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HP Spectre 13-inch
HP Spectre 13-inch

Reborn market leader hits prestige button to reboot the Windows laptop. HP Spectre prices start at NZ$2500.

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 Spectre – The thinnest laptop

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.

Beautiful hardware

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.

HP ambition

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.

Battery life

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.

HP Spectre keyboard
HP Spectre keyboard

 

Keyboard, trackpad

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.

Not touchy-freely

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.

Bang and Olufsen speakers
Bang and Olufsen speakers

Sound, ports

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 Spectre - Two rear USB-C ports
HP Spectre – Three rear USB-C ports

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.

Price

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.

Microsoft Surface

In hindsight most users agree Windows 8 was a stinker. Many thought so at the time.

Windows 8’s reception so traumatised Microsoft the company drew a clear line under the operating system. To emphasise this, Windows skipped a version moving direct from 8 to 10.

One reason desktop and laptop owners didn’t warm to Windows 8 was because of its touch screen features. Not only could most people not use them on their existing devices, but the touch screen apps and features were often confusing in a non-touch context.

It wasn’t much better on a touch-screen PC. Switching between two modes was awkward.

Tablet or desktop OS?

Windows 8 made more sense on a tablet.

When Microsoft’s Surface arrived we saw what the software giant had tried to do. While it wasn’t perfect, Surface with Windows 8 was a plausible alternative to iOS or Android tablets[1].

Android and iOS were born mobile. They were phone operating systems first. Although moving them to tablets wasn’t seamless, it was straightforward.

For Windows the transition was rougher. It’s no accident that if we’re strict about the term, most popular Windows 10 tablets aren’t tablets at all.

Hybrid

They are hybrids. No-one considers buying a Surface Pro without also buying a keyboard at the same time. The same applies to models from Huawei and Samsung.

You never see people using Windows 10 tablets in the portrait phone orientation. They are almost always used in landscape mode. Like laptops.

Surface Pro users look like they are using laptops, because that’s how they are working. Hybrid tablets are, in effect, an alternative laptop design.

While you could say something similar about the iPad Pro and some Android models, at least they keep their born-mobile operating systems.

Orientation

You can sit on the sofa with an iPad Pro in the portrait orientation. Sure, you can do the same with Surface, but it’s not as natural.

If Surface and other Windows 10 hybrids are, in effect, a different take on laptop design, they have a few obvious disadvantages compared with more conventional laptops.

First, they are expensive. Surface Pro 4 prices start at around NZ$1850 if you include a keyboard.

There’s a big performance jump between the cheapest model and the lowest Intel i5 model which would take the price up to around $2000.

Ultrabooks better value

You can get a lot of conventional laptop for the same money. Prices for Ultrabooks with an Intel i5 processor start at less than NZ$1000. Or you could buy a lot of iPad or Android tablet.

Second, Surface Pro battery life remains terrible. This may not be the case with the Huawei and Samsung hybrids.

Not only do you get a less active battery life from a Surface Pro 4, but the battery doesn’t last long on standby either.

Battery woes

You can flip the power off on, say, the HP Spectre Windows laptop — review coming soon — and know there will be plenty of juice later in the day, or the next day or the day after.

That’s not the case with a Surface Pro. Come back later the same day and you may need to bring the charger.

Third, while Windows 10 hybrids can run most of the vast Windows software catalog, there aren’t many tablet optimised Windows apps. You end up doing everything in the Windows browser.

That may not be bad for you. You may prefer to work that way. But it is not the same smooth experience you’ll get with an Android or iOS tablet.

When there are Windows 10 tablet-style apps, developers give them less love. Developers update Windows tablet apps slower or less often than their Android or iOS versions. They’re not being difficult, they are responding to market demand.

Dog’s breakfast

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Windows 10 tablets is how they display non-tablet Windows apps. At times the screen is a dog’s breakfast.

Load up a tablet-style app from Microsoft’s Windows Store and you’ll get crisp text, clear lines, smooth graphics. All good.

Now go and load an old-school Windows app. There’s a chance the text is tiny, not resized to account for the high resolution screen. If that’s not the case, then instead of showing larger text, the pixels from small text sizes are blown up leaving blurry, hard to read writing.

Windows 10 laptops better than tablets

Why does this post’s headline say Windows 10 laptops are better than tablets? As we’ve seen, Windows 10 tablets are used in much the same way as laptops. Yet, apart from weight, they don’t have many obvious advantages.

Meanwhile, they have poor battery life and there is not much decent Windows 10 tablet software. It isn’t the focus of this post, but most laptops also offer better keyboards.

There’s nothing foolish about buying a Surface Pro 4 or any other Windows 10 tablet. The best are fine devices. I’d consider one for my use. Hybrid sales show Windows 10 tablets hit a nerve with customers.

Yet four generations on from the first Surface models, they still haven’t met their full potential. Windows 10 tablets could be an incredible productivity tool, but they are not there yet.


