HP Spectre 13 (2017) Review

Posted on February 4, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware with 18 Comments

HP Spectre 13 (2017) Review

Refreshed in late 2017, the new HP Spectre 13 laptop is as stunning as its predecessor, and it improves on the original in a few key areas. But battery life remains problematic. And the design, while unique and attractive, will be a deal-breaker for some.

Design

The HP Spectre 13 is almost completely about the design. As such, it represents the clearest answer in the PC world to Apple’s pretty but lackluster and underpowered MacBook. But the HP isn’t in any way derivative of MacBook, or of any other laptop for that matter. It is absolutely unique.

Whether that is good or bad will depend, subjectively, on your style and taste. And, more pragmatically, on how you feel about the trade-offs that this design brings with it.

Me? I think its attractive, and very much so. This year, HP’s premium dark ash gray and copper color scheme carries over, but you can also choose a new higher-end model, which I reviewed, that comes in a ceramic white and pale gold color.

In both cases, the smudgy and overly-shiny metal accents have been dulled down nicely, negating both issues to an acceptable level. The effect is particularly nice on the white review unit, where the pale gold accents look classy, not gaudy.

I was initially nervous about the durability of the ceramic white color. It’s not real ceramic, of course, though it looks and feels like it. Instead, HP has essentially painted the aluminum and carbon fiber body bits with multiple coats using a new process. The good news? In months of use, and after a few trips during which I was not at all gentle, the white color has not dulled, stained, or scratched. It’s holding up great.

Compared to its predecessor, which was a thin and light miracle in early 2016, the new HP Spectre is, incredibly, much smaller, with smaller screen bezels on three sides and a new edge-to-edge keyboard design. It is also the same incredible thinness, 10.4 mm, as the 2016 version. Apple’s tiny MacBook is 12.5 mm thick, and Surface Laptop is 14.5 mm.

The 2016 model (back) and the newer, late-2017 model (front)

It is a hair heavier than its predecessor, however, at 2.45 pounds, a gain of .02 pounds. HP says that’s the weight of a number two pencil, and I’ll take their word for it. I assume the extra weight is at least partially the result of the new touchscreen (see below), but I never found it to be top-heavy, and its hinge is impressively stable.

The one major negative on the design—assuming, of course, you like the available color schemes—is that the wide 16:9 display is sitting on a panel that could easily accommodate a taller 3:2 display, so there’s a huge one-inch-ish bezel under the display. This bothered me more and more as I used the device, and I don’t understand why HP and other PC makers don’t move to 3:2 displays on these devices. The good news? HP had room to put the webcam where it belongs at the top of the display, unlike Dell.

That bezel is just too big

Display

The original HP Spectre shipped with a 1080p display that lacked multi-touch capabilities, in part because it was impossible to cram the available options into the tiny frame at the time. For late 2017, touch is now standard equipment, and in a frame that is no bigger than its predecessor. Such is progress.

The 2017 model (top) and the older, 2016 model (bottom)

That said, 1080p is getting long in the tooth, and this is the only available display. I’ve love to see 2160p, if not true 4K options. As important, a brighter display would be welcome, too. Even at the highest brightness setting, the HP’s IPS display is notably dim compared to other recent laptops.

This is as far back as the display can be angled

Components and ports

With its 8th-generation Intel Core-7 processor, the HP Spectre 13 is, in many ways, a new kind of PC: Until Intel upped its game to these quad-core wonders, the market for thin and light PCs was served exclusively by less powerful dual-core chips.

There’s no discrete graphics option here, so testing the system for gaming performance doesn’t make a ton of sense. But the Spectre delivered a very respectable result on my video encoding test, in which I use Handbrake to convert the 4K video Tears of Steel to a high-quality 1080p format. It did so in 1:09, a time that was beat out only by a handful of far more powerful (and dGPU-laden) portable PCs, the Dell XPS 15 (2017, in 54:29) and the Microsoft Surface Book 2 (1 hour). That is impressive.

Of course, this performance comes with a price: As noted below, battery life is pretty terrible. And the thinness of the device requires bottom-mounted vents, meaning that you’ll be hearing some fan noise under heavy load. It’s especially bad if you ever use the device on a non-flat surface, like a bed, because the vents need to be clear for adequate cooling.

The HP Spectre 13 can be had with 8 GB of LPDDR3 RAM and 256 GB of storage. There are no other options there.

From a communications standpoint, the Spectre packs modern componentry, with Intel 802.11ac (2×2) Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 capabilities. And HP says that it changed the internal antenna placement to maximize performance. I never experienced any connectivity issues.

Externally, the HP mimics its predecessor, with one USB-C port and two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports; yes, it can drive two 4K displays at 60 Hz. But there is no other expansion—no full-sized USB port or even an SD card reader—so you’ll want to bring a few dongles along if you’ll be away from home for any amount of time. HP provided three in the box, which is nice: USB 3 (full-sized), HDMI, and Ethernet, but I believe only the first of those is included in the retail box.

