HP Omen Review: Voodoo DNA brings grace and style to gaming laptops

At a Glance
  • Hewlett Packard Omen

    PCWorld Rating

    HP's new Omen is a thin, 4.7-pound gaming laptop that brings back the famed Voodoo Omen brand with style and speed to spare.

Style: That’s one thing Voodoo PC had in spades before HP bought the boutique builder a few years back. In the shadow of a nationwide economic recession, consumers' appetite for high-end gaming machines went on a long pause, and Voodoo soon vanished into the vastness of HP's oceans.

Now, rising from the depths like Venus on a half-shell, HP’s new Omen laptop offers good gaming performance in a svelte body with plenty of style. Let’s not trivialize the style part: Besides a few key standouts (you know who you are), most of the gaming laptops makers today would throw panache under the bus at 45mph and then stop to back over it, if it would save them the bus fare.

That’s not so with the Omen, which grabs your attention even before you lift it from the wedge-shaped box that mimics the laptop's actual shape. Flip up the 15.6-inch screen, and the Omen gives you the illusion that the base is razor-thin and levitating a half-inch in the air.

The Omen is actually about 15.5 mm thick in front  and 19.9 mm in back. That's thin. The similarly equipped Alienware 13 is 26.3 mm in front and almost 28 mm thick in back.

hp omen back Gordon Mah Ung

With the Omen's deeply beveled sides, HP had to put the the HDMI 1.4, Mini DisplayPort 1.3, four USB 3.0 and analog audio port on the back.

Pieces of Flair

Other pieces of flair include variable lighting that lets you set the backlighting on the speakers, WASD keys, power button and three zones of the keyboard. These aren’t innovative moves, but they’re appreciated. The hinge is another thing: HP intentionally chromed the lid’s hinge and then added a color shift to the ends to give it the feel of super-heated exhaust tips. LED lights shining out the rear vents add to the atmosphere. It’s a nice touch.

HP also integrates a dedicated row of programmable functions just to the left of the keyboard. The function keys are easy to set up, but they do seem pretty limited. I couldn't easily find a way to set up deep macro functions for a long key sequence that gamers might want, such as: Hit R to reload, then pause for 400ms and then hit 1 to switch back your primary weapon. 

hp omen keyboard Gordon Mah Ung

Zones of the keyboard backlighting can be programmed to be patriotic or even French if you just reverse the color scheme.

The Hot Zone

HP said it spent an inordinate amount of time making sure the Omen could play games without sounding like an HVAC unit was parked on your desk. To do that, cool air is sucked in from the front, pulled over a chassis-wide array of bottom vents, and blown out the back. This design, HP claims, also helps keep the keyboard of the laptop cool during heavy gaming sessions.

razer blade pro thermal

You can see the distribution of heat on the Razer Blade Pro 2014 in comparison to the HP Omen after a one-hour GPU load.

I checked out that claim by taking thermal images of the top of the Razer Blade Pro (above) and the Omen (below), after both had been left looping the intro sequence for the Heaven 4.0 benchmark set to DirectX 9 “basic” mode for an hour. While the Razer Blade Pro’s top deck was almost uniformly hot, the Omen kept most of the heat toward the back of the laptop. It's actually very impressive cooling when you consider how small and thin this laptop is.

hp omen thermal

The Omen's cooling system does a fair job of keeping the keyboard and palm rests cool even after one hour of gaming.

Pure luxury

Some of the choices HP made are simply luxury, though. Gamers don’t need touchscreens, but the Omen has a ten-point touch digitizer over its display. The 15.6-inch panel itself is an IPS screen that HP rates at a 72-percent color gamut. I found no glaring weaknesses in color banding nor other issues after running it through a few test patterns. Light leakage was also fairly well contained.

The 1920x1080 resolution may seem low in the age of 4K laptops, but HP says it kept the resolution at a pedestrian one to reduce power consumption. Also, HP said, most gamers don’t play above 1920x1080 resolution even if the monitor supports it.

hp omen bottom

The bottom of the Omen is vented to pull air along the bottom and exhaust it out the rear.

Also in the luxury pile is the 16GB of DDR3/1600 and the 512GB M.2 SSD. We’re not complaining about either in the unit, but it does push up the price. The M.2 is a welcome change, as the newer storage interface finally breaks the mSATA limit on laptops that we've lived with for the last few years. The Samsung M.2 unit, for example, in the Omen gave me read and write speeds of 746MB/s and 671MB/s compared to the 496MB/s reads and 254MB/s writes of the mSATA drive in the Razer Blade Pro.

hp omen crystaldiskmarkwrite PCWorld

The M.2 drive's write in the HP Omen speed really blows out the mSATA drive in the Razer Blade Pro 2014.

As reviewed, the unit PC World received cost $2,100. HP actually has nine different builds—I’ll get into discussing which one is right to buy later. Right now the more important features of any gaming notebook are the bread and butter parts: The CPU and GPU that HP uses across the models.

hp omen hinge1 Gordon Mah Ung

The Omen features a chromed hinge with a color shift near the end to simulate an exhaust pipe.

Bread and butter

For compute grunt HP picks a quad-core Intel Core i7 4710HQ part using Intel's Haswell micro-architecture. More importantly for a gaming notebook are the graphics, which are handled by a GeForce GTX 860M. To keep us confused, Nvidia actually makes two different versions of the 860M. One uses the older Kepler architecture, while the one in the HP features the more power-friendly and faster Maxwell architecture. HP also makes the Omen available with either 2GB or 4GB of RAM for the GPU.

