HP Spectre x360 (4K/Pen) Review

Posted on May 27, 2017 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 43 Comments

HP Spectre x360 (4K/Pen) Review

HP’s latest Spectre x360 is a nearly perfect ultra-portable PC despite having first shipped in late 2016 without support for an Active Pen or a 4K/UHD display. Guess what happens when HP corrects those minor issues and then tops it off with a gorgeous Ash Silver and Copper color scheme.

Well, it’s still nearly perfect. It’s just that the trade-offs have shifted a bit.

First up, that color scheme: It’s incredible, and it nicely highlights the premium nature of the device while managing to be both professional and attractive. Every time I pull the HP out of a bag or spy it sitting on a table, I pause to regard it. This is the most attractive PC I’ve ever used.

Next, you may know that the Spectre x360 that HP first shipped in late 2016 did not include Active Pen support. From here on out, all Spectre x360 models not only support an HP Active Pen, but include one in the box. And yes, it ships in the same Ash Silver and Copper color scheme as the device.

And speaking of the display, you now have a 4K/UHD (3840 x 2160) option in addition to the 13.3-inch Full HD (1080p) IPS panel that HP originally shipped with this PC. That option adds about $200 to the cost, which is reasonable. But it also impacts battery life, since the device needs to drive so many more pixels: In my standard Wi-Fi video streaming test, the 4K/UHD version of the HP Spectre x360 delivered a little under 7 hours of battery life, compared to 9.5 hours for the Full HD version.

How you feel about that will depend on your needs. But know this: While the Full HD panel is bright and gorgeous, and will help provide better battery life, you can’t unsee the wonder that is 4K. And the difference between these two displays can be summed up nicely by just seeing how crisp and clear that text is in 4K, and how utterly devoid of jaggies. Yes, because of display scaling, you will essentially be running each display at the same effective resolution. But the 4K version is just so much clearer. It’s worth the extra money, for sure.

As important, I feel that it is also worth sacrificing a few hours of battery life: 7 hours is more than enough to get work done for an entire trans-Atlantic or cross-country flight. I would choose the 4K/UHD option every time.

With these changes in mind, I’ve repurposed my review of the original 2016 model HP Spectre x360below, and have rewritten it where needed to ensure that it’s up-to-date with the changes that HP has made in the first half of 2017.

If you consider the evolved design of the new HP Spectre x360, you will see the convergence of two major portable PC trends: The move to more versatile 2-in-1/convertible-style form factors for those who sometimes need the more intimate workflows that are possible with tablets, and the “edgeless displays” we see more and more on standard laptops for those who do not.

The new Spectre x360 is thinner, lighter, and smaller than its predecessor. These changes are appreciated, and the real world differences are even greater in use than will be obvious from the numbers.

So let’s start with those numbers.

The new Spectre x360 weighs just 2.85 pounds or less, depending on which display option you choose, whereas the previous model broke the important 3-pound barrier—and thus many users’ backs—by weighing in at 3.2 pounds. This is a meaningful and noticeable difference.

At 13.8 mm, the new x360 is 2.1 mm thinner than its predecessor, which was a thicker 15.9 mm. For comparison purposes, the 13-inch MacBook Air, 17 mm at its thickest, and the new MacBook Pro, at 14.9 mm, are both thicker. This, too, is a meaningful and noticeable difference.

And then there’s the overall size of the device, which is 20 mm narrower than its predecessor. That is, it’s about 8/10ths of an inch less wide. Wait for it. Yep, another meaningful and noticeable difference.

Put simply, this new PC is an ultralight wonder, and you barely notice its presence in your backpack. For those who travel a lot for business, as I do, or are otherwise highly mobile, this isn’t just a big deal, it’s job one. It’s what makes this computer an option in the first place.

Design

From a design perspective, the new Spectre x360 very much resembles its predecessor, and it utilizes the same CNC-machined aluminum construction. It’s a professional, premium-quality look, especially when you opt for the 4K/UHD models that provide that gorgeous Ash Silver and Copper color scheme in lieu of the bland silver/gray color used by the Full HD models.

There are also some new touches tied to HP’s more recent premium and stylized logo, which replaces the raised “Hewlett Packard” branding on the original. And for the new Bang & Olufsen audio system, which results in an attractive new speaker grill above the keyboard.

New to the latest generation Spectre x360, there are four little rubber feet on the keyboard deck—colored to make them less visible—and there is now a more pronounced air gap when the screen lid is closed. But this isn’t about preventing a smudgy outline of the keyboard on the display, not that I ever had this issue with the first generation device. Instead, it’s to keep the keys off of whatever surface you’re using the device in when it’s placed in presentation mode.

