The new HP Spectre is gorgeous, impossibly thin, and so light it almost disappears into my carry-on bag, and it offers the performance one would expect of a much bigger and heavier PC. What’s missing, of course, is all-day battery life, a multi-touch screen, and simple connectivity with existing peripherals.
In other words, yes, the HP Spectre is a compromise. But that’s by design: With the Spectre, HP set out to create a premium thin-and-light laptop that provides the features its millennial customers said they valued most: Beautiful design in a thin and light form factor with great performance and long battery life.
Don’t be put off by that millennial bit if you’re closer to an AARP membership than your college years. The younger crowd that is now entering the work force has certain expectations, especially when it comes to the digital devices they’re going to use every day. And those expectations better reflect the real world use cases that have emerged in recent years, like teleworking and the blurring of work and home.
So HP did some research. They talked to millennials and other customers, and asked them what they wanted from a premium laptop. And some of their answers didn’t quite match up with what the industry had been delivering. For example, fully two-thirds of potential buyers were willing to give up a multi-touch screen for a thinner, lighter machine. Design was a key consideration. As was performance, battery life, and even Wi-Fi reliability.
The resulting laptop is indeed impressive and it achieves most, but not all, of HP’s goals. It’s also gorgeous, the type of device that strangers ask you about on planes and trains, and in coffee shops. And then they seem a bit confused that stodgy HP—an out of date opinion, but that’s how these things work—was its maker.
Well, HP doesn’t surprise me anymore. No PC maker has improved the quality of its wares as much as HP has over the past couple of years. And it now stands shoulder to shoulder with Lenovo ThinkPad—and, yes, Apple—as one of the premier makers of premium PCs.
So, the new Spectre.
As noted, it’s beautiful, but the copper and ash gray form factor is also polarizing. The copper bits—mostly the rump of the device, where the ports and hinges live—are shiny and attention-getting, but they’re also smudge magnets. Neat freaks will want to want to weigh the downsides of carrying around a chamois to keep the thing as smudge-free as possible. Trust me on this one: It’s a losing battle.
But this device’s design bears a closer look, and there are subtle notes everywhere that reinforce how different it is from other PCs. The body is made of non-standard colors, yes—there’s no gray or jet black here, sorry—but those differences extend to unexpected areas, such as the keyboard backlighting, which is just dim enough to seem somewhat pink, thanks to the impact of the surrounding materials. It’s a pleasant, even soothing look that sort of completes the experience. Too, the speaker grills on either side of the keyboard are etched with a unique pattern and not just some grid of holes. Sadly, they cover up pretty tinny-sounding speakers.
The two hinges are likewise beautiful, two hoops that securely tether the ridiculously thin screen to the bottom of the device. HP talks up the necessity of this hinge design—they’re both recessed and piston-driven because of the thinness of the device—but I think that undercuts the real story, which is that they’re stunning to look at and actually work really well. My only complaint is that the screen can’t be angled back as far as I would sometimes like.
The screen is beautiful and bright. As noted, there is no multi-touch support, and I’ve found this to be somewhat troublesome as I keep reaching out to touch it. (Where is that damn chamois again?) That’s the trouble with touch: You may think you don’t need it, and will never use it. But once you have a touch screen, you actually do use it, and you get used to it. And you notice it when it’s gone.
Some critics will point out that the relatively low screen resolution—1080p, or 1920 x 1080—is also problematic, given the proliferation of high DPI displays and the ongoing efforts to make Windows 10 look and work better on such hardware. This is fair, and while 1080p would be my personal choice for such a device, the lack of multi-touch and high DPI capabilities are both the product of HP’s desire to keep the Spectre to about 10 mm of thickness. And I suspect that those hinges might need to be bigger to support a thicker and heavier screen.
(Fun fact: You can’t buy an HP Spectre from the Microsoft Store because Microsoft only stocks touch-based PCs.)
The typing experience is surprisingly good. Unlike some other thin and light PCs—like Apple’s terrible new MacBook or even other HPs, like the Envy Notebook—key travel is excellent, and device flex is minimal, even under my thunderous and heavy typing. That’s impressive, and speaks well of the durability and rigidity of this very thin device.
The Spectre’s small trackpad is perhaps less successful, though it is a glass unit with smooth cursor movement and full travel. It’s a fun-sized throwback to 3 or 4 years ago, and the wrist rest area is likewise small, though barely big enough for my huge hands. Here, again, the device’s thin design is the culprit: HP can’t push the keyboard back further, increasing the size of the trackpad and wrist rest area, because that would intrude on the Spectre’s unique cooling system at the back of the device.
