HP's upscale-feeling Spectre x2 is a hybrid that isn't afraid to go against the popular wisdom. That's an admirable quality in some areas, less so in others.
Most of the hybrid PCs we see these days -- computers that shift between laptop and tablet configurations by flipping, folding or detaching -- have settled into the fold-back style popularized by Lenovo's Yoga line. These systems, including HP's own x360 series, have 360-degree hinges that allow the system's screen to fold all the way back into a table mode.
But that's not the only game in town, especially if you're looking for something a bit on the slimmer side, or something that feels more like a tablet and less like a laptop, without going full iPad Pro. For you, the pull-apart hybrid is what you're looking for, taking a glass-covered slate-style tablet and adding a keyboard cover and kickstand to create an ersatz laptop.
That idea has been around for years but has really been popularized by the Microsoft Surface line, which continues to refine and improve itself year after year. But the latest Surface Pro 4, from late in 2015, isn't the only pull-apart hybrid worth looking at. The SP4 is expensive, starting at $899 in the US for the tablet itself (£749 or AU$1,349), and going up from there. Even the lowest-cost model requires an extra $130 investment (£109 or AU$199) in a keyboard cover, which is a must-have accessory for even minimal typing.
In contrast, the HP Spectre x2, which is clearly a close cousin of the Surface Pro, starts at $799 (£799 or AU$1,699), and includes its very good keyboard cover in that price. It also embraces features such as built-in mobile broadband (which requires a separate subscription), handy USB Type-C ports, Intel's RealSense 3D camera and second-generation Intel Core M processors, which may be a better price/performance choice than the mainstream Core i3/i5/i7 chips in the Surface and other hybrids.
The Spectre x2 we tested is a more expensive model, with the faster Intel Core m7 CPU, a big 256GB SSD and 8GM of RAM for $1,149 in the US (£999 or AU$2,299) -- but keep in mind, that also includes the keyboard cover, something not included with even the most expensive Surface Pro model.
Some of the ideas here feel fresher than the Surface Pro line, and once you get it set up on your desk, it feels flexible and functional. But, like the Surface, it's still not as lap-friendly as an actual laptop, and the kickstand here, a U-shaped model on a spring-loaded hinge, thoroughly mystified every single person who tried it in the CNET Labs, thanks to an unforgivingly stiff release button tucked away on the left edge. The Surface also has faster processor choices, higher resolution (with brighter) screens and includes an excellent active stylus, an accessory sold separately here.
To shave some bucks off a Surface Pro, or for easy to use mobile broadband (if you don't mind Verizon's service), this is an excellent tablet-first hybrid. A few design quirks keep it from being a clear winner over Microsoft's slightly better-conceived-overall Surface line.
HP Spectre x2
|Price as reviewed||$1,149|
|Display size/resolution||12-inch, 1,920 x 1,280 touchscreen|
|PC CPU||1.2GHz Intel Core m7-6Y75|
|PC Memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||Intel HD Graphics 515|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Micorsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)|
Design and features
Like other pull-apart hybrids, the HP x2 is comprised of two distinct halves. The top part is the slate-style tablet, which contains the display and also the internal components, including the motherboard, CPU, RAM and storage. It has the same glass slate look as an iPad, Surface Pro or any other modern tablet, with a glossy top surface, buttons and ports along the outer edges along with a wide black bezel surrounding the display. Its footprint is slightly larger than the Surface Pro 4's, but they're overall very similar.
The outer edges are a little busier than on the Surface Pro 4, with protruding buttons for volume, power and the kickstand release, plus two USB-C ports and covered slots for microSD and SIM cards (which will require a pin or paper clip to open). The bottom edge has a strip of magnetic connection points which bind to the included keyboard dock. It's a strong connection, so the two halves snap together effortlessly and stay firmly connected.
Unlike the soft, textile-like keyboard cover of the Surface Pro 4, the keyboard here has a metal surface on the keys, wrist rest and keyboard tray. The back of the cover, the part against your knees or tabletop, or that's exposed in a shoulder bag, has a soft felt-like coating. The end effect is a keyboard that feels stiffer and more substantial than the Microsoft version. Aside from that, the two keyboards are remarkably similar in terms of key size and layout, and the size of the touchpad. The HP version also includes some extra (small) speakers that kick in when the two parts are connected. Like other new HP systems, the speakers carry Bang & Olufsen branding, which basically means the audio company listened to and signed off on the system's speakers, but didn't actually build or design them.
Neither keyboard cover is ideal for all-day every day typing, but for short sessions they're fine. As both the HP and Microsoft versions can angle up at the back to offer an inclined typing surface, there can be a bit of a hollow, clacky feel when typing over thin air.
