Billed as the world’s thinnest laptop, HP’s new 13-inch Spectre notebook is a stunning, premium device that doesn’t sacrifice performance for a stellar if somewhat controversial design.
HP provided me with a preview of the new Spectre back in April, but I wasn’t able to attend the launch event because of other commitments. This past week, however, I was finally able to experience this intriguing contender in person, along with a nice family of accessories which includes a docking station, a travel sleeve, and some USB-C accessories.
There’s nothing controversial about the physical design of the HP Spectre, but the only available color scheme, dark gray and copper, will be polarizing. I happen to like it quite a bit, but the copper end is shiny and highly reflective, and too-easily picks up dust and smudges. It will require constant attention.
You may want to put up with that, however. At just 10.4 mm (0.4 inches) thick and only 2.45 pounds, the Spectre notebook is more portable than any other 13-inch laptop, and it makes erstwhile competitors like the 12-inch MacBook and Dell’s XPS 13 seem uninteresting by comparison.
Part of the reason is the sheer beauty of the Spectre, which features thoughtful design touches everywhere. From the milled speaker holes to the unique piston-powered latch, the Spectre never disappoints from a design perspective. It very much looks and feels like the premium device that it is.
You’ll want the Spectre the second someone hands one to you. Phrases like “feather light” don’t really do the Spectre justice; it just seems to weigh less than should be possible. Like an engineering sample with no guts. It’s almost surreal.
The smaller MacBook provides a similar first impression. But the Spectre is no MacBook: It doesn’t stop short at portability and good looks. Instead, HP exceeds the Mac by offering no compromises performance, utility, and expandability as well. Naturally, it does so at less expensive pricing as well.
So the HP Spectre can be had with a full-powered Intel Core i5 or i7 processor, instead of the more limited Core m-series found in the MacBook and other thin-and-light PC designs. Normally, such a processor would require a heat sink for cooling, but such a system is too thick, so HP invented a unique hyperbaric cooling system that pulls cool air over the processor and routes it out the back of the device.
(As you might expect of any Intel Core i5/7 design, the fans will kick in audibly from time to time, so I’ll be paying attention to that to see whether it compromises the experience.)
The Spectre also ships with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB or 512 GB of fast, PCIe-based SSD storage. It has three USB-C ports, compared to just one on the MacBook, and two of them are full-speed Thunderbolt 3 ports. (Each can be used for charging.) Apple? No Thunderbolt, incredibly.
Where the MacBook delivers the absolutely worst keyboard and touchpad found on modern portable computers in a concession to the device’s thinness, HP did the engineering work to provide superior experiences.
Consider the Spectre’s backlit keyboard. Ideal keyboard travel is about 1.5 mm, and while the Spectre falls a bit short at 1.3 mm, HP says that it makes up the difference with optimized force curves. I’m eager to test that, but the MacBook delivers just 0.6 mm of key travel, and the vaunted (and thicker) MacBook Air still only provides 1.0 mm of key travel.
We see a similar advantage to the touchpad: Apple’s infamously terrible MacBook touchpad utilizes a “zero travel” (e.g. it doesn’t move) design that fakes tactile feedback with haptics. But the HP Spectre provides the real thing: A normal glass touchpad with a full 1.3 mm of travel. It looks, feels, and works normally, with no retraining required. Yes, it actually clicks.
And then there’s the screen: The HP Spectre packs a 13-inch 1080p IPS display into the 2 mm thin, milled aluminum top lid. It’s directly bonded with Gorilla Glass 4, which provides twice the drop protection of its predecessor. At 300 nits, it is crisp, clear and bright. But you may note that there is no QHD option, nor can the Spectre be had with multitouch.
That is by design: In polling its premium customers about which trade-offs they would accept, most preferred performance and portability over touch. And while I do use touch from time to time on the PCs that offer it, I have to agree: This type of PC is about getting work done, and the Core i5/i7 performance, the refined typing and touchpad experiences, and the epic portability of the Spectre are far more important than touch.
HP rates Spectre battery life at 9:45 hours, but that’s a video playback figure, so I’ll need to do my own real world testing. But that’s an impressive figure for such a thin and light device. And HP says it achieved it by separating the battery into four pieces it efficiently places in the milled carbon fiber bottom of the Spectre.
So it’s beautiful, and versatile, but the HP Spectre really scores in the pricing department too. A base Spectre—Intel Core i5, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of SSD storage—is available now for $1169, about $130 less than a similarly configured (but Core m3-based) MacBook. The mainstream seller, which adds a Core i7 processor, costs just $1249. And a higher-end version with 512 GB of SSD storage is $1499.
There’s a lot to test here. Fortunately, I have some travel coming up.