HP Spectre 13

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When Apple released the original MacBook Air way back in 2011, Intel set out on a quest to redefine what a Windows 10 laptop could be. You see, up until then, Windows laptops had a reputation for being notoriously cheap, unreliable and lame machines – the antithesis of the HP Spectre 13.

This all culminated in the best Ultrabooks, and seven years later, the best laptops keep becoming thinner, lighter and more powerful – Intel’s Ultrabooks have reached a level  of near perfection that we haven’t seen from the MacBook Air in far too long. 

As proof the Ultrabook’s success, HP sent us the 2017 Spectre 13 for review. Coming in at just 0.41 inches thin, the HP Spectre 13 has reached a level of thinness and portability we’ve previously only dreamt of. What makes this even better is that the HP Spectre 13 is able to achieve this unparalleled thinness while still offering out-of-this-world value and performance.

Price and availability

At $1,499, the ceramic white HP Spectre 13 we reviewed rivals the $1,349 (about £1,006, $1,760) model of the Dell XPS 13. Although, as of this writing, it looks like this model is out of stock on HP’s website in the US.

For that price, you’re signing up for a zippy Intel Core i7-8550U processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of PCIe-based SSD storage space and a 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080-pixel touch display. 

Granted, the Dark Ash Silver Spectre 13 starts at $1,249 and comes with an Intel Core i5-8250U instead of an i7.

In the UK, there are two HP Spectre 13 configurations available, starting at £1,599. This model is mostly the same as the one we reviewed, only with a 4K touchscreen and double the storage. 

The HP Spectre 13 is also available in Australia, starting at AU$2,699 for the model we reviewed here.

Design

If there was ever a reason to shell out 120 clams over the best-in-class Dell XPS 13 in favor of the HP Spectre 13, it’s that the latter is a looker. In deservedly praising companies like Razer for their design accomplishments, HP shouldn’t go overlooked. 

Over the last few years, HP has pulled a complete 180 in design, to a point where it’s becoming very hard to find flaws with its products. The extravagant gold trimmings, which bedeck the discrete, two-prong hinge as well as the edges of the device, have become a signature element of every laptop in the HP Spectre lineup.

These hinges are prominent in the HP Spectre 13, just like last year’s model, but there’s admittedly more to admire here. HP took the stellar design we appreciated over a year ago and downsized the screen bezels to the extent that the HP Spectre 13’s predecessor now looks antiquated in comparison.

Today, the HP Spectre 13 is 12.03-inches wide and 8.83-inches deep. Bearing in mind that last year’s Spectre was already exceptionally thin and light, this is a welcome refinement over the 12.8-inch width and 9.03 inch depth we were graced with before.

Meanwhile, the keyboard feels like a full chiclet, akin to the Apple Magic Keyboard for iMacs rather than what we’ve experienced with the MacBook Pro’s dinky butterfly switches that are susceptible to getting stuck. 

The Dell XPS 13, on the other hand, comes in at 11.98 inches wide and 7.88 inches deep, making it the more compact notebook of the three – at least in those areas. In terms of thickness, the XPS 13 is generally fatter, thanks to its ascending height of up to 0.6 inches (again, compared to the 0.41-inch HP Spectre 13) when the lid is closed. 

The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is 11.97 inches wide and 8.36 inches deep, but 0.59 inches high. Having said that, the HP Spectre 13 gives the impression that it occupies far less space than the 2017 MacBook Pro we used to write this review.

Still, there was a glaring difference in the screen resolution that gives Apple’s laptops the clear-cut advantage. In a world where our 5-inch phone screens are exceeding 400, sometimes 500, pixels-per-inch (PPI), the 166 PPI pixel density of the HP Spectre 13 is approaching unacceptability for a laptop that costs over a grand.

The good news is that, upon ordering the HP Spectre 13, you can net yourself a much sharper 4K Ultra HD screen for an additional charge of $150 in the US. As it stands, we highly recommend doing that, especially if you’re accustomed to flagship smartphone screens at it is.

There’s also the trackpad, one area we would argue MacBooks remain in the forefront. You can touch or, if you want to put some muscle into it, click the touchpad on the HP Spectre 13, but you can’t personalize the amount of force it takes for a click to register or the sound it makes when it does. That’s where Ultrabooks, including this one, struggle the most.

A port in a storm

Similar to the MacBook Pro, the HP Spectre 13 doesn’t have a lot of ports in tow. This is likely the point in our review where you have either decided that you loathe the device or you’re willing to overlook the shortage of ports, because you understand that it’s a necessary compromise for the sake of mobility and that you’re investing in the future of inputs. 

