There may be a reason most laptops are anonymous-looking gray boxes. When you do see a unique design, such as the Dell Adamo XPS or Acer Iconia, it's often too quirky to catch on, or else the company behind it doesn't give it enough time to find an audience before ditching the idea.
The new HP Envy 14 Spectre is at least off to a strong start, having been one of the new products with the most buzz at CES 2012, and winning our Computers and Hardware category Best of CES award. It has so many built-in talking points, it's like a crib sheet for nearly every hot current gadget topic.
First, it's an ultrabook--that very hot Intel designation for a new generation of thin but powerful laptops. On top of that, it's one of the very first 14-inch ultrabooks, although it's a bit thicker and heavier than the ultrabook name would lead you to expect.
The design, while unique, is most notable for its use of Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass not only on the edge-to-edge display, but also covering the entire back of the lid, as well as the wrist rest. Finally, it incorporates an NFC receiver for wireless data transfer with compatible mobile phones (using a free Android app).
For a starting price of $1,399 you might reasonably expect more than the Envy 14 Spectre's Intel Core i5, integrated Intel HD3000 graphics, and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), specs you can find in a decent thin 13-inch ultrabook for around $899. There's clearly a design premium here, not unlike what Apple, Sony, and others have been working into the prices of high-end systems for years.
To be fair, very few laptop users are doing anything that requires a Core i7 CPU, and you probably aren't one of them, but a bigger SSD, let's call it the new over-$1,000 standard, should be included. As it is, on the Envy 14 upgrading a 256GB SSD costs an extra $300.
Despite this, the Envy 14 Spectre experience ends up being exactly what it was meant to be. It's practical, while still being fun to use and fun to show off, and its glass-covered construction makes it feel just a little like an artifact from the near future, dropped through a wormhole in time to show up all those anonymous-looking grey boxes.
|Price as reviewed||$1,399|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-2467M|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.9x8.7 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||14 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4 pounds / 4.8 pounds|
Almost anyone who sees the HP Envy 14 Spectre immediately compares it to something. For many, it's the Apple MacBook Pro. From the open position, the interior certainly has that look, aside from the transparent raised wrist rest. To others, the glass back looks like a tablet or slate.
One thing it doesn't look like is any of the previous ultrabook laptops we've seen. Those other systems, most of which have been pretty impressive overall, usually try to look as much like a MacBook Air as possible, while the Spectre ignores the trend toward tapered bodies, instead presenting itself as a solid glass slab.
It feels dense in the hand, all that glass can't help the weight, but it's certainly lighter than, say, a 15-inch MacBook Pro. The footprint is also very small for a 14-inch laptop. This may not be a 14-inch screen in a 13-inch body, as Hewlett-Packard likes to put it, but it's close, which means it's smaller overall, but adds to that feeling of heft. My initial read is that the Spectre may be a big too bulky to carry around in a shoulder bag day in and day out, but it's certainly easier to take with you several times a week than other 14- or 15-inch midsize laptops.
But there's one small design quirk that's potentially frustrating for long-term use. When closed, the lid is hard to open. There's only the tiniest catch for your finger, and I and several other people I know have had repeated trouble with it.
The keyboard is similar to ones seen on other recent high-end HP laptops. The company calls it a radiance backlit keyboard, which means that the keys light up when you're using them, and dim to save battery life when idle. The flat-topped island-style keys are the same as found on other HP Envy or Pavilion systems, with large Enter, Shift, and Tab keys, a slightly shortened spacebar, and reversed function keys--meaning the row of F keys perform their alternate multimedia functions by default, instead of requiring a Fn+F-key combo. There's a bit of a split in the laptop world right now about that, but I see more companies adopting this consumer-friendly method.
The large glass touch pad is reminiscent of the Apple trackpad, but also other all-in-one clickpads that have been turning up in Windows laptops over the past year or so. The left and right mouse button functions are built into the bottom corners of the pad itself--I much prefer the Apple model of a two-finger tap for a right mouse button click.
To give credit where it's due, after years of complaining about the stuttery performance of multitouch gestures on HP touch pads (not that any other companies' fared much better), the Spectre handles the all-important two-finger scroll better than any Windows laptop I can recall. It's still not as natural as the inertial scroll on a MacBook, but it's actually usable, which is saying something.
The clickpad is flush with rest of the wrist rest on the Spectre, but that entire wrist rest/clickpad combo is raised up off the keyboard tray. It's actually a solid sheet of glass that extends from the front lip almost to the bottom of the keyboard. I half-expected the all-glass wrist rest to have too much drag, but it was surprisingly comfortable.
My only real problem with it is aesthetic, and it's one of the only off notes in the Spectre's overall visual appeal. The glass slab for the wrist rest sits across the lower third of the interior tray, then simply drops off, at a 90-degree angle. It doesn't taper or fade, and there's no attempt made to hide the transition. The effect is awkward, and it's exactly the kind of design element one could imagine Steve Jobs (or Jony Ive) sending back to the drawing board. (And to anyone who thinks these reviews should have fewer Apple comparisons, I'll stop doing it when they stop trying to make these look like MacBooks.)
One interesting feature is the built-in NFC antenna, even though near-field communication is hardly mentioned in HP's promotional materials, and you'd have to find a tiny system tray icon to even know it was available on this laptop. Hypothetically, this would allow you to simply place your smartphone on the wrist rest and sync or exchange data. Right now, the applications seem more limited.
Grabbing a Samsung Galaxy Nexus (one of the phones that supports NFC), I downloaded the free HP Touch to Share app from the Android Market. Fiddling around with it on the left side of the wrist rest produced a haptic buzz, and the two devices were linked. However, at this point, I was only able to share a Web site URL from the phone to the laptop. Hopefully other sharing options will be built into the system, and the minimalist documentation improved.
The 14-inch display has a native resolution of 1,600x900 pixels, which is acceptable for a higher-end laptop, and better than the 1,366x768 pixels found on most other ultrabooks and most mainstream midsize laptops. That said, I would not have thumbed my nose at a 1,920x1,080-pixel option, especially as the screen is clear and bright, and has excellent off-axis viewing angles.
The audio subsystem is, as in all Envy laptops, from Beats Audio. This technology has filtered down to some other HP laptops as well, including the excellent Pavilion dm4 Beats Edition. The sound-shaping software can do a lot to customize the headphone experience (less so for the adequate built-in speakers) but the EQ presets focus on Beats-branded headphones. The Beats effect is too bass-heavy for many, although that's a main selling point for the brand, and I always find too much of a pumping, compressorlike quality to the sound via headphones. A small volume wheel and physical mute button along the right side of the laptop are welcome, but I kept accidentally triggering the wheel and its onscreen indicator when moving the laptop even a tiny bit.