"Oooh, what's that?" It's the reaction I get every time I pull out the new HP Spectre x360 in a coffee shop. It hasn't failed yet. Java fiends always want to know where I got such a good-looking laptop — and they're always surprised when I tell them the answer. But the truly surprising thing about HP's new Spectre is how much you get for your money.
What Is It?
- Display: 13.3in, up to 2560x1440 pixel
- CPU: up to Intel Core i7-5500U, up to 2.4GHz
- RAM: 4GB DDR3, up to 8GB
- GPU: Intel HD Graphics 5500
- HDD: 128GB SSD, up to 512GB
A thin, premium 13-inch Windows laptop with a screen that bends over backwards to become a tablet, too. A high-def touchscreen machine, crafted from glass and aluminium, that somehow starts at just $1499. The lovechild of a MacBook Air and a Lenovo Yoga — and in many ways, more sensible than either one. My new favourite transforming Windows laptop.
So yeah, we've already established that the Spectre can turn heads. You know what's way more impressive? This laptop does so without sacrificing much utility to get there.
Usually, with a machine this thin, you'd expect a shallow keyboard, an undersized trackpad, and a bunch of icky miniature ports that require adapters to use. And usually, these backflipping laptops get a little thicker and more unwieldy when you spin their screens around. Not this one. If you ask me, the HP Spectre x360's aluminium unibody chassis has a pretty impeccable layout.
The shiny, chromed aluminium rim not only gives the Spectre an incredible sheen, it's got every key port nestled right into the sides of the frame. There's an remarkably generous allotment of three USB 3.0 sockets, a full-size HDMI port, a Mini DisplayPort, a headset jack, and a SD card reader that actually houses the entire SD card inside the machine — no fear of snapping it in half when you reach for your latte. Again, just look at the rim of this device. There's practically no wasted space.
The touchpad? It's actually one of the largest, widest pads you can find on a thin laptop, and it's covered in smooth, glossy glass. It's not quite as effortless to use as a MacBook or Chromebook Pixel touchpad, but it's not bad. Single-finger pointing and tapping feels pretty dang responsive — though two-finger scrolling is iffier. I like to sweep a pair of fingers up and down the trackpad to scroll through long webpages, and way too often I'd find the Spectre totally ignored that input. I wound up using the touchscreen instead.
The keyboard? No more shallow than you'd expect from a MacBook Air competitor, and pretty comfortable to use too. Though I will say that the keys themselves feel a little cheap and plastic-y, and I'm not a fan of the way they capture my finger oil for a sometimes sticky texture. HP tries to make them look like metal, but they're most definitely not, and their backlighting is kind of leaky and blah too. Still, they're the only thing about this entire laptop where "blah" is an appropriate descriptor.
The screen — even the standard 1080p screen you get at HP's $1499 starting price — is head and shoulders over most of the competition. It's crisp, colourful, gets nice and dim if you want, yet eye-searingly bright if you turn it all the way up. If it weren't for the glossy finish — it's a touchscreen, after all — I could probably recommend it for outdoor use. As is, it's a great machine for watching some movies. It's also got pretty big black bezels compared to, say, the razer-thin ones on the Dell XPS 13 — but again you've gotta have some place that's safe to start finger-swiping touchscreen commands.
The key to the Spectre x360 is — of course — the computer's 360-degree hinge, and it's excellent. It's nearly perfectly tensioned — you can use a single hand to open up the screen or adjust the angle if, say, you're trying to avoid some glare — and the unique triangular hinge construction lets you fold the screen flat up against the back of the machine, with none of the play or flex that make other laptop-turned-tablets tough to grip.
And — unlike most laptop-turned-tablets — the Spectre's controls actually make sense when you get there. Not only does the machine automatically turn off the keyboard when you open the hinge past a certain point — that backlight turns off, giving you a clear signal that it's ok to use those springy squares to stabilise your tablet grip — the volume rocker on the side of the machine reverses direction so pressing up actually turns the volume up, just the way you'd expect. Pretty crazy it took this long for PC designers to figure that out, eh?
Plus the hinge is super solid, and the touchscreen lid of the machine feels strong and stable even all by itself. You can pick up this machine by its screen, prop the keyboard base up on your lap, and use it like a tablet with an extra-tall stand.
