When HP launched its 2013 PC lineup back in May, it unveiled everything from new all-in-one desktop units to high spec performance laptops like the HP Envy TouchSmart 15. Sitting well below that £1,000, Haswell-packing beast, HP also updated its mainstream Pavilion family, rolling out touchscreens across the range to maximise the potential of Windows 8.
We spent the last week playing with one variant, the Pavilion TouchSmart 15-B130SA Sleekbook, which is competitively priced and packs a number of intriguing features into a slimline, Ultrabook-style frame. However, its modest price tag means that there are also some trade-offs to be made by prospective owners.
Measuring 386 x 259 x 21mm, the TouchSmart 15-B130SA is slim for a 15.6in notebook and slides nicely into a rucksack, though at 2.1Kg, it may feel a tad on the heavy side if you're used to carrying smaller laptops. With the disclaimer that I normally use a 13in MacBook Pro with Retina, lugging around the TouchSmart 15 Sleekbook felt taxing, but the fact is that the B130SA's bulk is lighter than other 15in devices - unless you want to shell out a cool £1,000 for something even svelter like the 1.56Kg Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C, that is. Even the 15in MacBook Pro tips the scales to the tune of 2Kg, so if you want the extra screen space, you'd better be prepared to get on the shoulder presses. Overall, the TouchSmart 15's subtly flecked, glossy plastic chassis felt sturdy but didn't come across as that classy and was a bit too adept at picking up smudge marks.
However, the thin bezel around the screen really amplifies the impact of the expansive display - to our mind, the real strength of the TouchBook 15. The B130SA's 15.6in LED-backlit touchscreen may only offer an HD resolution of 1,366 x 768 pixels, but it proved nice and bright in the flesh with particularly good colour contrasts. The 10-point multitouch display itself was fast and responsive, while Altec Lansing speakers carry the "Dolby Digital Advanced" seal of approval and amped up to full blast admirably, displaying little in the way of distortion.
Elsewhere, the HP TouchSmart 15 comes equipped with a full array of connectivity features, including a pair of USB 3.0 ports, a 2-in-1 card reader, Ethernet output and HDMI socket on the right-hand side, as well as a USB 2.0 port and audio jack on the left. That makes it more than capable of meeting the needs of business users as well as consumers, though its lack of an optical drive may be a bone of contention for some. However, there can be no complaints about this notebook's hard drive, with offers a substantial 1TB of built-in storage.
With regards to performance, the B130SA we reviewed packed a second-generation AMD A4-4335M processor clocked at 1.9GHz and complemented by 8GB of RAM. Despite promises that "multi-tasking has never been quicker or easier," we ultimately found the configuration to lack power. The TouchSmart 15 proved adept enough at handling basic tasks like web surfing and word processing, but as soon as we threw a more intensive mutli-tasking scenario at it - combining an online word game with video streaming and a BBC live blog - the cracks started to show and the once responsive touchscreen suffered immensely. Gamers will be pleased to note that B130SA features discrete graphics in the form of AMD Radeon's Radeon HD 7400G GPU, but professional types will be more concerned with raw performance and for me this was the first area where the TouchSmart 15 really let itself down.
Another problem with the TouchSmart 15 is its clumsy, Chiclet-style keyboard, which features raised keys that over-compress when pushed down and caused my fingers to snag on adjacent keys when word processing at speed. The keyboard itself was accurate, but typing was just a really uncomfortable experience - another key indicator that, ultimately, this was a lower-end device and I imagine many buyers would quickly look to invest in an external keyboard.
The TrackPad, too, felt shoddy and occasionally failed to respond to basic controls. On the software front, you're either going to be keen on Windows 8 or want to immediately retrograde to Windows 7, though hopefully the imminent release of Windows 8.1 will help to ease the transition. For more on the Marmite-like operating system, check out our full Windows 8 review.
In the final analysis, the Pavilion TouchSmart 15-B130SA Sleekbook retails via Tesco for £450, which isn't a lot in the PC world - I suspect it can be had for even less if you have a bit of a nose about. The affordable price tag means that shortcomings are pretty much inevitable, though the entry-level ultraportable market is as competitive as ever and I'm quite partial to Lenovo's IdeaPad range. But at 15.6in, the B130SA is one decent option for people after a big ol' screen without having to dig into their overdraft.
Coupled with its 1TB hard drive, it makes the TouchSmart 15 a particularly compelling proposition for folks after a notebook for media consumption purposes - a young audience (possibly) springs to mind. However, the device's questionable multi-tasking performance means that buyers yearning for more oomph may want to look elsewhere, specifically in the 13in and 14in segment, where the trade-off for a smaller display is often a superior processor and enhanced portability. That's not to say that the TouchSmart 15-B130SA Sleekbook isn't a capable device - it just didn't convince across the board.