  1. We shouldn’t forget Windows RT. More confusion perhaps, but overall a more tablet-like experience.  ↩

PC sales

HP New Zealand managing director Grant Hopkins says higher overheads and warranties are behind the premium we pay when buying Windows PCs.

While New Zealanders get the same hardware as US or UK customers, we get better warranties.

He says HP’s US customers get a one-year warranty. That’s it. In New Zealand the Consumer Guarantees Act applies when non-business people buy computers. [1]

Acceptable quality

According to the CGA, goods must be of acceptable quality. Cutting through the legal language, this means consumers can expect a PC to last more than just one year.

Exactly how long it should last isn’t specified in the Act. But most of us have a good idea of what is reasonable or acceptable.

In practice if a computer bought in New Zealand stops working two [2] years after you buy it, you have a right to a repair, replacement or refund. Retailers can’t argue about any of this. Australian consumer laws are similar. [3]

Retailers are responsible for the goods they sell. That’s where you go if there are problems.

Carrying the can

Yet computer brands like HP know they won’t get anywhere if they let their retailers carry the can for poor quality products. They end up running in-house or outsourced support operations to deal with returned products and looking after their retailers and distributors.

While a brand like HP only has to worry about computers for one year in the US, in New Zealand a computer stays on the books as a potential liability two years after a customer buys it.

PC support costs are not directly proportional to the number of computers sold. In the US HP’s support operation gets economies of scale that aren’t possible in New Zealand. There are other economies of scale in a big country.

A big margin

Whether these costs add up to the full 60 percent premium New Zealanders pay over the American price is debatable. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Windows PCs often sell for more in New Zealand than elsewhere. The price difference  dramatic. Apple doesn’t mark up its hardware as much as the Windows PC makers.

Mind the gap

It means the gap between Apple and Windows PC prices is lower in New Zealand than in the UK.

In the linked story The Guardian’s Jack Schofield advises a reader about buying a work-from-home PC.

He says the HP Stream 11 is a low-cost option. Although it’s not recommended as a work machine, the Stream 11 is there to show how low prices can go. In the UK the HP Stream 11 costs £130.

Exchange rates fluctuate. More so in the last few days. In round numbers the pound is worth two New Zealand dollars. So the Stream 11 UK price in New Zealand dollars is about $260.

Twice the UK price

The same model sells in stores here for $500. That’s almost double the UK price.

In December I compared the New Zealand price of the Spectre X2 to the Microsoft Surface Pro 4. At the time HP’s computer cost 60 percent more in New Zealand than in the US. That’s after taking GST into account.

It’s not just HP. You can compare US or UK prices for other popular Windows PC brands with what you pay here. Most brands charge New Zealand customers a premium. Sometimes a hefty premium.

Anger management

Readers often get angry about higher New Zealand hardware prices. That’s understandable.

One idea that comes up often when discussing the subject is buying PCs direct from the USA. There’s nothing to stop you from doing so, but there are pitfalls:

  • You are not entitled to local support. While some online retailers are responsive, that’s not common.
  • You buy on US warranty terms: 12 months. If you buy a decent model from a good quality brand that won’t be a problem.
  • Customs adds GST when the computer lands in New Zealand. Remember that is an extra 15 percent on the US price. It may also slow delivery.
  • It’s rare these days, but in the past people buying direct from the US have had odd, frustrating incompatibilities.

Hopkins has a point. You get something back in return for higher local prices. You may see the longer warranty as worth the cost.

It’s still your choice what to do. A toss-up depending on your tastes, needs and your ability to be your own service department. You can pay the local premium for more consumer rights or bank the savings.


  1. This only applies to computers sold to consumers. PCs purchased for business are not covered by the Consumer Guarantees Act.  ↩
  2. Two years isn’t written down anywhere. Something that gets hammered out in the field might be of acceptable quality and still die after a year. You might have a strong case if other devices die months after their second birthday.  ↩
  3. Australia’s consumer laws are similar. In most other countries you’ll have a harder time getting satisfaction if something goes wrong after 12 months.  ↩

New Zealanders pay almost the same price as everyone else for Apple computers. That’s not the case with PCs. That changes the way some of us think about buying and choosing devices. 

Writing at The Guardian, Jack Schofield tells a UK reader an Apple MacBook is an expensive choice for working from home.

It is. He says:

“The cheapest Windows 10 laptops cost around £130, which compares with £749 for the cheapest MacBook Air.”

Apple computer customers pay a premium. That’s universal. We know that.

Yet the size of the Apple premium over other brands depends on where you live. In New Zealand, the price gap between Apple and its rivals is lower.

Lenovo, HP less expensive

Schofield names the Lenovo Ideapad 100s and the HP Stream 11 as two of the least expensive Windows laptops in the UK.

When a Stream 11 or Ideapad 100s is £130 and a MacBook Air is £749, the British can buy almost six of the low-cost Windows laptops for the same price as one MacBook.

In New Zealand the ratio between Apple and low-cost Windows laptops is lower.

