HP’s stunning new Spectre x360 is a near-perfect transforming Ultrabook, blending premium materials and solid build quality with a far more thoughtful approach to the software preload than we typically see with Windows PCs. Yes, it’s a bit thicker and heavier than less versatile PCs, but Spectre also manages to cost less than other premium PCs, making it a particularly good value.
In my ongoing quest for portable PC perfection, the HP rates very highly. Here, of course, I need to weigh my own particular needs—larger screens, excellent typing experience—with the needs of typical users, a task I approach with a mixture of dread and excitement. Very rarely do I get to recommend a PC or other device without reservation, and while the Spectre of course comes with its own caveats, the issues I’ve uncovered are minor and don’t detract from the overall value proposition.
With that in mind, let’s start with my quibbles.
First and most obviously is the weight and heft of this device compared to a growing selection of ultra-thin competitors. Compared to the Ultrabook standard—Apple’s MacBook Air—the Spectre is decidedly thicker, though oddly enough the official specifications indicate it’s a hair thinner (.63 inches vs. .68). The HP’s additional thickness comes from the screen panel, as you can see. But the HP’s screen is decidedly superior—and more versatile—than that of the Air. It is of much higher resolution—1080p (1920 x 1080 ) vs. just 1440 x 900 on the Air. It provides ten-point multitouch and active pen digitizers, both of which are missing on the Air. It can lay flat, and even swing back all the way around, allowing you to use the Spectre like a big tablet, and it does so with no obvious, protruding hinge.
More important to portability, I think is the weight. A 13-inch MacBook Air weighs in at 2.96 pounds, according to Apple, while the HP enters the ring at 3.3 pounds. That may not seem like a big difference, but it’s noticeable. I will just point out that both are equally portable when carted around in a carryon bag.
Next up is the backlighting on the keyboard. This may seem like a picky complaint, but over time it’s come to bother me a bit. The backlighting is a pure white color, which is pleasant enough. But it’s hard to see against the non-contrasty silver body and keyboard keys, so I often find myself turning it off in common lighting conditions. And when you do so, the backlighting key on the keyboard, oddly, remains lit. It’s weird, but not damning.
Thanks to the Spectre’s transforming design, it includes a tiny and thin Windows button plus two volume buttons on the thin right side of the base, which is a curious location, but one that works no matter which mode the device is in. But I had more difficulty with the power button, which is likewise tiny and found on the left side of the base, in line with the CTRL key. This is one of those things a Spectre owner would simply get used to, so no harm, no foul. But moving between multiple PCs as I do, I often had to pause a moment to remember where the power button was.
Finally, my review Spectre developed an intermittent squeak when pressing the touchpad. I doesn’t happen all the time—it’s not happening as I write this, for example—but it’s irritating when it does happen, and sounds cheap. Which of course is unlike everything else about this device. I often use a mouse with any portable PC, so this wouldn’t impact me a lot, regardless. And who knows? Maybe it was temporary.
If you’re not scared off yet—and you shouldn’t be—the Spectre x360 really delivers where it counts. As noted, this is a near-perfect transforming Ultrabook.
It starts with the design and form factor, which eschews the me-too look and feel of many previous HP designs—look! It’s … sort of … a MacBook Air—for its own unique and high quality vibe. If Apple is the BMW of computer makers, HP settles comfortably into the role of Mercedes Benz with this PC, a device that is understated and excellent and immediately and obviously of high quality.
So it’s machined of aluminum and has polished metal sides. The lid of the base is smooth, and cool to the touch, and I find myself still running my hand over its surface. Opening the lid requires a bit of attention—you can’t do it with just one hand—but because it’s the right kind of heavy, like the quality of a door or the solid steering feel of a luxury performance vehicle. It’s not loose or wobbly at all, and is instead rock solid.
HP provides two 13.3 inch display panel options for the Spectre, the 1920 x 1080 (1080p) version in my review unit and a 2560 x 1440 (QHD) option. Both are IPS panels with battery-efficient panel self-refresh (PSR) technology, and while I can’t speak to the QHD version, my review unit’s screen is bright and stunning with rich colors. On the downside, it has the reflection one now expects on Ultrabook screens. (And while I understand I’m virtually alone on this one, I’d love an even lower-resolution option as well as a matte screen.)
Looking at the keyboard, you see a typical island-style layout and nothing to indicate that there’s anything special going on. But the typing experience is top-notch and this is the first portable PC I’ve seen in years that elevates to ThinkPad quality. Is it as good as the keyboard on the ThinkPad X1 Carbon or T450s? Not quite, and of course the backlighting can be less than ideal. But it’s very close.
