HP Spectre Folio Review

Posted on December 13, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 37 Comments

That HP’s Spectre Folio is unique is the understatement of the year. With its hybrid leather and metal body, it presents a handsome and professional design that is unlike anything else in the market. But does this design makes sense? And does the Folio deliver on the performance and longevity that a premium PC buyer should expect?

Design

When HP launched the Spectre Folio a few months back, my knee-jerk reaction was that its leather-clad body was some kind of a gimmick, the result of a brainstorming session in which the firm was trying to take a step up from the Alcantara carpet that Microsoft uses on its Surface Laptop line. But I’ve come to realize two things about this innovative product since then: The leather is no gimmick. And it’s not even the most innovative thing about this PC.

But we must address the leather first. It is, after all, the first thing that anyone will notice, and it is the obvious starting point for any conversation about the Spectre Folio.

From a design perspective, HP didn’t simply create a convertible laptop and then wrap the outer frame in a leather shell or slipcase. Nor did it glue this material to metal, as Microsoft did, infamously, with the Alcantara. Instead, it used leather as the chassis for this PC and then integrated a metal frame, batteries, display, and an incredibly small motherboard into this base.

The result is a cohesive whole. There is never any sense that the leather and metal might separate, because they won’t, and there is every sense that this is a single, harmonious creation. It looks and feels high-quality because it is.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the leather that HP used more closely resembles a basketball than it does the leather used on an expensive wallet, iPhone case, or jacket. That’s by design, and the HP-chosen leather will withstand years of use and abuse without discoloring or thinning. But you also won’t experience the pleasant patina effect that occurs to other leather products as they age. It is, at least, available in two colors, the Cognac brown on the review unit, which I prefer, and a more purplish Bordeaux Burgundy.

From a more pragmatic standpoint, adding a leather covering on top of a traditional, clamshell-style laptop would probably be no more difficult than gluing a carpet to a keyboard deck. But I suspect that HP’s decision to make the Spectre Folio a more versatile convertible laptop necessitated the more sophisticated design we see here.

In an interesting twist, this in turn influenced the unique way in which you move the Spectre Folio between its various usage modes. And in using this PC over the past month or so, I’ve become ever more convinced that they’re onto something here. The Spectre Folio is, I think, the most elegant convertible PC design yet.

In transit, it’s a literal folio, and thanks to the leather, many observers will simply assume you are, in fact, just carrying a folio full of documents.

You open the Spectre Folio into a traditional clam-shell-style laptop usage mode as you do with any laptop: Just open the display lid, exposing the display, keyboard, and touchpad. It looks and works exactly like any laptop, though the comfortable, leather-clad wrist rest will be a regular reminder that you’re using something special.

But this is where things get interesting.

Like other convertibles, the Spectre Folio supports other usage modes related to viewing content and using it like a thick tablet PC. But the way in which you convert this PC into those usage modes is new and unique. And it relies on a completely different kind of hinge.

Put more truthfully, there is no hinge: Instead, the bottom of the display panel is attached to the keyboard deck by very strong magnets when used in folio and laptop modes. These magnets—and the lack of a hinge—do not in any way detract from a usability perspective. You can still choose from a range of useful screen angles in laptop mode, for example, and the display stays where you leave it.

But to move the Spectre Folio into a content consumption mode, you actually detach the display panel from the base and pull it forward, at the bottom, so that it will rest in the area between the bottom of the keyboard and the top of the touchpad. Here, too, (less strong) magnets guide the way so that the display falls naturally into the correct position.

This is genius. Unlike with other convertible designs, where the keyboard is under the PC and touching the table or surface on which it rests, the keyboard here never moves and is hidden behind the forward-leaning display. The touchpad is still available, too, so you can control media playback, perhaps, far more easily. (You can also do so with touch, of course.) And as important, the incline of the display in this mode is perfect for that most classic of scenarios in which you might need to use the PC like this: The cramped quarters of a coach airline seat.

Convertible PCs are designed to be versatile, but they also favor the traditional laptop form factor because this is the way that most people will use the PC most of the time. The Spectre Folio is no different, and the resulting tablet PC form factor is, of course, a bit big and heavy compared to using a true tablet like Surface Pro. But there are advantages to HP’s approach, too.

To get into this tablet mode, you simply pull the display forward yet again. As you do so, the top and back of the display push down, and the leather folds under it. This creates a slight incline, which makes the Folio more comfortable for smartpen usage. So instead of a compromised design, you get a more optimal design.

That HP was able to extract the maximum amount of usefulness out of each of these usage modes and do so using a design that is both intuitive and easy to use is, if not a miracle, then at least impressive. And the more I’ve used it over time, the more I’ve impressed I’ve become.

It’s not perfect, of course. The leather overhangs the sides quite a bit—let’s say about a third of an inch, which can make finding and inserting USB-C plugs a bit trying.

