Gorgeous white and gold styling. Extremely thin and light. Full HD touch screen. Excellent keyboard.
Diminutive, unresponsive touchpad.
- Bottom Line
The HP Spectre 13 is powerful and thin, with a gorgeous white and gold design, making it both a status symbol and a very capable ultraportable laptop.
The HP Spectre 13 ultraportable laptop series has become known for its head-turning, ultra-luxe style, and the latest version (starts at $1,129.99; $1,239.99 as tested) is no exception. It fuses two unlikely but iconic laptop features: the snow white keyboard and touchpad of polycarbonate Apple MacBooks from a decade ago, and the razor thin screen bezel that Dell popularized with its XPS lineup a few years ago. That seemingly incongruous combination has the potential to be disastrous, but HP's designers pull it off with aplomb. The Spectre 13 is a truly beautiful machine, but it also manages to pack excellent battery life and a powerful Intel Core i7 processor into an extremely thin and light chassis. A few flaws keep it from earning our Editors' Choice distinction, but otherwise, this Windows laptop should be on your short list if you want a head turner that's also capable and reasonably priced.
It's a Looker
During testing, the Spectre 13 elicited gushing comments from several PCMag staffers who spotted it on the lab bench, which hosts a ceaseless parade of well-designed, expensive ultraportables. The exterior of our review unit, which HP calls Ceramic White, helps drive this admiration. It's the extra-premium finish on what is an already premium ultraportable—you can also order it in the less eye-catching and cheaper Dark Ash Silver. You have to see the white finish in person to believe it looks good, though, because on paper and in images, it closely resembles the white plastic MacBooks that were all the rage among Apple fans when they were introduced in 2006, but which have long since been abandoned in favor of a metallic, industrial-chic finish.
The Ceramic White color doesn't look outdated on the Spectre 13, though, in part thanks to some design notes that add pizzazz to the laptop. For instance, above the keyboard is an ornate speaker grille that spans the length of the chassis, along with a Bang & Olufsen logo to inform you of the sound system's pedigree. Indeed, the sound is remarkable for such a thin and light laptop—the Spectre 13 is 0.41 by 12.03 by 8.83 inches (HWD), and weighs 2.45 pounds. That beats the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro(0.59 by 11.97 by 8.36 inches, 3.02 pounds), and even the featherlike LG Gram 14, which is 0.2 inches thicker and includes loud-enough but hardly remarkable speakers.
The Spectre 13, on the other hand, pumps out robust, even pleasing music and dialogue at its maximum volume. It is not a substitute for a dedicated speaker, but it's impressive nonetheless, and comparable to the excellent sound you'll get from the Lenovo Yoga 920, which competes neck-in-neck with the Spectre 13 on price and features except for the addition of a 360-degree hinge that lets you convert the Yoga 920 into a tablet. The Spectre 13, meanwhile, is a conventional laptop.
In addition to the speaker grille, HP further counterbalances the otherwise blinding whiteness with gold-colored hinges for the display lid and on each edge of the chassis. And then there's the Corning Gorilla Glass, which covers not only a 13.3-inch full HD (1,920-by-1,080) touch panel, but also the insanely thin bezels that surround it. With the Spectre 13 powered down so the screen is dark, you'd be forgiven for thinking that there's no bezel at all, which is probably exactly what HP intends. All that blackness is the yin to the rest of the white laptop's yang. Put together, the whole thing manages to give off an air that the original MacBook never did—the white expanses on the Spectre 13 scream sophistication, not the cheeky Apple-ness of a decade ago that was better suited for dorm rooms than executive suites.
Tap the Display, Not the Touchpad
If the 13.3-inch LED display looks good turned off, it's even better when illuminated. It doesn't get particularly bright, falling noticeably short of the 15-inch MacBook Pro's 500 nits of brightness, but neither does its glossy finish seem to reflect as much ambient light as Apple's ultraportables, which is good if you'll be often using it in fluorescent-lit conference rooms and windowed airport gate areas. Even though it's not a 4K display, you'd be hard-pressed to notice any imperfections in text or images as you would on a larger full HD screen, such as an external monitor. You can order the Spectre 13 with a more expensive 4K display, but the additional pixels will likely degrade battery life more than they will make your eyes happier, unless you plan to watch lots of 4K movies and TV shows.
The other nice thing about the display is that despite absurdly thin hinges, it's quite sturdy, with no flex and very little screen bounce when you tap on it. And since it's made out of Gorilla Glass, it is very good at shrugging off oils from your fingertips. After a full weekend of tapping, my review unit displayed just a handful of noticeable smudges, far less than I expected.
Unfortunately, the reason I had to tap so much on the screen is because of the disappointing touchpad. In order to fit the speaker grille, touchpad, and keyboard into such a thin base, HP had to squash something, and in this case it's the touchpad. It's miniaturized to the point of being useless, especially compared with the giant touchpad on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. What's worse, the Spectre 13's pad is also unresponsive and inaccurate, especially when scrolling with two fingers or using other multifinger gestures. I was able to mitigate this somewhat by digging through a surprising number of setting adjustments to increase the sensitivity, but I never got it to mimic the usefulness of Apple's touchpads even at their default settings, which are hugely superior both for their haptic feedback (clicks are simulated with vibration, not mechanical) and their generous size.
The Spectre 13's keyboard, on the other hand, is something that Apple can learn from. It's sturdy, backlit keys have excellent stability and travel for such a thin laptop, which makes long typing sessions comfortable, even if they're not as pleasing as they would be on a full-size mechanical keyboard. MacBook Pro keys, by contrast, have almost no travel, which makes for a typing experience that's akin to tapping on your smartphone.
