HP Spectre Folio First Impressions

Posted on November 16, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 34 Comments

Yes, it’s made of leather. But there is a much bigger innovation in the HP Spectre Folio, I think, that has nothing to do with the build materials.

That said, the leather is important. It’s central to the character of the device, and it’s emblematic of the type of customer that HP is trying to attract. People who value design and style as much as—if not more than—the underlying technology.

And while I’m not a millennial, I have long lived the work/life balance that that generation is now popularizing. I’ve worked from home for well over 20 years straight, and I travel a lot for work and for pleasure, mixing and matching my personal and work lives on the same devices. The HP Spectre is for this audience. So it’s for me, too.

Details matter

On that note, the Spectre Folio’s design is all about the details. Where Microsoft experimented with gluing an Alcantara carpet on the keyboard lid of its Surface Laptop, HP has gone all-in by integrating a more beloved and durable material, leather, right into the product itself. This isn’t a cover or a sleeve, and it most certainly isn’t glued on.

How HP integrated leather into the aluminum and magnesium that makes up the rest of the Spectre Folio’s form factor is an interesting story in and of itself. (In fact, the exploded diagrams of this device are a kind of art themselves.) But what potential customers will really care about is how well they meld together to form a cohesive whole. And how good it all looks and feels.

The HP Spectre Folio looks and feels great. But it’s not made of the type of leather with which you’re probably familiar.

Many leather products, like belts, wallets, or even a Waterfield Designs laptop bag, develop a patina as they wear, and this change alters their character, favorably, over time. HP looked at using this type of leather in the Folio. But the problem is that this patina develops naturally. So it’s possible that someone might purchase a device that’s been sitting on a store shelf for some time and think it was used or reconditioned because it didn’t seem new as it came out of the box.

So the leather than HP did use is more analogous to the leather you might find in a luxury car seat. It’s designed to stand up to use and abuse. And to not change its character over time. It reminds me a bit of a basketball from a tactile perspective, though the pebbling is smaller. And while I can’t speak to its long-term viability, of course, it seems more durable than, say, Alcantara.

The leather goodness of the Spectre Folio isn’t just for transportation, though I do like how the device seems like a leather portfolio as you carry it around. Instead, you’re treated to this surface during usage, as well. And when you type on the Folio, the material you’re coming into contact with via your wrists is not plastic or metal. It’s leather. As a user base, we’re just not used to this kind of luxury. It’s an interesting differentiator.

Whether you find the Spectre Folio’s design attractive is, of course, up to you. But I’d be surprised if someone told me they didn’t like the feel of it. It does have that something special that HP was clearly hoping to achieve.

But I mentioned innovation beyond the leather.

If you think about how the PC has evolved since the release of Windows 8, we see the biggest advances in the 2-in-1 space. There are actually a lot of different designs here, but they basically boil down to two form factors. Tablets with attachable keyboard covers like Surface Pro. And convertible PCs in which the display lid can swivel around 360 degrees to create a thick tablet-like usage mode.

The success of these PCs is tied to their versatility. Or, as I believe to be the case, the promise of their versatility. Most Surface Pro and HP Spectre x360 users probably just use their PCs as they would any clamshell laptop most of the time. But the reason they’re drawn to these types of PCs is for the occasional usage that can come from their transforming designs. Perhaps to draw or take notes. Or to watch a movie.

The problem with these designs, however, is that each is a huge compromise.

Tablets like Surface Pro are better tablets than laptops because they’re top heavy and their keyboard covers, while workable, still aren’t as good as real laptop keyboards.

Convertible PCs, meanwhile, make for decent laptops, but they often have complex hinges and are thick and heavy tablets. Plus, the keyboard is often underneath the device when it tablet mode, which can be awkward with your fingers when held or dangerous to the keys if it’s on a table.

What’s most interesting to me about the Spectre Folio is that HP appears to have solved these problems by creating a new kind of 2-in-1—or 3-in-1 or 4-in-1 or whatever—that works more efficiently and easily in each of its usage modes. That is, yes, the leather is interesting. But this type of form factor could be bound for greater success in many more PCs in the future.

When the Folio is closed, it looks and works like a closed portfolio. You open the display lid to get back to work and the PC is in a traditional clamshell usage mode.

To place the Folio into a consumption mode, perhaps to watch a movie on a cramped airline seat or in bed, you simply detach the bottom of the display from the base—it’s held on by magnets—and move it forward.

You then prop the bottom of the display between the bottom of the keyboard and the top of the touchpad, creating a natural consumption usage mode in which you can still access the touchpad for navigation and media playback. It’s very stable in this mode, and the keyboard doesn’t have to be twisted below the device so that it’s sitting on a table or other surface.

To use the Folio in tablet mode, you again detach the bottom of the display and pull it forward to the front of the device as you push down on the top of the display.

Again, the keyboard is protected, underneath the display. And thanks to the elegant design, the display you will not be writing on or touching has a comfortable tilt to it.

HP’s on to something here, folks. This thing just works.

The Folio’s internals were a source of confusion and possible disappointment when the device was first announced back in early October. It’s powered by a dual-core 8th-generation Intel Core Y-series chipset, which is the successor to a sad line of Core M and Y-series chips that many of us still lament.

But that’s also the same processor family that powers Apple’s new MacBook Air. And as my performance testing has shown, this chip is absolutely adequate for what I’ll call everyday productivity tasks. HP tells me that Intel’s Y-series chips have come a long way, and it has benchmarks showing this performing almost as well as quad-core, U-series-based PCs in common productivity tasks. And unlike with Apple, it has created a design that is both fan-free and silent.

That chipset is also able to achieve north of 20 hours of battery life—depending on the display you configure; there are Full HD and 4K options—so it’s possible that HP has achieved yet another innovation here: A computer that delivers on the longevity benefits of Windows 10 on ARM with none of the performance and compatibility issues. We’ll see.

You can outfit the Folio with 8 or 16 GB of RAM and up to a whopping 2 TB of SSD storage. It comes with optional gigabit LTE cellular networking, with dual SIMs (one an eSIM) so it’s an Always-Connected PC. And it ships with HP smartpen right in the box. This thing is ready for whatever you want it to do.

It even comes with a leather pen loop! Be still my heart

I’ve only done some light testing so far. The keyboard is up to HP’s usual level of quality and it supports two levels of backlighting. The touchpad is small and made of glass, which I like.

The web camera is where it belongs, on the top of the display. And that display is of course 16:9 because HP hasn’t gotten the memo on 3:2 yet. There’s certainly room for it. And it has quad Bang & Olufsen speakers, though I’ve not yet really tested them.

Connectivity is excellent for this class of device. The Folio features two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, one USB-C port, and a headphone jack.

It also ships with a USB-C-to-USB-A adapter in the box. Just like Apple doesn’t. Cough.

Everything that comes in the box

Pricing is, well, premium: A base HP Spectre Folio with a 13.3-inch FHD display, a Core i7-8500Y processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of storage will set you back about $1400, or $100 more with LTE. The review model, with 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage (and LTE), is $1608. That, incidentally, is the same price as the MacBook Air I purchased (also with 16 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage). But I’ll remind you that the MacBook Air lacks multitouch, smartpen, and LTE support, and cannot be used in multiple usages modes like the HP. Also, it’s rated at half the battery life of the HP.

Did HP just reinvent the 2-in-1/convertible PC? I think they may have. And that they did so in a device that’s made of leather is particularly interesting too.

More soon.


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