While I started my computing age with an Intel 386DX, my actual, first custom rig way back in 1998 was a Super 7 board (DFI P5BV3+, later on K6BV3+) packed with AMD K6-2 350MHz processor, and -prophesying their future merge- an ATI Rage Pro 8MB. I then moved on to a series of Athlon processors, starting, with a T-Bird, an AthlonXP, up to the penultimate Athlon 64 3000+
..and after that I went rogue to the Intel side, starting with a Pentium M 740 inside a BenQ Joybook 5200G. That was back in 2007 I think?
Anyway, since the introduction of the first Ryzen CPU, AMD’s ZEN architecture has been revolutionizing the custom, DIY desktop computing industry, freeing consumers with significant jump in performance every time they introduce new CPUs, compared to intel’s way of trickling improvement between generations.
Unfortunately, due to priorities, I can no longer allocate thousands of USD (tens of millions in IDR) to constantly upgrade my personal rig (currently a i7-6700, GTX1080, built way back in 2016). You know, adulting happens. However, I do need an upgrade from my X230.
With the introduction of the Renoir series of mobile processors this year, AMD is aiming to further assert their technological dominance into mobile computing market, one that has seen Intel unchallenged since early 2000. The Ryzen Mobile 4000H and U series have been wiping the floor, taking the top performance crown while also being better at Performance per Dollar ratio and surprise surprise.. power consumption.
Unfortunately, actually picking up an AMD Renoir laptop has not been an easy task to accomplish, and it’s not about the money. The options are pretty limited as major notebook computer makers have been relegating the 4000 series Ryzen to the form of gargantuan mid-end gaming notebooks (Asus TUF and ROG series, Lenovo Legions, MSI Bravos), or chunky, 14 inch low entries. If you want a compact sub 14 inch laptop, your only options are basically limited Lenovo ThinkPad X13, or the one that I got, HP ENVY X360 13. To make things even worse, the production of Ryzen mobile chips in Q4 2020 has to compete with another AMD stablemates, Ryzen chips that power the new Sony PlayStation 5 and Microsoft XBox Series X|S which surely will be in high demand comes holiday season, causing stock scarcity and delivery delays.
HP ENVY X360-13
The X360 branding will tell you straight away that this is part of HP’s convertible, 2-in-1 line that you can use either in traditional laptop form, or in tablet mode, by rotating the keyboard part 360 degree behind the screen part of the laptop. I was lucky enough to grab the last remaining unit of R7 4700U equipped Envy X360 from a local store here in Indonesia. And after a couple of days of waiting, it arrived safely. Mine comes with an HP tilt-pen which I have yet to try. HP’s ENVY line up is sort of an economy version of the upper scale SPECTRE series. But when I say “economy”, what I’m actually trying to say is “luxurious”. The ENVY X360 is probably the most deluxe looking notebook that packs AMD’s Renoir to date.
While I have been running Compaq (yes, old) and HP (Now HPE) servers and storages where I work, The Envy X360-13 is actually the first HP computing product ever in my household as even for printer I choose Epson, and oddly, Canon so I’m not accustomed to how HP made their laptops.
In any case, the ENVY X360-13 is physically stunning, and It’s crazy thin that HP has to resort to this awful doodad that is so friggin hard to use, just to equip it with USB-A ports:
You will find one of these hellish apparatus on the left side of the laptop, accompanied with a USB 3.2 USB-C port that you can also use to charge the laptop, and a 3.5mm headphone-mic combo jack. The thing is so hard to use that I’d rather scourge my backpack for my Vention USB-C dongle rather than trying to plug something into the terrible contraption. On the right side you’ll find another one of this nightmarish abomination, along with a microSD card reader and a barrel plug to stick the tiny power adapter when you want to charge the notebook. Speaking of charging, You can use the USB-C port to replenish your battery as well.
