HP Spectre x360 (2016) Review: The Best Gets Even Better

Posted on December 4, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Windows 10 with 32 Comments

HP Spectre x360 (2016) Review: The Best Gets Even Better

Like its predecessor, the 2016 model HP Spectre x360 is a near-perfect convertible PC. But this version is even better, for the most part, with a smaller and lighter form factor, excellent battery life, and more modern specs.

If you consider the evolved design of the new 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.

Of course, any 2-in-1 or convertible PC will sacrifice a bit of thinness because of the needs of its multi-touch screen. But in a pragmatic and customer-focused move, HP has shifted that compromise a bit in a direction it believes will benefit more customers. And it clearly made the right decisions.

We’ll get to those decisions in a bit, but the benefits are immediately obvious: 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, whereas the previous model broke the important 3-pound barrier—and thus many user’s 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, a 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, though I could imagine some being turned off by the blandness of its silver/gray color. I like it.

There are 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.

speaker-and-rubber

New to 2016, there are four little rubber feet on the keyboard deck—gray 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 2016 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 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 has had to make some trade-offs in the screen. But remember, this was one area where the original generation x360 could be fairly criticized: That screen supported both touch and an active pen, and it was considerably thicker (and heavier) than the displays on the typical Ultrabooks of the day.

So for 2016, the Spectre x360 obviously retains multi-touch—in keeping with its convertible nature—but it loses a Quad-HD (QHD) option and active pen compatibility, both of which were available on previous models.

UPDATE: In February 2017, HP began selling models that provide active pen support and, optionally, a 4K/UHD ( 3840 x 2160 ) display. –Paul

The resulting display is a bright and colorful 13.3-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080) IPS screen that is wonderful to use. 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.

logo-bezel

I don’t find either of these missing features to be problematic given the nature of this device, which is laptop-first and tablet a distant second. 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.

tent

How you feel about these trade-offs will of course vary according to your needs.

Those who require an active pen will need to look elsewhere, of course, though one imagines this capability making a comeback as the technology improves and component prices come down. That said, the x360’s 16:9 display isn’t ideal for portrait mode usage because such displays appear stretched and overly-tall when used like that anyway.

The lack of a QHD display option will perhaps be problematic to a wider audience. But here again, I feel that we’ll see this option return to the lineup. And that Full HD isn’t just acceptable, but is in fact ideal for a 13.3-inch display that will be used primarily for productivity tasks and the occasional video, which, by the way will max out at Full HD anyway.

laptop

Here’s the thing. At Full HD, you will need to scale the display anyway, and without getting into an extended discussion about the ongoing issues with high DPI displays and Windows 10—please, just read this so I can shut up about it—let’s just say it’s not ideal. So while, yes, QHD would provide extra pixels, you’ll never really need those pixels, and their availability would impact the device’s battery life.

Point being, I feel that HP made the right decisions, the right trade-offs. And the inherent brilliance of this design is that most users won’t lose a thing—well, beyond weight, size, and thickness—by moving to the new x360.

Thanks to the thinner display, HP provided wider hinges for the new x360, and I haven’t noticed any obvious screen wobble in real world use. 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.

hinge

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 have 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.

flat

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 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.

usb-c

But the Spectre x360 also provides a single full-sized USB 3 port because, you know, we still live in 2016 and customers actually have a lot of USB peripherals that they’d like to use. What a concept.

ports

Missing in action, however, is a memory card slot of any kind—SD, microSD, whatever—though here 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. In the good news department, HP now supplies a Full HD webcam, and it supports Windows Hello, which was missing from the previous designs. Hooray to that.

top-bezel

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 retched original Dell XPS 13. This time around, we’ve heard nothing about any Microsoft collaboration, but then the hard work has already been done. And 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, and I’ve had no trouble connecting anywhere.

New to 2016, the Spectre x360 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 previous generation 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 thanks to a 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.

kb

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. 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.

clickpad

Battery

Battery life is excellent, and while I do little in the way of formal battery tests, I’ve found the 2016 HP Spectre x360 to be among the most durable of devices I’ve ever used on the go. You could fly across the country, using the x360 the entire way, and still have several hours of battery life left. Which I know because I did just that. And in a streaming HD video test using Microsoft’s Movies & TV app and cloud-hosted videos (with brightness set to 50 percent and the volume at 20 percent; these are real-world settings), I saw between 9 and 10 hours of battery life. (And using a modern app like this really helps: The fan doesn’t hiss like a cobra while playing video, and the result is, of course, reliably good battery life.)

