HP Spectre (2016) review: Beauty, but at what cost?
Hey there, good looking
There’s never been a better time to be a notebook user. Advances in technologies have made notebooks thinner and lighter than before; but with a recent emphasis on style and form, notebooks have never been better-looking and sleeker.
Many would argue that the notebook to beat was released all the way back in 2008 - yes, the MacBook Air. When the late Steve Jobs pulled the MacBook Air out of an envelope, little did we know that the world of notebooks would never be the same again. Today, the MacBook Air is something of a computing icon, and though it has been extensively copied, it has never been usurped.
Well, HP wants to change that. And the weapon that they are bringing to the fight is their very new and very rose gold Spectre notebook. We had the chance to handle it at a special HP event in Macau, but now, we finally have one in our labs. Time to put it through its paces to find out just what lies underneath that pretty face.
Style and substance
Typically, we begin our reviews discussing the specifications of the notebook, but I think that would be wrong in the face of a notebook as good-looking as the new HP Spectre.
The first thing that strikes most people is just how thin and light the Spectre is. Thanks to a blend of carbon fiber and aluminum, the Spectre measures just 10.4mm thick and weighs a scant 1.11kg. These are very impressive figures for a 13-inch Ultrabook, easily beating Apple’s MacBook Air and Dell’s XPS 13 - two 13-inch notebooks that we hold in very high regard.
It looks really good too and that’s largely due to the attractive color scheme. Matte black and rose gold is a combination that’s hard to beat, in my books. There’s more visual drama round the hinges. Using what HP calls a “hidden hinge design”, the Spectre folds flat for a very clean flush look. HP wanted to create a luxurious look and feel for their new Spectre and I think they have succeeded.
You might imagine that a notebook so thin must be powered by Intel’s low-power Core M processor, but you’d be wrong. In fact, the Spectre can be spec’ed with either a Core i5 or Core i7 processor. The unit I'm testing has been equipped with the more powerful Core i7-6500U processor (2.5GHz, 4MB cache). It also has 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM and speedy PCIe SSD that supports the NVMe protocol with 512GB of storage capacity. Graphics processing duties are handled by the integrated Intel HD Graphics 520 iGPU. These are very respectable specifications for a notebook that is so thin and light.
So far so good, but if you are thinking that there has got to be some compromises some where, then you are right. Though the 13-inch display uses IPS technology and features Corning Gorilla Glass protection, it only sports a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (Full-HD). That’s not bad, but certainly not as good as rivals like the Dell XPS 13, whose InfinityEdge display boasts a much higher resolution of 3,200 x 1,800. On the bright side, colors are good and images and text are sharp and crisp.
Then there’s the ports. To keep thinness to the absolute minimum, HP has eschewed the more typical USB Type-A ports for the newer USB Type-C ports. Fortunately, unlike Apple’s MacBook which only has one USB Type-C port, HP’s Spectre has three - but bear in mind that one of them is required for power and charging as there isn’t a separate jack for power. Although that’s much more practical, users will still need adapters if they want to use it with their existing USB devices.
One thing to note is that although all three USB Type-C ports support the latest USB 3.1 standard, only two of them support the faster Gen. 2 standard and Thunderbolt 3, while the other one only supports the Gen. 1 standard. The key difference between Gen. 1 and 2 is that Gen. 1 only allows for transfer speeds of up to 5Gbps, while Gen. 2 supports speeds of up to 10Gbps.
And as far as I/O connectivity is concerned, the three USB Type-C ports are all users are going to get. There’s no HDMI or mini-DisplayPort here, which means adapters are necessary if you want to output video to an external display. More crucially, and annoyingly, there's no SD card slot. If you happen to take photos often, this is definitely something you'd want to take note of.
Speaking of ports, the three USB Type-C ports, as well as the lone headphones jack, are all located at the rear of the notebook, behind the hinge. Some users might not like it because it can be more cumbersome to reach them, but again, this design choice was necessary to keep the Spectre thin.
Audio has never been a strong suit of notebooks, so it wasn’t a surprise to find that the Spectre’s Bang & Olufsen-branded speakers sounded thin and meek. It doesn’t have great speakers, but then notebooks which do are as rare as finding a wild Dragonite in your bedroom, so it's not a deal breaker.
From here on I've have better news. Considering the thinness of the Spectre, I was pleasantly surprised by its keyboard. Unlike the MacBook keyboard, which had to be re-engineered and therefore feels a bit odd to use, the Spectre’s keyboard felt more like a typical notebook keyboard. It’s a tad shallower than most keyboards, but it remains very usable. More importantly, it does not have that learning curve of the very flat keys of the MacBook, which means users will get accustomed to typing on the Spectre more quickly. One thing to note is that the Spectre does not have dedicated function keys.
The trackpad is also very usable. It’s really wide, but could use with more height. More crucially, it’s responsive and accurate, though it could sometimes suffer some lag. But that’s an intermittent thing and could have more to do with the fact that ours is a review unit.
And finally, the Spectre has decent wireless connectivity. It supports Bluetooth 4.0 and the latest 802.11ac wireless standard with speeds of up to 867Mbps, which is pretty standard stuff for most premium Ultrabooks.