Stylish, superthin design; Blazing performance; Great keyboard; Bright, colorful display
Subpar battery life; Runs hot; Jumpy touchpad
HP’s Spectre offers a snazzy, groundbreakingly thin design along with a brilliant screen, but weak endurance and high heat hold it back.
Say hello to the new thinnest laptop in the world: the HP Spectre. But when you move past the attention-grabbing stats, the Spectre has much more to offer than just a svelte design That’s because even in a chassis that’s just 0.41-inches thick, you still get a full Core i5 or i7 CPU, a superbright display and one of best keyboards on a laptop yet, all for as little as $1,170. With looks that remind me more of an Italian hypercar than a consumer laptop, the Spectre feels like as much of a thoroughbred as a Ferrari or Lamborghini. However, if you want the HP Spectre’s design and strong performance, you’ll also have to live with its weak battery life and warm temperatures.
While the Spectre’s slim, 0.41-inch-thick build may grab a lot of attention, its chassis would still look great even if it were a little thicker. The combo of copper and ash-black go together like champagne and caviar, and HP’s new, minimalist logo is sleek and subtle while still exuding a sense of class. I’ve heard some people criticize the fingerprint-loving mirror finish on the Spectre’s hinge, but you know what else attracts smudges? Jewelry, watches and cars. And if a few streaks are the price I have to pay for style, just call me Mr. Clean.
The Spectre’s hinges had to be specially engineered to support a system this thin. They were inspired by the type of hinges you’d get on a piano, and while they may look a little strange at first, they offer the kind of stability and artistry that feels right at home on a premium machine like this. Really, the Spectre looks like it belongs in a museum as opposed to on a desk or stuffed in a bag. It’s that pretty.
Measuring 12.8 x 9.03 x 0.41 inches with a weight of 2.45 pounds, the Spectre makes systems that would normally be considered slim seem fat. That includes our favorite 2-in-1, the Lenovo Yoga 900 (12.75 x 8.86 x 0.59 inches and 2.8 pounds) and our top notebook overall, the Dell XPS 13 (11.98 x 7.88 x 0.33-0.6-inches and 2.7 pounds). However, because of the Spectre’s larger bezel, it has a slightly bigger footprint than the other two.
Apple’s MacBook is almost as thin as the Spectre and is even lighter, measuring 11.04 x 7.74 x 0.14-0.52 inches and 2.03 pounds. A large part of that difference, though, is due to the MacBook’s smaller, 12-inch screen.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Unlike many other superthin laptops, the Spectre doesn’t compromise on typing comfort. In fact, the backlit keyboard on the Spectre is one of the best I’ve used, regardless of size. While 1.3mm of travel might sound a bit short, the keyboard’s strong but not-too-stiff 65-gram actuation weight and crisp action often had me longing for the Spectre’s keyboard when I switched to other laptops.
At 3.75 x 2.15-inches, the smooth, one-piece, glass touchpad has a plenty of room and a great feel when clicking. The only problem is that currently there’s a small quirk with input recognition. If you use multiple fingers to mouse and click, the cursor can be pretty jumpy. HP is aware of the problem and is working on a driver fix.
The Spectre’s 13-inch, full-HD screen can be summed up in three words: bold, bright and beautiful. When I watched a teaser for Disney’s new animated short “Piper,” the Spectre delighted with great contrast between the birds’ fluffy feathers and the sparkle of the ocean surf.
At 359 nits, the Spectre’s brightness is on another level when compared to competing systems. The closest was the Apple MacBook’s 12-inch, 2304 x 1440 screen at 324 nits, followed by the XPS 13’s nontouch, 13.3-inch, 1920 x 1080 screen at 318 nits and the Yoga 900’s 13.3-inch, 3200 x 1800 screen at 284 nits.
The Spectre also covered a generous 100 percent of the sRGB color spectrum. That’s not quite as wide as the MacBook’s 107 percent, although you won’t be missing colors when looking at images on the web like you would on the nontouch XPS 13 (92 percent) or the Yoga 900 (93 percent).
Finally, with a Delta-E of 1.23, the Spectre showed off some impressive color accuracy, too (numbers closer to zero are better). The Apple MacBook was only a tiny bit better, with a Delta-E of 1, while the Lenovo and Dell were behind, at 2.8 and 8.2.
Good sound is hard to find on a laptop, and despite having almost no room for speakers, the Spectre acquits itself pretty well. As with a lot of other notebooks, there’s not as much bass as I’d like, and audio can sound a bit flat at times. But when I listened to Fred Falke’s “Radio Days,” the Spectre’s Bang & Olufsen speakers did a surprisingly decent job re-creating “Shotgun” Tom Kelly’s gravelly voice and the song’s rich piano chords.
In an attempt to keep this superthin laptop from getting sweltering hot, HP designed a “hyperbaric” cooling chamber which uses fans to create a pocket, suck in cool air from the vent on the bottom and release hot air from the vent on the machine’s back. Unfortunately, if you do more than simple web surfing and light productivity, the bottom of the laptop gets uncomfortably warm.
If all you’re doing is streaming a movie, the fans may not turn on, but temps can still get high enough that using the system on your lap is a bad idea. After the machine streamed HD video from Hulu for 15 minutes, the bottom vent measured 110 degrees Fahrenheit, which is well above our comfort threshold of 95 degrees. Thankfully, the touchpad and the space between the G and H keys were significantly cooler, at 86.5 and 92.5 degrees, respectively.