Software

There is one final oddity for the HP Spectre x360: It ships with a year-old version of Windows 10 Home, version 1511. And while this will change as soon as this week, as I write this, you cannot yet upgrade to Windows 10 version 1607—e.g. Windows 10 with the Anniversary Update—using the normal Windows Update-based process. The reason, HP tells me, is an incompatible driver that should soon be resolved. But this was originally supposed to be resolved by mid-November and is part of the reason I’ve delayed publishing my review.

Using Windows 10 version 1511 isn’t a deal breaker per se, as I’ve been doing so for the past few months. But I do miss a few of the neat personalization features, and I discovered that my recently-purchased Windows Store version of Adobe Photoshop Elements actually requires 1511. (Upgrading to Windows 10 Pro is $70 extra, by the way.)

In keeping with previous premium HP PCs, the new Spectre x360 comes with a minimal, Signature-like software loadout. That means 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.

The base configuration—a Core i5 processor, 8 GB of RAM, and 256 GB of PCIe-based SSD storage—is just $1050. That’s actually about $50 more than a similarly-configured previous-generation x360, but is still a tremendous deal. For just $110 more, or $1160, you can step up to a Core i7 processor. The most expensive configuration, a Core i7 processor, 16 GB of RAM, and 1 TB of SSD, tops out at $1500.

Those prices are quite affordable, and you can configure the Spectre x360 to your liking on HP.com. The most popular configurations are available off-the-shelf at Best Buy as well

But let’s compare pricing with a few popular competitors.

A Surface Pro 4 (with Type Cover) with the same configuration as the base x360 costs $1170 after a special and temporary $200 off sale, or $1430 normally. That’s almost $400 more than the HP, which I find better meets the needs of most people. And if you look at the high-end configuration, you’ll save an astonishing $790 by choosing the HP, or—gulp—$1330 if we ignore the current Surface sale.

Compared to the excellent ThinkPad X1 Yoga, which is another contender for PC of the year, the HP likely shines from a pricing perspective, even when we factor in temporary sale prices. (Lenovo routinely has sales, so figuring out the real cost of its devices can be difficult.) An X1 Yoga that matches the specs of the entry-level x360 would set you back $1084 today (or $1550 before sale pricing), which is just a bit more expensive than the HP. But a high-end version that matches the most expensive x360 would cost $1161 today (or $1660 normally): That’s $160 more.

Math doesn’t lie. But note that both the Surface Pro 4 and X1 Yoga utilize previous-generation Intel processors. And the Surface has a smaller 12.3-inch 2736 x 1824 screen, while the X1 Yoga has a larger 14-inch Full HD display. Your needs and wants will vary, as will how you feel about a “tablet than can replace your laptop” vs. a “laptop that can occasionally be used as a tablet.” I tend to prefer the latter, which leaves the Surface Pro 4 out of the picture.

Recommendations and conclusions

So what would I buy?

Frankly, given the new baseline specs with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of storage, there is little reason to even consider upgrading past that unless you really need extra storage. In the dual-core CPU world, there is minimal if any benefit in upgrading from a Core i5 to a Core i7. I’d buy the $1050 base model. Should HP add QHD and active pen support in the future—or an OLED screen option—we can revisit that advice.

To recap, the HP Spectre x360 is a near-perfect convertible PC, especially for those ‘re looking for a productivity-focused laptop that can pull double-duty as a mobile entertainment hub. It does not support an active pen or QHD display at this time, which could limit its appeal for some. But I feel that its improved size, weight and thinness will benefit many more people.

The 2016 HP Spectre x360 is a PC I would buy with my own money, as I did with the previous-generation version. It is therefore highly recommended.

Spectre x360 at-a-glance

Pros

  • Thin and light form factor
  • Gorgeous edge-to-edge IPS display
  • Versatility
  • Excellent keyboard and clickpad
  • Windows Hello support
  • Premium style
  • Affordable pricing

Cons

  • No active pen
  • No Quad-HD display option
  • 16:9 display is awkward in tablet mode
  • Windows 10 Home
  • Doesn’t yet support Windows 10 version 1607

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