HP Spectre x360 (2016) vs. Surface Book: Could It Be?

Posted on October 23, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Microsoft Surface, Windows 10 with 53 Comments

HP Spectre x360 (2016) vs. Surface Book: Could It Be?

I had what for me passes as a revelation of sorts yesterday: Picking up the stunningly light and well-designed new HP Spectre x360, my mind flashed immediately to Surface Book. Could it be? Does the x360 actually beat a device I just described as “the perfect thing”?

This is a better comparison that many may immediately believe. Neither device is an Ultrabook, though the HP comes closer to realising the thin and light ideal of such devices. Instead, both are premium transforming laptops. And as such, they are absolutely competing for the same customers.

Let’s look at the numbers, starting of course with the physical dimensions.

Physical size

They’re mostly similar unless you take into account that weird Surface Book hinge bulge. Sliding the devices into a bag, you will see that both devices are roughly the same height: the Spectre hits 12.03 inches, whereas the Surface Book lands at 12.3 inches. The Surface is also a wider, this time demonstrably, at 9.14 inches, versus the Spectre’s 8.58 inches. And at its thinnest (0.51 inches), the Surface Book is roughly the same thinness as the Spectre (0.54 inches).

height

But there is that bulge. And at its widest, the Surface Book hits 0.90—almost one full inch—a thickness that is almost double that of the Spectre.

thickness

Put simply, Surface Book will take up more space in a bag, and it will sit more awkwardly. And I’ve learned to position it so that the power button is always pointed up to avoid any “hot bagging.” It’s not clear yet if this will be an issue with the Spectre.

Winner: Spectre x360

Weight

In the long run, weight will have an even bigger impact on the devices’ respective portability. And here, the Spectre wins big. With the Surface Book lumbering in at 3.34 pounds (for the base version, the version with a dedicated GPU is even heavier), the Spectre’s diminutive 2.85-pound curb weight really makes a difference.

thinness

Put simply, when you have to carry something around, weight really matters. And when you can deliver a similar experience at a lower weight, that is a win.

Winner: Spectre x360

Battery life

Here, I will rely solely on the manufacturer’s claims as I’ve not yet had a chance to really test Spectre x360 battery life. In my coming review, I will compare the real-world battery life I experienced with both.

Microsoft claims “up to 12 hours” of battery life in a video playback test. HP claims “15.7 hours” in a similar test. So this one is easy.

Winner: Spectre x360

Screen

This is a tough one because HP is making the right sacrifices for thinness and lightness, but the Surface Book display is nonetheless superior by any reasonable measure.

At 3000 x 2000, the Surface Book display blows HP’s relatively paltry 1920 x 1080 panel out of the water from a quality perspective, though users will need to scale the UI to make it workable. The Surface Book’s 13.5-inch display uses a non-standard 3:2 aspect ratio, and while I’ve come to love it, this ratio combined with the aforementioned display scaling can make docking a trying experience, especially if you prefer to use only the external display at such times.

The HP’s display will offer no such issues and is a more standard 16:9 aspect ratio. Looking at the housing around this panel, I see room for a “better” (or at least different) aspect ratio, and I sort of wish HP had gone with a 3:2 display. But … that’s just me. I suspect few people would consider its display anything less than excellent.

It’s just that the Surface Book display is better.

Winner: Surface Book

Typing and touchpad experience

I’ve not spent enough time with the Spectre x360 to fairly judge its typing and touchpad performance. That said, it appears that both work very well, and this is an area that matters to me quite a bit.

Working in Surface Book’s favor, however, is a simple truth: Surface Book offers the best portable typing experience there is, and the touchpad works wonderfully as well, and is compatible with the Precision Touchpad experiences in Windows 10. The HP is not.

Winner: Surface Book

Specs

Thanks to being a newer device, the Spectre x360 outclasses its older rival from a specs perspective and offers newer-generation “Kaby Lake” processors and chipsets. You can get Core i5 and i7 processors in both devices, 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM, and up to 1 TB of fast SSD storage. But the HP edges out Surface Book by offering newer and faster PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD storage in 256 GB, 512 GB, and 1 TB choices.

But it’s not just the raw specs. Kaby Lake is more reliable than the Skylake chipsets used in Surface Book, and Microsoft’s reliability issues are now legendary. Whereas I still don’t feel totally safe recommending Surface Book because of these issues, I have no issues with the Spectre x360. In fact, it’s Skylake-based predecessors never had any major issues either.

That said, Surface Book can be had in very expensive configurations with a dedicated NVIDIA GeForce GPU with 1GB of its own RAM (not suitable for gaming). And Surface Pen is included with Surface Book. There’s no pen with the Spectre, and I’m not yet sure if HP’s existing pens work with the device.

Winner: Spectre x360

Expandability

Surface Book offers two full-sized USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized SD card slot, a miniDisplayPort port, and its proprietary (but USB-based) Surface Connect slot, all on the keyboard base. A headphone jack is awkwardly placed high on the screen/Clipboard.

The HP Spectre x360, meanwhile, provides one full-sized USB 3.0 port, two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, and a headphone jack. Those USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports are *far* more versatile than the ports on the Surface Book, and can be used for power, for video-out, for storage and other peripherals, and more. Yes, USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 is a bit forward-leaning. But this is a huge win for the x360.

Winner:  Spectre x360

Cost

This is where things swing firmly into the Spectre x360 camp. As I noted in HP Spectre x360 (2016) First Impressions, a totally specced-out high-end Spectre x360 costs $1499, which is the starting point for Surface Book. Looking at the available options, were I spending my own money, I’d opt for the base model Spectre x360, with a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage. That device costs just $1049, whereas a comparable Surface Book would cost almost $500 more. This is “no contest” territory.

That said, one should always weigh the actual costs of a thing vs. the costs of not having special functionality—or durability—that may come from choosing the more expensive option. The Surface Book comes with a pen, which may matter very much to some people, and its unique detaching screen means that it is thinner and lighter (and has much less battery life) when used as a tablet. You’ll need to—ahem—weigh the pros and cons based on your own needs.

But for me—and, I know, for most people—the Spectre x360’s low cost adds up to the obvious win.

Winner: Spectre x360

Overall winner

This one is pretty clear-cut, at least on paper: The Spectre x360 blows the Surface Book out of the water. In a magical place where money and Surface Book’s reliability issues don’t matter, the score might have been closer. But HP seems to be delivering on the promise of Surface Book with none of the downsides. And when you look at the relative prices of these devices, the decision becomes very clear.

To be fair to Microsoft, Surface Book is an aspirational device, and it’s possible if not likely that many of its shortcomings will be addressed in a future upgrade. Kaby Lake is a given, and that could fix the reliability issues, though I wonder if some of that is the complex and unnecessary mechanics of the screen release mechanism. And Microsoft could fix the hinge and remove that terrible opening. But I don’t expect Microsoft to close the price gap. Surface Book is, after all, aimed squarely at MacBook Pro.

Right now, the Spectre x360 is still too new to arbitrarily declare it superior to Surface Book. But then, that’s why I’m reviewing it. So the early signs point to a blow-out victory, yes, but we’ll see what happens.

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