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HP Envy Spectre XT review: HP Envy Spectre XT

For just under $1,000, this is a great-looking high-end 13-inch laptop, but it doesn't do much more than many less expensive systems.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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As the current flagship of HP's laptop line, the new Envy Spectre XT certainly packs a lot of names into one product. This is a premium ultrabook, and our understanding is that the Spectre designation now indicates a level of product above HP's already high-end Envy line. The XT is for an especially thin product (eXtra Thin, perhaps?), and serves as a further modifier to either Envy- or Spectre-branded products.

HP Envy Spectre XT
8.0

HP Envy Spectre XT

The Good

Slim and lightweight, the <b>HP Envy Spectre XT</b> is portable, well-built, and easy to use, with a great keyboard.

The Bad

The design doesn't stand out as much as the original Spectre's did, and its battery life won't get you through an entire day. From a premium product, we'd expect a higher screen resolution.

The Bottom Line

A high-end laptop at a mainstream price, the HP Envy Spectre XT gets much of the look and feel right, with only a few missteps.

That's a lot of code names to go through for something that's essentially a very nice second-gen ultrabook, with an up-to-date Intel Core i5 CPU, a standard 128GB solid-state drive (SSD), a large buttonless clickpad, and Beats-powered audio. Other premium features include a backlit keyboard (which should be standard for all ultrabooks by now, but sadly isn't), and full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Adobe Premiere Elements 10.

09_HP_Envy_Spectre_XT_35283803.jpg

Making it feel a little less upscale: the pedestrian 1,366x768-pixel screen resolution and basic Intel HD 4000 graphics.

Starting at $999 (with some CPU and SSD upgrades available), the Spectre XT is reasonably priced and fits in with other higher-end ultrabooks, such as the Asus Zenbook UX31. It's less expensive than the Samsung Series 9 or Acer Aspire S5, while being just about as attractive. The biggest missed opportunity is the lack of a higher-resolution screen, which prevents the Spectre XT from feeling like a truly premium product.

Price as reviewed$999
Processor1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U
Memory4GB, 1,600Hz DDR3
Hard drive128GB SSD
ChipsetIntel HM77
GraphicsIntel HD 4000
Operating systemWindows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD)12.4x8.8 inches
Height0.7 inch
Screen size (diagonal)13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter3.1/4 pounds
Category13-inch

The 14.5-millimeter-thick Spectre XT looks and feels a lot like other ultrabooks we've seen, including Dell's XPS 13, HP's own Folio 13, and even Apple's MacBook Air. Like those models, it has a 13.3-inch screen. Its body tapers slightly toward the front and the lid has a brushed-metal finish that ties it in with the overall look of both Envy and Pavilion laptops from HP.

If this laptop looks very familiar to you, it might be because you've seen the HP Pavilion m6 I recently reviewed. Even though that system is a modestly priced slim 15-inch midsize laptop, its design is virtually indistinguishable from the Spectre XT's.

On one hand, this re-emphasizes what was so appealing about the Pavilion m6 -- a very Envy-like design at Pavilion prices. On the other hand, it's a bit off-putting to find almost the same exact design in both HP's highest-end laptop and a midtier product. With the previous-generation glass-covered HP Envy Spectre, at least it felt like you were getting a totally different product that looked and felt like nothing else from HP or any other laptop maker.

06_HP_Envy_Spectre_XT_35283803.jpg

Physically, the Spectre XT is a joy to use, which is something I don't say about most laptops. The keyboard, with flat-topped, island-style keys, is just the right size for a 13-inch laptop, and the keys themselves felt firm and quiet. This keyboard lacks the obnoxious clackiness of those found on so many smaller laptops. Thankfully backlit, the keyboard's ease of use is further helped by large Shift, Tab, and Backspace keys.

The top row of Function buttons are function-reversed, meaning hitting these keys activates the control audio, screen brightness, and other functions by default, rather than requiring an Fn+F-key combo.

The touch pad is of the buttonless clickpad variety, but it has a unique look that stands out from similar pads on Dell, Apple, and other laptop brands, with the rectangular touch surface set in the middle of a larger depression in the wrist rest. It's a look you'll find on other current Envy laptops, as well as the Pavilion m6 (although the latter has separate left and right mouse buttons). The matte surface offers enough resistance without being sticky, and two-finger scrolling was smoother than I expected, likely because the multitouch sensitivity seems to be jacked up to the top of the scale.

