HP Spectre x360 13.5 Review

Posted on August 22, 2022 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 11 with 13 Comments

The HP Spectre x360 13.5 takes everything that was right about its near-perfect predecessor, improves on the design, and adds some terrific hybrid work smarts. The result is yet another near-perfect premium convertible PC that targets creators broadly.

Design

With the new Spectre x360 13.5, HP is moving away from the sharp, diamond-cut edges of its previous-generation design language, and the resulting changes should be a lot less polarizing. Where the Spectre x360 14 offered a striking but controversial design, the new (and renamed) version offers a curvier, softer, and less aggressive face to the world.

I liked the previous angular design quite a bit, and still do. But I think the revamped Spectre x360 13.5 strikes the right balance and will appeal to a wider range of users. HP wisely carries over the most useful elements of the previous design—the rear corners are still cut at a 45-degree angle, providing out-of-the-way access to a combo headphone/microphone jack on the left and a USB-C/power port on the right—while improving the aesthetics across the board.

Where the Spectre x360 14 was all hard edges and angles, the Spectre x360 13.5 is all curves. Even those back corners have subtle curves to them, and on the sides and front corners you will see and touch the most often, those curved edges are more subjectively more attractive and objectively more comfortable.

And whatever your stance on the design changes, HP still offers two two-tone color schemes with contrasting dark body and light accent colors that really differentiate from the competition. (Or you can get a plain silver color if you don’t like nice things.) The review unit came in a striking Nightfall Black with Copper Luxe accents that I find particularly attractive.

As important, the Spectre x360 13.5 is, as its name suggests, a convertible PC, meaning that you can flip the display around and use it in a variety of form factors for any number of reasons. Artists and notetakers will appreciate this capability because the Spectre can be used like a tablet with the bundled smartpen. But this transforming feature is also useful for watching media, giving a presentation in a small room, and other use cases.

Display

Like its predecessor, the Spectre x360 13.5 offers a choice of 13.5-inch 3:2 display panels, and this size and aspect ratio is ideal for a productivity-focused laptop that can also be used as a tablet. And as before, there are both Full HD+ (1920 x 1280) IPS and UWVA (3000 x 2000) OLED display panel options, both with 400 nits of brightness, plus a 1000-nit HP Sure View Reflect Full HD+ option for the privacy-minded.

The review unit came with the OLED panel, which is a nice step up for media, but I’d probably opt for a Full HD+ panel were I configuring this for myself: it would cost less and would deliver better battery life. And perhaps more to the point, playing videos on a PC is very much a secondary activity for me. Though I appreciate the rich colors and perfect blacks of OLED as much as anyone, I guess. I mean it is gorgeous.

Internal components

With its 12th-generation Core chipsets, Intel is finally taking on Arm in a meaningful way by offering a hybrid design with both performance and efficiency cores in its mainstream, best-selling products. It has also confusingly expanded the range with a new 28-watt P-series of chipsets sitting between the previous norm, the 15-watt U-series, and the more performance-oriented 56-watt H-series chips.

To date, most of the laptops I’ve reviewed this year have been based on P-series chips where, in all cases (I believe), previous-generation designs utilized the more pedestrian and battery-efficient U-series chips. And I’ve seen some weirdnesses that other reviewers aren’t calling out: performance irons out over time, but it’s often lackluster at first, and battery life is generally worse than before.

The new Spectre x360 13.5 is the first portable I’ve received for review that utilizes a 12th-Gen U-series chipset, and so I was naturally curious to see how this experience differs, both from its predecessor and from the P-series PCs I’ve been reviewing this summer.

It’s mixed.

As in my early usage of the Spectre, the performance was sometimes bad enough that I had trouble accurately moving the cursor between characters in Word documents with the arrow keys. But, as with the P-series PCs I used, this cleared up over time. And in typing this review, on the Spectre, of course, I see no such issues anymore.

But battery life, as noted in more detail below, is about as good as with the previous-generation Spectre and is noticeably and measurably better than that of the P-series-based Pavilion 14 Plus that I reviewed recently. That is, perhaps, the better comparison since both of these system feature bright OLED displays.

Why other reviewers aren’t pointing out these types of observations is unclear: I understand that most rely on artificial benchmarks to measure performance and battery life, but surely they are using the PCs they review, too. And it’s impossible not to notice the performance issues in real-world use. All I can do, I guess, is continue to report what I experience.

Anyway, HP aims the Spectre x360 at creators, but thanks to its U-series innards with integrated graphics, those creators will want to stick with lighter tasks—writing, note-taking, drawing, and the like—rather than video editing or other more demanding workloads. And that’s pretty much where I land, though I did some light video editing for Eternal Spring with Adobe Premiere Elements without any complaints. Aside from the initial and temporary issue noted above, everything worked as expected.

