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HP Spectre review: The world's thinnest laptop is surprisingly powerful

The HP Spectre is just 10.4mm thick, but can still run a Core i7 processor.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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5 min read

To touch or not to touch. That is the question asked of many Windows laptops, from bulky budget boxes to the slimmest premium systems. HP has two new high-end, very thin laptops, and it answers that question differently in each model.

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8.4

HP Spectre

The Good

The HP Spectre is remarkably thin while still managing to fit in Core i5 and Core i7 processors. The keyboard is excellent for such a slim body, and the bold design stands out in a sea of thin ultraportables.

The Bad

The lack of a touchscreen is a big omission for a premium Windows laptop, and the limited ports may force you to carry extra dongles and accessories.

The Bottom Line

If you can work with USB-C ports and a nontouch display, the HP Spectre offers a great design and excellent performance in the world's thinnest full-power laptop body.

While the 12-inch EliteBook Folio G1 is available with a 1080 or 4K touch screen (there's also an entry-level nontouch version), the much-buzzed-about 13-inch Spectre has only one display option, a 1,920x1,080 nontouch screen.

hp-spectre-2016-01.jpg
Sarah Tew/CNET

It's a trade-off, the company says, required to hit the Spectre's most noteworthy feature -- that it's the world's thinnest full-power laptop, at just 10.4mm thick. That's despite offering current-gen Intel Core i5 and Core i7 processors, rather than the lower-power Core M CPUs in the also-impressive HP EliteBook Folio G1 (and 12-inch Apple MacBook).

With a Core i7-6500U processor, 8GB of RAM and a decent 256GB SSD, the Spectre costs $1,249 in the US. A Core i5 version knocks the price down to $1,169. In the UK, configurations start at £1,149, and AU$2,299 in Australia. Whichever model you choose, just be ready to jump fully into the world of USB-C, the new multipurpose data, power and accessory connector. The Spectre has three USB-C ports along the back. All three can carry data or power, and the two center ones also act as Thunderbolt ports for high-speed data transfer.

HP Spectre

Price as reviewed $1,249
Display size/resolution 13.3-inch 1,920 x 1,080 screen
PC CPU 2.5GHz Intel Core i7-6500U
PC memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz
Graphics 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Windows 10 Home (64-bit)

Just how thin is the 10.4mm Spectre? Apple's aforementioned 12-inch MacBook and the recent Razer Blade Stealth are both around 13mm thick at their thickest parts, while a 13-inch Dell XPS 13 is about 15mm thick. Since the is tapered, it's slimmer in the front, thicker in the rear. Down at the 13mm-and-under level, the differences are more about bragging rights than anything else.

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From the top: 12-inch MacBook, HP EliteBook Folio, HP Spectre.

Sarah Tew/CNET

At 2.4 pounds (without its power cable), it's also very light, but not the lightest 13-inch laptop we've tested (that distinction may belong to the Lenovo LaVie). At the very bleeding edge of laptop design, you generally have to choose between thickness and weight, especially when trying to support full Core i-series processors. In this case, HP went for shaving millimeters from the chassis, at the expense of weight and features (such as touch and ports other than slim USB-C ones).

A bold color scheme also helps the Spectre stand out, ditching the usual silver and gray for a dark, smokey gray with gold accents. The entire hinge is a bright, jeweled gold, which just draws more attention to its unusual design (and which picks up fingerprints pretty easily). To avoid unnecessary bulk, the hinge has moved in from the very rear edge, and is instead inset by a tiny bit.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

That hinge mechanism is aluminum, as is the laptop's lid, while the bottom panel is carbon fiber. HP says the mix of materials serves to give the Spectre the right balance between weight and stiffness, especially in the lid. After all, you don't want your very thin tech to feel flimsy and flex under the slightest touch.

Part of making the Spectre this thin was accomplished by flattening the battery into four separate cells that fit across much of the bottom footprint, rather than having to find space for one large battery. The heatsink has been moved off the CPU as well, and instead the Spectre uses small fans to pull air in through bottom vents and funnel it out through the rear. It's a version of a cooling scheme from Intel called hyperbaric cooling.