And if you’re doing much more than surfing the web or watching some Netflix, the Spectre’s temperature can get even higher. A number of times while I was multitasking, the space between the two bottom vents measured over 120 degrees, which is when heat stops being annoying and starts getting a bit painful. And depending on how hot things get, the fan can get pretty loud, to the point that it sometimes becomes a nuisance.
Ports and Webcam
Because this laptop is so thin, it uses only superslim, USB Type-C ports, which are located on the back of the system. But, as opposed the single connection you get on Apple’s 12-inch MacBook, HP provides three USB-C ports — one USB 3.1 and two Thunderbolt 3 — so you’ll never run into the dilemma of having to choose between recharging your laptop and plugging in a mouse. All three ports can be used for charging, data transfer and video out. But if you want to power one or more 4K displays, you’ll need to use one of the two ports that support Thunderbolt 3.
If you’re looking for extras such as an SD card reader or an HDMI port, you’re out of luck, because aside from the three USB-C connectors, the only other port is a 3.5mm headphone/mic jack.
The Spectre also features an HD webcam flanked on each side by a mic, which results in crisp audio for video calls and voice chat. Unfortunately, the 1280 x 720 images the cam captures aren’t quite as sharp. Even in our brightly lit office, the webcam’s photos looked a bit grainy and generally not up to the quality you’d like to see on a premium device.
When it comes to performance, HP simply isn’t willing to compromise. The base model features an Intel Core i5 CPU, but my review unit had a full 2.5-GHz Intel Core i7 processor with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. This made everything feel snappy, from sorting entries in a spreadsheet to everyday multitasking such as streaming videos with 15 or more browser tabs open in the background.
On Geekbench 3, which measures overall performance, our Spectre config scored 7,026. This topped numbers from all of its competitors, including systems such as the Core i7-powered Lenovo Yoga 900 (6,264), the Core i5-powered Dell XPS 13 (6,391), and the Core m3-powered Apple MacBook (5,906).
The Spectre also blitzed our spreadsheet test, as it sorted 20,000 names and addresses in OpenOffice in just 3 minutes and 56 seconds, faster than both the Yoga 900 (4:18) and XPS 13 (4:38). However, the Apple MacBook was even faster, with a time of 3:11.
The one area where performance dipped was in storage speeds, where the Spectre was just good, not great. When asked to duplicate a DVD’s worth of mixed-media files, the Spectre’s 256GB SSD finished in 27 seconds, for a transfer rate of 195.9 MBps. Both the Apple MacBook (355.9 MBps) and XPS 13 (231.33 MBps) were faster thanks to their PCIe-NVMe SSDs, while Lenovo’s Yoga 900 trailed slightly behind, with a speed of 181.7 MBps.
While the Spectre isn’t meant for serious gaming, with a score of 801 on 3DMark’s Fire Strike graphics test, performance from its Intel 520 HD Graphics was almost 25 percent higher than an average ultraportable (645). This gives you the freedom to do some light video editing or even a bit of gaming in less demanding titles such as League of Legends, as long as you don’t mind turning the settings down.
From the outset, my main concern with the Spectre’s superthin design is that it leaves little room for batteries. Even though HP did some innovative engineering by splitting the battery into four separate sections, the Spectre lasted a disappointing 6 hours and 13 minutes on the Laptop Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. The average for ultraportable laptop is almost 1 hour and 45 minutes longer. And competitors — including the nontouch Dell XPS 13 (11:54), 12-inch Apple MacBook (9:38) and even Lenovo’s Yoga 900 (7:57) — offer significantly longer run times.
Software and Warranty
The Spectre isn’t bogged down with a lot of bloat, though it does have a trial of McAfee LiveSafe. HP’s Windows 10 laptop features a handful of HP utilities, such as its Support Assistant App.
HP backs the Spectre with a one-year warranty on parts and labor. See how the company fared in our tech support showdown and best and worst brand ratings.
Configurations and Competitors
The Spectre starts at $1,170 for a configuration with a 13.3-inch nontouch display, Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. There’s also our $1,250 review configuration featuring a Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, and a $1,500 model with an even larger 512GB solid state drive.
At any of these configurations, HP’s laptop offers more value than Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Air and 12-inch MacBook. Both Apple systems offer significantly better battery lives, and the 12-inch model has a sharper screen than the Spectre, but they offer lesser specs for the money. The 12-inch MacBook starts at $1,299 with a slow-footed Core m3 CPU, only one port, and the same 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD the Spectre provides, all for $130 less. The 13-inch MacBook Air, which is likely to be updated soon, offers a Core i5, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB PCIe SSD, all for $1,199, but it has a mediocre 1440 x 900 resolution.
Dell’s XPS 13 is the Spectre’s main competitor, and at $1,150 for almost the same specs and price, it’s a worthy contender. While it might not be as thin, its bezel-free Infinity display still looks stunning, it has a wider variety of ports, including one Type-C port with Thunderbolt 3, and with a time of 11:54 on our battery test, the nontouch version crushes the Spectre in battery life.
With world-class good looks, boundary-pushing thinness, a brilliant display and top-notch performance, the HP Spectre has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, those highlights are countered by weak battery life, hot exhausts and a shortage of creature comforts like SD card readers or a touch-enabled display, which make comparisons between the Spectre and high maintenance hypercars hard to deny. Thankfully, unlike its road-going spirit animals, the Spectre is pretty reasonably priced, starting at just $1,170. The Dell XPS 13 remains our favorite notebook overall because of its long battery life, nearly bezel-free screen and strong port selection. However, the Spectre is the new leader in cool, and a strong choice for anyone who wants the ultimate in ultraportable style.