Processor choices, as noted, are limited to 12th Gen Intel Core U-series chipsets, more specifically a Core i5-1235U or a Core i7-1255U, depending on the configuration. The Spectre can also be configured with 8, 16, or 32 GB of RAM and 512 GB, 1 TB, or 2 TB of PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD storage. The review unit features a Core i7-1255U processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 1 TB of storage.

I never experienced any undue noise or heat issues, and using it on a soft surface like a bed only triggered the mildest of fan noise.

Connectivity

Connectivity is modern, with Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2. But there’s no cellular connectivity, even as an option.

Ports and expansion

The Spectre x360 13.5 offers the same minimal port selection as its predecessor, but with a few changes.

On the left, you will find a single full-sized USB-A port with 5 Gbps of data throughput, and, if you look around the corner at the back left angled corner, a combo headphone/microphone jack. (I had sort of hoped that HP would put another USB-C port there, but at least that corner is being used now. It was empty on the Spectre x360 14.)

And on the right, there are two Thunderbolt 4/USB-C ports, one of which is on the angled back right corner, and an SD card reader that’s slower than the version in the previous Spectre x360 for some reason.

Generally speaking, I prefer to see USB-C ports on both sides of a portable PC, but HP’s approach here is a reasonable alternative because the angled USB-C port on the rear right corner will at least get the charging cable out of the way. So I have no major complaints, though the lack of a dedicated HDMI port—understandable given the PC’s small design—may be challenging to some.

Audio and video

Like other PC makers, HP has invested in adapting its PCs for the realities of hybrid work, and the biggest improvements in the Spectre x360 reflect these changes: this year, we see major updates to the system’s webcam and microphones that, combined with new and improved software, significantly improve the performance of Zoom, Teams, and other remote calls and meetings. Or, as HP puts it, the Spectre x360 13.5 is HP Presence certified.

In real-world terms, that means a 5 MP front-facing webcam instead of the lackluster 720p unit from the previous generation product so you can be seen more clearly, directional beam-forming microphones so you can be heard more clearly, and quad speakers for better sound. There are significant new AI software smarts, like auto framing to follow you as you move around and automatic backlighting and low light adjustments, plus an optional appearance filter you can enable if desired. And dynamic voice leveling and bidirectional AI noise reduction to silence barking dogs and the like.

On paper, the webcam improvements beat what most of the industry is providing in their premium business-class offerings: where most premium laptops are now switching to Full HD webcams, the webcam in the Spectre offers over double that resolution. But in real-world use, it appears to offer similar video quality to the Full HD webcams I used most recently in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga. Indeed, you can see the results in the last two episodes of Windows Weekly: the August 10 episode was recorded using the X1 Carbon while the August 17 episode was recorded on the Spectre.

But HP’s AI-assisted audio and video enhancements make a big difference, too. Most impressive, perhaps, is the audio work that, among other things, lets you walk around the room in which the laptop sits without the sound changing too much. In a briefing with HP, the presenter walked around the Spectre while talking, including behind the machine, and the sound quality barely changed. This is impressive stuff that will help to make hybrid meetings less like a brief prison sentence where you’re forced to sit in front of the laptop for the duration.

As noted previously, you can disable the microphone and the webcam electronically using function keys on the keyboard. This is the preferred configuration for these features.

From a multimedia perspective, the Spectre provides a reasonably good experience, especially with the OLED display option I’m using. But there are no Dolby enhancements, like Dolby Atmos immersive sound. The resulting sound mix is solid, with good stereo separation and strong volumes, but without that wide soundstage. The Spectre’s four Bang & Olufsen-tuned speakers are all bottom-firing, which is curious but perhaps helps ensure that the quality is decent no matter which usage mode the PC is contorted into. I used it mostly in laptop mode, as I suspect most will.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

HP makes my favorite portable PC keyboards, and the Spectre x360 has always been at or near the top overall. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the Spectre x360 13.5, which carries over the basic keyboard design of its predecessor, is top-notch. As before, it offers quiet, snappy performance with short key throws and a great typing feel.

There is, however, one downside to the new design. Where the Spectre x360 14 offered that useful vertical column of Home, Pg Up, Pg Dn, and End keys on the right that I love so much, the Spectre x360 13.5 does not. And this triggered some questions on my part: are the keys on the new PC a bit bigger perhaps, or is it a bit less wide than its predecessor? No: the keys are the same size, as is the width of each PC. Instead, the keyboard on the Spectre x360 13.5 no longer extends to the edges of the keyboard deck as it did previously. Instead, there is a half-inch gap on either side now.

