nearly 7 lb. lighter than the Panther (with only one of its two AC adapters).

Inside, the Envy 17 uses the same second-generation Core i7 2670QM processor that the MSI GT783 uses. It has four processing cores, 6MB of onboard cache and a normal speed of 2.2GHz, which can be goosed to 3.1GHz when the gaming gets tough.

While, in my tests, this meant that the Envy 17 rated second best in performance to the Panther 4.0's Core i7 3960X processor, it also needs about half as much power. The Envy 17 has two fans (as opposed to the Panther's four) and was much quieter than the Panther. (Fewer fans can also mean longer battery life, although I didn't specifically test for that.)

The Envy 17 model I looked at came with 12GB of RAM. The base unit comes with 8GB; HP offers a 16GB option for an additional $200, which is the system's maximum.

The Envy 17 has two drive bays. My unit came with a 750GB hard drive installed, although you can order it with a variety of combinations of solid state drives and hard drives.

It comes with a slot-loading Super Multi optical drive, which can write to a variety of media and play -- but not write -- Blu-ray discs. I did find it inconvenient that the system needs to be turned on to remove a disc.

While all three of the reviewed units have 17.3-in. displays that can show 1920 x 1080 resolution, the Envy 17 uses AMD's Radeon HD 7690M XT graphics engine rather than the GeForce GTX 580M used in the Panther. The HD 7690M XT runs at 725MHz and has 480 processing cores; the system was equipped with 1GB of video memory, half as much as the other two systems. There is no option for an upgrade to 2GB of VRAM; the Envy 17 also lacks the dual-graphics setup on the Panther and the MSI's ability to overclock the imaging engine.

Despite its slim profile, the Envy 17 has a good assortment of ports, including two USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 connectors. Rather than being color coded, the USB 3.0 ports are marked with a tiny SuperSpeed logo.

Like the Panther, the Envy 17 lacks a VGA port, but has an HDMI and two DisplayPort connections. Its video ace-in-the-hole is Intel's WiDi technology that allows the system to wirelessly send audio and video to a projector or TV.

The HP notebook WiDi set up worked with Belkin's ScreenCast TV receiver and Mitsubishi's WD380U-EST projector and had a range of 30 feet before it lost contact. However, to use WiDi, you need to switch the Envy 17 to from the high-end AMD graphics engine to the much-less-impressive Intel integrated graphics.

The Envy 17 has audio jacks, including a pair of headphone connections, but lacks the Panther's SPDIF digital audio. Rather than THX TruSound that the other two systems use, the Envy 17 has Beats audio, which to my ear sounded great and got just loud enough to be raucous.

The audio had been tuned to work with Beats by Dr. Dre Studio High-Definition Headphones, but it sounded quite good with either the built-in speakers or standard headphones. The Envy 17 has a thumbwheel on the side of the keyboard to adjust the volume and a nearby mute button.

The Envy 17 offer an Ethernet port as well as Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi. It has a flash card reader but lacks the Panther's ExpressCard slot for adding peripherals.

While the others have elaborate backlit keyboards that can make them look like Christmas trees, the Envy 17's keyboard uses white backlighting. It's not as colorful, but is simple, effective and doesn't distract from the gaming at hand.

Although its graphics hardware isn't as impressive as the other two gaming monsters, the Envy 17 held its own with excellent color balance, sharp detail and smooth operation. Its screen wasn't as bright as the other two, however.

Opinions from the Masters School gamers

Members of the Masters gaming club really liked the thinness, quiet and sound quality of the Envy 17. They said they'd have preferred a brighter screen, however, and several times the Envy 17 sat idle while the GT783 and Panther were being ogled over.

  • "Not loud enough."
  • "The up/down keys are too close together."
  • "Okay video but the screen is dull."
  • "Pretty good. Surprisingly thin and easy to carry."

Test results

The Envy 17's performance was on a par with the MSI GT783, scoring a 2,087.7 on the PerformanceTest 7.0 suite. That's about 30% off the scorching pace set by the Panther. (Because the Envy 17 review unit came with 12GB of RAM rather than 16GB like the other systems, comparisons are going to be affected.) It lagged behind the Panther on the Cinebench processor tests but led the pack on the graphics test with a 51.5.

Having a battery life of 2 hours and 56 minutes is generally nothing to brag about, but for a computer with this amount of power, it is nothing short of phenomenal. The Envy's 7,400 mAh battery lasted 25 minutes longer than the MSI GT783's and more than three times longer than the Panther's.

It's a good thing, because while the others have batteries that are easy to swap, it's a chore on the Envy 17. To get to the battery, you need to remove six Philips screws to open the system's back cover and then open a pair of Torx screws -- not something you want to do between Portal sessions.

At a Glance

HP Envy 17-3090nr 3D Edition Notebook PC
Price: $1,600 (base) / $1,685 (as tested)
Pros: Sleek design, relatively lightweight, offers Intel's WiDi technology
Cons: Limited to 12GB RAM, awkward to change battery

With a pair of internal fans, the Envy 17 was a cool, yet eerily quiet customer. It hit a peak temperature of 121 degrees Fahrenheit at its exhaust vent.

The system came with Windows 7 Home Premium, but can be upgraded to the Professional version for $70. The Envy 17 comes with a two-year warranty; adding a third year costs a reasonable $168.

Bottom line

At less than one-third the stratospheric price of the Panther 4.0 and about $1,000 less than the MSI GT783, the Envy 17 is the "budget" choice of these three gaming notebooks. However, it doesn't have the graphics potential or screen brightness of the other two.

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