On paper, HP's new Spectre 13 ultrabook looks like just another slim 13-inch laptop, with the same basic components and design as dozens of other options in the around-$1,000 category. Its main selling point is a wider-than-normal touch pad, which includes left- and right-hand strips, called "control zones," allowing easier interaction with Windows 8.
I'm pleased to say that this is one of those rare products that comes off better in person than on paper (a phrase I first used for the original Apple iPad). Despite average looks and hardware, the $999.99 starting price for a 1080p screen, Intel Core i5 processor, and 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) is reasonable, given the excellent build quality. The backlit keyboard is especially good, very well balanced and leaving little dead space on the system interior. The extra-large touch pad is welcome, and makes Windows 8 a little easier to wrestle with, although the extra controls offered by the edge-of-pad zones aren't explained as well as they should be, or implemented intuitively. But I was still glad to have the extra surface areas for tapping and swiping.
Still, it's a crowded market. Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air starts at only $100 more, as does Lenovo's excellent Yoga 2 Pro. The latter gives you a better-than-HD 3,200x1,800-pixel-resolution display, but the Spectre 13 can upgrade to 2,560x1,440 for an extra $70. The Yoga 2 can also transform into a kiosk or tablet, while the Spectre 13 is merely a clamshell laptop with no hidden contortionist capabilities.
The HP Spectre 13 (our review unit's specific model number was 13t-3000) doesn't break a lot of new ground, and its wider touch pad is held back a bit by gimmickry, but it manages to capture just the right feel for a 13-inch laptop, which is an elusive X factor so many other laptops miss out on.
|HP Spectre 13||Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro||MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)|
|13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||13.3-inch, 3,200x1,800 touch screen||13.3-inch, 1,440x900 screen|
|1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U|
|4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4,096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400||1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000|
|128GB SSD||128GB SSD||128GB SSD|
|802.11 a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4|
Design and features
The outer silhouette of the Spectre 13 screams MacBook Air, but the same can be said of most ultrabook-style laptops from the past couple of years. Where the Spectre 13 differs is in its dark brushed-metal lid, which nicely sets off the lighter brushed-metal interior. Combine that with the jet-black screen bezel, it leaves you with a tri-toned laptop. I'd admit to being partial to monochromatic designs, but the Spectre 13 is still sharp-looking.
It's an interesting evolution from the first time we saw the Spectre brand from HP, in the form of the 2012 Envy Spectre 14. That unique laptop design featured a flat black lid covered with an outer layer of Gorilla Glass, as well as an awkward Gorilla Glass overlay on top of the wrist rest. We haven't seen that exact combination since (although a handful of laptops since have tried the glass lid look), but now the Spectre brand pops up occasionally in HP's catalog to represent something high-end, but perhaps a bit edgier than HP's other premium brand, Envy.
While it's not fundamentally different from other HP keyboards, or even from other 13-inch slim laptop keyboards, typing on the HP Spectre 13's backlit keyboard is just short of fantastic, thanks to the right combination of key size, depth, and spacing. The keys are large and widely spaced, and important keys -- Enter, Shift, Tab, and so on -- are very generously sized. There's little dead space to the left and right of the keyboard, something that always bothers me on laptops of any size.
The standout feature on this system is an extra-wide touch pad. It's as wide as I've seen on a laptop, measuring 2.6 inches high by 5.5 inches wide. So far, so good. But, the extra room on either side isn't exactly the same as the middle of the pad. Instead, the wings, aka control zones, have a slightly different color and rougher texture than the rest of the touch pad.
So, what does a control zone do? They're designed to make it easier to interact with Windows 8, as Microsoft's current operating system is built with a touch screen, not a touch pad, in mind. That means simple things, such as accessing the Charms bar or app switcher, are a hassle if you're using a touch pad or mouse rather than a touch screen.
Click on the right control zone and you call up the Charms bar without having to swipe it in from the right edge of the touch pad. Then scroll your finger up and down the zone and you can select the different Charms bar options. Repeat that with the left-side Charms bar and you get the same effect, but for the app switcher. Just be sure to click near the bottom of the pad, where the hinge allows it to fully depress. Tapping does nothing, which I found counterintuitive.
Frankly, the bigger benefit is from having more surface area to navigate on, and the special control-zone functions are a thin overlay at best. Still, I'll take a bigger touch pad over a smaller one any day, and it's definitely interesting to see HP try and make up for some of the obvious flaws in Windows 8.
The keyboard and touch pad are both excellent, and so is the display. Our 13.3-inch screen had a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, but an upgrade to 2,560x1,440 is available for a reasonable-sounding $70. The screen is especially glossy, but also very rich and bright, with deep blacks and colors that pop.
Like most recent HP laptops, this system is co-branded with Beats Audio, which basically means it has some sound-shaping software that adds bass and dynamics to music, either through the internal speakers or headphones. The speakers fire down from the bottom panel, so that helps create an illusion of bass, but you still won't be DJing a party with this.
|Ports and connections||HP Spectre 13 ultrabook|
|Video||HDMI and Mini DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
With two video outputs, the Spectre 13 already has a leg up on most other ultrabooks. There are only two USB ports, but the Wi-Fi is of the faster 802.11ac variety, as in the latest MacBooks (note, however that 802.11ac is a $20 optional upgrade).
With a fairly common Intel Core i5-4200U processor, this system offers no real performance surprises. Apps ran smoothly, and switching between multiple Web browser windows, video playback, and other tasks was stutter-free. This sort of mainstream-level performance is more than enough for most users. If you plan on editing HD video or playing serious PC games, you may want to look for a larger laptop with a discrete video card.
An ultrabook lives or dies based on its battery life. In this case, the HP Spectre 13 lives up to the hype, running for an impressive 8 hours and 38 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's not quite the lofty level of a MacBook Air, but it's still more than enough for a typical workday, depending on your workload.
The HP Spectre 13 is built around a gimmick, an extra-wide touch pad with control zones that offer some (very limited) extra Windows 8 functionality. Interestingly, the gimmick is entirely unnecessary, as the Spectre 13 is excellent in its own right.
There's nothing especially ground-breaking here, but each individual component and feature is top-notch, including the backlit keyboard, large touch pad, bright display, and long battery life. For a starting price of $999.99 (I'd add the 802.11ac Wi-Fi and the higher-res display for about another $100), you get a very solid laptop, with no deal-breaking flaws, at a very reasonable price.
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HP Spectre 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB LiteOn-IT SSD
Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,749MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB SSD
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)
OSX 10.8.4 Mountain Lion; 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4240U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,024MB (Shared) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 128GB Apple SSD
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 2 Pro
Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.6GHZ Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD 4400 Graphics; 128GB Samsung SSD
Dell XPS 11
Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y; 4GGB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz, 1,792MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4200; 256GB Samsung SSD