At a glance:
|For:||Thinnest laptop on market. Fast performance. Well made, attractive. Good keyboard.|
|Against:||Battery life good, but not best-in-class.|
|Maybe:||Lacks touch screen. Has three USB-C ports, no others.|
|Verdict:||The best Windows laptop we’ve seen in recent times.|
|Price:||From around NZ$2500.|
HP’s 13-inch Spectre is the thinnest laptop you can buy. At 10.4 mm, it is thinner than any Apple computer.
Despite being wafer thin, it doesn’t skimp on computing power. You can’t say the same about Apple’s MacBook.
Comparisons like this with the MacBook or MacBook Air are inevitable. HP doesn’t shy away from making similar observations in its marketing material.
Indeed, HP makes no secret it aims to match, and where possible, beat Apple.
At times this competition gets surreal. Do you want a thin laptop? Spectre is 2.5 mm thinner than the MacBook.
On paper, that number looks impressive. Put the two computers side by side and you’d be hard-pressed to see any difference in thickness.
You will notice something else when you put the two computers side by side. There is no mistaking which is which. Many thin Windows laptops do their darndest to look like MacBooks or MacBook Airs.
Spectre has a distinct style.
You may or may not like it. You can’t ignore the Spectre’s look. The case is black with shiny copper trim. The backlit keys are edged with more copper trim. They have characters printed on them in the same metallic colour.
Shiny, polished copper extends to the hinges which use tiny pistons to hold the thin screen in place and keep it steady.
Taken any further the copper trim would be as garish as a Las Vegas hotel, but HP knows when to stop. The look is deliberate. It says non-Apple premium laptop louder than any marketing message.
Cosmetics aside, the Spectre is beautifully made. HP uses quality materials and components throughout. In use, it feels like great engineering should. This high-class feel is perhaps Spectre’s most important connection with Apple.
With an excellent design, extreme portability and more than enough performance for most users, Spectre ticks all the important boxes.
As the new HP’s flagship laptop, Spectre sets the tone for the PC company’s ambition now it has split from the enterprise computing division. Spectre says HP doesn’t plan to cede the high-end of the laptop market to Apple without a fight.
That’s important. Laptop sales have plummeted in recent years. MacBooks still sell. Apple is a premium niche. It seems disconnected from the everyday Windows laptop market.
MacBooks make a respectable profit, the rest of the PC business is marginal. The new HP needs to on the right side of that divide. Spectre is HP’s best shot at getting there.
Away from the race to the bottom
One problem for Windows laptop makers is they have been in a race to the bottom. For the most part they churn out unexciting, undifferentiated, low-value models. The Windows laptop sector seem more concerned with offering the lowest price than the best experience.
HP — the PC and printer part of the company that split with the old Hewlett-Packard last year — still plays in the low cost Windows PC market. But with Spectre it is also trying something else. The strategy could work.
The importance of being powerful
In the laptop world thin and light usually means compromise. Until now it has been hard to pack the most powerful processors into a tiny case.
Apple uses Intel Core M processors in the MacBook. Some reviewers and customers criticise the 2015 MacBook for being slow. The 2016 model is faster, but still lacks the punch needed by the most demanding users.
Most of the time raw computing power isn’t an issue. It doesn’t matter if you just work with browsers and undemanding apps such as Microsoft Word. Load in a huge Excel spreadsheet or edit images with Photoshop and you’ll soon notice if a processor lacks punch.
Spectre uses Intel’s more powerful Core i5 and i7 chips. The review model has a Core i5–6200U running at 2.3 GHz. There’s 8 GB of ram. It adds up to a lot of computer power in a small space. And that’s the least powerful model in the range.
You may not notice the performance difference for everyday apps, but it makes a huge difference when running more demanding software. If there are Windows apps that challenge the HP Spectre, they’re not ones most of us normally use.
Apple still has the edge over HP when it comes to battery life. In part that’s because of the Core i processor’s higher drain. In my work I can get a full day use from a 2016 MacBook. With the Spectre I can’t go a full working day on a single charge.