I can only speculate what happened here. And while I might have originally guessed that the thinness and/or curved sides of the Spectre x360 13.5 made it impossible to keep that column of keys, I see that HP is removing it on other updated PCs this year too. This is unfortunate: accessing those functions with dedicated keys is much easier than using cramped keyboard shortcuts (Fn + Left Arrow for Home, for example.) Boo.

In the good news department, the Spectre x360 13.5 continues to offer camera shutter and microphone mute buttons in its function row, which is how I prefer these functions to be handled. Other premium PCs, many of which are more expensive than the Spectre, still use hard-to-see and manual camera shutters. HP also replaced the HP Command Center key with a new configurable key that can be used to run one to four different HP utilities (including Command Center).

Though the keyboard deck on the Spectre x360 13.5 is about identical to that of its predecessor, the precision touchpad—like the wrist rests—is significantly bigger because HP has pushed the keyboard back further than before. This isn’t an improvement: the touchpad’s palm rejection functionality is too easily fooled even after disabling three- and four-finger gestures. And I suffered from more mistaken touches than I’d like.

Finally, HP bundles a color-matched HP Rechargeable MPP [Microsoft Pen Protocol] 2.0 Tilt Pen with every Spectre x360 13.5. This is a full-sized smartpen, and not a stylus, so it’s easier to use but has no real storage and could be easily lost as well. It seems quite capable, offers 30 days of battery life, and USB-C charging, and it comes with three pen tips. I don’t do a lot with pens one way or the other, but I did some quick doodles in Microsoft Whiteboard, and this should meet the needs of notetakers or artists.

Portability

I used the Spectre extensively over the past four weeks, and on the 4- to 5-hour plane rides to and from Mexico City on a recent trip. It was immediately obvious that I wasn’t going to have the same battery life issues that I had with that Pavilion: indeed, after using it during most of the flight to Mexico City, I still had about 50 percent battery life. And I even edited and exported a (very short) video on the way home in addition to my normal writing tasks.

These are the kinds of positive experiences I’m looking for when I review a laptop and I took multiple notes over the review timeline that mention the battery life in a flattering light. But in real-world terms, it looks like I averaged just over 7 hours on a charge, which is excellent given the OLED display. The normal Full HD+ panel would likely provide about an hour more.

At 11.73 x 8.68 x 0.67 inches and just under 3 pounds, the Spectre x360 13.5 is almost identical in size and weight to its predecessor, and while it’s a bit on the heavy side, it disappeared nicely into my laptop bag and was a great travel companion. HP even includes a protective sleeve with each Spectre, so you can protect it further if desired. (And the sleeve even has a place for the smartpen, which is nice.)

Charging is likewise mostly unchanged since the 2020 version: the bundled 65-watt USB-C power supply can charge the Spectre’s 4-cell, 66-watt-hour batter to 50 percent of capacity in about 45 minutes.

Security

The Spectre x360 13.5 comes with Windows Hello facial recognition and fingerprint recognition built in. The fingerprint reader is on the keyboard, rather than on the wrist rest, and it is fast and reliable.

Software

HP continues to bog down its consumer and prosumer offerings with far too much bloatware: there are 15 HP- and OMEN-branded utilities, third-party utilities like Alexa, Concepts, and Duet (for using an iPad as a secondary display), some Intel and Bang & Olufsen utilities, and at least three of those hard-to-remove website links in the Start menu (Adobe offers, Bing, Lastpass). This isn’t right, certainly not at this price point, making it hard to separate the useful from the superfluous.

Pricing and configurations

The Spectre x360 is available in three colors—Natural Silver, Nightfall Black, and Nocturne Blue—and starts at $1250 for a configuration with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, 512 GB of storage, and a Full HD+ multitouch display. But since 8 GB is not a viable, future-proof configuration, I strongly recommended upgrading to 16 GB of RAM, which raises the price to a still reasonable $1310.

HP also sells Core i7-based configuration, including a 16 GB/512 GB version with a privacy screen display for $1510 and a 32 GB/1 TB configuration with a Full HD+ display for $1690. The high-end Best Buy configuration with a Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, 1 TB of storage, and a Full HD+ OLED display that HP sent for review is $1750.

Recommendations and conclusions

The HP Spectre x360 has always been one of my favorite premium convertible PCs. But this year’s version is the best yet thanks to its less polarizing design and a major upgrade to its hybrid work functionality. Combine that with its versatile form factor, some solid display panel choices, and the right mix of performance and battery life, and you can see why this is a PC—despite the bloatware issues—that I can easily recommend to almost anyone.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Gorgeous, versatile design with nice color options
  • Terrific 3:2 display choices
  • High-quality webcam, microphones, and speakers
  • The right blend of performance and battery life
  • Includes a smartpen and a protective sleeve

Cons

  • Too many HP utilities, too much bloatware
  • No more dedicated Home, Pg Up, Pg Dn, and End keys

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