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

The Spectre One has high-end ambitions, but can't shake its commodity PC roots.

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Rich Brown
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Rich Brown Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness

Rich is the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, KY. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D-printing to Z-Wave smart locks.

Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
10 min read

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

HP__Spectre_One_23_All_in_One_35540290_004_610x436.jpg
5.8

HP Spectre One

The Good

Stand-out features of the <b>HP Spectre One</b> 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.

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.

The other way HP imagines you might benefit from NFC comes via two adhesive tags included in the box. You're supposed to affix these to any object you keep near at hand -- like a wallet, or a cell phone case -- and then program each tag with either your Windows log-in information, or with a Web address. Once programmed, the idea is that you would then swipe the tagged object across the NFC receiver icon on the Spectre One, either logging you in automatically or launching a Web page you visit frequently.

Those functions do work as intended, but neither is exactly what I would call "killer app" material. Worse, HP put frustratingly little care into introducing users to using the tags.

To start with, it's up to you to somehow figure out what the tags are for. HP offers no indication as to their purpose, in either the packaging, or any paper or digital documentation included with the system. If you do figure out the point of the tags, you're then prompted to download two separate Windows 8 applications to program them. Both applications, HP TouchZone Writer and HP TouchZone Credential Reader, are HP-made, and HP has so far offered no explanation for not installing them in the first place.

Swiping to log in also presents a security issue; if someone has your wallet, they also have your PC's log-in information. That might not be a concern for everyone, and for those of you who log out or shut down their PCs frequently enough that you would benefit from saving a few seconds when you log back in, maybe the Spectre One's NFC feature has some appeal. Would you still rather have that and an extra 2GB of RAM instead of a larger, if not higher-resolution, screen? For most consumers, I expect the answer is a resounding "no."

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking tests -- iTunes and QuickTime (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Multimedia multitasking tests -- iTunes and HandBrake (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Cinebench 11.5
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs
Rendering single CPU

You can look at HP's application performance in a few ways. Coming in second behind the $2,299 Dell across our benchmarks points to the processing horsepower behind the Spectre One's Core i7 CPU. The fact that the Spectre One doesn't create enough distance between itself and the Asus ET2300INTI suggests that paying extra for the Core i7 chip isn't worth the HP's $300 price premium.

Overall, the Spectre One really only justifies the cost of its extra performance if you need that kind of pure CPU speed more than faster storage or graphics horsepower, and if you must also respect a $1,600 budget. Few other consumers would want this configuration, gamers included. The GeForce GT 610 chip is a bottom-of-the-barrel discrete graphics chip. It might play some games, but it can't handle newer, more demanding titles like Far Cry 3, even in low-detail mode.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I mentioned the HDMI, USB 3.0, and SD Card inputs on the Spectre One earlier. HP also includes separate microphone and audio-out jacks, but all controls for the audio output, the video signal, and the display brightness live on the keyboard as second-function keys. That's just as a good a place as any, and it helps HP preserve the Spectre One's tidy looks.

The only other notable feature here is the location of the motherboard. Remove one screw and the entire rear panel of the monitor support comes off to reveal the whole motherboard for the Spectre One. You get access to the memory and the hard drive easily enough. You can also see the MXM graphics card module. I expect an enterprising-enough enthusiast could upgrade it, but you would need to pry off and re-adhere the cooling pipes to both the 3D card and likely the CPU, since it all seems to operate on the same cooling circuit.

Conclusion
Where Dell, Asus, Sony, and other vendors have made serious efforts to diversify their Windows 8-era all-in-ones from the commodity herd, the HP Spectre One feels like it only pays lip service to the idea. An interesting new design and NFC capabilities seem to elevate this system, but its mass-market build materials and almost aggressively subpar features keep the HP Spectre One from serious consideration.

Performance testing conducted by Joseph Kaminski. Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations

Acer Aspire 7600U
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (SP1); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 768MB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics card; 1TB 5,400rpm hard drive

Asus ET2300INTI
Microsoft Windows 8 (64-bit); 3GHz Intel Core i5-3330; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 630M graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Dell XPS One 27
Microsoft Windows 8 Pro 64-bit; 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-3770S; 8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics card; 2TB 7,200rpm hard drive

HP Spectre One
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (SP1); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2400S; 8GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 64MB Intel HD Graphics 1000 (embedded); 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Lenovo IdeaCentre A720
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (SP1); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M ; 6GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 630M graphics card; 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive

Vizio CA24T-A4
Microsoft Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M; 6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000 (embedded); 1TB 5,400rpm hard drive

HP__Spectre_One_23_All_in_One_35540290_004_610x436.jpg
5.8

HP Spectre One

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 4Performance 7Support 7
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