HP Spectre 13
HP has produced some excellent premium laptops recently that have caught people’s attention because of their surprisingly sensible prices – the HP Envy 13, for example. The Spectre 13 takes a different tack as it’s a flat-out ultra-premium laptop with a design you could pick out of a line-up from 20 paces and connectivity designed for the future more than the present.
HP’s grand claim for the Spectre 13 is that it’s the thinnest laptop in the world. The surprising part is that even in the plain numbers, it appears significantly slimmer than the 12in MacBook – Apple’s system is 13.1mm thick, this one is 10.4mm. In practice this means there’s no ‘bulge’ towards the back where core components such as the battery and CPU live. It’s skinny from front to back.
Pick the HP Spectre 13 up and it’s wonderfully thin and light. However, we’d advise against loading too much importance on this little thing’s 1cm-thick frame. To claim it’s really that much more portable than a laptop of a similar weight that’s 2mm thicker is wrong.
This is not a criticism of the hardware, only those who simply focus too much on design elements of only moderate practical importance. The laptop is among the most convenient and portable devices with a decent-sized screen.
Like the 12in MacBook, at its most basic level this is a very conventional laptop. The screen doesn’t come off, nor does it rotate around 360 degrees, although HP also produces a Spectre x360 that offers such a hinge. It’s actually relatively restrictive in these areas. The screen tilts back less than most laptops and it isn’t a touchscreen.
The display may lack flexibility, but it’s a very well made and eyecatching. The gold hinge is, bright enough to stun when it catches the light, and the rest of the laptop a brown-bronze that is the perfect counterpoint to the gold highlights.
You only have to look at the keyboard’s keys to see the attention to detail put in. The sides of the keys and lettering are gold (not dazzling this time), and the top bronze. This is a very striking two-tone laptop.
Its lid and keyboard surround are aluminium, while the underside is carbon fibre, which feels like a fancier take on plastic to the touch.
Some may be put off by the jewellery-like hinge of the Spectre 13, but the real reason to think twice is what’s on the back: the connections. As part of its mission to become the thinnest and most forward-looking laptop around, it has three USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack, and nothing else. There’s not a single full-size USB port.
In a couple of years, laptops using USB-C connectors only may be commonplace and largely not a problem. But at present it’s not for everyone. We, for example, keep a lot of our tests on an SSD drive, which we normally plug the drive into test laptops with a USB plug. The Spectre 13 comes with a single USB-C to USB adaptor, but when using it, the drive continually reported disconnections, making any transfers impossible. This could be down to a faulty driver or the adaptor cable not being designed to let the device pull too much current. Either way, it was a problem.
Similarly, the lack of a memory card slot will be an understandable deal-breaker for some. Not all of us are ready for the connectivity-lite future yet.
The theoretical capability of the ports is sound, though. One doubles as the power socket, and the other two have Thunderbolt 3.0 support, whose bandwidth is an impressive 40Gb/s. Whether you
love or hate the use of USB-C, the HP Spectre 13 does at least soundly beat the MacBook, which has a single Thunderbolt port, also used to charge the battery.
The connectivity may put off a lot of traditional laptop buyers, but in other areas the HP Spectre 13 is absolutely made for this audience. Namely, it has a nicely spaced full-size keyboard and a trackpad that doesn’t feel too cut-down to fit the frame in use. Being ultra-slim and light while still offering these computer staples is the Spectre 13’s whole reason to exist.
We’re happy to report that the HP hasn’t suffered from any of the keyboard torture Apple subjects some of its models to. This is a classic chiclet keyboard with surprisingly good key travel for a laptop this thin.
Key-press feedback is crisp, with a much more satisfying response than you’ll get from the ultra-flat 12in MacBook or the slightly hollow in situ feel of the Microsoft Surface’s offering. It’s a proper laptop keyboard, in other words.
A backlight makes typing in the dark much easier too, although unlike some other parts of the hardware it’s totally conventional. It’s either on or off, no gradations, and isn’t overly bright.
Compared to some larger models what it lacks slightly is some give after the initial key depress. This leads to the keys feeling slightly light mid-typing. However, we’re getting into real keyboard navelgazing territory now.
The trackpad is very good too, for a number of reasons. As you’d hope at the price, it uses a textured glass surface for a totally non-tacky feel. Its shape is sensible, too. Looking at it, the pad may appear a little ‘squashed’, vertically. And it is. However, it’s something we’ve only noticed while gaming. There’s plenty of space for comfortable general use. It is worth considering a little more if you need to do a lot of image editing, though.
Driver support is good, too. The pad is unusually well-behaved among Windows laptops. Where the last touch of style comes in is the click feedback. HP has got this just right. It’s virtually silent, doesn’t require too much force and still provides a great feel. This is not as common as you might think. While Apple has blazed ahead with a pressure-sensitive trackpad, other manufacturers still struggle to make a standard pad that feels like it doesn’t hate you.
The Spectre 13 has a 13.3in screen, which is our preferred size for a Windows machine that’s designed for ‘proper’ work on-the-go. You get enough screen space to do justice to complex applications, without the bulk of a 15.6in laptop.
