HP Spectre Folio Review Check-In: Performance

Given the questions many still have about the performance of Intel’s Y-series processors, I thought it might be helpful to take a longer look at this ahead of my formal review.

As you may recall, I wrote a similar pre-review article about the new MacBook Air. In that case, I was pleasantly surprised by its real-world performance, and I was hoping that the HP Spectre Folio would follow a similar trajectory, given that it uses a very similar chipset.

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My early experience with the Folio, however, is a bit more nuanced than that. And while I’m not sure yet whether to attribute the differences to the platforms which each device runs—macOS on the MacBook Air and Windows 10 on the Folio—that’s where I’m leaning at the moment.

As a bit of background, you may recall that Intel engaged in some shenanigans as it made the shift to its so-called 8th-generation Core processors, which first launched over a year ago. And among the more innocuous changes it made during this time frame was to rebrand (most of) its reviled Core M processors as Y-series Core processors. Which can be confusing.

Core M-based PCs were notorious for their performance issues. For example, in late 2015, I received the first-generation HP Spectre x2, which was an elegant-looking Surface Pro-like portable PC. The Core M chipset it utilized allowed HP to build something that was thin, light, and fanless. But it was hobbled by performance problems. In fact, one of the strange issues with using Windows with the Core M chipset was that initial tasks—like installing applications or even running them for the first time—would often be very slow. But the act of using them, over time, was fine.

(HP switched to Core i5 or better processors for the second-generation Spectre x2, which was a dramatically better PC as a result.)

When Apple announced the new MacBook Air last month, it said only that the processor was “an 8th-generation Intel Core” CPU. But we quickly learned that this was a dual-core Y-series chipset. And not a mainstream quad-core U-series chip as we see in virtually all laptops today.

This was initially disappointing. Like the Core M chips of old, Y-series chips run much cooler than their U-series counterparts, and they consume much less power: Usually 4.5-5 watts vs. 15 watts. The advantage is that their thermal requirements are less, so systems built on Y-series chipsets are generally thinner and lighter than those built on U-series chipsets, and they can provide better battery life while not requiring a fan. So they’re silent too.

The downside to Y-series chips is that they are not as powerful as their U-series counterparts. And that’s true during normal use as well as in “Turbo” mode when the processor can crank up the speed (and the power consumption, to 10 watts) to meet whatever need arises. Y-series chips tend to have smaller and shorter performance curves, basically.

The design of the new MacBook Air was initially confusing. Despite using a Y-series part, it does have a single fan, and it can run quite loudly under load. As it turns out, Apple is using a somewhat unique Y-series part that runs at 7 watts, not 5 or less. Theoretically, such a chipset should offer better performance across the board—both in normal usage and its bursts—and based on my real-world experience, it succeeds. Through some combination of the chipset and, I think, efficiencies built into macOS, I’ve never noticed any performance lulls or weirdnesses with the new MacBook Air.

HP announced the Spectre Folio in early October, and everything about this innovative new PC was interesting. But its use of a dual-core Y-series CPU was … disappointing: I’m still stung by the performance issues from the Core M era.

In speaking with HP at that event and since, however, I was told that Y-series processors have come a long way since Core M. And that HP itself has learned how to better utilize this chipset in its PC designs. In a recent briefing, I was shown some PCMark 10 benchmark comparisons that favorably compared the Spectre Folio to other modern Y-series and U-series PCs.

As you may know, I prefer real-world experience to benchmarks. But I also see the value in apples-to-apples comparisons, and I do mix in my own tests for performance and battery life. But I was curious about HP’s use of PCMark 10 for performance as opposed to, say, Cinebench or Geekbench.

HP told me that those tests were very CPU-bound—akin to using Handbrake to encode 4K video to 1080p, a performance test that I do perform on every PC I review—and thus weren’t necessarily indicative of real-world usage. This corresponds to my general feeling about benchmarks, so I was intrigued. PCMark 10 is more balanced overall, and it includes a productivity test that uses the chipset’s Turbo Boost feature to demonstrate how a PC can perform in standard productivity tasks. You know, the way people might actually use the thing.

Given this and my subsequent testing, I’ve decided to add PCMark 10 (the overall score and the productivity score) to my testing criteria for all PC reviews going forward. But since I hadn’t been performing this test, I also decided to retroactively run the PCMark 10 benchmarks on several PCs I’ve already reviewed—or will soon review—to see how they stack up. I spent much of the weekend running those tests across several PCs.

These results are not final: Far too often, PCMark 10 tells me (after the lengthy benchmarks conclude, which is irritating) that it could not identify the GPU (or, in one case the CPU), which probably nullifies the results. But that said, I still find the results I’ve seen so far interesting. And they can perhaps help put the Spectre Folio in perspective.