Like its predecessor, and like other convertible PCs, the new HP Spectre 2016 places power and volume buttons on the outside edges of the keyboard base. This may seem like an awkward configuration, but it’s required because the user needs to be able to access these controls when the PC is in tablet mode. And like everything else in life, you get used to it, and the one-time curiosity just becomes normal.

Display

Because of the dramatically thinner design of the new Spectre x360, HP originally made some trade-offs in the screen, but rectified that with an early 2017 refresh that added both Active Pen support and a 4K/UHD display option.

The 4K/UHD display is a stunner, a bright and colorful 13.3-inch IPS screen that runs at a native resolution of 3840 x 2160. It stretches almost to the edges of the clamshell top, at least on the left and right, though the top and bottom retain fairly large bezels, and accommodate a properly situated webcam (suck it, Dell XPS 13) and, on the bottom, that new HP logo.

One minor complaint: The the x360’s 16:9 display isn’t ideal for tablet usage in portrait mode because such displays appear stretched and overly-tall when used like that anyway. But according to HP, these devices are used like a normal laptop virtually all of the time, and the main secondary usage is watching videos—either in laptop or tent mode—on flights. Which I find believable because that’s exactly how I use portable PCs as well.

Thanks to the thinner display, HP provides wider hinges for the new x360, and I haven’t noticed any obvious screen wobble in real world use across the two models I’ve now used extensively. That said, you can make it wobble if you play around with it, and this is the type of thing that can ruin the experience on a plane or train, two of my key usage scenarios on the go. But if anything, the hinge feel is quite stiff, and you’ll have no trouble positioning the screen where you want it, assured that it will stay right there as you use it, in-flight turbulence be damned.

Hardware components and ports

Looking inside the Spectre x360, we see a nice modernization of the components, which of course helps improve the performance of the device as well as its durability and efficiency from a battery life perspective. As in the past, HP offers several configurations of the Spectre x360, which can include 7th-generation (“Kaby Lake”) Intel Core i5 or i7 processors, 8 GB or 16 GB of RAM, and 256 GB to 1 TB of fast PCIe-based SSD storage.

The processors are of course a step up from the previous generation’s 6th generation (“Skylake”) Intel Core processors, but then HP customers never suffered from the reliability issues that dogged Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book users. Note, too, that these are dual-core parts, and there are no quad-core CPU options, which makes sense for this type of thin-and-light device.

The RAM and storage upgrades are perhaps more notable: Previous generation x360s could be had with as little as 4 GB of RAM, whereas 8 GB is the new and much preferable minimum. And the 128 GB storage option is gone: Now the minimum is a voluminous 256 GB. Those are both impressive changes.

That said, it’s important to understand that the Spectre x360 is an ultralight device, and that the complex nature of cooling modern PC parts requires numerous trade-offs of its own. As always, HP touts its unique thermal designs. But you’ll get some Surface-like hiss, as you must in such a device, from time-to-time. It’s not unusual or necessarily even objectionable, and it never really happened while I was using the x360 for normal productivity work. As is so often the case, it seems to come up for no reason occasionally.

Moving to expansion, HP provides a much more measured step forward into the future than some of its competitors, notably Apple, which confused the term “pro” for “luxury” in its most recent MacBook Pro upgrade. So, yes, HP is fully embracing our USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 future, and it provides two examples of this most useful and versatile port. And charging occurs over USB-C, which is very much appreciated, as it enables more elegant docking solutions.

I do have one complaint about the USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports: They’re both on the same side of the device, which is unfortunate. I’d rather have one on each side, which would provide more options for plugging in the charger.

Because HP isn’t suicidal, the Spectre x360 also provides a single full-sized USB 3 port because, you know, we still live in 2017 and customers actually have a lot of USB peripherals that they’d like to use. What a concept.

Missing in action, however, is a memory card slot of any kind—SD, microSD, whatever—though again I suspect this will impact few people, and this is no longer something I’m personally looking for in any PC. There is, of course, a headphone/mic jack, but that’s the end of the ports: There’s no HDMI-based video-out, so you’ll need to pack a USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 dongle for that. In the good news department, HP now supplies a Full HD webcam, and it supports Windows Hello, which was missing from the previous designs. So hooray to that.

