- Luxurious feel
- Huge touchpad
- 2-in-1 design requires compromise
- Mediocre performance and battery life
- Keyboard backlight annoys
The past few years have been a tumultuous period for Hewlett-Packard’s PC group. While the company remains one of the largest manufacturers globally, and is king of the North American market, it has struggled with tight profit margins and fickle consumer demand. That’s why HP has decided to split into two entities, only one of which – HP, Inc. – will handle consumer PCs.
This notebook is an example of how competitive the premium laptop market has become.
In spite of these struggles, HP has continued to put effort into expensive computers it hopes might lure consumers away from Dell’s XPS or Apple’s MacBook Pro. The latest is the HP Spectre x360, a system that so thoroughly embodies the potential of a modern Windows PC that Microsoft gave thousands of them away at BUILD 2015, its annual developer conference.
It’s easy to see why the system deserves attention. Our review model, a mid-range version, offers a Core i5-5200U processor, eight gigabytes of RAM, a 256GB solid state drive and a 13-inch 1080p display, all for $1,000. That puts it in league with the best Windows machines, but like any system that sells for around a grand, this Spectre has to go head-to-head with the best notebooks in the business.
A form of flattery
Over the past year we’ve seen many manufacturers begin to abandon the silver aluminum “unibody” design popularized by Apple’s MacBook, but HP doesn’t participate in this creative movement. The Spectre x360 looks very similar to Apple’s 13-inch Pro, from the color of the aluminum used to the crevasse along the front that makes opening the notebook easier. There are differences, such as the chrome finish along the Spectre’s edge, but HP’s design has clearly fallen from the Apple tree.
That’s bad news if you want something different, but it’s good news if you’re looking for quality. The x360 is built like a lavishly designed and decorated tank. Picking it up conveys a robust, solid feel that doesn’t vanish no matter how the laptop is handled. Particular praise is reserved for the hinges, which enable the system’s conversion into a tablet. Clad in chrome and forged from metal, they feel smooth yet durable.
As the laptop’s name implies, it converts from laptop to tablet by folding the display 360 degrees, a concept pioneered by Lenovo’s Yoga several years ago but now used by numerous manufacturers. While the 360-degree hinge works well, the laptop weighs 3.26 pounds and has a 13-inch display, so it’s not exactly comfortable to hold and use in tablet mode. It makes more sense in “tent” mode, where the keyboard acts as a stand to bring the touchscreen closer.
It’s impossible to turn the keyboard backlight entirely off – the on/off key remains lit.
Because it may be used as a laptop or tablet, the x360 has power and volume buttons located along its sides rather than above the keyboard, as with a clamshell laptop. And as usual, this creates a few problems. The power button is difficult to find because it’s recessed, but the windows and volume buttons, which aren’t, are too easy to accidentally trigger.
Connectivity is good for a 13-inch system. It includes three USB 3.0 ports, HDMI-out, mini-DisplayPort and a combo headphone/microphone jack. The inclusion of both HDMI and DisplayPort gives the x360 an edge over most laptops in its category.
Want a light?
The x360’s keyboard is decidedly mid-tier. It offers reasonable key travel and plenty of space between individual keys, but also doesn’t stand out from the crowd in either area. The Asus UX305 and MacBook Pro offer an obviously superior experience, but the HP is adequate.
Yet there is one problem – the keyboard’s backlight. There’s only one brightness setting available, which automatically puts it behind every competitor in the segment. Worse, the entire keyboard never turns off. Instead, deactivating the backlight causes the backlight activation key to turn on, and there’s no way to change the feature. We can see where HP was going with this. Obviously, it wanted to make the backlight easier to turn on in a room that’s already dark. But the result is an annoying, bright light that distracts from what’s on-screen.
Below the keys you’ll find what might be the x360’s most interesting feature – its massive touchpad, which measures almost six inches wide. The extra-wide surface does more than just provide more space for wagging your finger. It also offers extra room for using the multi-tasking and Charms bar gestures in Windows 10, which can be a bit too easy to activate. The touchpad on the x360 is arguably the best you’ll find on any Windows notebook.
High contrast, high glare
The x360 can be purchased with a 1440p display, but most models, including our review unit, have a 1080p panel. Compared to systems like the Dell XPS 13, which offers an optional 3,200×1,800 panel, this HP isn’t notably sharp, but 1080p works well enough.
Gloss is no stranger to touch-screens, as very few offer a matte coat, but the Spectre is particularly reflective. It perfectly mirrors whatever sits in front of it, no matter if it’s the user or the lights behind you. We measured a maximum brightness of 377 lux, which is extremely high, but every bit of its luminance is required to counter glare.
This flaw is made up for elsewhere. We measured a maximum contrast ratio of 690:1, well-balanced black levels, and excellent color accuracy. Color gamut spans 95 percent of sRGB. Taken together, these numbers create a sharp, punchy and natural picture. Competitors like the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina and Dell XPS 13 score slightly better overall, but the difference is small, and the x360 is above-average overall.
Audio output is a strong point for the x360. Its speakers are loud and remain clear at maximum volume. Thin bass means music and movies sound weak at times, but that’s a trait all 13-inch laptops share. Most users will find the speakers adequate.