The only other hole in the device is the headphone jack, which is situated on the back left, on the same rear-end gold piece on which the USB ports are located. In related news, HP moved the speakers to above the keyboard to accommodate its new edge-to-edge design. They did keep the same nice-looking speaker grill design, which I like, thanks to its attractive, high-end look. The sound is decent, too, considering the thinness of the device. It’s crisp and clear, but it doesn’t get very loud.

There is also a TrueVision HD IR Camera that supports Windows Hello facial recognition.

Finally, it’s worth noting that HP bundles a nice white 65-watt USB-C power cord, which can be sized to two lengths, thanks to its mid-stream power brick. The color and adaptability are both nice touches.

Keyboard and touchpad

Despite its diminutive size and the smallish wrist-rest that its design necessitates, the Spectre 13 provides a surprisingly solid typing experience, with 1.3 mm of key travel and pleasant, clacky performance. This is especially surprising when you consider that I’m a large person with big hands: If I can be productive with this keyboard, and I was, I suspect it will be a joy for most.

But there is one issue: The Spectre places the Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys in a row on the right side of the keyboard, and I found myself mistyping by hitting those keys when I usually expect others keys (Backspace, \, Enter, and so on) to be there. You might get used to it, but I never did. Some, too, will not like the split arrow key layout, with the Up and Down arrow keys together occupying the space of a single key. But this layout is common; even the much larger Surface Book 2 utilizes it.

The glass touchpad is excellent, and it’s just the right size in this age of ever-bigger touchpads. That said, it’s not a precision touchpad, so you have to deal with an old-fashioned Synaptics control panel. I’d prefer to see HP adopt the Windows 10 standard here.

Battery

If there is one area in which the Spectre’s small size betrays you, it’s battery life: I saw just under 5 and a half hours in my HD video streaming over Wi-Fi test. That’s the second-worst result I’ve seen since I started keeping detailed records in early 2017. Only the portable workstation-class Dell XPS 15 (early 2017), with 5 hours of battery life, fared worse on this test. By comparison, Surface Laptop provided over 13 hours of battery life on the same test.

It’s not hard to understand why the Spectre 13’s battery life trails those of the competition: It’s incredibly thin, and there simply isn’t that much room for batteries. But I’m not a fan of this design choice if it impacts uptime by that much. 5.5 hours just isn’t acceptable in 2018.

To be fair, every product design represents a compromise, a set of trade-offs in which certain features are promoted over others. And the goal here was to deliver at the thinnest, lightest, and most attractive possible design. HP certainly achieved that. But it also added fast change technology to the Spectre so that it can achieve 50 percent battery life in just 30 minutes. That does soften the blow somewhat.

Software

The Spectre 13 ships with Windows 10 Home. In addition to the unwelcome crap that comes with Windows 10, HP adds a surprising number of system utilities for such things as audio, e-printing (?), system recovery and media creation, driver downloads, documentation, and for learning how to use Windows 10. There’s also some real crap, like McAfee Live Safe. It’s not horrible overall, but I’d like to see less. Better, I’d like to see HP embrace the ideals of Microsoft’s Signature PC program.

Pricing and configurations

HP sells two basic Spectre 13 models.

First up is an entry-level version with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 256 GB of storage and the dark ash silver color for $1300. For $100 more, or $1400, you can upgrade to a Core i7 processor and the ceramic white color. The review unit is the higher-end model.

Recommendations and conclusions

Like Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, the HP Spectre 13 is a premium laptop that makes more of an emotional case than a rational one.

But the compromises here are different. Where Surface Laptop has an excellent 3:2 PixelSense display, the HP sports a less compelling 16:9 1080p panel. Where Microsoft under-delivers with a single USB 3.0 port and miniDisplayPort, HP provides 3 USB-C ports and Thunderbolt 3 capabilities. Surface Laptop features high-quality Alcantara fabric on its keyboard deck, but the Spectre 13 can be had with an even more premium ceramic-style paint job. Surface Laptop has much better battery life, but HP provides much better performance. But Surface Laptop is bigger and heavier. On and on it goes.

With identical starting prices of $1300, it’s a tough choice. (The MacBook also starts at $1300, but it is far less powerful and expandable.) So which you choose may come down to your subjective opinion of their respective styles and your more pragmatic needs. For me, the larger Surface Laptop is the better choice, despite its expansion limitations. But those who are more fashion-forward will love the HP Spectre 13. It’s a beautiful and very portable PC with surprisingly strong performance. I just wish the battery and display were a bit better.

The HP Spectre 13 is highly recommended. Just understand the compromises here and choose accordingly.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Stunning design, especially the ceramic white version
  • Thin and light
  • Incredible performance
  • Thunderbolt 3 capabilities
  • Fast charging helps overcome battery life issues
  • Excellent keyboard and touchpad

Cons

  • Poor battery life
  • Dim 1080p display with large lower bezel
  • No full-sized USB port

 

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