The downside of this deluxe treatment is that dismantling the unit would be very difficult, especially since I’m coming from ThinkPad X230, which is crazy customizable with every single part you can buy on AliExpress. Also, the only parts that you can upgrade are the NVME SSD and wifi adapter as the RAM is soldered down. Keep it mind, that the only other 13 inch option, the ThinkPad X13 features (yuck) soldered RAM module as well.
The ENVY is equipped with an 1080p IPS touch panel that is gorgeous when you use it indoor. It’s also super reflective that I need to consider my seating position to avoid overhead lighting reflecting on my screen. This is not a problem with my X230 with its’ business-savvy matte display. On the other hand, 1080p is perfect for the size, as I don’t see the point of having higher resolution than 1080p on a 13 inch screen as larger resolution consumes more power, and you can’t really tell the difference in that small screen anyway. The keyboard is not bad, the keys are a bit stiff, but usable. it’s just that I’ve been using ThinkPad X230 which to me, is peak notebook keyboard. On the keyboard you’ll also find the button to engage the camera cover with an indicator that lights up when the camera is disabled. The 720p camera is terrible, but it will serve its’ purposes when it has to.
The rest of my notes regarding the ENVY X360-13 looks like this :
- There is no driver for the Synaptic Fingerprint Sensor
- No Right Ctrl button, which is essential if you’re running Virtualbox or VMWare’s VMRC. You can of course map it to other button.
- No sleep/hibernate light indicator on outer shell of the laptop so you can’t tell whether it has finished entering hibernation or sleep when you close the lid.
- Power button is integrated to the keyboard that gets disabled when you switch the laptop to tablet mode. Which means, if you want to force shutdown the ENVY while in tablet mode, you have switch back to laptop position first.
- Same thing goes with the camera shutter button
- No dedicated display/HDMI ports. The package however, include an HDMI and USB-A port combo dongle
- No Ethernet port, not even a dongle
All in all, there are definitely some downgrade from my X230 such as the keyboard, external notification LED and the reflective screen, but overall the ENVY is a pleasure to use.
But does it run Linux?
Yes, and mighty impressively I might add. Support for Renoir is baked into Linux kernel 5.8, which is what the newly released Ubuntu 20.10 comes with. Almost everything works out of the box, including touch screen gestures and the usually annoying screen brightness function keys. Screen rotation however, does not work, and as usual Ubuntu does not recognize when the notebook is switched to tablet mode. Hibernate works well if you follow the tutorial here. Battery life is acceptable for a linux notebook, ranging between 5-8 hours, a number that requires a combo of 3 cells and 6 cells batteries to achieve with my old ThinkPad X230. One issue that I encounter frequently is that the sound output device is being replaced with “Dummy output” at boot up. This is resolved by restarting pulseaudio. I created a script:
#!/bin/bash pulseaudio -k
..and put it in my startup application.
What about Ryzen 4000U?
It’s a mighty impressive chip. I can easily fires up 2 VMs simultaneously without breaking a sweat while on-the-go, on battery, while doing so with the X230 would tax the system heavily. As a simple comparison, I decided to run Geekbench 5 on a couple of machines around the house. Here are the contenders:
|R7 4700U, 16GB
|8 cores, 8 threads
|Ubuntu 20.10, Kernel 5.8
|6 cores, 12 threads
|Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, Kernel 5.9.1
|4 cores, 8 threads
|Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, Kernel 5.4
|Exynos 990, 8GB
|8 cores, 8 threads
|Android 10, Kernel 4.19
|2 cores, 4 threads
|Ubuntu 18.04 LTS, Kernel 4.15
|2 cores, 4 threads
|EOS Juno, Kernel 4.15
|4 cores, 4 threads
|Ubuntu 20.04 LTS, Kernel 5.4
..And here are the result:
As you can see, I really do need to replace my on-the-go notebook, as even my phone is faster than the X230. Keep in mind that this is only from a single benchmark and it doesn’t paint the whole picture. As you can see, the 15W R7 4700U is now the most powerful processor in my household, with only the 45W i7-9750H surpasses it in single core benchmark by a very small margin. Neat!