The 13.3-inch display is one of the few letdowns on the Spectre XT. The only option available is this 1,366x768-pixel panel. While that's a perfectly acceptable resolution for a 13-inch laptop, many systems this size that brand themselves as premium products offer 1,600x900- or even 1,920x1,080-pixel displays. Down here at lower resolutions, HD video won't display at its native resolution, and Web pages and productivity docs can feel crowded.


HP Envy Spectre XTAverage for category [13-inch]
VideoHDMIHDMI or DisplayPort
AudioFour speakers, headphone jackStereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data2 USB 3.0, SD card reader2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader
NetworkingEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, BluetoothEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical driveNoneDVD burner

Ports and connections sometimes get short shrift in ultrabooks, but here you'll find an Ethernet jack and HDMI, along with standard stuff such as a USB 3.0 port. Like most HP laptops, and the entire Envy line, the Spectre XT has a Beats Audio sound system, in this case through four (tiny) speakers. It sounds decent for casual use, but headphones are highly recommended for immersive movies and games.

07_HP_Envy_Spectre_XT_35283803.jpg

One nice touch is the inclusion of Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Adobe Premiere Elements 10 -- not the full-featured software suites, but consumer versions that should be powerful enough for most.

There are a handful of upgrades available for the Spectre XT. CPU and SSD upgrades are expensive and won't add much to your experience -- if this is going to be your main machine, jumping up to a 256GB SSD is worth considering, but as a $200 add-on, it's painfully expensive.

The low-voltage Intel Core i5 CPU powering the Spectre XT is the same one found in many other slim 13-inch laptops. Performance numbers reflect this, with very similar scores from essentially similar laptops across different price bands, from less expensive laptops such as the Dell Inspiron 13z to more expensive ones such as the Samsung Series 9. Any of these is more than fast enough for everyday tasks, from Web surfing and productivity to HD video playback and photo editing.

With only Intel's HD 4000 graphics inside, this is not going to be your main gaming platform. That said, the HD 4000 GPU can handle some casual on-the-go gaming, and managed 24.8 frames per second in our Street Fighter IV test and 19.5 frames per second in Just Cause 2, both at the native 1,366x768-pixel resolution.

One area where the otherwise impressive Spectre XT falls short is in battery life. The system ran for 4 hours and 13 minutes in our video playback battery drain test, which is barely above the drop-dead ultrabook baseline of 4 hours. Dell's Inspiron 13z ran for nearly an hour longer, and Samsung's Series 9 13-inch ran for 2 hours and 40 minutes longer. The shorter battery life here is fine for runs to the coffee shop, but probably won't get you through a whole day of work.

HP does include some premium support services with the Spectre XT. The two-year warranty comes with a separate premium-level phone line for tech support, as well as a two-year subscription to Norton Internet Security.

The HP Envy Spectre XT is a high-end laptop at a mainstream price, but one that blurs the line a bit too much with HP's lower-priced offerings. The laptop itself is thin, light, and easy to use -- but after the original glass-covered Spectre, I expected more from the design. As it is, this is a great system for working at a coffee shop during the day, but it needs a better battery to be a real road warrior.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323
519

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

605

HP Envy Spectre XT 13-2050nr

616

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

632

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)

636

Sony Vaio T13112FXS

650

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

HP Envy Spectre XT 13-2050nr
190

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323

194

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)

196

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

198

Sony Vaio T13112FXS

198

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

211

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

HP Envy Spectre XT 13-2050nr
126

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)

127

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323

129

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

129

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

129

Sony Vaio T13112FXS

131

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)
415

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

376

Sony Vaio T13112FXS

342

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323

301

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

293

HP Envy Spectre XT 13-2050nr

253

Average watts (load test)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

HP Envy Spectre XT 13-2050nr
20.77

Lenovo IdeaPad U310

25.97

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A

26.86

Sony Vaio T13112FXS

27.14

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)

27.33

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323

40.5

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:
HP Envy Spectre XT 13-2050nr
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Samsung SSD

Samsung Series 9 NP900X3C (13-inch, 2012)
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB SanDisk SSD

Dell Inspiron 13z - 5323
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Adata XM11 SSD

Sony Vaio T13112FXS
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Lenovo IdeaPad U310
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 500GB Samsung 5,400rpm

HP Envy Spectre XT
8.0

HP Envy Spectre XT

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 6Support 8