So far, the best results I’ve seen came from the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme. Powered by an Intel Core i7-8750H chipset and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics, this beast of a laptop scored 4551 overall and 6562 in the productivity benchmark. The new Intel NUC came in just behind, overall, with an overall score 4477. But it also beat the X1 Extreme in productivity, with a score of 7315.

The HP Spectre Folio scored the lowest of the five PCs I’ve tested so far, but that’s a little unfair since most of the other PCs are quad-core laptops or desktop PCs. (Actually, the X1 Extreme has a six-core processor, but whatever.) It netted 3002 overall and 5769 in productivity. But I also tested last year’s dual-core i5-based Surface Laptop, which scored 3034/5174. And that is interesting.

That is very interesting.

The Folio was only barely beat out by Surface Laptop; in fact, one might fairly rate the overall scores a tie. But it actually beat Surface Laptop in the productivity benchmark by a healthy margin.

(By the way, you might be wondering where the MacBook Air falls in these scores. Since PCMark 10 is not available for the Mac, there’s no way to know. I did run the benchmarks under Windows 10 using the Mac’s Boot Camp-based dual-boot environment. But you should ignore these scores since Apple’s Windows drivers and configuration are notably non-optimized. It scored 2201 overall and 3768 for productivity.)

Theoretically then, the Folio should perform about as well as the first-generation Surface Laptop. And to be clear, that PC is wonderful. And while I appreciate the addition of quad-core processors in the more recent Surface Laptop 2, the truth is that most users—doing “everyday” tasks like email, web browsing, word processing, and so on—would never notice any difference between the two generations. So the level of performance we see in the HP Spectre Folio should be equally good.

In my real-world usage over the past several days, however, I have in fact seen some of that weird initial performance lag that I used to experience with Core M-based PCs. It’s not as pronounced, for sure. But where the MacBook Air—again, possibly because of the efficiencies of macOS—experienced no such issues, the HP did. A little bit.

HP was upfront about this. It noted that some processor-intensive initial tasks, like syncing a large Outlook PST file for the first time, could take longer than is the case on a U-series CPU. And that if a user is interested in things like video rendering, using complex Photoshop filters, or other similar heavy-duty tasks, a U-series CPU-based PC would be the better choice.

Of course, such a PC would be thicker and heavier. And it would have a fan. The HP does not: So while the MacBook Air hissed like a pissed-off cobra during my Handbrake test and while running the PCMark 10 benchmarks, the Folio went about its business silently. When completed, it was just a little bit warm.

So what we come back to here is the same conversation about trade-offs that we would have had three years ago with the Core M-based Spectre x2. The difference is that the trade-offs have shifted into a less awkward area.

Yes, a U-series chipset does perform better. But when you combine the epic battery life, the always-on connectivity, and the stunning design of the HP Spectre Folio with what I feel is perfectly acceptable performance—in the everyday tasks that most users undertake—you arrive at something that might just make sense.

(Compare this to Surface Go, which seems unfair given the cost differential. But the comparison makes a bit more sense when you realize that both companies were attempting to solve the same compromises of performance, heat, silence, and portability. Surface Go offers anemic day-to-day performance in a too-small form factor and it gets only 4-5 hours of battery life. We can’t make these complaints about the Spectre Folio. Which, yes, is twice as expensive.)

So here’s where I’m at. Where the MacBook Air was a slam dunk from a performance perspective, the HP Spectre Folio requires a bit of time to get up to speed when you initially configure the device. But once your applications are all installed, OneDrive has synced, and everything is the way you want it, the Folio provides what can only be described as the normal, expected performance. And that’s a good thing.

I’ll make sure that remains the case during the review process.


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Conversation 14 comments

  • Mike Widrick

    19 November, 2018 - 10:17 am

    <p>I think this makes sense. The sustained performance, notably during setup, is where the fanless designs will suffer.</p><p><br></p><p>I'm surprise you didn't mention the first gen new Macbook. It was a fanless design roundly criticized for poor performance and was quickly updated in a next year revision, with no other changes. Reviewers suggested it was basically a completely different device. It was an m3 that year, and was probably the real start of the 'm' series poor reputation.</p>

    • Paul Thurrott

      Premium Member
      19 November, 2018 - 10:33 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#369775">In reply to solomonrex:</a></em></blockquote><p>That is true. I've kind of blocked that out I guess. 🙂 But I never used one either.</p>

