HP Spectre One review: High-end wrapper, commodity filling

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The Good Stand-out features of the HP Spectre One include a Core i7 CPU, an NFC receiver, and both a wireless mouse and a wireless touch pad.

The Bad An absent touch screen and an underwhelming feature set make this PC hard to recommend.

The Bottom Line HP tried to capture some high-end Windows 8 excitement for the Spectre One, but it falls short on both features and value.

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5.8 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 4
  • Performance 7
  • Support 7

HP's Spectre laptops have done well in our laptop reviews. Its first Spectre-branded desktop is less successful.

The Spectre One has two primary problems. It's a high-end Windows 8 all-in-one that lacks a touch screen. Hewlett-Packard has also made some questionable decisions regarding the Spectre One's features, not least giving it a 23.6-inch display. Both of those decisions are out of keeping for an all-in-one desktop with a $1,600 price tag. HP has attempted to offset those concerns with features like an NFC receiver and an included wireless touch pad, but neither is enough to earn the Spectre One a recommendation.

HP debuted the Spectre branding with a strong, glass-and-aluminum Envy 14 Spectre laptop back in January. The plastic-encased Spectre One doesn't quite have the same polish.

Not that there's anything overtly offensive about the Spectre One's looks. The arched support holding up the monitor is a bit thick, but that's because it contains the computing guts. The display itself is a pleasing 12 millimeters thin, and it hides the rest of the system well enough that you won't really notice anything but the screen when you're sitting in front of it.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The remainder of the Spectre One design can best be described as tidy. It has no external buttons aside from the power button along the top edge of the monitor. HP also went minimal on the external ports. You'll find an appropriate assortment of USB 3.0 jacks, an HDMI input, and an SD card slot along the rear and side edges of the Spectre One's bottom portion, each port neatly trimmed in light gray. What you won't find is an optical drive. HP joins Apple, Lenovo, Vizio, and others in leaving optical drives by the wayside, at least in this system.

To its credit, HP extends the spare design to the input devices included with the Spectre One. The wireless keyboard, mouse, and touch pad all match the look of the system. It's unfortunate that those devices can't make up for the absent touch screen.

HP is the first Windows 8 all-in-one desktop I've reviewed that lacks a touch screen. I won't go so far as to say that touch is mandatory in a Windows 8 all-in-one, but by limiting you to external input devices, the HP Spectre One offers a stilted Windows 8 experience.

Your first step should be picking either the mouse or the touch pad as your primary cursor control, and for most users this will mean picking the mouse. You might use the touch pad as an alternative, particularly if you have illusions of using the Spectre One as a home entertainment PC, but in general the mouse is the more efficient choice.

Sarah Tew/CNET

When you do use the touch pad, you will find it responsive enough, and more responsive than the touch pad included in Vizio desktops, but the problem is that unlike with a touch screen, your input on the pad doesn't correspond spatially to the onscreen cursor.

As an example, you can swipe the right side of the touch pad to open up the Windows 8 charms sidebar (shortcut icons to the main Windows 8 tile page, the settings page, and others) but if your mouse cursor is on the left side of the screen, you need to drag it manually over to the charms in order to select one. You can't simply press the approximate place on the touch pad to select a charm.

There might be some ergonomic and other reasons why this is the case, and the disconnect between touch-pad input and the cursor is also not unique to HP. You can even overcome it partly by learning Windows 8's shortcuts. The problem is that other desktops in this price range also include a touch screen, giving you another, more efficient way to drive the Spectre One with touch input. Without a touch screen, the Spectre One's input flexibility suffers.

Another way to look at it: you can always add a touch pad to Windows PC post-purchase if that's your preferred input technique. You can't upgrade the Spectre One's display to a touch screen.

HP Spectre One Asus ET2300INTI Acer Aspire 7600U
Price (at time of review) $1,598 $1,299 $1,899
Display size/resolution 23.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 23-inch, 1,920x1,080 27-inch, 1,920x1,080
CPU 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-3770T 3GHz Intel Core i5-3330 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M
Memory 10GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 610 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT630M 768MB Nvidia Geforce GT 640M
Hard drives 1TB, 5,400rpm 1TB, 7,200rpm 1TB, 5,400rpm
Optical drive n/a dual-layer DVD burner Blu-ray/dual-layer DVD burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth, NFC Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth
Operating system Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 8 (64-bit)

I will grant that input devices are a personal choice, and you may appreciate that HP includes a touch pad with the Spectre One. Objectively speaking, this system is a poor value compared with competing Windows 8 all-in-ones in its price range.

Pricing for the Spectre One starts at $1,299, or $300 lower than our review unit. For that price, you get a Core i5 CPU and 6GB of memory. Our review unit received updates to a Core i7 chip and 10GB of RAM; otherwise they're the same.

The $1,600 model posted some reasonably fast CPU performance thanks to its Core i7 chip. It disappoints in almost every other capacity.

At $1,299, the Asus ET2300INTI offers a touch screen, a faster CPU than the default HP chip, a DVD, and a faster graphics chip. Pay just $100 more and you can also get the entry-level Dell XPS One 27. In that system, you get the same core components as the default HP Spectre One, but also a 27-inch display. The Dell also lacks a touch screen at that price, but in addition to being larger than the HP, it also has a higher-resolution 2,560x1,440-pixel LCD panel.

Move up on the pricing scale to match our Spectre One review unit and it remains underwhelming. Yes, its Core i7 chip is a welcome touch at that price that will help overall performance. Most other upper midrange Windows 8 all-in-ones have a Core i5 chip. HP also jammed in 10GB of RAM where we usually see 8GB. The extra memory will also improve performance, but for most consumers, 8GB of system memory is plenty. A solid-state caching drive, a higher-end Nvidia graphics card, a full, 7,200rpm hard drive instead of the cut-corner 5,400rpm model, or, yes, a touch screen would all make better options. Shaving 2GB of memory wouldn't get you to all of those features, but it would certainly help.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I would also opt out of the NFC (near-field communication) receiver in this system, if only I could. Most PC vendors strive to give their systems at least one unique feature. Some, like Dell's ultra-high-resolution displays, are eminently useful. Others, like the Asus' Thunderbolt port and Intel Wireless Display (WiDi) adapter, offer more situational benefits. The Spectre One's NFC receiver is in the latter camp, but at least with Thunderbolt the Asus offers some serious-minded utility. NFC is still at such an early, uncertain stage of consumer interest and acceptance, it's harder to appreciate. Its interoperability is also a shambles.

The idea is that the NFC receiver can help the Spectre One interact with other devices. HP also imagines that it will streamline certain activities. For the former, you need a smartphone or some other device with its own NFC transmitter. The popular Samsung Galaxy S3 has one, as do a few other Android phones, so it's not entirely rare. Ideally, you will use one of those devices with the Spectre One to transfer data, a la the "tap" you may have seen in commercials for the Galaxy S3.

My experiences using the Spectre One with a Galaxy S3 and a Windows Phone 8-powered Nokia Lumia 920 were equally futile. The system made a noise like a digital trickle when I swiped the phones across the receiver, but nothing else happened. I cannot say whose implementation is at fault here, and a software update on Samsung's, Nokia's, or HP's side might improve matters. Until that happens, the reality is that using NFC to send data between this PC and a smartphone is a bust.

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