Perfection is an unattainable goal, but no one mentioned this to HP. Not content with merely creating the world’s thinnest laptop, it’s also made it one of the loveliest Windows ultraportables to ever roll off a production line. That laptop is the Spectre 13.
I was expecting a 12.9-inch iPad Pro clone, but instead the Spectre 13 slid into view. For a split second, mouth agape, I genuinely couldn’t believe I was looking at a real laptop. If you needed to show someone just how far laptop design has come in the last ten years, then you wouldn’t actually need to say a word. Just hand them a Spectre 13, and watch as their eyes widen.
That said, the Spectre 13 will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Attempting to tread that fine line between expensive-looking and gaudy is a pursuit which often ends in chintzy horrors, yet the Spectre 13 just about carries it off. If anything, that bold, bronze strip along the rear edge is a welcome contrast to the shimmering, dark grey plates of carbon fibre above and below. And, personally, I love the stylised HP logo on the lid, not to mention the little details: even the HP and Bang & Olufsen logos and keyboard typeface are all in a matching, light bronze hue.
Build quality has not taken a back seat, either. Given that the Spectre 13 weighs in at only 1.11kg, HP has done an amazing job of making it feel substantial. There is a little flex in the lid and base if you go looking for it, granted, but the extensive use of carbon fibre means that this doesn’t feel worrying – it feels like a taut, controlled amount of give rather than a genuine weak point. Importantly, though, with the lid closed the Spectre feels as robust as any of its rivals at the price, so I wouldn’t be worried about carrying this around day to day.
The bare essentials
By far the greatest compromise here is connectivity. HP has had to relegate the Spectre 13’s ports to the rear panel, and here you’ll find two Thunderbolt 3 ports alongside a third USB Type-C port that doubles as both a connection for the PSU and as a USB 3.1 Gen 1 port. There are no full-sized USB ports whatsoever, but HP has included a USB Type-C to full-sized USB adapter – which is nice. If you want any video outputs or an Ethernet socket, however, though, then you’ll just need to go and shell out for a suitable USB Type-C adapter or dock.
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Those limitations might prove irksome for certain people, but I’m not one of them. After all, I’ve been happy enough using the Apple MacBook with its single USB Type-C port, and the HP’s combination of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 meant that, as most of my data is in the cloud or Wi-Fi attached NAS devices, I didn’t need to resort to a physical cable. If it really bothers you, though, then you’re probably best directing your credit card towards the rather better-connected Dell XPS 13.
It’s heartening to find that the pursuit of world-beating slenderness hasn’t borked the keyboard or touchpad – the Spectre 13’s slip-thin frame somehow manages to accommodate a very fine pairing. The keyboard’s half-height Enter key is one minor concession, but that’s about it. This is as good a keyboard as you could ask for, with keys that feel light yet responsive enough to make for confident touch-typing. And it’s worth noting that, unlike the Apple MacBook, the Spectre 13’s ultra-slimline build hasn’t forced HP to compromise with noticeably short-travel keys. Factor in the superb touchpad beneath, which just works as it should, and using the Spectre is a genuine pleasure.
Display & sound
If you’re hoping for a high-DPI display to tickle your optic nerves, then prepare to be disappointed. As HP’s weight-watching efforts have pared down the Spectre 13’s battery to a bare minimum (more on which later), it’s also had to abandon any thoughts of 4K displays in the interests of energy-efficiency.
Don’t be too disheartened, though: the Spectre 13’s Full HD 13.3in display is about as good as it gets. It’s not the brightest display ever – there’s clearly some challenge in squeezing a bright backlight into such a tiny, tiny space – but the quality of images is beyond reproach. Colour accuracy is superb, and as the panel covers almost every corner of the sRGB colour gamut you’ll find that photos and movies look nigh-on perfect. Delve into the numbers and there’s nothing to moan about: brightness reaches a very respectable 304cd/m2; contrast hits an impressive 1,379:1; and an average Delta E of 1.89 is very, very good by laptop standards.
And if you’re still smarting from the news that there’s no 4K option, then the Bang & Olufsen speakers may offer some small consolation. There’s no real bass to speak of – after all, HP’s engineers aren’t physics-defying magicians – but the depth and clarity makes a great fist of everything from music to movies. They’re really very nice-sounding.
Performance & battery life
Granted, simply making a thin laptop isn’t that remarkable an achievement, but it’s the relative lack of compromises which makes the Spectre 13 so impressive. Where the quest for miniaturisation has forced other devices such as Apple’s MacBook and HP’s own EliteBook Folio G1 to adopt Intel’s power-frugal Core M processors, the Spectre 13 somehow manages to accommodate full-fat Core i5 and Core i7 processors into its millimetre-thin chassis.
The cheapest model in the Spectre line-up starts at $2,399 with a Core i5-6200U, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB NVMe SSD, but the $3,099 model I have here bumps that up to a Core i7-6500U and a 512GB NVMe SSD. Sadly, though, 16GB of RAM isn’t an option, presumably because just like the Apple MacBook, the Spectre’s RAM is physically soldered to the motherboard.
In most scenarios, that Core i7 CPU and the staggeringly nippy NVMe Samsung SSD alongside make for an ultraportable that feels considerably faster than you’d expect for such a lightweight device. The small fans do spin up fairly quickly under load, and you’ll certainly notice their insistent whine if you’re in a quiet room, but by and large the Spectre 13 is a surprisingly sprightly performer.
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In fact, it was only once the Spectre 13 came face to face with our benchmarks that we were able to notice any difference between it and Dell’s XPS 13. There was barely 1% difference between the two in the image editing section of the benchmarks, but that delta expanded to 13% under the sustained heavy load of Alphr’s video editing tests and resulted in a multi-tasking performance which was 7% slower. It’s not a difference you’ll notice in everyday usage, but it is there.
I was fully prepared for battery life to be utterly, utterly awful, but HP has managed to eke a surprising amount from the Spectre 13’s 38Wh battery. By way of comparison, that’s 7% smaller than the Apple MacBook’s 41Wh battery, and a whopping 32% smaller than the Dell XPS 13’s 56Wh power pack. Battery life obviously suffers due to the smaller capacity, but with the HP’s display cranked up to a fairly bright 170cd/m2, our standard video rundown test saw the Spectre 13 keep going for 6hrs 10mins. That’s some way off the Dell XPS 13’s 11hrs 31mins, but it’s not awful for a featherweight ultraportable.
At this price, the HP Spectre 13 finds itself pitted against everyone’s favourite ultraportable, the Dell XPS 13. And for all the Spectre 13’s plus points, that buying decision boils down to one simple question: how much do you value having a laptop that’s 118g lighter versus one that has significantly better battery life? Given that you’ll likely need to carry the mains charger along with the Spectre anyway, you could argue that the weight benefit is somewhat moot in the first place.
That’s not to say the Spectre 13 isn’t a fantastic ultraportable in its own right, because it is: put the middling battery life to one side and it really doesn’t put a foot wrong. If eye-catching design is as important to you as a great display, brilliant keyboard and solid performance, then this is a featherweight tour de force. Forgive its flaws, and I think most people will probably agree: the Spectre 13 is by far the prettiest ultraportable on Planet Earth.
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