  • wright_is

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2018 - 10:38 am

    <p>Could it be down to Windows 10 indexing data after the initial set-up? That is something I've always noticed on low-end hardware after initial set-up / when the users data is copied to the device. I've set up a lot of "modern" (post 2014) Celeron and Pentium based machines at companies where I have worked and they were fine for every day tasks; once they got over the initial indexing thing. The limited cores and limited performance meant the PC would be indexing on idle and when you started using it again, it took a second for the indexing processes to go back to idling, which caused a small lag. After a day or so (depending on idle time and amount of data – I usually set the PCs up and left them running over night) the performance would level out and the little pauses would all but disappear.</p><p>It will be interesting to see if those same lags are there once the Folio has "settled in".</p>

    • RonH

      Premium Member
      19 November, 2018 - 11:12 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#369781">In reply to wright_is:</a></em></blockquote><p><span style="color: rgb(0, 0, 0); background-color: rgb(255, 255, 255);">I have found the same thing when setting up or updating friends and family's PCs. Update, install, set up defaults, and then let it percolate for a day or 2…</span></p>

  • RobertJasiek

    19 November, 2018 - 11:04 am

    <p>Very interesting, thank you! Now, we'll learn about battery life.</p>

  • waethorn

    19 November, 2018 - 11:08 am

    <p>tl;dr version: Windows is a pig.</p>

  • madthinus

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2018 - 12:03 pm

    <p>2W does not sound like much, but the air has a 40% greater power window. That is not nothing considering power is performance. So the Air potential has 40% additional performance on tap. 40%. That is significant and a differentiator. </p>

  • tripleggg

    19 November, 2018 - 12:41 pm

    <p>Design is the perfect convertable design … hp nailed it. Keyboard is excellent … would like the mousepad to be larger but not deal killer. Love using mine, I do a lot of note taking with the pen. It’s just perfect moving between laptop mode and tablet mode … no taking the screen off as a sb2 requires … and no fold over of other laptops 2in1 design. Love just folding it up and throwing it into my bag. Perfect format. </p><p><br></p><p>I find the battery life excellent for office work … all day for me … 8-10h… found it equivalent to sb2 15” … I do lots of onenote note taking with the pen, screen set on very bright and web browsing via chrome. I haven’t tried it on cellular … seems battery life improves in that scenario … only would use traveling so not my day to day need. Nice to have it. </p><p><br></p><p>Flaws are: aspect ratio and screen size. I need the 3:2 ratio of surfaces, and more screen size. Wierd how they did the 3:2 ratio with the Qualcomm spectre x2 but nit this device. </p><p><br></p><p>They have higher res screens shipping at end of year … hope they give more screen SIZE too. </p><p><br></p><p><br></p>

  • Sykeward

    19 November, 2018 - 12:44 pm

    <p>Intel CPU performance has gotten really murky lately. Anandtech did a great rundown showing that Intel's newest chips routinely pull much more power than their stated TDP, especially under load, and that much of that behavior is left up to the mobo/system OEM to configure in firmware. You can't really look at the CPU's specs and do an apples to apples comparison anymore.</p>

  • Polycrastinator

    19 November, 2018 - 3:18 pm

    <p>Interestingly, we have a customer who got a MacBook Air a couple of weeks ago, and has been complaining of sluggish performance on it. I was connected in today and could see what he meant. It just feels like everything take a moment before it pops up, every action lags. He's not using it for much: Safari, Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and was only using about half the memory on the unit. But he hadn't installed the latest OS update so I'm hoping that will resolve the issue.</p><p>Still, it was jarring in comparison to what I've heard from reviewers about the device.</p>

  • timo47

    Premium Member
    19 November, 2018 - 3:32 pm

    <p>Surely, the overall performance of a PC is determined by more than just he CPU and the OS? What kind of RAM is being used? What kind of disk is in both machines? Etc.</p>

    • FalseAgent

      20 November, 2018 - 1:45 am

      <blockquote><em><a href="#369880">In reply to timo47:</a></em></blockquote><p>the SSD controller on PCs are usually result in slower I/O speeds than Macs where Apple uses a custom controller via their T2 thing. This difference might be why the less capable Mac still feel smoother than the PC for Paul.</p>

  • Richardsona39

    19 November, 2018 - 7:08 pm

    <p>I have a 2017 XPS 13 2-in-1 which is a similar fanless Y-series design but with older processors (i5 in my case). For what I use it for for work – email, Powerpoint, Word, web browsing – it is perfectly fine. I have an X1 Yoga for more heavy duty stuff, and a desktop for heavier still. I'm sure this HP is more than up to the work tasks that it is meant for. Synaptics trackpad is only bummer (oh, and missing SD card slot of any kind)</p>

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