To see what the Omen was made of, I compared it to the 2014 model of the Razer Blade Pro. Spec for spec, the two gaming laptops are very close, with the 17-inch Razer Blade Pro featuring one step down CPU and the same Maxwell-based GeForce GTX 860M, albeit with 2GB of RAM onboard.

I ran both through 3DMark, Tomb Raider and BioShock: Infinite. Though the Omen was slightly faster, I’d say it's a wash, with both near-even.

hp omen tombraider high PCWorld

GeForce GTX 860M 4GB vs GeForce GTX 860M 2GB: Fight! 

I could run another few benchmark graphs, but since both laptops are nearly identical in specs, it's not going to change much. But if you want another chart as proof, here it is. 

hp omen bioshock high PCWorld

The HP Omen is technically faster than the Razer Blade Pro 2014 but we still call this a tie.

More good news: There's no sign of GPU or CPU throttling from either the HP Omen or Razer Blade Pro. 

Why 4GB of video card RAM?

The beefy 4GB on the graphics card is probably questionable for most of today's games, as it doesn't give you much actual performance advantage. Generally video card RAM helps only at higher resolutions or with crazy amounts of anti-aliasing.

And that's an issue for the HP Omen. The GeForce GTX 860M is probably best running at 1080p resolution with most games at high, or slightly lower depending on your threshold for sub-60-fps rates. If the laptop actually had a higher-resolution screen where you might need the larger frame buffer, you couldn't drive the game at acceptable frame rates with this GPU.

hp omen tombraider ultimate PCWorld

The HP Omen and its GeForce GTX 860M are best kept to 1080p and high quality setttings or lower unless you like to play today's graphically intense games at 38 fps.

When I set BioShock: Infinite and Tomb Raider to maximum image quality, the frame rates on both laptops dropped to the mid-40s. That's not bad, but the general rule for gamers is to play at 60 fps or higher for the best immersion. The one caveat on RAM in a GPU is the expectation that with consoles' large frame buffers, PC games may also start to use more graphics memory.

This made me wish HP had some how stuffed the next-level GPU into the Omen: An Nvidia GeForce GTX 870M. Afterall, that's the GPU Razer was able to shoehorn into it's incredibly thin (17.8 mm) Razer Blade notebook. Performance tests I've seen put that GPU about 20 to 30 percent faster than the GTX 860M.

The only problem with that wish is the 870M's architecture— still the older Kepler, not the newer Maxwell architecture. Such a change would come at the expense of heat and battery life. I haven't tested a Razer Blade, but considering the thermals on the larger Razer Blade Pro, I'd bet it's great in winter.

hp omen lid pattern

The top texture tends to attract finger prints but at least it looks nice.

Not bad gaming battery life

Gaming and battery life don't mix well, but Haswell helps. I ran a standard PC Mark 8 Home Conventional run down test and saw the Razer Blade Pro 14 actually fare a little better than the Omen, with a score of 9345 vs. the Omen's 8376. But here's the shocker: The Razer Blade Pro 2014's battery is 78Wh versus the Omen's 58Wh. Both screens were set at 130 nits.

Because both are likely to be bought as primarily gaming notebooks, I performed a gaming run-down test versus PC Mark 8's mix of video chat, browsing, photo editing and casual gaming. I decided to loop Heaven 4.0 set to the basic mode.

The Razer Blade Pro 2014 ran out of gas just after an hour. Not great. The Omen, however, continued to run another 45 minutes. That basically means the HP Omen should be good for a solid flight from San Francisco to Los Angeles or a commuter train trip, but you'll need external power for a transcontinental flight. Overall it's not bad gaming run time for the size and weight.

hp omen gaming runtime PCWorld

The HP Omen's battery life while looping Heaven 4.0 set to DX9 mode is certainly better than the Razer Blade Pro 2014.

The CPU also matters

To gauge CPU performance, I ran both units through a Handbrake encoding task, where a 30GB file is transcoded down to a file that can be played on an Android tablet. The Omen is slightly faster, along with its CPU, and both will easily eat any dual-core CPU in thread-heavy tasks. Do you need a quad-core CPU with Hyper-Threading in a gaming laptop? That's debatable, but I don't believe in the 100-percent gamer. With transcoding video practically a mainstream chore for people who obtain video from different sources, the extra cores and Hyper-Threading are worth it. 

hp omen handbrake

There's a 100MHz difference between the CPUs in the HP Omen and Razer Blade Pro 2014 and you can see the impact on this CPU-intensive encoding task.

A welcome return...

Overall HP's new gaming laptop is one worthy of the Omen name. It offers bags of style and reasonable gaming performance in a thin and fairly cool chassis. Decked out with the larger 4GB of GPU RAM, 16GB of RAM and 512GB of SSD storage, it's even reasonably priced at $2,100 compared to other notebooks in its class.

If I were buying the Omen though, I'd probably opt for the build with 2GB of video card RAM, 8GB of DDR3/1600 and the 512GB SSD for $1,800, instead of this jam-packed version.

hp omen front Gordon Mah Ung

HP's new Omen marks the return of Voodoo DNA to a gaming laptop.

As someone who watched Voodoo PC grow from a fledgling PC company to a recognized player in the boutique market, I was sad to see it fade away, instead of flourishing like Alienware did after the Dell buyout. The HP Omen, however, gives me hope.

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At a Glance
  • PCWorld Rating

    HP's new Omen is a thin, 4.7-pound gaming laptop that brings back the famed Voodoo Omen brand with style and speed to spare.

    Pros

    • Runs mostly cool to the touch even when gaming.
    • Surprisingly reasonably priced for its class.

    Cons

    • Sexy laptop paired with the equivalent of pants pulled up over waist in power bricks. It's literally a power brick.
    • Finger print magnet lid.
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