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Friday, June 29, 2018

HP Spectre 13 Review

HP Spectre 13 Review
PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • £1299
Recently HP has produced some excellent premium laptops that caught people's attention because of their surprisingly sensible prices, laptops such as the HP Envy 13. The HP Spectre 13 has a different tactic. This is a flat-out ultra-premium laptop. It starts at £1149, has a design you could pick out of a line-up from 20 paces and connectivity designed for the future more than the present. It also claims to be the thinnest laptop in the world. 


It's pretty obvious that this is a direct rival to the 12in MacBook. It's a great laptop, but its uncompromising approach means this is not a truly mainstream machine everyone should flock to.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: PRICE
The exact model we're reviewing here is the 13-v001na. It's an impressive spec too, with an Intel Core i7 CPU and 512GB SSD. The storage in particular doesn't come cheap, even if you buy the components yourself. You can buy the HP Spectre 13 for £1299 from Currys PC World. It also costs £1299 direct from HP. 

There is s slightly cheaper model (13-v000na), costing £1149 from HP. It has an Intel Core i5 CPU and 256GB SSD storage. While this is a laptop with an intimidating price, the upgrade does not represent a bad deal compared with what you might get from another manufacturer.

A laptop this thin is not going to be feasible to upgrade for most people, so think carefully about whether you need the extra 256GB or not.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: DESIGN
HP's grand claim for the Spectre 13 is that it is the thinnest laptop in the world. The surprising part is that even in the plain numbers, it appears significantly thinner than the 12-inch MacBook.

That laptop is 13.1mm thick, this one is 10.4mm. It's phone-grade thinness.

What this means in practice is there's no 'bulge' towards the back where core components like the battery and CPU live. It's skinny from front to back.

Pick the HP Spectre 13 up and it seems wonderfully thin and light. However, we'd advise not 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 silly.

This is not a criticism of the Spectre 13 hardware, only those who simply focus too much on design elements of only moderate practical importance. The laptop is absolutely among the most convenient and portable devices with a fairly large screen.

Like the 12-inch MacBook, at its most basic level this is a very conventional laptop. The screen doesn't come off and the hinge doesn't rotate around 360 degrees, although HP does make 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 the display is not a touchcreen.

The Spectre 13 lacks flexibility but is a very well-made and eye-catching. The hinge is gold, 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 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, its underside carbon fibre, which feels like a fancier take on plastic to the touch.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: CONNECTIVITY
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. This is solid proof the Spectre 13 wants to be thought-of as the Windows equivalent to the 12-inch MacBook.
In a couple of years, laptops using all-USB-C connectors may be commonplace and largely non-problematic. But at present it's not for everyone.

For example, we keep a lot of our tests on an SSD drive. We normally plug the drive into test laptops with a USB plug. The Spectre 13 comes with a single USB-C to USB converter, but when using it the drive continually reports disconnections, making any transfers impossible.

This could be down to a faulty driver, or the adapter cable not being designed to let the device pull too much current. Either way, it's a headache.

Similarly, the lack of a memory card slot will be an understandable deal-breaker for some of you. 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 a still-amazing 40Gbps.

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.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: KEYBOARD AND TRACKPAD
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 the HP Spectre 13 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 MacBook 12in or the slightly hollow in-situ feel of the Microsoft Surface keyboard. It's a proper laptop keyboard, in other words. 

A keyboard 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 super-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 navel-gazing territory now.

The HP Spectre 13's 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 unusually good too. The HP Spectre 13 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. That's right, while Apple has blazed ahead with a pressure-sensitive trackpad, some other manufacturers still struggle to make a standard pad that feels like it doesn't hate you.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: SCREEN
The Spectre 13 has a 13.3-inch screen. This is our preferred Windows laptop size for a machine intended for 'proper' work on-the-go. You get enough screen space to do justice to complex applications, without the bulk of a 15.6-inch laptop.

It's a 1080p IPS LCD screen 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 screen backlight has the brightness needed to compete, though, going up to 365cd/m. 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 oversatured colours. It hits a respectable 90 per cent of the sRGB spectrum and 65 per cent of Adobe RGB.

Native contrast is good for an LCD too, at 1300:1.

At the price you can find laptops with even higher resolutions, and deeper colour, but this display is uniformly good or very good in all respects. 

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: PERFORMANCE
One of the most curious parts of the HP 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.

The HP Spectre 13 has an Intel Core i7-6500U. This 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 only has 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 just a few years old, 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. Granted, that’s not playable in everyone’s book.

In Alien: Isolation it achieved 37fps average at 720p resolution, low settings. That's a very playable speed. Both tests 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 thin.

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. You get get it in the Surface Pro 4, suggesting fitting it in would not be impossible.

Using an Intel i7-6500U also means the Spectre 13 can handle video and photo editing fairly well, although for any professionals out there, we'd only suggest using a machine like this as a backup. You'll want a non-low-voltage quad-core CPU for that sort of work.

In Geekbench the Spectre 13 scores 6894 points, and 2735 in PC Mark 8. This is almost exactly what we saw in the Asus UX303U, which uses the same CPU.

HP has used a decent SSD 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 whenever the laptop is put remotely under strain.

When playing Thief, for example, it started before we'd even reached the title screen. With a frame this thin it clearly needs to be pre-emptive about its cooling. That step up fan noise is fairly loud for a laptop this dainty, and it may annoy if you're going to be using the Spectre 13 in a quiet environment.

Even with those fans whirring, the Spectre 13 get 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.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: SOUND QUALITY
One option to combat fan noise: turn on some music. HP uses Bang & Olufsen-branded speakers in the Spectre 13, but 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.

These aren't dreadful speakers, and they could be a lot worse given how thin the Spectre 13 is. But the MacBooks still lead the pack in this area, by some distance.

HP SPECTRE 13 REVIEW: BATTERY LIFE
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, the Spectre 13's stamina is good but not standard-setting. When used out and about as a work computer, for writing and browsing, we found it lasts for six and a half hours. That’s not quite enough for a day's work for most people, and is a slightly worse than some of Asus’s cheaper ZenBook rivals.

Playing back a locally-stored video at 120cd/m screen brightness, the HP Spectre 13 lasts eight hours 55 minutes. This is almost dead-on HP’s claims, although we have noticed that battery level can drop much quicker as soon as it’s 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. 

Battery life is not one of the Spectre 13’s strongest suits, but that’s not surprise given its frame and CPU.

SPECS
  • 13.3in (1920 x 1080) 165dpi, IPS LCD glossy
  • 2.5GHz to 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-6500U two cores, four threads
  • Intel HD 520 GPU
  • 8GB RAM DDR3-1866
  • 512GB SSD
  • 802.11b/g/n/ac 2x2
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • 2 USB-C Thunderbolt 3.0
  • 1 USB-C/power socket
  • stereo speakers
  • Webcam, single mic
  • 3.5mm headset jack
  • UK tiled keyboard
  • 38Wh lithium-ion battery
  • 325 x 229 x 10.4mm
  • 1.1 kg

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