While the HP Spectre TouchSmart XT was one of the first Windows 8 laptops we previewed way back in August 2012, we've only recently gotten our hands on the final shipping version of it. In many ways it's been worth the wait, as this is one of the only slim, upscale 15-inch touch-screen Windows 8 laptops you'll find.
At $1,299 for this Intel Core i7 configuration, it's not inexpensive, but for that you get excellent design, a fast CPU, and a rare Thunderbolt port on a non-Apple laptop. At the same time, in this price range, it would not be unreasonable to ask for entry-level discrete graphics, better battery life (this system barely topped 3.5 hours), or even a slot-loading optical drive, which shouldn't be too hard to fit into the 18-millimeter body.
While it's nowhere near as good-looking or well-built, Dell's Inspiron 15z is a reasonably thin 15-inch laptop with a touch screen and optical drive for only $899. The Spectre XT is much nicer, to be sure, but it's not a crushing victory, especially considering the price difference.
Still, the Spectre XT passes an important test in that it's just fun to use.
The keyboard, touch screen, and touch pad all work together well, and the addition of Thunderbolt makes this one of the few Windows laptops that's a real alternative to something like the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (the display here is only 1,920x1,080 pixels in resolution, but that's as good as you're going to get on a PC). Better battery life would make the Spectre XT a more obvious choice, but as a hands-on experience, it's hard not to like.
|Price as reviewed||$1,299|
|Processor||1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517M|
|Memory||8GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Operating system||Windows 8|
|Dimensions (WD)||10x14.9 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.9 pounds/5.8 pounds|
Design and features
There have been several really nice-looking Windows 8 laptops in the first six months of the Windows 8 era, including the Acer Aspire S7, the Lenovo Yoga, and the Asus Taichi. But most of these have been 13- and 14-inch laptops, or inventive hybrids. Bigger-screened laptops have been less common, and most of those, from the Dell Inspiron 15z to the Acer V5, have been more functional than flattering.
The Spectre XT is a design-first laptop, and builds on the visual language of Hewlett-Packard's last few years of higher-end systems. Envy used to be the highest-end HP line, but now that's been overshadowed by the Spectre, although the two names are sometimes used together, as in the case of the Envy Spectre. There's also the XT modifier used on some HP laptops, to indicate "extra thin," I suppose. In any case, this system has two of the three names HP uses to identify high-end systems (no "Envy" this time), so it's not surprising that buyers are being asked to cross that all-important $1,000 mark.
The Spectre XT has an all-metal body, with a brushed design on the lid and keyboard tray, and what feels like a powder-coated bottom panel. It carries the official Intel ultrabook label, which means it meets certain guidelines for CPU, thickness, and internal storage -- but many new Windows 8 laptops are either ultrabooks or very close (we call those near-misses fauxtrabooks). The practical effect is that consumers have a much wider range of thin, light laptops to choose from than ever before, both in the $700-to-$800 range and higher-priced systems like the $1,299 HP Spectre.
The keyboard is of the standard island-style variety, with the same HP-specific touches found on nearly every current HP laptop, including rounded keys at each of the four outer corners of the keyboard, and a separate row on the far right side of Page Up, Page Down, and other navigation keys. Helpfully backlit, the keyboard's ease of use is further helped by large Shift, Tab, and Backspace keys, and the Function keys are "reversed," meaning their more useful alternate commands, such as volume and brightness control, become the primary functions.
The touch pad is of the buttonless clickpad variety, but HP's most recent laptops have had a unique look with the rectangular touch surface set in the middle of a larger depression in the wrist rest. The matte surface offers enough resistance without being sticky, and two-finger scrolling is smooth, something that often trips up Windows laptops.
The 15.6-inch display has a full 1,920x,1080-pixel resolution, which is as high as current consumer laptops get, and exactly what one should expect in this price range. The $900 Dell Inspiron 15z I mentioned as a less expensive alternative has only a 1,366x768 resolution, which would automatically rule it out for a lot of people, especially those interested in Photoshop work or viewing full-HD video. The IPS screen is covered by edge-to-edge touch-sensitive glass, and looks great even from extreme side angles, although it's very glossy and reflects a lot of light.
The Beats-branded speakers are another HP mainstay. With four internal speakers, the system gets reasonably loud and deep, although with such a thin chassis there's only so much air you can move, so don't expect significant amounts of bass.
|HP Spectre XT TouchSmart||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||HDMI, Thunderbolt/DisplayPort||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Quad speakers, combo headphone/mic jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, 1 Thunderbolt, SD card reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Connections, performance, and battery life
The Spectre XT's most notable feature is its inclusion of a Thunderbolt port. This high-speed port is found on nearly all current Apple systems, but only a small handful of Windows PCs. The port connects to a variety of high-speed peripherals, mostly large external hard drives, but it can also power DisplayPort screens. For now, at least, USB 3.0 seems to be the high-speed connection of choice for non-Apple computers, and the selection of Thunderbolt devices is limited, plus, you won't be able to use them with other, non-Thunderbolt devices, so the real-world utility will be limited for most.