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HP Spectre Folio: Getting my hands on the leather shell of this luxury laptop

A 13-inch leather-clad laptop that would make even Ricardo Montalban jealous.

HP Spectre Folio
Sarah Tew/CNET

I'd be the first to admit, I'm having a fun time using the new HP Spectre Folio. In a world of copycat laptops, almost all of whom seem to want to be the MacBook Air, this is at the very least a different approach to laptop design.

Instead of taking a slim laptop and sticking it in a leather sleeve, as one might do with any other similar system, the leather case here is built right in. No, it's not Corinthian leather, but it's still pretty nice.

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But it's not just bolted on to the standard laptop chassis. Instead, a magnesium frame is paired with a leather outer shell that covers just about everything except for the keyboard and screen. HP says that cuts down on weight and thickness, although this still feels hefty for a 13-inch laptop, at 3.3 pounds (1.5 kg).

We rarely see them now, but this isn't the first leather-shelled laptop I've tested. About 10 years ago, it was briefly in vogue, like this Asus U6S I reviewed back in 2008. But this example makes the leather more a part of the overall design, rather than just gluing it onto the back of a standard laptop body.

It's called the Folio because, when closed, it looks like a leather folio. So much so, that when I took it for a test drive to the new coffee shop on the corner, I just tucked it under my arm and went, no bag.

HP Spectre Folio
Sarah Tew/CNET

Flipping the script

That part of the design is certainly clever, but other parts feel a bit too clever. The hybrid hinge, which folds the 13-inch screen into different modes, is complicated, with the entire screen flipping out from the middle of the rear panel.

The screen can swoop down in front of the keyboard, creating a kind of kiosk. That's great for video playback, but it only hits one angle, and it may not a particularly useful one unless you're slightly above the laptop, looking down.

HP Spectre Folio
Sarah Tew/CNET

It also forms a tablet, and using the included stylus in that mode is very nice, especially with the leather outer shell under your hands. But the stylus has nowhere to go, except a protruding leather loop -- I find those always get in the way and get snagged on things. A compromise might have been a stylus that slides into a hidden compartment on the body, but that requires one of those tiny styluses, usually about as thick as a coffee stirrer, so there's no perfect answer.

If you're comparing this to the new MacBook Air, they both use dual-core Intel Y series processors, which means they're not especially speedy, but still fine for everyday use. For these prices -- the Folio starts at $1,299 (while the new Air starts at $1,199), and goes up from there, you're not wrong to want something faster. 

This test configuration has a Core i7 Y-series CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 4G LTE antenna. The closest configuration on HP's website right now is $1,499, but cuts the RAM to 8GB. A nearly identical MacBook Air config (with a higher screen resolution, but without the LTE antenna) is $1,749. HP says a version of the Spectre Folio with a 4K display is coming later this year.

HP Spectre Folio
Sarah Tew/CNET

The single Spectre Folio configuration on HP's UK website is £1,499. In Australia, it starts at AU$2,799.

HP's done a great job of making big, bold statement pieces in the last few years, mostly from this high-end Spectre line. The new Folio isn't perfect, but it certainly stands out.

Consider this my initial hands-on impressions after using the system for a few days. We're currently running benchmark and battery life tests on the Spectre Folio and will update this review with scores and a rating. 

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