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HP and the great glass ultrabook: Envy 14 Spectre, hands-on

Glass front, glass back, glass touch pad: the HP Envy 14 Spectre is one of the glossiest ultrabooks we've ever seen.

It takes a lot to stand out in the crowded world of ultrabooks, but HP is betting that a liberal dose of Gorilla Glass will do the trick.

The newly announced HP Spectre is the most glass-covered laptop we've ever seen. Is that a good thing? We've seen glass-heavy smartphones like the iPhone 4, but not so much in laptops...until now. At CES 2012, we got a good close-up look at HP's bold Envy redesign.

The Spectre is HP's first consumer-oriented ultrabook (the HP Folio 13 released last year was technically HP's first ultrabook, but targeted at small business), and the differences between the Spectre and Folio couldn't be greater. The HP Folio 13 is a model of restraint, practicality. The Envy 14 Spectre is about flash and gloss, most markedly via its all-glass lid and palm rest. At a CES devoid of many eye-popping laptops, the Spectre could be the most stylish of the bunch.

While having glass all over the display, lid, palm rest, and touch pad might seem to invite danger, HP boasts that using Gorilla Glass will make the laptop more scratch-resistant. That may be true, but there's likely some concern about shattering. Then again, if you dropped any laptop on a hard surface, odds are you wouldn't be happy with the outcome.

Compared to thin 13-inch ultrabooks and laptops like the MacBook Air, the Envy 14 Spectre is no lightweight. The 20mm-thick, 14-inch ultrabook fits within the size guidelines for the newer class of 14-inch ultrabooks we've seen at CES, but that also means it's heavier and thicker than other ultrabooks, including the HP Folio 13. Nevertheless, the Spectre is still lighter and thinner than mainstream laptops like the MacBook Pro.

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Beats Audio is included, along with an inset analog wheel for volume control like the one on the HP Envy 15. The LED-lid HP Radiance backlit keyboard is also nearly the same as its larger HP Envy 15 sibling, although the 14-inch 1,600x900-pixel HP Radiance LED display uses different technology, according to HP--not true IPS, but extremely bright and viewable from any angle.

As far as the computing under the lid, the Spectre is an ultrabook as opposed to a high-end graphics-equipped computer like most Envys. Expect the same sort of Intel Core i-series processors we've seen in other ultrabooks, along with a 128GB SSD drive with an option to add a second SSD to double the storage. Other perks like HP Wireless Audio come included, but the Spectre lacks dedicated graphics or an optical drive.

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The $1,399 entry-level HP Envy 14 Spectre configuration will feature an Intel Core i5-2467M processor (not Ivy Bridge), 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD drive. Ports are thorough, like HP's other ultrabook, the Folio 13: Ethernet, USB 3.0, HDMI, and also Mini DisplayPort. HP Wireless Audio, Bluetooth, WiDi, and NFC are all supported. Full versions of Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Elements are preinstalled, a perk that's becoming more common to HP laptops.

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One feature on the HP Envy 14 Spectre that I was debriefed on but didn't see in action is its built-in NFC, or near-field communication, support. NFC support in ultrabooks was a trend discussed at Intel's CES keynote, and the Spectre is the first laptop we've heard of with NFC.

It's unclear how exactly this technology, which is starting to emerge in smartphones, would work on a laptop, but the general idea seems to be that maps, Web pages, or other information could be thrown from the smartphone up onto the larger HP Spectre screen in a manner reminiscent of Minority Report. It's also unclear whether proprietary apps would be needed to make NFC functionality work between devices, but it's likely.

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The HP Envy 14 Spectre will be available February 8 for $1,399, which is significantly more expensive than other ultrabooks. Is it worth it? We'll find out when we get one to review.