HP claims 10 hours, which equals Apple’s claim for the 2016 MacBook. If I spend a busy eight-hour day in a client office, the MacBook gets me there with something left in the tank for emergencies.
Spectre doesn’t do as well. Even with aggressive battery saving it fades at around seven hours. Face it, who wants to work for hours on a dimmed screen? If I use it without attempting to extend the battery life, it doesn’t even make it all the way to five hours.
In other words working away from home for extended periods means carrying the power supply. It’s not the end of the world, but it undermines the extreme portability.
Although the Spectre is thin, typing feels natural. The keys have plenty of travel unlike the MacBook. Touch typists won’t need to adjust their technique. The top row of function keys are a touch shorter than normal, but nothing to cause problems once you adjust.
In practice I found I could type as well on the Spectre as on anything except a full-size mechanical keyboard.
Windows laptop trackpads are often disappointing. At first it felt like the Spectre would be the same, the keypad seems unresponsive. Moving the cursor was jerky. This could just have been a matter of adapting as after a few minutes it was well-behaved.
The Spectre trackpad is smaller than I’m used to. It measures 95 by 55 mm compared to 105 by 77 mm on the MacBook Air. The numbers make it look as if there’s not much difference, in practice the HP trackpad feels cramped compared to the MacBook Air.
Perhaps the biggest surprise with the Spectre is that it doesn’t have a touchscreen. In that sense it is an old-fashioned, traditional laptop.
The lack of a touchscreen also means it doesn’t conform to Intel’s 2013 definition of an Ultrabook. Not that failing to comply matters to anyone in the real world.
Touchscreens are standard fare on more expensive Windows laptops. They can be useful, many swear by them.
It’s your call. If you’re a touchscreen fan, don’t buy a Spectre.
Apart from my first few confused moments with the, normally touch-enabled login screen, the lack of a touch screen didn’t bother me. The productivity benefits of touch are overrated in everyday working. Constantly reaching from keyboard to screen brings a whole new set of repetitive strain problems.
Four Bang & Olufsen speakers produce decent quality sound. They are another example of HP’s quality throughout approach and Apple-like attention to detail.
Two speakers of are next to the typewriter keys, two bass speakers sit under the case.
Thin laptops often sound tinny when playing music with the volume cranked up high. That’s not the case here. You won’t get the volume up as high as with external speakers, but it is loud enough for a laptop.
The strong bass may surprise you. It’s great for music, but I found good speakers are an even bigger benefit when listening to people speak using apps like Skype.
HP has followed Apple’s 2015 MacBook design move opting for USB-C ports. These are slimmer than conventional USB ports and make sense on such a thin computer.
Where Apple expects MacBook owners to cope with a single USB-C port to handle charging and wired data transfer, HP has packed three along the back. So you can charge the laptop while connecting a back-up drive and your phone.
Is this a wise move? Many Apple owners complain one port is not enough. It never bothered me. There aren’t many times when I need to connect and charge at the same time. Yet, I suspect HP is giving customers the connectivity they want.
HP Spectre prices start at NZ$2500 for a laptop with the Intel Core i5, 8 GB of Ram, Intel HD Graphics 520 and 256 GB of SSD storage. This is the review model.
For NZ$3100 you can get a HP Spectre with an Intel i7 processor and a 512 GB SSD. There are two intermediate models.
A comparable 2016 Apple MacBook with a Core m running at the slower 1.1 GHz, 8 GB Ram and 256 GB SSD costs $2400.
Given the pluses and minuses of the two ranges, the pricing is on a par.
HP Spectre – praise, criticism
Spectre is as good as it gets for Windows 10 laptops. It’s the first non-hybrid Windows computer I’ve seen in a while that I’d be happy to use as my main system. I like the look and feel or, if you prefer, the user experience.
Design and build are both first class. Spectre has more than enough computing power for most people’s needs. Certainly enough for a journalist.
The only weak spot I found is the Spectre’s battery life and that isn’t bad. Two years ago the seven hours maximum would have seemed remarkable.
While HP Spectre has a premium price, it’s a sound investment if you spend lots of time with your laptop.