While some hybrid tablets have simple flat kickstands that pull out from the rear panel, the Spectre x2 has a U-shaped metal kickstand, hinged near the center of the device. It releases via a slider button along the left edge of the tablet. Considering how simple and well-liked the Microsoft Surface kickstand is, it's surprising that the HP version is inferior in every significant way.
The button is stiff and not obvious, unless you know where to look. The U-shaped kickstand itself is likewise stiff and uncooperative, and nearly impossible to operate with one hand. Every single person who checked out this system in the CNET Lab found themselves struggling to figure out how to release the kickstand, and then how to use it in a non-clumsy way. Intuitive product design, this is not.
The 12-inch display has an HD resolution of 1,920x1,280 pixels, a little taller than you'd find on any HDTV, but the Surface Pro 4 beats that with a 2,736x1,824-pixel display, which also appears a little brighter and bolder at 100 percent brightness. The Spectre x2 display, however, looks fine on its own, and this is an IPS display that retains a clear image even when viewed from extreme side angles. The screen also works with an active stylus. It's $50 (converts roughly to £35 in the UK or AU$70 in Australia) extra on every configuration, while Microsoft includes a stylus (but not a keyboard) in the Surface Pro 4.
One extra you won't get in the surface Pro 4 (but that we'll probably see in a lot of new 2016 laptops and tablets), is Intel's RealSense 3D camera. It uses multiple sensors to detect depth, and can even scan objects in 3D with the proper software.
Ports and connections
|Video||Via USB-C, with sold-separately dongle|
|Audio||Combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||2 USB-C, microSD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microSim card|
Connections and performance
The new USB-C port, first seen on Apple's 12-inch MacBook, and now coming to high-end laptops and hybrids at a steady pace, is a great way to future-proof your device. It works for data, video and power, and the smaller plug is fully reversible, so you don't have to worry about jamming a USB device in the wrong way. The downside, of course, is that you need either USB-C devices and accessories (of which there are very few right now), or a series of dongles and adapters. The HP Spectre x2 includes a standard USB-to-USB-C adapter in the box, but we found even that was rarely necessary unless you have a lot of files on memory sticks or have a non-Bluetooth mouse you want to use.
The other big forward-looking move in this system is the use of Intel's new second-generation Core M processors. These chips fall somewhere between the low-power Atom family, typically found in the least-expensive systems, and more mainstream Core i-series CPUs. The Core M is very efficient, so it can fit into slim, even fanless, designs as well as run at a decent speed while not killing battery life -- at least in theory. The first few systems we tested with the Core M in 2014 and 2015 fell short of expectations in both performance and battery life.
But more and more PC makers are opting for the newer second-gen Core M chips, and this is one of the first systems we're testing with the most-recent Core M. This high-end configuration uses the faster Core m7 (Intel uses the lowercase "m" in actual part numbers), while less-expensive configurations use the Core m3 and Core m5.
While it may have been more instructive to test one of those other configurations, but in this case, the Core M line is better in its second generation than its first, and the Spectre x2 felt as zippy as a standard $1,000-class laptop when it came to running multiple apps and browser tabs, or streaming HD video. There was no slowdown or stuttering in our hands-on testing, which is not something we could say about even the otherwise excellent 12-inch MacBook. The Core m7 here easily outperformed the older Core M in the MacBook, and was at least in the same ballpark as our Core i5 Surface Pro 4.
Battery life was even better than the Surface Pro 4, running for 7:17 in our video-playback battery-drain test. In a more challenging online streaming test, the system ran for 6:05. That's not quite a full day of work, but it should last just long enough for a cross-country airline flight.
HP outdoes Microsoft at its own game, taking some of the best parts of the Surface line, lowering the price and fixing the Surface's biggest headache -- the extra-cost keyboard. The result is a slim, sturdy-feeling tablet that's easy to carry, and also converts to something close to a laptop for those times you need a fingers-on-keys experience.
Of course, the Spectre x2 manages to add a couple of headaches of its own, such as an awkward kickstand and hard-to-use ports. But the price difference between the lowest-cost Spectre x2 (at $799 in the US) and the lowest-end Surface Pro 4 and keyboard ($1,028 in the US) is such that, if you like the Surface's take on PC/laptop hybrids, you'd be smart to check out the Spectre x2 first.
|HP Spectre x2||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core m7-6Y75; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 256GB SSD|
|Apple MacBook||Apple Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD|
|Microsoft Surface Pro 4||Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM TK; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD|
|Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi||Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core M-5Y71; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3839MB (shared) Intel HD 5300 Graphics; 128GB SSD|
|HP Envy 13||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-6200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 4045MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 520; 128GB SSD|