By name, that future is called Thunderbolt 3, an interface that leverages the (in)famous USB Type-C port for transferring data, displaying video and charging the device that houses the port in addition to charging outside devices connected to it. It’s reversible, too, so it’s easier to use in the dark than USB Type-A proper. In other words, it’s supposed to be the be-all-end-all of ports.

The problem is that, although Apple has been using USB-C exclusively in its MacBooks since 2015, there aren’t a lot of accessories out there that use it natively even still. 

Making matters worse, the HP Spectre 13 only rocks three USB-C ports and a headphone jack, the USB, HDMI and DisplayPort accessories you currently own will require a dongle. While two of these USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3, with data transfer rates of up to 40 Gigabits per second, power delivery and DisplayPort 1.2, the other is a slower and less versatile USB 3.1 Gen 1 port ideal for charging.

Luckily, HP thought of this when it sent us the Spectre 13 for review. Out of the box, we were given adapters for USB 3.0, HDMI and RJ45 Ethernet to USB Type-C. After contacting a customer service representative at HP, however, it turns out that, alas, none of these accessories are included in the retail version of the Spectre 13.

But, enough about ports, let’s talk performance.

First reviewed November 2017

The HP Spectre 13 is a notebook full of surprises, which is why we’re quick to forgive it on its handful of shortcomings. We’ve already gawked over its seductive appearances, but what you may not have realized is how fast this thing moves. 

It doesn’t exactly have a leg up on the competition, as the Dell XPS 13 does come outfitted with the same specs, but as of this writing we’ve yet to benchmark a model sporting 8th-generation Intel Kaby Lake Refresh processors. For that reason, the HP Spectre 13 performed better than what we have to compare it to.

In the 3DMark graphics tests, the differences between the HP Spectre 13 and it’s closest rival – the long-chattered-about Dell XPS 13 – were negligible. 

In Sky Diver, for instance, a test designed specifically with gaming laptops and mid-range PCs in mind, the HP Spectre 13 scored just 136 points more than the Dell XPS 13. 

To put into perspective how marginal of an upper hand that is, Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 garnered 14,427 points in Sky Diver.

The HP Spectre 13 isn’t a graphical powerhouse, nor is it claiming to be. 

Gamers, 3D modelers and aspiring video producers ought to look elsewhere – a desktop maybe? – for high-end media leviathans.

As for CPU testing, the HP Spectre 13 unsurprisingly took the crown, especially in multi-core Geekbench, where it amassed 13,733 points compared to the Dell XPS 13’s 7,802. This is the first time we’ve seen a quad-core processor in an Ultrabook after all, and so far we can say the results have been, well, so good.

We can’t draw as many direct comparisons with the MacBook Pro, but we will say that the HP Spectre 13 did beat it out in every mutual test we conducted.

Battery life

Instead, this laptop’s fate is hinged on a sweet balance between battery life and sheer processing might.

In these, the Spectre didn’t quite compare to the Dell XPS 13’s otherworldly 7 hours and 13 minutes.

But, having lasted a minute less than 6 hours looping a 1080p movie in VLC Media Player, it comes close to the MacBook Pro’s hearty 6-hour and 37-minute spiral.

We liked

As a pioneer for Intel’s 8th-generation Kaby Lake Refresh processors, the HP Spectre 13 prevails. As a showcase for HP’s own design remedy, the Spectre 13 is equally important. It may not have earned a perfect five-star review, but you shouldn’t write this one off. 

By combining a unique aesthetic and featherlight dynamics with performance that punches above its weight, the HP Spectre 13 is one for the books, and we would go further to say your wallet to boot.

We disliked

Don’t expect the HP Spectre 13’s imperfections to equal pitfalls. In the grand scheme of things, they’re a lot more minor than this negative nancy would suggest. 

Could the trackpad give you more options? Sure, but we haven’t used a Windows laptop whose cursor clicker can quite match that of a MacBook Pro. Do we miss having a wide range of ports on our laptops without the need to convert to the #donglelife? Also, yes, but it’s clear where the future is headed and the HP Spectre 13 is but a pitstop to that destination.

Final verdict

If you’re in the market for an Ultrabook that can handle the average workload with ease and crashes next to null, the HP Spectre 13 will treat you well. 

Passerbys will likely ask you about it, whether you’re taking notes in class, or just freelancing from a coworking space – we can’t stress it enough, that’s how great this Ultrabook looks.

And, unlike the new Spectre’s closest competitors, a handsome look doesn’t substitute industry-leading guts.

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