And while HP includes a nice leather pen loop in the box with the Spectre Folio, it’s not attached (so that you can choose which side you want it on. And when you do attach it, it looks awkward when the PC is used in the content consumption usage mode. Oops.

These are minor quibbles, however. Overall, HP’s melding of leather and metal is nothing short of an overwhelming success, and it has resulted in the best convertible PC experience yet. You’re going to love the design.

Display

Housed in a semi-detachable leather and metal upper panel, the Spectre Folio’s display is bright and colorful, its 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution is probably adequate for this form factor and product type. You can upgrade to a 4K display, but the point of the 1080p choice is about optimizing battery life. My only real gripe is that it’s a 16:9 display sitting in a panel that could easily accommodate a superior 3:2 design.

Oddly, there are two different 1080p display options, too, one of which is 300 nits and the other, in the review unit, which is a much brighter 400 nits. (The 4K display is also 400 nits.) But that, too, is about battery life: The 300 nit display uses just 1 watt of energy. All are protected by Gorilla Glass 4, and all are both multitouch and smartpen compatible.

The bezels aren’t particularly small. But thanks to the way the panel is inset into the leather, the overall look is fine. And because the bottom of the panel detaches so you can switch into a consumption or tablet usage mode, the large lower bezel seems a bit less onerous than usual.

But seriously, HP. 3:2. It would be a particularly good match for this PC.

Components and ports

The HP Spectre Folio is powered by a dual-core Core i7-8500Y processor running at 1.61 GHz. Note that this is a Y-series part, and is similar to that found in the new MacBook Air. It’s bolstered by 8 to 16 GB of LPDDR 3 RAM and 256 GB of PCIe-based SSD storage. (The review unit has 16 GB of RAM.)

I was worried enough about the performance of the Y-series processor that I performed some tests early on and wrote a separate article, HP Spectre Folio Review Check-In: Performance. The short version is that the Spectre Folio performs adequately for what I’ll call everyday tasks, basically, traditional productivity applications. There’s some slowness at first—the initial OneDrive sync, for example, or when you first install Microsoft Office. But day-to-day usage has been, if not exceptional, then at least perfectly ordinary.

Benchmarks point to the same conclusion: On the PC Mark 10 tests, the Spectre Folio scored 3002 overall and 5769 on the productivity test. By comparison, the first-generation Surface Laptop scored 3034 and 5174, respectively. And the quad-core Surface Laptop 2 scored 3139/4642. Those two Surface Laptops, which utilize more powerful Core i5 processors, are better performers overall, but I think these numbers suggest that, in day-to-day productivity use, the differences are minimal.

While the Spectre Folio’s performance won’t wow you per se, it also doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The system is fanless and thus completely silent, which is a huge plus. And when you combine this with the portability benefits described below—especially its epic battery life—you have the makings of an excellent overall system.

Expansion is excellent for a modern, thin and light PC like the Spectre Folio: It includes three USB-C ports, two of which are Thunderbolt 3-capable. This means you can plug it into power—using a very nice and premium-looking fabric-wrapped power cable—and still have two USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports to work with.

Of course, figuring out which of the USB-C ports doesn’t h have Thunderbolt 3 capabilities is an exercise for the well-sighted. I’ll spare you the squinting: It’s the one on the left, which means that both Thunderbolt 3-powered ports are on the right. (And yes, this is reminiscent of the old days of PC makers using some combination of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports.)

Beyond the USB-C ports, there’s a standard headphone/mic combo port, which is located at the bottom left of the display panel. This was a good choice, since your headphone cable will never get in the way of the display, no matter which position it’s in.

Audio quality varies according to the usage mode. In standard laptop mode, the system’s Bang & Olufsen-tuned quad speakers sound crisp and clear. But when you move the display forward into consumption mode, you block those speakers, forcing the sound to come out the side; it’s more muffled.

The webcam is surprisingly decent with a 1080p resolution and Windows Hello capabilities. The system also has far-field microphones so you can use them from across the room with Cortana and other digital personal assistants.

Finally, Spectre Folio buyers can choose from two configurations that include gigabit LTE. In fact, HP tells me that this is the first PC with an Intel XMM 7560 cellular modem, which offers gigabit (CAT16) LTE capabilities. And it even features dual SIMs via an integrated eSIM and an externally-accessible (under the display) SIM card slot.

The review unit includes LTE, and I’m once again reminded of how freeing it is to be able to switch between Wi-Fi and LTE as I move around. I’ve noted before that this type of configuration, which Microsoft calls an Always-Connected PC, is the future of personal computing. And you can see it writ large here.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

Set into the keyboard base between a stylized speaker grill and the wrist rest area, the HP Spectre Folio’s island-style keyboard is excellent, with quick, snappy key action. It’s backlit, as you should expect, with two levels of lighting.

