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HP Envy Leap Motion PCs give you hands-off computer control

Leap Motion is a technology that gives you a new way to interact with your computer: It tracks your fingers and hands in three-dimensional space so that you control games and apps using specific gestures. We first reviewed the Leap Motion device last year. Since then, Leap Motion has teamed up with HP to release select computers with the Leap Motion sensor built right in. We have two of these computers in the lab, and we tried them out to see how well they worked.

One is the HP ENVY Leap Motion SE 17-j160nr ($970), a touchscreen laptop with the Leap Motion sensor located below the keyboard and to the right of the touchpad. We also looked at a conventional tower desktop, the HP ENVY 700-230 ($730). This came with a special Leap Motion keyboard, which was offered instead of HP’s normal keyboard for $45 extra (less than the $80 cost of the standalone Leap Motion device), and has the sensor centered above the keys. Both computers have Windows 8.1.

The Leap Motion keyboard is also available on some other HP desktops and all-in-one PCs, including the ENVY Recline AIOs and ENVY Phoenix models, on HP’s website through its customize and buy selection.

Getting started

On each Leap Motion model, the controller comes ready to use, with drivers and software pre-installed. You'll need to set up an account to use Airspace Home, where you can get games and apps that are designed for use with Leap Motion. A few are pre-installed, and the Airspace Store offers over 190 free and paid downloadable programs that are compatible with Windows or Mac.

The programs designed for the Leap Motion are where you can best see the potential of the device. A game called Marionette Zoo, for example, lets you tilt your hands in the air to control puppets on the screen, and a shooter called Digit Duel lets you shoot weapons with a flick of your gun-shaped hand. And Google Earth, after a setting adjustment, lets you use the Leap Motion controller to zoom in and pan across the map with a simple hand push down or forward.

In some programs, interactive commands such as walk, action, or zoom might normally require a combination of mouse and keyboard, or you might need to click different icons to change into different modes. But with Leap Motion, these commands can be streamlined into smooth hand motions.

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What we found

In our tests, hand controls didn't always work smoothly on the Leap Motion. Also, each new game or app has its own set of gestures for different actions that you'll have to learn.

The infrared sensor sees a 2-foot cube of space above it, but it can get distracted by stray fingers within this view, so your cursor might jump where you didn't expect. Also, if your motions stray too far from or close to the sensor, you'll need to repeat them. This can be problematic for left-handed users on the ENVY laptop, who might need to reach across the keyboard to center their gestures above the sensor.

The ENVY desktop's sensor is above the keys, which can leave little space for gestures if your monitor and keyboard are placed closely together. It's also easy to get achy shoulders and wrists with your hands hovering in the air for long periods, though it helps to rest your elbow on the desk.

Control apps are available in the Airspace Store that can work with productivity and desktop applications that weren't designed for the Leap Motion. Some let you scroll through pages, click buttons, or control media players. Each has its own set of gestures, so you can find which program you're comfortable using. This could be helpful for those with physical limitations who have difficulty using a mouse or keyboard.

But some controls are clunky. It can take a frustratingly long time to aim the cursor at a tiny browser link, or to search for invisible touch zones in the air. Sometimes, using a mouse or touching the screen is just easier.

Also, there's no guarantee that Leap Motion can work for a program you already own. For example, the Cut the Rope game in the Airspace store is a different version than the one available in the Windows store, which works only with Leap Motion if you have a desktop control app installed. And any program that is not designed for the Leap Motion won’t incorporate the creative gestures found in the Airspace Store apps—so if you were hoping to use gun-shaped hands in your favorite first-person shooter video game, chances are you’re out of luck.

Bottom line

Leap Motion shows some great potential for new, intuitive ways to interact with our computers. But for now, it works best with only a limited selection of games and apps. Trying out the wilder gestures is fun, but if you're on a budget, we'd recommend you look for a computer without built-in Leap Motion.

—Antonette Asedillo

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