Oddly, the trackpad’s small size helps me minimize mis-clicks as I type, an issue I often have with larger trackpads. (Damn these large hands.) But I did still register the occasional mis-click, which is of course irritating when you’re trying to type.
Expandability will likewise be controversial in some circles. In the good news department, the Spectre comes with three USB-C ports, so you can at least plug in multiple accessories when needed. (The only other port is for a pair of headphones; there’s no microSD expansion.) But they’re all on the back edge of the device, which can be inconvenient. You can plug the power supply into any of them, which is nice, but you must use HP’s power supply for some reason; no other USB-C adapter will work. And two of the ports are Thunderbolt capable, meaning that you can drive dual 4K displays, assuming you don’t mind fan noise.
But USB-C is USB-C, and while I know this argument is about as tired as any discussion about the Windows phone app ecosystem, it’s just as relevant in the real world: You’re going to need to bring little USB-C-to-USB-A adapters around with you. HP supplies one, but I find that I sometimes need more than one. And this is just another thing to lose, or forget. And there’s nothing sillier looking than my mouse nubbin plugged into a USB-C adapter cable. Need video out? Don’t forget that special adapter too. It’s not included.
But fine, USB-C is the future, and the benefits of using a single cable to dock the device—providing both power and access to whatever collection of connected peripherals—is hard to argue with. I’ve only just started experimenting with the Spectre and HP’s svelte Elite Thunderbolt 3 Dock, but let’s just say it’s a lot more elegant than any Surface Dock I’ve ever used. This is a future I can embrace.
Performance is excellent, which makes sense because the Spectre’s greatest achievement in many ways is that it doesn’t compromise with lowly Core-m processors. Instead, HP provides both Core i5 and i7 options—Core i7 in the review unit—and does so without underclocking them.
That’s good and bad, of course. The thin and light design of the Spectre—yes, a constant theme here, sorry—necessitated a unique hyperbaric cooling system that pulls in air from the bottom of the device, passes it over the CPU, and then channels it out the back. This system of course uses fans. And those fans of course come on from time to time, creating a white noise effect you will either find annoying or, for you tinnitus suffers in the audience, soothing. It’s not particularly frequent, and nowhere near as bad as, say, Surface Pro 3, which still stands as the dubious winner of the fan noise category. But it happens.
Also helping performance is the SSD storage, which is utilizes PCIe technology for the fastest possible read and write speeds. There’s only one capacity option, however, which is 256 GB. (Update: HP tells me there is a 512 GB is available as well. –Paul)
Like many of you, I was particularly interested to see whether the Spectre would live up to HP’s battery life claims. The firm says that a unique design, with the battery split into four modules to accommodate the unique demands of this super-thin form factor, makes the Spectre the most efficient laptop it has ever made. And it claims 9:45 of battery life in a 1080p video rundown test.
That’s not real world battery life, of course, though it may be helpful on a night flight to Europe. In my own usage, I saw somewhere between 6:00 and 6:30 hours. That’s not horrible if you believe the Spectre’s thin and light design to be paramount, but here again I’d pick a slightly thicker and heavier design if it would result in 7-8 hours of life. You’re going to want to keep that USB-C power supply handy.
HP almost always sticks the landing when it comes to pricing, and here the Spectre does not disappoint: It starts at $1169, with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage. The model I reviewed adds a Core i7-6500U processor, and costs just $1249. But I’d opt for the i5 version if I was spending my own money. The Core i5-to-i7 upgrade doesn’t change much day-to-day.
Ultimately, whether the HP Spectre is right for you will depend on your needs and wants.
In the pro column, the device is gorgeous, clearly a premium laptop, and it’s so thin and light that it’s a delight to travel with. Performance is excellent, as is the typing experience, and the screen is bright and crisp. But that screen doesn’t support multi-touch or high pixel counts, and it doesn’t go back very far. The battery life and trackpad are both only OK, and USB-C-only expansion can be inconvenient.
But HP will win converts when people get to see and pick up this device. It’s light weight and thinness are revelatory, and if the color scheme and materials match your inner sense of good design, you’re going to have a hard time saying no.
You know me: I prefer even bigger screens, and I don’t mind a bit of additional weight for that extra onscreen real estate. But that’s the compromise I’m willing to make. The Spectre is going to win HP a new generation of loyal customers, and rightfully so. It’s an amazing laptop, and is highly recommended.