HP HDX18 vs HDX20 Notebook review

I have recently been under the spell of an unreliable notebook, and it's put the brakes on productivity, big time. Unfortunately, with top-of-the-line gear, you can't just rush out and grab a new one when things go wrong - you have to go through the proper support procedures, which takes time.

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My old notebook, a Hewlett Packard HDX9108TX 20" notebook has been replaced with a HDX18-1013TX - the massive 20" models have been phased out in favour of smaller 16" and 18" units.

I'm in a unique position to be able to comment on both, so I thought I would share my thoughts.

Other reviews

It's worth noting that I read extensive reviews on both notebooks - and pretty much all of them missed the mark. Reviewers get sidetracked by flashing lights and impressive specs, but miss those everyday finer touches that make or destroy the experience.

The 20" Beast

Let's talk about the 20" monster. The HDX series is all about 'entertainment' - the big screen, big sound, and vast array of plugs that connect it to pretty much anything. I loved the double-hinged screen, the 5.1 output jacks, the dual hard drives, and the fairly decent graphics card. Overall though, I felt there were too many annoyances that should not have been there, and have largely been fixed in the newer model.

The 18" little sister

A bit smaller, a lot more portable, a bit more user-friendly about sums up this model. It lacks the impact of the big beast, but is better in basically every other aspect.

The Screen

The 20" model has a double hinged screen - everyone is impressed by this, and they should be. The screen is big, bright, and you can pull it closer and tilt it to watever angle you like. There is so much to love about the screen. While the screen isn't full HD1080 like the 18" model, it's well decent at 1680x1050, and I'd take this screen anyday.

The 18" model is 16:9 ratio rather than 16:10 like most notebooks. On the plus side, you don't get black bands across the screen when watching 16:9 movies - but that's not really a biggie, and I'd prefer to have that extra screen real estate. Having full 1080p res is cool, especially considering the notebook incorporates a Blu-ray drive.

Sound

The sound on the big beast was both wonderful, and terrible at the same time. The laptop features 4 speakers plus a sub - which means 4.1 sound. While this is cool, every review I read failed to note that 4.1 sound is not the same as 5.1 sound. When you use the default DVD software to watch a 5.1 movie, you lose the center audio channel - the one that contains all the speech from the movie.
I worked around this by loading VLC media player onto the machine, and adjusting the settings to do plain-ol' stereo sound instead. How nobody noticed this at design time, production time, or review time is beyond me.

On the plus side, the notebook has 5.1 output jacks - meaning I can plug in my lovely 5.1 Logitech speakers, and the sound is a treat. Something I have been dreadfully missing since I traded my desktop for a notebook a few years back.

Notably missing from the 18" model is the 5.1 analogue outputs - meaning my fancy Logitechs are idly stuck on 2.1 output. The notebook itself has 2.1 speakers, but to be honest, this is no less useful than the 4.1 on the 20" HDX. It's not that this is bad, jsut that I was a bit spoiled having the full 5.1 output on the old notebook.

Keyboard, touchpad

We all love a full-sized keyboard, and you would expect one on any notebook 17" or larger. The 20" keyboard was good, but marred by a half-sized right hand shift key - the key was made smaller to accommodate the arrow keys. As a programmer, I use the shift key more often than the space bar, and found myself constantly hitting the up arrow and messing up my code. Forgiveable on a compact notebook, not on this one. There was also something hot underneath where your left hand rests - I found this a little annoying as well.
The 18" HDX doesn't have either of these issues. Even better, the 18" doesn't have a remote control sitting on the left hand side taking up space and forcing your hand into a slightly uncomfortable position. The action is nice, though some other reviewers have commented that the silver keys can be a bit reflective in bright light. I really like this keyboard.

One-touch media keys

These are fucking annoying on both models, period. Other reviews with use words such as 'innovative' or 'creative' when describing these one-touch keys, and I thought that too until I actually tried using them.

To start with, on the 20", model there was an unresolved bug with them - every time you hibernated Windows, the one-touch keys would cease to work. To resolve, you had to shut down, remove the AC power and battery, then restart. Which basically means these keys were responsible for not being able to hibernate. Tech support seemed to think this was a perfectly reasonable solution, and didn't release a fix in the 12 months I owned the notebook. Thankfully, this seems to be resolved on the 18" model.

The volume control exhibits even more annoying functionality on both models - if (heaven forbid) you want to adjust the volume in a full-screen game, pressing the one-touch volume control will alt-tab you back to the Windows desktop to show you the little on-screen volume popup, and you have to manually alt-tab back into your game. Again, how did someone not notice this?

Further to that, the volume controls don't work properly until Windows is fully loaded, so if you had your music loud last night you can't turn it down a bit while all your taskbar stuff loads and beeps at you.

I'll take a plain old hardware-based volume control anyday. Just like on my old no-frills HP notebook.

The touchpads are different on both models - however both have a button for disabling the touchpad, which is the best feature ever. I hate touchpads and will carry a mouse around with me, so having the touchpad disabled when you don't need it is very cool.
On the 20" model, the touchpad was made from the same stuff as the handrest - they melded together almost seamlessly. While this looked nice, I found there to be a little more resistance on the touchpad than I was used to, and would have preferred a normal touchpad.
On the 18", they have gone with a super smooth finish that incorporates design elements from the rest of the casing. Again, it's so smooth that if there is even a tiny bit of moisture on your finger, the resistance goes up. I'd prefer a normal touchpad over this as well, but then I use a mouse 95% of the time anyway so it's not a show-stopper for me.

Grunt

Both have the same CPU. The 20" arrived with 2Gb of RAM, but I upgraded to 4Gb pretty quickly because Vista was running like a tortoise. The 18" has 4Gb as standard, good to see.
The 20" was using Vista Ultimate x64 whereas all new HP models are using 32 bit Vista - in this case Home Premium. I liked the 64 bit Windows - I had only one or 2 apps that wouldn't work for me so in my case, the problem people were complaining about wasn't really a problem.
The 18" has a better video card, and it is noticeable when gaming.

Plugs

Both models have lots of plugs. E-SATA, HDMI, Firewire, RJ-45, lots of USB, media card reader, jacks for 2x headphones, internal webcam and mic, TV tuner etc. Notably missing is a DVI output, but the HDMI plug will do this with a special adaptor. Both have a plug for a proper docking station, which I'd like to get at some stage.

Portability

Hey, guess what - the 18" model is better here! I'm big and strong, but I have to admit moving the big 20" thing around was getting a bit much. You can't buy bags for them either, and the power pack was 1.5kg by itself.
I think this is the reason why HP moved to more practical sizes - the 20" is basically a desktop without cables and I was actually finding myself moving it around more than I should have been.

I'm still having trouble finding a good bag for the 18" model, but at least I have options - I could go grab an average bag any time I liked, but I'm holding out for a good one (I like the ones where you drop the notebook in from the top rather than having to open the case right up).

Overall

All in all, I think I bought the 20" too early - HP just hadn't done enough testing to iron out the bugs, and it just didn't fulfill the promise of a top-end notebook. The 18" is more refined, and much more portable. Most of my original complaints are now gone, and in the 3 weeks I have had it, it's been nice and productive.

I'm happy to recommend the 18" model, it's a good machine for the mix of web development and light gaming that I use it for. But I won't be buying a 'first of the series' notebook again.
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Tags: hewlett packardhp