The Spectre often excels in the small things that make a difference, and here’s a great example. While the top row of function keys of course defaults to the media functions and other special features like keyboard backlighting, screen brightness, and volume control, this is the first PC I’ve seen that handles keyboard combinations—like ALT + F4 to close an application—correctly. On most PCs, you’d need to type ALT + FN + F4 for that to work normally. But on the HP it just works. Attention to detail.
The trackpad—sorry, clickpad—was an initial source of worry. It’s a strange-looking thing, much wider than I’ve seen on any other Ultrabook. I routinely have issues with such devices—mostly my palm hitting the thing and sending the cursor flying off on some unintended adventure that usually involves me suddenly typing in the wrong window or changing the text I’m typing to a heading style. Not so with the HP. Yes, I still prefer a mouse, and yes, it’s fair to say that the MacBook Air is still the trackpad standard. But this is the single best PC clickpad I’ve ever used. I can actually use this thing.
The battery life is a revelation. In my HD video playback tests using Xbox Video, the HP delivered almost 12 hours of life on average. More anecdotally but more important, I think, the Spectre withstood lengthy flights—Boston to Puerto Rico, Boston to Denver—with aplomb, barely using up half the battery in a mix of productivity work and video playback.
Expansion is excellent, with three full-sized USB 3.0 ports, each of which can charge devices when the PC is off. It has a full-sized HDMI port as well as miniDisplayPort for video out, and an SD card reader. (I’d prefer microSD.) What it’s lacking is Ethernet, so you’ll need to snag a USB adapter and use up one of those ports, which I think is an acceptable trade-off.
The performance of my review unit—which shipped with a 2.2 GHz Core i5-5200U processor with Intel HD Graphics 5500, 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD—is exemplary for productivity and creative tasks, and the machine wakes, sleeps and does everything else with great alacrity as you’d expect. Like other Ultrabooks, the HP’s fan kicks in under load, though it’s generally quiet.
Even more impressive, perhaps, was wireless performance. I’ve struggled with this in Windows over the past few years for some reason, where different PCs would connect with known-good hotspots as “limited” connections for some reason, requiring a frustrating sequence of reconnections, rebooting, and other time-wasting troubleshooting. The Spectre uses dual band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) 802.11ac antennas and, working in concert with Microsoft, HP was able to engineer a wireless subsystem that just works. I expect and hope this work goes into Windows 10 as well.
The stock HP software image is pretty clean—”it’s one of the cleanest images HP has ever produced,” I was told—but it’s not Signature quality, and includes some HP desktop and modern apps and of course a useless time-bombed AV package. But good news, Windows fans: Despite being told that the Spectre x360 would not be offered in a Signature version through the Microsoft Store, you can now preorder such a version that’s even better than my review unit. (It has a Core i7 processor.)
Which brings me to price.
The Spectre x360 starts at just $899. For that price, you get an Intel Core i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB SSD with a 1080p display. Step up to my review unit’s specs—which I think will be the mainstream seller, with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB—and it’s just $1000. A version with a Core i7 processor, 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD—this is the one you can get from the Microsoft Store—is just $1150. And you can special order the QHD version of this device for $200 more, and $1399.
These are excellent prices for these specs, this build quality, and this battery life.
By comparison, a ThinkPad X1 Carbon with the same specs as the entry-level x360 (but with a 14-inch screen panel) is normally about $1200, about $300 more than the Spectre. It happens to be on sale right now for $1080, but that’s still almost $200 more than the HP.
This is a good comparison because the X1 Carbon is one of the few Ultrabooks that can compete, I think, with the quality of the Spectre x360. But the X1 has fewer USB 3.0 ports (2), the display doesn’t provide multi-touch and the device doesn’t transform into a tablet. On the other hand, the X1 does include fingerprint sign-in, which I adore, and a bigger screen, which I prefer.
(A 13-inch MacBook Air with similar specs is $999, or $100 more than the base x360. But the Air of course lacks the transforming form factor, multi-touch 1080p screen, and other x360 niceties. Plus, the Air doesn’t ship with Windows, which I prefer.)
For all its advantages, though, I think it is the reasonable pricing that really hooks me. Here’s a transforming Ultrabook that can do it all. You pay a bit of a portability premium for the versatile screen, yes, but it does virtually everything well and is just a high quality, well-made device … and is sold at a very reasonable price.
If I were paying my own money, I’d go for the $999 option, which is the review unit I received. This is the sweet spot of the lineup, and it is a unique value in a sea of me-too Ultrabooks, most of which lack the Spectre x360’s premium design. The HP Spectre x360 is highly recommended.
Tagged with Windows 8.1