It’s a 1080p IPS LCD display that, as mentioned earlier, does not use a touch layer. You’ll be using the trackpad 24/7 with this laptop.
A lot of our favourite portable Windows laptops of recent times use matt screens, but in keeping with the glitzy design, the Spectre 13 has a more trendy glossy finish. This means, like a MacBook, it picks up an awful lot of reflections when used outdoors or near a window.
The backlight has the brightness needed to compete, though, going up to 365cd/m2. We’ve used the Spectre 13 outdoors on a number of occasions, although we did need to ramp up the brightness much higher than we might with a matt-screen machine.
HP has aimed for the sRGB colour standard with the Spectre 13, which is what gets you natural-looking rather than oversaturated colours. It hits a respectable 90 percent of the sRGB spectrum and 65 percent of Adobe RGB. Native contrast is good for an LCD too, at 1300:1.
At this price you can find laptops with even higher resolutions and deeper colour, but this display is uniformly good in all respects.
One of the most curious parts of the Spectre 13 is how it defies expectations with its CPU. In a laptop this thin, we’d expect to see an Intel Core M series chipset. They’re tiny, can get by with passive cooling, and offer enough power for general productivity use.
This HP has an Intel Core i7-6500U, which is still part of Intel’s low-voltage range of CPUs, but has access to a few more gears than a Core M chipset.
Matched with 8GB RAM and fast all-SSD storage, the Spectre 13 feels very fast in day-to-day use. Quite how different an experience this is to using any system with a hard drive is a rather sad indictment of Windows 10.
This is still not a workhorse you’d want to replace a recent desktop PC with, but only really because the CPU has just two cores. The limits of its abilities aren’t as restrictive as a Core M laptop.
For example, the HP Spectre 13 can just about handle recent games a few years old only, if you’re willing to really pare back the settings. In our usual Thief 720p ‘low’ test benchmark, the laptop managed a just-playable average 23.8fps.
In Alien: Isolation, it achieved 37fps average at 720p resolution, low settings. That’s a very playable speed. Both games fell apart as soon as the resolution and visuals were increased, of course, but this is better than you get from most other devices this slim.
It is a shame there’s no Intel i7-6650U version of the Spectre 13, though. That CPU uses Intel Iris graphics rather than the bog-standard HD 520 chipset used here. It’s used in Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4, so fitting one in here would not be impossible.
Using an Intel i7-6500U also means the Spectre 13 can handle video and photo editing, although for any professionals out there, we’d only suggest using a machine like this as a backup. You’ll want a quad-core CPU for that sort of work.
In Geekbench, the Spectre 13 scores 6894 points, and 2735 in PCMark 8. This is almost exactly what we saw in the Asus UX303U, which uses the same CPU.
HP has used a decent solidstate drive here, too. It can read at 1589MB/s, and writes at 578MB/s.
One of the costs of using an Intel Core i7 rather than an ultra-low power Core M CPU is that the Spectre 13 needs to use fans. It can’t get by with a heatsink alone. A light-noise fan runs whenever the laptop is used, while another kicks in if the laptop is put remotely under strain.
When playing Thief, for example, it started whirring before we’d even reached the title screen. With a frame this thin, it clearly needs to be pre-emptive about its cooling. Note that the fan is loud for a laptop this dainty, and it may annoy others if you’re going to be using the Spectre 13 in a quiet environment.
Even with those fans whirring, the HP gets a little warm even with light use, with a hotspot at the back of the hinge where its heat outlets sit. The TDP of the CPU and the ultra-thin frame have an at times awkward relationship.
One option to combat fan noise is to turn on some music. HP uses Bang & Olufsen-branded speakers in the Spectre 13, though they’re not hugely impressive, especially when compared with those of the 12in MacBook. Several parts of this laptop seems to have had special attention lavished on them, but the speakers are much like some of the other Bang & Olufsen laptops. Some sound causes mid-range distortion at top volume, and the tone is slightly thin.
They aren’t dreadful and could be a lot worse given how thin the Spectre 13 is, but Apple’s MacBooks still lead the pack in this area, by some distance.
The other risky part of the HP Spectre 13 is battery life. While Core i7 CULV-series laptops are efficient, they can still draw more power than a Core M machine.
Sure enough, its stamina is good but not exceptional. When used out and about as a work computer, for writing and browsing, we found it lasted for six and a half hours.
Looping a video at 120cd/m2 screen brightness, the Spectre 13 lasted eight hours 55 minutes. This is similar to HP’s claims, although we did notice that the battery level dropped much faster when we put it under any sort of significant strain. If you’re just browsing and start to hear a louder fan whir, it is time to head to the Task Manager to see what’s up or you won’t see anything like this performance.
The HP Spectre 13 is desperate to appear as a laptop of the future, and that comes with substantial pros and cons. Its supreme portability is wonderful, and while its design is polarising, it certainly is fancy. There’s substance too, with a powerful CPU for a laptop this thin and solid build in the keyboard and trackpad. Its message is a little confused, though. The processor courts enthusiasts, but that’s exactly who’s likely to be most annoyed by the lack of memory card slot and a traditional USB port. There’s an audience for the Spectre 13, but if you’ve not signed-up to a wireless way of working yet, you may want to think twice.