A surprisingly good keyboard

Compared with other very thin, very light laptops, such as the 12-inch MacBook, the keyboard on the HP Spectre really stands out as excellent. The keys are a little shallower than on a more full-size 13-inch laptop, such as HP's own Spectre x360, but this is still a standard island-style keyboard that doesn't have the learning curve of something like the very flat keys on the MacBook.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The glass touchpad is very good for a Windows laptop, but small enough that it makes you miss the ease of use that comes with a touchscreen in Windows 10. Apple may be able to get away with nontouch laptops, but easy, intuitive multitouch gestures for navigating and managing multiple apps and windows is something OS X (now MacOS) still has over Windows 10.

The only display option is a 1,920x1,080 full HD nontouch screen. This is an IPS display, which means it looks good from even extreme side angles, and the image was very bright and clear, if a little glossy.

Other slim laptops add higher resolutions and touch, and more options are always welcome. HP says it's to keep the lid as thin as possible, which includes a Gorilla Glass top layer over the display. Full HD resolution is perfectly fine for most 13-inch laptop users, and seeing 4K displays at this size is fun, but not always practical, especially considering the battery life cost of 4K.

Slim and speedy

If you've followed the ultrathin laptop market over the past couple of years, the specs inside the Spectre may come as a bit of a surprise -- this is a slim, premium laptop that doesn't rely on Intel's low-power Core M line of processors, as seen in products such as the 12-inch MacBook and Samsung Galaxy TabPro S. Instead, the Spectre uses current-gen mainstream Intel Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, and more importantly, HP says the efficient cooling allows the CPUs to run at their full speed, rather than being underclocked, which sometimes happens when you try to put too much processor into too small a space.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

In our Core i7 test system, the Spectre performed on par with other recent slim Core i7 laptops, all of which use some variation on the low-voltage Core i7-6500U processor from Intel. There's more than enough power under the hood for multitasking, playing HD video, and productivity apps, even all at the same time.

But many of the thinnest laptops use Core M CPUs instead, and two recent examples, the latest 12-inch MacBook and HP's EliteBook Folio, both ran slower in our tests. That said, the second generation of the Core M found in those systems is also perfectly fine for everyday use, even as a work computer.

With all those battery cells crammed in, it's not surprising that the Spectre has decent (but not great) battery life, running for 7:10 in our streaming-video playback test. Apple again throws off the curve, running for about three hours longer, but the Spectre still beats systems such as the EliteBook Folio and Razer Blade Stealth.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion

There are a lot of close contenders, but HP's Spectre takes the prize for being the world's thinnest laptop at just 10.4mm thick. To get it this thin, there are a couple of compromises. You had better be on board with USB-C, because that's all you get, and then there's the single full HD/nontouch display.

But, if you'd pick thin over touch, then the HP Spectre is already one of my top choices. It's a strong performer as well as a head-turner, and people passing by regularly asked to take a closer look at its unique design. Even better, the combo of a Core i7 CPU and a decent 256GB SSD is close to a bargain at $1,249 in the US, which is even less than the slower 12-inch MacBook.

Multimedia multitasking test 3.0

Dell XPS 13 (Gold Edition) 466Razer Blade Stealth 515HP Spectre 563HP EliteBook Folio G1 590Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 702
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-core)

Dell XPS 13 (Gold Edition) 7,236HP Spectre 7,003Razer Blade Stealth 6,874HP EliteBook Folio G1 6,595Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 5,879
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 608HP Spectre 430HP EliteBook Folio G1 401Dell XPS 13 (Gold Edition) 311Razer Blade Stealth 192
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System configurations

HP Spectre Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5HGz Intel Core i7-6500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
HP EliteBook Folio G1 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel m7-6Y75; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4; 1.2GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 515; 512GB SSD
Razer Blade Stealth Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5HGz Intel Core i7-6500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1024MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (Gold Edition) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2HGz Intel Core i7-6560U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel Iris Graphics 540; 256GB SSD
hp-spectre-2016-01.jpg
8.4

HP Spectre

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8Battery 8
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