New Zealand PC prices

At NZ$1600, Apple’s cheapest MacBook Air still costs much more than a basic Windows laptop. You can buy an HP Stream 11 here for NZ$500 — the price is now higher than when I reviewed it. Shop around and you’ll find Lenovo Ideapad 100s prices start at NZ$450.

Which means a New Zealand buyer can get 3.2 low-cost HP Stream 11 laptops for the price of a MacBook Air. Or 3.5 Lenovo Ideapads.

In both cases the New Zealand ratio is more favourable to Apple than the UK example in The Guardian.

The Guardian story points out bargain basement Windows laptops are not a good idea for most people.

Mark-up

Schofield goes on to mention other, more suitable Windows laptops. Not all of them are on sale in New Zealand. Yet in every case where you can compare, New Zealanders pay a lower premium if they choose to buy a MacBook Air instead.

By the time you get to the upmarket Windows laptops Schofield mentions in his The Guardian story, some sell for more in New Zealand than the cost of a MacBook Air.

So while Apple Macs are expensive choices sold at a premium price in New Zealand, the premium we pay for Apple product is not as high here as it is overseas. [1]

Perception, reality

This alters our perception. What we see as a bit more expensive is a lot more expensive in the UK.

There is an unpleasant side to this. In an ideal world we could write about computers without worrying about snob value. Human nature makes that impossible.

In the UK, someone paying five times as much for an Apple laptop gets to flaunt their wealth more than a New Zealander paying three times as much. This nonsense matters to some people.

And that’s where this leads us: perception and reality. New Zealand computer buyers see the Apple MacBook in a different light to UK buyers because, when it comes to PC prices, we live in a different reality.


  1. This hasn’t always been the case. In the past New Zealanders had to pay many times the US price for some Mac models.  ↩

Abstract, Jackson Pollock

Technology develops at two speeds.

Most of the time it moves at a smooth pace. There is a constant stream of small, incremental updates, bug fixes and minor changes. Software version numbers tick over by decimal point or less.

Now and then we see a great leap forward. An unexpected new device, app or service emerges almost from nowhere.

Everything changes

Great leaps change everything. They destroy old categories and create new ones. Think iPhone, Google search, tablets or Amazon Web Services[1].

It has been a while since the last great leap forward. We can argue about what it was in the comments if you like[2].

Despite the industry pushing hard in 2015, nothing seismic happened. It was a year of consolidation.

At best we can say some companies laid the seeds of possible future great leaps. While we won’t know what they are until they flower, driverless cars may be one.

This isn’t unusual. Great leaps forward don’t happen every year. Indeed, there are more years without great leaps than with them.

Stagnation

Something that is almost the inverse of a great leap forward happened in 2015. We saw stagnation and worse.

The worse would be Personal computers. These have struggled for years. Sales continue to fall. There has been little noteworthy innovation since Apple introduced the MacBook Air.

Touchscreens were a fizzer. The biggest slump in PC sales coincided with the mainstream arrival of touchscreens.

The problem is with Windows PCs. Apple sales have grown while Windows computer sales show double-digit declines.

Even Apple shows weakness. The new MacBook was a clever attempt to meet a market need. It works well for some users, but sales haven’t caught fire.

Bright spot

One bright spot is advanced hybrid portables like Microsoft’s Surface Pro and the Huawei Matebook introduced last week. Their sales are growing at around 20 percent albeit from a small base.

Hybrid sales may be growing, but they aren’t winning new hearts fast enough to plug the gaps elsewhere in the PC business.

Phones have replaced PCs at the centre of our working and online lives. For years they developed at a clip adding exciting and useful new features each year.

In 2015 that came to a halt. Phones got a little better. Cheap phones got better. But there was no compelling new features to justify faster-than-essential upgrades.

Phone technology has stagnated. No doubt there are cool new ideas bubbling in the labs in Apple, Samsung or Huawei. But, at least for now, we appear to have reached the limit of existing phone formats.

Fixing Windows

Windows 10 is a better effort from Microsoft than the limp Windows 8, but it does little more than put the operating system back on track. It is not a dramatic breakthrough. It is a much-needed fix.

Microsoft scores better elsewhere. Office continues to evolve and spread its reach to new devices. The Surface Pro 4 and the Surface Book are great computers, but neither is a great leap forward.

The most hyped introduction of 2015 was Apple’s Watch. It wasn’t new, a slew of watches were already on sale when it arrived.

It wasn’t special. Sure, many people reading this will disagree and tell me how their Watch is an essential part of their life. It’s almost a year after the Watch first appeared and there is no buzz. Even developers have given up sending out gushing press releases about Watch apps.

Virtual reality continues to generate media copy. Devices may pour out from factories, but little is happening with content. And the content that has appeared is lame.


  1. This, it turns out, is how most life scientists now think evolution works. Smooth changes and occasional big jumps.  ↩
  2. My picks for the most important recent developments are software defined networking and network function virtualisation. While the technologies are big news for service providers they’re invisible to everyday technology customers. That’s hardly the stuff of a great leap forward.  ↩