In the back half of 2017, HP revealed the HP Spectre laptop, a thirteen inch ultrabook that promised both style and high specifications. With a few qualifications (notably it focused on traditional functionality over new ideas), the laptop delivered. HP has now updated the Spectre 13, and I’ve taken a look at the refreshed Windows 10 hardware. Can it improve on the previous model?
HP has certainly kept its design flair. The last few years have seen HP focus on a new design language that helps the brand stand out. Rather than going for a visual tapered design, the new Spectre 13 plays out the idea of two very thin slates on top of each other when closed. The key identifying factor is the hinge, which runs the full length at the rear, and acts as the spine of the ultrabook. The screen hinges up and slightly away on two relatively sturdy curved arms. You can see the influence of tablet design here – although it is not detachable you get the feeling this is a design that could work well if HP wanted to go after the tablet productivity market.
But it’s not a tablet. The screen is clearly design for a laptop, and the big giveaway is the lower bezel. It proudly displays the HP logo, but it also presents an almost one inch thick bar along the base of the screen. Practically I know this is going to be where the connectors and electronics for the screen are going to be housed (given the thin nature of the screen assembly) but it’s still an awkward looking design choice when you see it on a retail shelf.
This year’s Spectre 13 does raise the design stakes in subtle ways, but the classy change is the ceramic white finish. Along with the gold trim on some edges, this ultrabook looks futuristic and modern. There’s a seductiveness to the look that HP has managed to pull off. 2018’s Spectre 13 screams fashion.
The white styling also draws comparisons to a number of smartphone color schemes, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. That creates a positive association, but ceramic white laptops aren’t as prolific as mobiles.
With the Spectre design bar already high, HP has done well to lift it higher. It’s also, thankfully, done the same with the specifications and hardware. The big change for me is the Spectre screen is now touch enabled. Both the 1080p and 4K resolution choices come with touchscreen, which is something that has become more prevalent on high-end laptops. Windows 10 works well with touch, while macOS stubbornly refuses to add the functionality to the MacBook.
Yes there are times when touch doesn’t work – particularly on older third-party software – but given the wider range of software (and there is a touchpad) I’m happy with that compromise. I’d rather the ability to use older software, and I’m sure enterprise buyers will have the same idea.
The other notable change is the keyboard. The previous Spectre design compressed the keyboard into a smaller footprint, curving the keys at the corners. That led to some awkward moments. This iteration of the Spectre has solved that issue by going for an edge to edge keyboard and full-sized ‘chiclet’ keys similar to the beloved (and discarded) MacBook keys.
The physical size of the main keys has not increased significantly – the extra space claimed back is shared out across the gaps between the keys of the qwerty keyboard, and to include a vertical row of home/end page up/page down keys at the right hand side. This has shifted the centreline of the main keyboard to not be dead centre of the physical laptop.
When I go to type on the Spectre, my fingers don’t land on the natural home keys, instead they are one to the right. It takes a bit of getting used to – and it’s something that users of the occasional 15-inch and most 17-inch laptops with number pads will be used to. It takes time to get used to, and if this was to become my daily driver then muscle memory would take over, but the ergonomics – especially with the Spectre being used on my lap or while travelling – is one of the points where the newer model has fallen back.
In terms of travel and bounce, the keyboard is firm and the bounce back to the fully raised position is fast and responsive. As a slim Ultrabook the travel is naturally limited, but the chiclet design allows more travel than the aforementioned MacBook and its butterfly keyboard.
The shift to one side aside, the keyboard is one of the key parts of the laptop, and I’m enjoying the experience of long-form writing on this Spectre.
HP has tweaked the touchpad in this iteration as well. It’s much wider than the previous design, but it’s lost a little bit of height. Given the hinge assembly and the speaker location, this is the critical dimension of the Spectre 13. As with every consumer electronic design, there has to be some compromise, and with the knowledge that a touchscreen is being used, the reduced distance of the trackpad is understandable.
Like most ultrabooks, it is a bit short on ports. The Spectre 13 is exclusively USB-C, with three ports (two are Thunderbolt 3 powered). Expect to use one of these for charging, and the others for your peripheral usage. Dongles to adapt to USB-A are available, as is a USC-C to HDMI for an external monitor. Being an ultrabook you will be looking for portability, but you have the option to load up on peripherals and accessories and use the power in the machine when back at base.
This year’s Spectre 13 is not only a clear flagship from HP, it’s arguably top of the pile of the ultrabooks. It comes with the latest Coffee Lake Core i7 processor, and you can go for an 8GB RAM/512GB SSD version, pr up the numbers to 16GB RAM/1TB SSD.
That’s a lot of performance on board, and the Spectre 13 can handle the vast majority of applications you’ll throw at it – edge cases such as demanding gaming or ridiculous amounts of video rendering may not run as smoothly as a bulkier machine, but HP’s thing and light ultrabook hides a lot of computing power.
The cost that comes with this is the battery life. To get a full day out of the battery you are going to need to husband your resources. My work is more about writing and audio editing rather than video editing or heavy gaming, so it puts less of a load than other methods of use, but it was a rare day where the Spectre didn’t want a sip of power to make it to sunset. Again it comes down to the compromises required to get such a thin ultrabook and accommodating the style. HP has decided to bias away from endurance and more towards power. No doubt this is backed up by usage data from the previous iteration of the Spectre machine and how much they were used on the road and at a desk.
HP has takes the strengths of the Spectre design and improved the shortcomings in the update. It’s now an ultrabook with a penchant for power. Yes, the battery life is to as strong as the two obvious competitors (from the MacBook Pro and the Dell XPS family) but even a cursory look at this machine and the realisation is that HP has decided that ‘mobility plus endurance’ is not as desirable as ‘mobility plus power’.
That choice helps the Spectre stand out in terms of function. Its design stands out strongly in a sea of thin and light ultrabooks. HP has improved the package, and has built a worthy upgrade to the Spectre lineup.