One minor nit: HP put the Home, Page Up, Page Down, and End keys in a vertical row on the far right of the keyboard. I don’t like this kind of layout personally. But of course, those who buy the machine will simply get used to it.

Thanks perhaps to the Folio’s unique design, the wrist rest is shorter than I’d normally like, and the glass touchpad is very small. But I didn’t have a problem using either, and I found the pointing experience to be reliable and error-free. Given the size, multitouch gestures are a bit difficult, but I don’t use that functionality all that much.

HP includes an HP Pen with every Spectre Folio, and given the PC’s elegant tablet usage mode, I could see the pen getting more use than is typical with convertible PCs. It’s solid entry too, with a properly-sized barrel and two buttons (but no eraser). But it lacks tilt capabilities. The good news? The performance is excellent, and I never lost track of my strokes when writing or drawing. (And if you want an even better pen, HP offers a Spectre Tilt Rechargeable Pen that works with the Folio.)

HP also bundles a pen loop with the Folio, though it’s not attached to the PC by default. This is by design, as you might want to place it on the right or left side of the display. I like the idea. But the positioning is awkward when you use the Folio in consumption mode.

Portability

At 3.28 pounds, the Spectre Folio is noticeably heavier than the new MacBook Air, which weighs 2.75 pounds, or the 2.8-pound Surface Laptop 2. This makes sense: Convertible laptops always weigh more than traditional laptops, and I suspect that the leather hybrid design contributed a bit to that as well.

That said, I don’t feel that this PC is overly-heavy and would have no problem traveling with. In fact, I can’t wait.

From a longevity perspective, HP reports that the Spectre Folio is capable of up to 21 hours of battery life, but that upper limit is for local and offline video playback. In my own tests, I saw over 17 hours of battery life streaming HD video over Wi-Fi, the best result I’ve ever recorded with an Intel-based PC. By comparison, the similarly-configured MacBook Air hit 13 hours on this same test, and Surface Laptop 2 came in at a bit over 14 hours.

Looking over my real-world battery usage over time, I see that the HP Spectre routinely achieved well over 10 hours of use. That’s right in line with the 10.75 hours of wireless browsing that HP claims.

Almost as important, the bundled HP charger can Fast Charge the Spectre Folio to 50 percent in just 30 minutes. I’ve noticed that it will warn you via a pop-up when you use a different charger, but it’s also smart enough to protect itself against errant USB chargers.

Put simply, this is one of the most efficient and longest-lasting PCs I’ve ever used.

Software

The Folio comes with Windows 10 Home, in keeping with the target market for HP’s prosumer/premium Spectre lineup. There’s nothing HP can do about the crapware that Microsoft bundles with its operating system. But the firm does add some bloat of its own. Fortunately, most of it in the form of system utilities. But there are way too many of them.

There are at least two related to audio for some reason—HP Audio Control and HP Audio Switch—plus some vaguely named programs like HP PC Hardware Diagnostics Windows and HP System Event Utility that don’t exactly inspire confidence. But the worst one, sadly, is the most necessary: The HP Help and Support app will be familiar to most HP PC owners. And it takes a slow-moving and manual approach to installing drivers that I find increasingly infuriating. I wish this could happen through Windows Update.

Pricing and configurations

The HP Spectre Folio ain’t cheap: It starts at $1400 and goes up from there, and with LTE and RAM upgrades, you could spend as much as $1600 on one. That said, it is a premium PC, and with its unique leather design, optional LTE connectivity and epic battery life, it’s not hard to justify the price point.

Interestingly, the new MacBook Air is the same price for the same RAM and storage configurations. But the list of what you don’t get with the Apple product is embarrassingly long: Optional LTE connectivity, better battery life, more expansion, unique leather design, convertible PC design, multitouch display, and bundled smartpen. To get all that from Apple, you’d have to buy a MacBook Air, an iPad, and an Apple Pencil.

Obviously, not everyone can afford a Spectre Folio. So if this pricing is a bit too steep for your wallet, that’s fine: You have plenty of great convertible PC choices today, from HP and others. But those who can afford it will appreciate its style and functionality.

Recommendations and conclusions

Just when you think that we’ve seen all the innovation we’re ever going to see in the PC industry, HP comes along and mixes it all up again. The Spectre Folio is a unique combination of materials, style, and functionality that is unmatched elsewhere in the industry. And the new way in which it converts between usage modes is truly innovative an is, I think, a true breakthrough.

The HP Spectre Folio is highly-recommended.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Unique and professional-looking leather body
  • Versatile hinge with multiple usage modes
  • Stellar battery life
  • Excellent keyboard
  • Solid display choices

Cons

  • Expensive
  • 16:9 display
  • Too many extraneous HP utilities
  • HP Pen in loop can be awkward in consumption mode
  • Audio is muffled in consumption mode

 

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