There's enough room in the bezel above the screen for an HD webcam and infrared sensors that allow you to sign into your Windows user account using facial recognition. Although all facial recognition cameras are supposed to conform to Microsoft's standards, some work better than others, and the Spectre 13's is one of the better ones. After going through a few different training sessions with multiple facial expressions, it was able to recognize my face in several ambient light conditions and from a few different angles.
As you'd expect from such a thin laptop, the Spectre 13's input/output offerings are quite limited: There are three USB-C ports and a 3.5mm jack for audio input and output, all located along the back edge. Two of the USB-ports support the speedy Thunderbolt 3 standard for connecting external displays and hard drives using special cables, while the third is used for charging the laptop. In another nod to Apple design history, the power adapter can be used without its extension cable—simply pull out the extension cable connector and replace it with the included included plug. The Spectre's USB complement is better than the two USB-C ports you'll find on the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro, and unlike Apple, HP is kind enough to include several adapters for USB 3.0 peripherals and external monitors at no extra charge.
For wireless connections, the Spectre 13 has support for both 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. HP includes a one-year warranty with 90 days of phone support, and you can add accidental damage protection and extended warranties for an additional cost.
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This review unit includes 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. The memory complement is more than adequate for word processing and web browsing, and it also easily handled multitasking over several days of use, including streaming video from the Windows 10 Netflix app while editing images in Adobe Photoshop CS6. App loading always felt snappy, and system startup time was typically less than 10 seconds. The relatively low storage limit might frustrate some users who have multimedia collections that they don't store in the cloud, however. Luckily, bigger hard drives, which are often the dearest upgrade option for laptops, aren't as outrageously expensive as you might expect. Doubling the storage capacity to 512GB adds $120 to the system cost, while a 1TB drive will set you back an extra $370. Of course, if you don't need your entire photo or video collection when you're on the road, it's cheaper still to purchase an external SSD.
The Spectre 13's Intel Core i7-8550U processor running at 1.8Ghz boasts Intel's newest eighth generation CPU architecture. It's the same processor that you'll find in the Dell XPS 13 and the Lenovo Yoga 920, and it manages to squeeze out more performance from the CPU even with a lower clock speed and while using less power. The results are impressive. The Spectre 13 encoded a video using Handbrake in just 1 minute and 25 seconds, compared with 2:12 for the Spectre x360 13 equipped with the equivalent Core i7 processor from the previous seventh generation.
The Spectre 13 completed our series of Photoshop image-editing tasks in 2:56, compared with 3:34 for the Spectre x360 13. The Spectre 13's results were similar to the Dell XPS 13 and the Yoga 920. The Lenovo finished the Photoshop test in 2:54 and the Handbrake test in 1:21; the Dell's scores were 2:58 and 1:12, respectively. The upshot, though, is that these machines' performance is close enough that each will be nearly equally adept at the computing needs of multimedia editors, and all of them are faster than their closest Mac competition, the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The same goes for video conferencing, word processing, web browsing, and other typical tasks that corporate road warriors perform. On the PCMark 8 benchmark, which simulates these tasks, the HP (3,537), the Dell (3,580), and the Lenovo (3,284) scored within a few hundred points of each other. Scores in the mid-3,000 range are the highest we see on this test.
Unfortunately, none of the systems are adequate for playing graphics-intensive games, since they're not equipped with dedicated GPUs. Even at medium quality settings on our Heaven and Valley gaming benchmarks, the Spectre 13 and its competitors failed to breach the 30 frames per second (fps) commonly regarded as the minimum for smooth gaming. The MacBook Pro performed slightly better at 33fps on the Valley test, thanks to its superior Iris Plus graphics.
Although the Spectre 13's processor sips power, it still generated enough heat for the cooling fan to spool up during each of the benchmark tests. The fan is loud enough to be noticeable, although not quite as cacophonous as the Yoga 920's. Fortunately, it was silent performing everyday tasks, even while streaming videos and viewing resource-intensive or poorly coded websites.
Lasting 12 hours and 12 minutes on our rundown test, the Spectre 13 offers the sort of battery life you should expect of a high-end ultraportable. It will almost certainly get you through a workday, and I was even able to use it over the course of a weekend for intermittent web browsing and video streaming without plugging it in. It is far from the longest-lasting laptop we've tested recently, however. That honor belongs to the Yoga 920, which lasted an astonishing 22 hours and 38 minutes on the same test. The MacBook Pro (16:26) and the Dell XPS 13 (15:56) also outlasted the Spectre 13.
On its website, HP uses marketing language like "masterfully sculpted" and "as elegant as it is unprecedented" to describe the Spectre 13. It's one of the few cases where what comes out of Madison Avenue rings true in real life. Mostly. The Spectre 13 is indeed a masterful, elegant machine, although its thin bezel and white body are hardly unprecedented. The touchpad, its Achilles' heel, is somewhat mitigated by an excellent touch screen you can use to perform many basic Windows functions. In the end, our Editors' Choice, the Dell XPS 13 is a better option, both for its superior touchpad and slightly faster computing performance. The Lenovo Yoga 920 also offers quicker throughput for some tasks, and it adds the flexibility of a tablet mode. But neither of these laptops are as beautifully designed as the Spectre 13, and I'm guessing most people who see all of them all lined up in a store will have a hard time walking away from HP's masterpiece.
As a hardware analyst, Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of many startups. Before that, he worked for PCMag's sister site, Computer Shopper, where he occasionally dunked waterproof hard drives in glasses of water. In his spare time, he's written on topics as… More »
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