HP Spectre 13 review

An Ultrabook dressed (and specced) to impress

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Our Verdict

Positioned to compete with the likes of the Dell XPS 13 and the MacBook Pro, the HP Spectre 13 is pricier than the former, more affordable than the latter and more attractive than both.

For

  • Impossibly thin and light
  • Top-notch looks
  • Powerful hardware
  • Not a bad price

Against

  • Light on ports
  • Second-rate trackpad

In 2011, after the release of the overwhelmingly popular MacBook Air, Intel set out on a journey to subvert all preconceived notions of what a Windows laptop should be. Up until that point, Microsoft-powered notebooks were notoriously cheap, unwieldy and – perhaps worst of all – lacked the cool factor of their Apple-made counterparts. 

This effort resulted in the Ultrabook category, and six years later, as laptops have diversified even further into various subsets, Ultrabooks have reached a level of near-perfection that’s virtually unparalleled. 

As evidence of this, HP recently loaned us the 2017 reimagining of its Spectre 13 Ultrabook for review, a vast improvement upon last year’s. At 0.41 inches thick, the HP Spectre 13 has upped the goal of unbridled thinness almost two-fold. Best of all, it does so without obliterating neither performance nor your finances in the process – perfect for Black Friday deals hunting.

Spec Sheet

Here is the HP Spectre 13 configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-8550U (quad-core, 8MB cache, up to 4GHz with Turbo Boost)
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
RAM: 8GB LPDDR3-2133 SDRAM
Screen: 13.3-inch, FHD (1,920 x 1,080) micro-edge WLED-backlit multi-touch IPS
Storage: 256GB PCIe SSD (NVMe M.2)
Ports: 2 x Thunderbolt 3, 1 x USB 3.1 Type-C Gen 1, 1 x headphone/microphone combo
Connectivity: Intel 802.11b/g/n/ac (2x2) Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.2
Cameras: HP Wide Vision HD Camera with dual-array digital microphone
Weight: 2.45 pounds (1.11kg)
Size: 12.03 x 8.83 x 0.41 inches (30.56 x 22.4 x 1.04cm; W x D x H)

Price and availability

At $1,119, the ceramic white HP Spectre 13 we reviewed rivals the $999 (£1,299, $2,299) model of the Dell XPS 13

For that price, you’re signing up for a zippy Intel Core i7-8550U processor, 8GB of RAM, 256GB of PCIe-based SSD storage space and a 13.3-inch, 1,920 x 1,080-pixel touch display. 

Granted, the Dark Ash Silver Spectre 13 starts at $1,099 and comes with an Intel Core i5-8250U instead of an i7.

In the UK, there is only one HP Spectre 13 configuration available, and that costs £1,599. 

It’s mostly the same as the model we reviewed, only this one has a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) touch panel and double the storage.

Unfortunately, at the time of writing, this year’s HP Spectre 13 isn’t available yet in Australia.  

As such, we recommend those folks consider the Dell XPS 13 or the 2016 HP Spectre until HP decides to release its newest model in the AU.

Design

If there was ever a reason to shell out 120 clams over the best-in-class Dell XPS 13 in favor of the HP Spectre 13, it’s that the latter is a looker. In deservedly praising companies like Razer for their design accomplishments, HP shouldn’t go overlooked. 

Here’s a company that’s done a complete 180 in design these past few years, to the point where it’s more difficult than ever to criticize its product composition strategy. The lavish gold trimmings, which bedeck the discrete, two-prong hinge as well as the edges of the device, have become a signature element of every laptop in the HP Spectre family.  

They’re in full force here, as they were with the 13-inch HP Spectre of yesteryear, but there’s admittedly more to admire here. HP took the stellar design we appreciated over a year ago and downsized the screen bezels to the extent that the HP Spectre 13’s predecessor now looks antiquated in comparison.

Today, the HP Spectre 13 is 12.03 inches wide and 8.83 inches deep. Bearing in mind that last year’s Spectre was already exceptionally thin and light, this is a welcome refinement over the 12.8-inch width and 9.03 inch depth we were graced with before.

Meanwhile, the keyboard feels like a full chiclet, akin to the Apple Magic Keyboard for iMacs rather than what we’ve experienced with the MacBook Pro’s dinky butterfly switches that are susceptible to getting stuck. 

The Dell XPS 13, on the other hand, comes in at 11.98 inches wide and 7.88 inches deep, making it the more compact notebook of the three – at least in those areas. In terms of thickness, the XPS 13 is generally fatter, thanks to its ascending height of up to 0.6 inches (again, compared to the 0.41-inch HP Spectre 13) when the lid is closed. 

The MacBook Pro, on the other hand, is 11.97 inches wide and 8.36 inches deep, but 0.59 inches high. Having said that, the HP Spectre 13 gives the impression that it occupies far less space than the 2017 MacBook Pro we used to write this review.

Still, there was a glaring difference in the screen resolution that gives Apple’s laptops the clear-cut advantage. In a world where our 5-inch phone screens are exceeding 400, sometimes 500, pixels-per-inch (PPI), the 166 PPI pixel density of the HP Spectre 13 is approaching unacceptability for a laptop that costs over a grand.

The good news is that, upon ordering the HP Spectre 13, you can net yourself a much sharper 4K Ultra HD screen for an additional charge of $150 in the US. As it stands, we highly recommend doing that, especially if you’re accustomed to flagship smartphone screens at it is.

There’s also the trackpad, one area we would argue MacBooks remain in the forefront. You can touch or, if you want to put some muscle into it, click the touchpad on the HP Spectre 13, but you can’t personalize the amount of force it takes for a click to register or the sound it makes when it does. That’s where Ultrabooks, including this one, struggle the most.

A port in a storm

Similar to the MacBook Pro, the HP Spectre 13 doesn’t have a lot of ports in tow. This is likely the point in our review where you have either decided that you loathe the device or you’re willing to overlook the shortage of ports, because you understand that it’s a necessary compromise for the sake of mobility and that you’re investing in the future of inputs. 

By name, that future is called Thunderbolt 3, an interface that leverages the (in)famous USB Type-C port for transferring data, displaying video and charging the device that houses the port in addition to charging outside devices connected to it. It’s reversible, too, so it’s easier to use in the dark than USB Type-A proper. In other words, it’s supposed to be the be-all-end-all of ports.

The problem is that, although Apple has been using USB-C exclusively in its MacBooks since 2015, there aren’t a lot of accessories out there that use it natively even still. 

Worse yet, because the HP Spectre 13 dons but three USB-C ports and a headphone jack, the USB, HDMI and DisplayPort accessories you currently own will require an adapter to use them. While two of these are Thunderbolt 3, indicating data transfer rates of up to 40 Gigabits per second, power delivery and DisplayPort 1.2, the other is a slower and less versatile USB 3.1 Gen 1 port ideal for charging.

Luckily, HP thought of this when it sent us the Spectre 13 for review. Out of the box, we were given adapters for USB 3.0, HDMI and RJ45 Ethernet to USB Type-C. After contacting a customer service representative at HP, however, it turns out that, alas, none of these accessories are included in the retail version of the Spectre 13.

But, enough about ports, let’s talk performance.