Keeping up with the Dells
Our review unit’s Core i5-5200U processor is a dual-core with a base clock of 2.2GHz and a maximum Turbo Boost of 2.7GHz. It’s an incredibly common chip we’ve tested many times before, and it delivered no surprises.
As you can see, the Spectre x360 is near the bottom of this pack. That’s not to say it’s slow, as it feels snappy in day-to-day use and is quicker than most systems on the market, but it’s not a great performance value. Buyers can upgrade to a dual-core Intel Core i7 if needed.
|HP Spectre x360||2626||5206|
|Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Retina||3007||6596|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1||3062||6012|
|Lenovo Yoga 3||2580||5190|
|Dell XPS 13||2585||5025|
|Acer Aspire R13||2679||5225|
Like virtually all laptops in its price range, the x360 comes with a solid state hard drive, in this case offering 256GB of storage. It hit read speeds of 448 gigabytes per second in CrystalDiskMark, which is comparable to the competition, but it delivered only 125GB/s in the read test. That’s much lower than average. Most notebooks in this price range can exceed 400GB/s.
Graphics performance is provided by Intel’s HD 5500, which led the x360 to another mid-tier result.
3DMark Cloud Gate
|HP Spectre x360||4332|
|Dell XPS 13||4961|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1||4830|
|Lenovo Yoga 3||4227|
|Acer Aspire R13||4091|
This result means the x360 will be able to play some 3D games at 1080p resolution and low to medium settings, or most games at 720p resolution and medium settings. It’s a poor choice for the most demanding games, like Grand Theft Auto V or Battlefield 4.
The Spectre x360 ships with a 3-cell, 56 watt-hour battery. That’s one of the largest batteries in any 13-inch Windows notebook. HP quotes up to 12 hours and 30 minutes.
While it feels snappy, the x360’s benchmark numbers are mid-pack at best.
We managed a less impressive five hours and 38 minutes in the Peacekeeper web browsing benchmark. Our custom web browsing loop, which includes idle time, extended that figure to seven hours and fifteen minutes. That’s not bad, but it’s far short of the best systems. Competitors like the Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Pro 13 with Retina flirt with 10 hours of endurance in Peacekeeper.
Our wattmeter caught the x360 eating about eight watts of power at idle with the display at 50 percent of brightness, and 11 watts with the display at maximum. At load, maximum power draw was came to 32 watts. The idle figures are slightly higher than the competition, as the XPS 13 and MacBook Pro 13 with Retina consumed a watt less at maximum display brightness, but load power draw is similar across all three systems.
As you’d expect, given its battery life, the x360 sips power. It uses only eight watts at idle with brightness at half of maximum, and 11 watts with the backlight turned up. We recorded an overall maximum power draw of 32 watts during 3D benchmarks. These figures are in line with other ultrabooks.
At idle, the notebook’s fan almost never spins quickly, so the system is nearly silent. When pressed, though, the fan kicks up to a noticeable maximum of 41.3 decibels. It tends to hover around the mark regardless of work load – YouTube videos and 3D games illicit the same response.
That means the system is usually cool. At idle we measured a maximum external temperature of 82.5 degrees Fahrenheit, a figure that increased to only 89.9 degrees at full processor load. 3D gaming is the only task that can make the system sweat, as it pegged the temperature as high as 103 degrees.
HP’s pre-installed software load is relatively light, but a few applications creep their way in. These include McAfee LiveSafe, Dragon Assistant, Netflix, and three CyberLink programs. Only LiveSafe is annoying, and all can be un-installed without much fuss.
HP backs the Spectre x360 with a one year warranty, but that only includes 90 days of phone support. After that you have to pay for the privilege or rely on chat and other web-based support options.
HP’s Spectre x360 is proof of how competitive the premium laptop market has become. It used to be just the MacBook that ruled the roost, but over the past few years everyone has entered the game, and some companies are making major strides. Dell is the most notable example, but Asus continues to bring its game, particularly in market for entry-level, super-thin systems.
Taken alone, the x360 might seem an excellent laptop. It offers an attractive and sharp display, reasonable battery life, and performance that never feels lackluster. When the system is compared against others, though, cracks begin to appear. Some are quicker. Others have better displays. And still others last longer on a charge. A few, like the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina and Dell XPS 13, provide all three, albeit at a higher price.
HP’s 2-in-1 also suffers from a few inherit design issues. It is too heavy and large to be used comfortably as a tablet, so the touchscreen is not as useful as it seems as first glance, yet HP had to relocate the power and volume controls to awkward positions in the name of tablet usability. We also don’t like the annoying, always-on keyboard backlight function key. It sounds like a minor complaint, but it annoyed us throughout our time with the x360.
Still, despite these issues, HP’s latest and greatest is a decent value. It doesn’t excel in any area, but it doesn’t have any major flaws, and at $999 it’s priced to sell. The Spectre x360 wouldn’t be our first choice, or even our second – that still goes to the basic, $799 Dell XPS 13, and then the Asus UX305 – but it’s a reasonable alternative if you find 2-in-1 functionality appealing.