Opening the Spectre can be a bit problematic as the notch is wafer thin - you need to wedge a fingernail under it and even when you’ve got the hang of it, it can still be a bit awkward. There is an alternative method, where you use the gaps on both sides (left by the elevated wrist rest – more on that below) to lift the lid, but it's not ideal due to the reduced leverage and the heavy lid (Gorilla Glass covered surfaced isn't light!).
Once you’ve got it open, there’s a pretty obvious MacBook Pro look to the Spectre, with its silver palm rest and black screen. The feature that sets it apart is the sheet of Gorilla Glass that covers the entire wrist rest area and extends from the front lip almost to the bottom of the keyboard.
If you’ve seen an old, well-used notebook you might probably guess why the glass surface is here, as the wrist rest area always shows the most 'battle' wear, with watch straps, rings and sweaty palms constantly banging and rubbing away at its finish. It remains to be seen how well the Spectre will hold up, but based on our earlier tests, its Gorilla Glass laughs in the face of all but the most acidic-sweating user abuse (if such a person exists).
The 14-inch display has a native resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels, which is a nice improvement over the 1366 x 768 pixels resolution found on most other Ultrabooks (a notable exception being ASUS's Zenbook UX31, which also utilizes a 1600 x 900 pixels resolution display). Still, for the premium price, a full HD 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution would have been a very welcome addition - especially since this notebook has a full 14 inches of screen area.
While the Gorilla Glass is glossier than we would have liked, nevertheless, the screen is clear and bright, with excellent off-axis viewing angles.
Like pretty much every HP Envy notebook out there, the audio system is by Beats. Two front facing speakers are located on the base of the unit and produce a surprisingly loud volume - even 50% was bordering on wake-the-neighbors-noisy. Promotional materials state that the unit is also equipped with a Triple Bass Reflex Subwoofer but, even after taking the base plate off the unit, we couldn't physically find it. A jog dial found at the left side adjusts the volume, while a dedicated Beats button brings up the Beats sound-shaping software. A mute button and accompanying LED indicator is also found here.
The audio is fairly bass heavy, which may lend some weight to the existence of a subwoofer unit - although, we've found that most Beats products veer towards bass anyway. Regardless, it’s still the best audio we've heard from an Ultrabook. The Beats equalizers and sound-shaping software are tuned for Beats headphones but also work quite well with other brand headphones and external speakers (less so with the unit’s own built-in speakers).
HP uses a flat-topped chiclet keyboard on the Spectre. Like a few other Envy models, it uses ‘Radiance Backlighting’ which provides brighter illumination, with each key having its own individual LED underneath it. The backlight will turn off when left idle for a while. One nice feature that adds to the premium feel is a proximity sensor that will activate the backlight when your fingers get close to the keys. (Now you know why the Envy 14 Spectre commands such an expensive price tag.)
The layout is essentially the same as HP’s other Ultrabook, the Folio 13, with a slightly shortened spacebar and arrow keys doubling up as Home, End, Page up and Page down keys. Following what seems to have become a common trend, the function keys are reversed by default, performing their alternate multimedia functions without requiring the Fn + F key combo. As an interesting extra, the Spectre has a dedicated Twitter function: pressing Fn + T will launch the Twitter website.
Typing on the Spectre feels quite different compared to other notebooks thanks to its elevated glass wrist rest. It's an interesting feel with both good and bad points. While we liked the slightly improved wrist angle, and how the glass remained cool after hours of use (in this regard, it's even better than aluminum), we didn't like the slight but noticeable drag on the glass, although, you can get used to it after a while. The keys themselves are amongst the best we’ve tried on a notebook, with a firm feel and a generous amount of travel and resistance - much better than the often mushy and too-shallow keyboards of some other Ultrabooks.
The glass trackpad is slightly bigger than average size (it's much bigger than the rather small trackpad on the Folio 13 at least), but judging from the amount of space below that, it could probably still be a bit bigger. Like other Ultrabooks, it’s a clickpad with a designated area (demarcated by a line) for clicking. The pad is slick and fast, with a fairly firm click, although we did notice an unreasonably large dead area towards the upper corners (which was also noticed on the previously reviewed Envy 15).
Multi-touch gestures are supported with differing levels of success: zoom in/zoom out was unreliable, and stuttery when it did work, while, on the other hand, two-finger scroll was surprisingly smooth. We would have liked to see the useful two-finger click to right click feature included too.
The guy at HP who designed the Spectre must be left-handed because every port on the machine is found on the left. Crammed tightly into a 10 cm wide area, you’ve got a DisplayPort, HDMI port, RJ-45 port, powered USB 3.0, powered USB 2.0 and a headphone/microphone combo jack. A multi-card reader can also be found closer to the front of the unit.
In terms of functionality, we’ve got to hand it to HP as they’ve included everything you need - the elusive RJ-45 port is an especially nice touch for an Ultrabook - but, and this is really nitpicking, while it might be nice to have everything conveniently located in one spot, we would have liked to see an extra USB port on the right-hand side for a wired mouse so the cable doesn't have to wrap all the way around the unit. With multiple peripherals plugged in, the left side can also get a bit crowded easily. Imagine if you plug in a fat device, such as a USB thumb drive or a 3G modem, they could easily block the adjacent port(s) and making them useless.
On the right, you'll find the power port, LED indicators for power and SSD activity and the previously mentioned Beats controls .The rear of the unit is free of any ports.
This is an interesting feature that, surprisingly, HP hasn’t promoted much in their Spectre advertising, despite its uniqueness among Ultrabooks or even all other notebooks. NFC or Near Field Communication, is an emerging technology that lets you exchange data between your device simply by placing your smartphone next to the antenna located on the notebook.
For the Spectre, this area is located on the left side of the glass wrist rest. We tried it out with a Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which required downloading the HP Touch to Share app from the Android Market. Right now, it’s a bit iffy and we were only able to get our phone linked about 50% of the time. Furthermore, the only thing it enabled us to do was share a URL on our phone with the Spectre, which seems a bit superfluous to say the least.
Hopefully in future, more applications will be available, as there’s lots of potential in this area, although for it to be effective, the linking process will have to be more stable.