With the original Spectre x360, HP pushed wireless performance, and the close teamwork with Microsoft that led to its design. At the time, this was a huge issue for some of its competitors, especially the wretched original Dell XPS 13. This time around, HP isn’t promoting the Microsoft collaboration, though I’m told it still exists, but then the hard work has already been done. So the new x360 soldiers on with a similar dual-band (2.4 GHz and 5 GHz) 802.11ac antenna design to its predecessor. Performance has been excellent across both tested models, and I’ve had no trouble connecting anywhere. That is not true of some competing devices, it’s worth noting.

New to 2016/2017, the Spectre x360 now utilizes four speakers, guaranteeing at least decent stereo sound no matter the configuration of the device. (With the previous 13-inch design, the sound could sometimes be muffled a bit.) In keeping with its Bang & Olufsen partnership, the result is a unique speaker grill, which I find attractive, and generally solid audio for music or videos.

Keyboard and clickpad

In keeping with other Spectre x360s, the typing experience is mostly excellent, though it’s a bit cramped thanks to a vertical row of home row keys on the right and a smaller wrist rest. But with its full 1.3 mm of key travel, I was able to adapt to the keyboard pretty quickly and would describe it as comparable to that of the Surface Pro 4 with a Type Cover. I still find the Surface Book keyboard experience to be superior, though of course your pay for that privilege. I’m not a huge fan of the keyboard backlighting on either device, but at least it’s available.

The clickpad story is most positive as well, and while the overly-wide glass design may be off-putting at first, its silky-smooth accuracy and the lack of phantom clicks and swipes will quickly win you over. (I had far more problems with the 15-inch HP Spectre x360’s clickpad.) That said, I wish HP would adopt the precision touchpad technologies that Microsoft provides in Windows 10: It’s supported right in the native system settings, is updated regularly, and doesn’t require hokey third party utility software.

Battery

Battery life is excellent given the 4K/UHD display. In a streaming HD video test using Microsoft’s Movies & TV app and cloud-hosted videos (with brightness and volume both set to 40 percent), I saw 6 hours and 52 minutes of life, compared to 9.5 hours for the Full HD model. By comparison, HP’s 15-inch Spectre x360 delivered 7 hours and 40 minutes of life on the same test while the Dell XPS 15 came in a bit over 5 hours. But Microsoft’s expensive Surface Book with Performance Base has two batteries and delivered a stunning 11.5 hours of battery life.

As noted previously, I would accept a bit less battery life for the incredible portability and stunning display offered by the 4K/UHD 13.3-inch Spectre x360. Your needs may vary.

Software

The HP Spectre x360 originally shipped with Windows 10 Home version 1607, but it should be receiving the Creators Update normally now. A premium PC should include Windows 10 Pro, in my opinion.

In keeping with previous premium HP PCs, the new Spectre x360 comes with a minimal, Signature-like software loadout. That means it ships with nothing in the way of true crapware, aside from the ubiquitous and time-limited McAfee anti-virus solution that I always uninstall immediately. There is a nice HP Solutions app for keeping the PC up-to-date, and it no longer needs to run in the taskbar, where it used to take up valuable on-screen real estate. HP still needs to a make a buck, of course, but they have clearly gotten the crapware memo.

Pricing and configurations

As is generally the case with HP, one of the best things about this product is the price. The Spectre x360 offers tremendous bang for the buck.

Full HD configurations range from about $1050 to $1500, depending on the CPU, RAM, and storage. 4K/UHD adds about $200 to the price, though there are fewer configurations. The version I tested—Core i7, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of SSD storage—will set you back about $1600.

Recommendations and conclusions

To recap, the HP Spectre x360 is a near-perfect convertible PC, especially for those looking for a productivity-focused laptop that can pull double-duty as a mobile entertainment hub. With its Ash Silver and Copper color scheme, stunning 4K/UHD display, and new Active Pen support, the 2017 refresh now offers something for everyone. And if $1600 for the model I’ve reviewed is too steep, remember that you can pay as little as $1050 for a Full HD model. Either way, the improved size, weight, and thinness of this device will impress.

The 2017 HP Spectre x360 (4K/Pen) is a PC I would buy with my own money. It is highly recommended.

Spectre x360 (4K/Pen) at-a-glance

Pros

  • Thin and light form factor
  • Stunning Ash Silver and Copper color scheme
  • Gorgeous edge-to-edge 4K/UHD IPS display
  • Versatility
  • Excellent keyboard and clickpad
  • Windows Hello support
  • Right mix of new (USB-C/Thunderbolt 3) and old (USB 3)

Cons

  • Expensive compared to Full HD models
  • Battery life suffers compared to Full HD models
  • 16:9 display is awkward in tablet mode
  • USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports are both on the same side
  • Windows 10 Home

 

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