Outside of a handful on inventive (if flawed) gaming systems, this has not been a year for radically memorable laptop designs. They've all got thin bodies now. Everyone has managed to shrink the bezels around screens down to near-nothing. And even Apple's unique Touch Bar is already a year old.
That's why I tip my hat to HP, which has made its revamped 13-inch Spectre arguably the coolest-looking new laptop of the year. It's also a highly competent super-slim computer, which gives us the freedom to dwell on its good looks.
But good looks will cost you. The Spectre starts at $1,299 in the US. Slightly different configurations are available in the UK, starting at £1,599 and Australia, at AU$3,299.
People sometimes give me a doubtful look when I tell them that a laptop is like a pair of eyeglasses. Asked to explain, I say that it's something very personal, that you use all the time, that you're regularly seen in public with. It's an extension of the self and therefore part of your public persona. That's why you choose one pair of eyeglasses over another -- the lenses generally work the same across different frames, so style and comfort (and price) become primary factors.
Computers, especially laptops, are largely built from the same core group of components, so systems in the same price range, with the same parts, will usually have similar performance. That's why, for many years, I've counseled shoppers to first make sure a potential new laptop does what they want at a price they like, but then choose based on aesthetic and ergonomic considerations.
Last year's Spectre was similarly slim (although it actually had a slightly wider desktop footprint) and impressive, but it missed on a few key points. The 13-inch screen lacked touch, which was a glaring omission in a super-premium laptop at the time, and the battery ran for about seven hours in our testing, which was merely OK.
|Price as reviewed||$1,299|
|Display size/resolution||13-inch 1,920x1,080-pixel display|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U|
|PC Memory||8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz|
|Graphics||128MB Intel HD Graphics 620|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.1|
|Operating system||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
For the 2017 model, there are some major changes, both internally and externally. First, the processor inside has been upgraded from a 7th-generation Intel Core i-series CPU to a newer 8th-gen one, which results in a surprisingly impressive performance boost.
Second, the display has been updated to a touch version, which is the single thing most glaringly missing from the previous Spectre. Not everyone wants or needs a touchscreen in a laptop, but even in Windows 10, there are a few areas where it comes in handy (scrolling long web pages, setting up Wi-Fi connections), and it's really just table stakes at this point for any laptop that costs more than a few hundred bucks. And even with the new touch display, the Spectre is still just 10.4mm thick, and less than a half-ounce heavier.
The final big upgrade is to the already excellent design. The speakers move from the sides of the keyboard to above it, allowing for a narrower body, and the screen bezel has shrunk a bit. But I'm most impressed by the new ceramic white design, which looks just stunning. The matte ceramic finish feels great under the fingers, and even the gold-accented hinges don't throw off the vibe.
White laptops come and go, and have certainly been on the design outs, at least in the US, for the past several years. So, part of the appeal is that this is just different, but it's also incredibly well done. Everyone in this office who's seen this review sample, even if they're skeptical of "flashy" laptops, has been impressed.
Yes, there's also a dark grey "ash-and-copper" color option. Don't get that one. Seriously. It's boring.
Some bemoan the super-shallow keyboards seemingly taking over every non-gaming laptop brand, even Apple's MacBook Pro. The keyboard here sticks with that plan, but works well enough to not stand out and the keys are deeper than a Macbook's. The touchpad, however, was my my biggest pain point. It's wide but shallow, and has that floaty, not-exactly-there feel you find on so many Windows touchpads. I cranked up the sensitivity a bit in the settings, but could never get exactly what I wanted. (If you're a Windows laptop maker trying to crack the code, try a MacBook, any MacBook, and just copy that.)
Ports are, as has become standard for the slimmest laptops, USB-C only, At least there are three of them, two of which are also Thunderbolt ports, all on the rear edge behind the unique rounded hinges. And there's a USB-C to USB-A dongle in the box, along with a basic faux leather sleeve.
Note what while the other new Spectre, the updated Spectre x360, folds all the way down into a tablet, this one's just a standard clamshell laptop. In fact, its hinges don't go back all that far, and that's a potential issue when adjusting the screen for optimal viewing angles, especially if it's on your lap.
Every 12-18 months, Intel revamps its mainstream CPUs, and we're currently in the early stages of the 8th generation of the Core era. These updates often promise better battery life or efficiency, or tweaks for 4K video playback and editing. This time around, the emphasis is on performance, and our benchmark tests back that up. This laptop, like the handful of other 8th-gen Intel laptops we've tested recently, offers a notable performance premium over comparable systems with 7th-gen chips.
Battery life is still not a strength spot for the Spectre laptop. This year, the 8th-gen version scored a modest boost over the previous model, but it was still only a one-hour difference, at 8:10 on our streaming video playback battery test.
We're at the point in laptop development now where going ultra-thin and ultra-light is almost, but not entirely, a compromise-free process. You're still dealing with an inherently shallow keyboard, and often you'll have issues with ports or touchpads. But great performance is easy to find, especially from the newest Intel CPUs. But battery life is still tied to just how much room there is inside the body for an actual battery.
While it's not perfect, in its excellent new version of the 13-inch Spectre, HP has managed to solve one big issue by fitting in a much-needed touchscreen display. And, perhaps just as importantly, they created a laptop that's far from boring.
|HP Spectre 13||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Laptop||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|Dell XPS 13 (2017)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD|
|HP Spectre 13 (2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5HGz Intel Core i7-6500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017)||Apple macOS 10.12.5 Sierra; 1.2GHz Intel Core m3-7Y32; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD|