VoodooPC's Envy 133, the world's thinnest laptop, just started shipping, and we scored one of the first production units straight outta Calgary. It's a lithe black laptop that keeps cool while running Vista, a super light machine that's strong as hell thanks to a carbon-fiber frame. It's the size of a MacBook Air with way more tech crammed inside, including its own second Linux-based operating system. And though it costs a lot more than most laptops that perform similar chores, it does it with a grace that I haven't seen since Vista's launch. It's not a gamer's system, but the Voodoo team deserves credit for using what they've learned to build a laptop that stands out when everything else on the PC market just blends in. Does it have any flaws? Yep, plenty. Here's the full review:
You know the Envy is well designed when you experience the initial unboxing. Generally, we're bored by the very notion of "unboxing" these days, but word is that Voodoo's chief designer is a packaging fanatic, you can totally tell by the elegantly nested, extra-heavy packaging that so carefully holds such a light, thin little notebook.
Once you have it out of the box and ready for action, you really notice how closely the Envy resembles a miniature black MacBook Pro, with a few distinct design choices to separate itself from an Apple: It's got a continuous glass face with embedded screen, so the whole front except for the webcam is seamless. And it's made of carbon fiber, which means it can be thinner (at the widest point) than a MacBook Air, but have a removable battery like a MacBook Pro. The carbon fiber, along with a rather noisy fan, lets heat dissipate easily, so there's no sudden burning sensation on your legs when you're using it on your lap. I don't know if carbon fiber is a better sound resonator than aluminum, but the Envy's speakers sound great for being so small. They're not just better than MacBook Air's mono speaker but MacBook Pro's stereo speakers too. The carbon fiber is slick but smudgy. It didn't take long to make it look used, though a quick wipe will make it good as new—for like five minutes. Sizemodo: Voodoo Envy 133 vs MacBook Air
To put it as bluntly as Voodoo boss Rahul Sood puts it, "This laptop is not a gaming product." It's not going to play Crysis at all, though it might achieve other, lesser games with the settings dialed down. You can tell it's not a gaming laptop because of the fact that Vista gives it a 3.1 rating out of 5 due to its integrated graphics and shared video memory; that PCMark gave it 2100 (the world's hottest machines top 15000); 3D Mark won't run because Envy's nice 13.3" 1280x800 screen is nevertheless too low rez to test; and it's not covered with flared plastic and blinky LEDs that go from green to red as you take hits during a game. As you might know, the basic design was Intel's. The original Metro concept had some shortcomings though. It was made of plastic and had some questionable heat management. "There's no way you could sell the Metro because it would fall apart," says Sood. Besides heat management, the key was to make the Metro design capable of carrying a removable battery that is nonetheless super thin. And it's a good thing, because the battery life on the Envy isn't great. In the most extreme situation, where it was powering the outboard DVD player and playing a movie, I could only get it to run for an hour before completely crapping out. That means no watching movies on airplanes, I'm afraid. In other less strenuous tests, the battery dwindled fast. Let me make this clear: The battery life on this baby sucks.
The DVD player connects in an ingenious way. It uses an eSATA port that doubles as a USB port. Since eSATA doesn't yet have a bus-powered spec yet, the Voodoo guys figured out a way to draw power from the USB part of the jack, while doing data i/o through the faster eSATA jack. Sood says that they actually patented this technique and that's good for Voodoo, since it's certainly bound to catch on. The little laptop even has an ExpressCard slot, which makes up for its lack of SD card reader—SanDisk makes a very nice multi-card reader for ExpressCard. It also means it won't take up a USB port to run a 3G modem, if you can get an ExpressCard version instead. As you may recall from the launch, it has a few other gimmicks, like a slightly oversized power brick that, for its bulk, contains a mini Wi-Fi router, so you can plug Ethernet directly in. It also ships with a smart HDMI-to-VGA dongle for people who want to use it in presentations but don't want to convince corporate IT dudes that HDMI is in fact a viable video standard. It also has a pseudo-multi-touch "pinch" feature like on a MacBook Air (or an iPhone), but instead of a smooth flow, I noticed it was kinda jerky. It could still come in handy, but to be honest, I am not sure how handy the Air's multi-touch is at this point. I consider all of this proof of concept for now. Speaking of the trackpad, it's supposed to lock down when you have two hands on the keyboard. I don't know if I have funny shaped hands, but from time to time, I still find the trackpad acting up while I type, executing weird app and system requests, but given the fact that I have typed an awful lot with my hands touching much of the trackpad as I went along, I can easily say the auto-safety works 99% of the time. The gimmick I am most interested in is the lightweight Linux OS called Voodoo IOS. It's the Splashtop instant-boot OS we've started to see in other places as well, and having finally sat down and played with it, I see a lot of promise. At startup, you can select to enter Windows or choose Skype, media player, web browser or photo viewer to take you into the VIOS environment. I was eager to try this out and can say that it works as billed, though I'm still divided on its ultimate practicality. It is very handy to hop into VIOS instead of launching Windows when you want to do something minor, like launch a web browser or Skype, but I am vexed by the fact that, to enter VIOS, you have to shut down Vista and reboot—rather than choose it as a reboot option from Vista. Once in VIOS, the apps have certain limitations: The Linux version of Skype can't support the built-in webcam, copying photos from a memory card to the photo browser seemed impossible (if I'm wrong I'll settle for unintuitive), and the music program worked but just made me miss iTunes. The browser was fine—a Linux version of some Mozilla variant, if I'm not mistaken. Over all, it seemed like a pretty nice Linux environment, clean and fun, with quirky interface features like a flaming Voodoo face signifying a short wait. Who knows, it may even be a fertile ground for savvier software tweakers to play around in. Update: Just got a couple of nuggets regarding VIOS/Splashtop: Its hacker friendly open-source info is here, and it's up to Voodoo (and HP) to update the Skype on the VIOS in order for the webcam to work, so get crackin' Voodoo! Voodoo IOS app walkthrough
Overall, I can safely say that this was the most satisfying experience I've had with a Vista notebook, and I've tried quite a few. Even while I was prepping this, my Mac started acting funny and I realized that if I had to switch to it full time, it would be far from disastrous. The only reason besides the questionable battery life that I am not gushing is that this laptop costs a hell of a lot of money. The fairly basic config with an 80GB 4200rpm hard drive that I tested starts at $2,450, and the 64GB SSD versions don't even kick in till $2,900. (The most barebones unit available is $2,100.) If these babies could come in even $500 lower, I could see a value proposition, but as it is, it's too high a price, especially when something this nice is still so far from perfection. [Voodoo Envy 133]