HP launches rival to MacBook Air

June 10, 2008, 1:42 PM UTC
The new Voodoo Envy 133 is .7 inches thin, and has a carbon fiber body strong enough to support a removable battery. Image: HP

A little more than a week ago, Rahul Sood blogged a picture that showed him cutting his birthday cake with a $1,800 MacBook Air laptop.

It’s so damn sharp, he wrote underneath, it did a fine job.

For Apple fans this was blasphemy, something like drinking Kool-Aid from the Holy Grail, and they swiftly voiced their displeasure on the web. Sood is the chief technology officer of Hewlett-Packard’s PC gaming group after all, so his cake-cutting stunt was clearly not a testament to Apple’s design prowess. While Sood claimed that a merry mix of wine, friends and a good cigar had pushed him to it, his closing statement on the offending blog entry suggested a deeper motive:

Ahh well, I wouldn’t be needing this notebook for long anyways … : ) Stay tuned for more …

Voodoo Envy 133Dimensions: .7″ thick. 9.04″ x 12.65″

Weight: 3.373 pounds

Screen: 13.3″ backlit LED

Casing: Carbon fiber, available in various Voodoo Allure paint colors

Connectivity: USB 2.0 (2), Ethernet (in power brick), HDMI, headphone/microphone, e-SATA/USB

Operating systems: Windows Vista, Voodoo IOS (Linux). Includes Lojack recovery software.

Price: Starting at $2,099

This amounted to a mischievous hint that Sood had a new product coming – and now, here it is. Today in Berlin, with Sood on hand, HP is introducing the Voodoo Envy 133, a high-fashion laptop that is HP’s answer to the MacBook Air.

While the new Envy is not as delightfully aerodynamic as the MacBook Air (this one won’t be cutting any cakes), it still cuts quite a figure. When I first saw it during a media preview, I was impressed with its clean lines and its skin made of carbon fiber, a durable material that’s more commonly seen on racecars than PCs. Sood, who founded Voodoo PC and sold it to HP two years ago, has a reputation for building high-performance computers, so the construction made perfect sense.

The laptop is part of an update to HP’s overall PC lineup that includes 17 new laptops, a new touch-screen desktop, and a flat-panel monitor that displays billions of colors. Voodoo’s computers are also getting a major update in the launch; besides the Envy laptop, there’s a new Omen desktop and more prominent display of HP gaming PCs labeled as having “Voodoo DNA.”

The new products, particularly the Envy laptop (starting at $2,099), mark a shift in how HP is approaching the PC market. Voodoo was best known for catering to the flashy tastes of gamers, but HP now wants to position it as a luxury brand within the company – something for the Lexus and Bentley crowd. “It’s going to be all about a customer who’s more demanding about technology and personalization – they want something different,” Sood says. “It’s going to be where arts and technology fuse together.”

Why would HP try to sell pretty laptops for more than $2,000 at a time like this? Because people are still willing to pay for the wow factor. Just look at Apple’s online store; the cheapest laptop Apple offers is the $1,099 MacBook, but the top seller is the $1,799 MacBook Air. The MacBook is practical, with an equal-sized screen, a faster processor and a bigger hard drive than the Air. (Plus the MacBook has a DVD drive, which the Air lacks.) Still, people are scrambling to spend 63 percent more for a less substantial computer that’s thinner and prettier – and that’s great for a PC maker’s profit margins.

HP figures two can play at that game. While the Envy 133 is bulkier than the MacBook Air (it doesn’t have the tapered look and weighs in slightly heavier at 3.37 pounds), it also includes conveniences Apple left out. The Envy has two USB ports, an HDMI port, a removable battery, and a unique feature that lets you plug an Ethernet cable into the power brick and create an instant wireless connection with the laptop. Like the Air, it uses a chip from Intel (INTC).

Most impressive, the Envy also comes preloaded with both Microsoft Windows and a custom flavor of Linux that boots up in less than five seconds to offer a browser, instant messenger and Skype. In the Linux environment, running light tasks, the Envy gets nearly 3 hours of battery life, Sood told me; in Vista, more like 2.5 hours. (This is less than the MacBook Air gets, but I give HP credit for having a removable battery.)

So should Apple worry? Probably not yet. The Envy has yet to prove it can attract the same crowd as the MacBook Air, and it’s always possible that Voodoo’s fan base will be turned off by the brand’s shift toward luxury buyers rather than gamers. But HP’s move with the Voodoo brand should certainly put rivals such as Dell , Sony , Acer, Lenovo and Toshiba on notice: There’s another sharp laptop on the block.