Hands on: HP Spectre 13 review

An improvement in nearly every way

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Our Early Verdict

HP has managed to address nearly all of our bugbears with the previous Spectre 13 in one fell swoop – smaller, faster, longer-lasting and with more features – making this year’s model a strong contender for the ‘best laptop’ list barring a full review.

For

  • Excellently refined design
  • Far stronger audio
  • Touchscreen now standard

Against

  • Still USB-C only

HP’s first 13-inch Spectre laptop was an impressive albeit frustrating marvel. One of the thinnest laptops of its time to house full Intel Core processors, it cut a few too many corners in pursuit of that marquee ‘thinnest laptop ever’ moniker. Today, HP is poised to make good on that vision with a more refined Spectre 13 laptop, and the fruits of its labors are clear.

Sure, the new Spectre 13 houses all of the latest components, namely an 8th-generation Intel Core i7 processor and an FHD, IPS touchscreen to start, but it’s the design revisions that surround those leading parts that work in this rendition’s favor.

Price and availability

Starting at $1299 (about £978, AU$1,650), the new HP Spectre 13 is clearly a luxury laptop just like its predecessor. Specifically, that price gets you an Intel Core i7-8550U processor at 1.8GHz, a quad-core first for the laptop much less most others. Coupling that are 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM and a 256GB NVMe solid-state drive behind that 1080p Gorilla Glass display.

Unless you’re really craving a 4K display, which is optional, this laptop should deliver everything you need power-wise. As of this writing, HP hasn’t disclosed how much the 4K version will cost, though pre-orders in the US begin on October 4, with shipping starting October 29.

Design

You'll find HP’s most pertinent improvements to the Spectre 13 in its look and feel. For starters, HP has narrowed the left and right bezels of the display even further, bringing the Spectre in line with the Dell XPS 13 or Lenovo Yoga 920.

Now, the device is cramming a 13.3-inch display into a frame that’s just 12.13 inches wide and merely 0.41 inches thin, not to mention the fact that it weighs only 2.45 pounds. Yet, the keyboard and trackpad are larger than before by a considerable margin – how’s that?

Well, HP has managed to reposition the speakers above the keyboard deck, allowing for an expansion of the keyboard to include page control keys on the right side. On a slightly unrelated note, HP widened the trackpad in response to user feedback – both are welcome improvements. Keyboard travel has also been improved slightly both in terms of depth and feedback, which is always a plus in laptops this incredibly thin.

Better yet, not only has HP introduced a ceramic white lid and base color – using a complex process known as ‘at-once electro disposition’ to bond the paint to the metal – in addition to the standard ‘ash silver,’ but the firm has dropped the chrome accents in favor of brushed aluminum. Smudgy fingerprints, begone!

HP has also tapered the edges of both the laptop's lid and base with a diamond cutting process, making the device easier to open from nearly any angle. Last year's model had flush edges, making this vastly more difficult.

However, we’re a bit bummed to see that HP hasn’t improved upon the port offering, still putting forth two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports and one USB 3.1 Type-C port (in addition to a 3.5mm audio jack). Sure, these ports are versatile, but the rest of the tech world has yet to catch up to this new standard, which means dongle life continues. Just one USB Type-A port would be a godsend at this point.

That said, the inclusion of a Full HD webcam (with IR for Windows Hello) is all but unheard of in most laptops and a hugely welcome inclusion. Of course, 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 provide all the wireless connectivity you’ll need.

Performance and battery life

While we didn’t have much time with the Spectre 13 to test its mettle, HP promises a 50% gain in performance over the previous generation. But, that’s not all thanks to Intel’s jump from dual-core to quad-core U Series processors, we’re told.

HP claims to have vastly improved the thermals in this year’s Spectre 13, allowing its engineers to draw some extra wattage from the 8th-generation Intel Core i7 than it was able to from last year’s chip. These improved thermals amount to larger heat pipes and a new, ‘smart’ cooling system that only activates the fans when necessary.

This enhancement, in turn, has afforded HP another half-hour of battery life from the Spectre 13, bringing it up to a total of 11 hours and 15 minutes. This is in addition to the fact that HP is now employing a ‘sliced battery’ strategy inside, which has allowed it to get 43.7Whr of juice into the machine. However, considering last year’s model lasted just 5 hours and 33 minutes at most in our testing, we’ll be the judge of these claims in a full review.

Finally, we were taken aback at just how deeply HP has improved the audio in the new Spectre 13. By moving the audio chambers closer to the Bang & Olufsen speaker row and increasing the amount of discrete amplifiers, music is far more full and nuanced than before. It was so impressive that we could listen to tunes straight from the laptop – no headphones needed.

Early verdict

HP appears to have vastly improved the Spectre 13 on nearly all fronts. Not only is the device narrower than before while maintaining the same thinness and weight, its bezels are all but nil and the nasty chrome accent fingerprint magnets  are gone.

The laptop’s thermals are improved and a touchscreen comes standard now, not to mention that new ceramic white color is just plain gorgeous. However, we’d have liked to see HP somehow get a USB-A port into the thing, but by next year this could well be a moot point.

All in all, it’s clear that HP has not only listened closely to reviews but the feedback of customers too, as nearly all of our bugbears with the previous version of Spectre 13 have been addressed in this model. From a design standpoint, the difference between this year and last is night and day. Now all that remains is to put this thing through the gauntlet, so stay tuned.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.