Still, that's admittedly probably the only way you'll ever use it like a tablet. At 3.17 pounds and 13-inches diagonal, it makes for a pretty hefty slate, and I wasn't exactly comfortable holding it up in the air for very long. The 360-degree hinge is pretty nice for propping up that screen at different angles — I bet it'd come in very handy on a cramped aeroplane tray table — but you'll want to keep it propped. This Spectre's a solid metal machine, and it won't let you forget it. It's thin and light enough to slide into a bag and tote around, but it's definitely no iPad.
Work and Play
Another place HP didn't cut corners: under the Spectre's hood. Even at the $1499 starting price, we're talking about a dual-core 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U processor from the latest Broadwell batch of chips — not an underpowered Core M — and one that won't skip a beat in everyday tasks.
I tested the $1899 config with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid state storage (a no-brainer upgrade from the 4GB / 128GB that comes standard, by the way) and found myself with a computer plenty capable of handling my daily Gizmodo workload of dozens of Chrome tabs, basic image editing, and even some gaming in a pinch. Like other laptops with a U-series low voltage Intel processor and no discrete graphics, you're not going to be playing any of the latest, greatest games on this machine, but I was definitely able to run a bit of Dark Souls II by reducing the eye candy to a minimum and dialling down the resolution to 720p.
Hell, the Spectre even does an admirable job — for an aluminium-clad notebook — of dissipating that processor's heat. The fan does spin up noisily and a little more often than I'd like (usually when Adobe Flash) but the computer stays pretty cool as a result. I haven't suffered sweaty palm syndrome once yet. And though the bottom gets a little bit warmer than the top of the machine, mine hasn't gotten hot enough to feel uncomfortable through my jeans.
Basically, the entire Spectre x360 is the story of one pleasant surprise after another — except for one crucial thing. If you're expecting to get HP's quoted 12.5 hours of estimated battery life out of this computer, well... you might walk away disappointed. Using the Spectre just like I use any other laptop, I saw more like five or six hours of real work, though I did get up to six and a half hours in our more standardised Giz battery test.
That's actually not bad at all — in fact, it's a little better than the excellent Dell XPS 13 — but we're still nowhere near "it's ok to leave the charger at home for a full work day" territory, whatever a manufacturer might say.
What's It Good At?
Love the hinge. OK, sure, maybe 99% of the time I don't need to use it as a tablet, but it's just so effortless to transform that I do it anyways. It just screams: "Why don't all laptops bend over backwards this way?"
The silver-and-black construction and subtle branding really appeals to my minimalist sensibilities.
HP says this machine has two user-upgradable memory slots, and god knows I love upgrading memory. (You do need a Torx screwdriver to get at 'em.)
OK so this is super geeky but I can't get over how awesome it is have a full-size SD card inside a thin laptop without it sticking out.
What's It Not Good At?
It's not as pronounced here as on some other thin metal laptops, but the Spectre still has sharp metal edges right under your wrists. Why, laptop manufacturers? Why do you subject us to this?
The speakers get decently loud, but also a bit harsh for music. That's a shame.
Way too easy to accidentally hit the power button on the left edge of the machine and accidentally put the Spectre to sleep. I've done it a half-dozen times now.
Really wish the keys didn't feel so cheap. Nothing else on this laptop does, so why do they?
Should You Buy It?
Do you really need a thin Windows laptop with a touchscreen? A device that's mostly a laptop and only occasionally a tablet? If so, then yes! This is one of the best touchscreen laptops you can get. For a very reasonable $1499 you can have a slim, attractive convertible with plenty of muscle, plenty of ports, a great looking touchscreen, and a super solid frame. If you want a laptop that does it all, this could be the one to get. I think you'd pr be pretty happy with the $US1000 8GB / 256GB config.
If you just need a solid laptop, though, you can probably do a little bit better. Sure, the Spectre sounds like a way better deal than a 13-inch MacBook Air — at $1499, the Apple only comes with half the memory, half the storage, fewer ports and a comparatively shitty screen — but the Spectre's slightly underwhelming battery life, cheap-feelin' keys and touchpad glitches add up to a computer that's way less suited for working.
Unless you need Windows, of course. In which case you should be taking a good long look at the Dell XPS 13. There's a reason I keep mentioning that machine: it's the other Windows laptop that recently came out of the woodwork with killer value for money. Compared to the Spectre, it's noticably smaller, half a pound lighter, and a good bit more comfortable to use — and the $1499 config I'd recommend is on par in almost every way save storage. (You'll need to drop an extra Benjamin for the 256GB drive.)
So yes, the HP Spectre x360 isn't quite perfect, and there are a few other machines you might consider instead. But it's still one heck of a computer. I don't think you'll be disappointed.