HP Spectre x360 review: the best Windows laptop of 2016
The new Spectre x360 looks at lot like the Spectre x360 that came out last year. (If you’re shopping for the new model, be careful: it can be very hard to distinguish it from the old one and a lot of retailers are still pushing last year’s edition. The new version can be identified by its seventh-generation Core processors.) But there are a few key differences that make this year’s computer a lot more desirable. For starters, it’s thinner, measuring 13.8mm at its thickest point. It’s lighter, at 2.85 pounds versus last year’s 3.2 pounds. And most importantly, it’s nearly 20mm narrower than last year’s computer, while still maintaining a spacious 13.3-inch display.
HP achieved this by using the same trick Dell has used to great success with its XPS line: the bezels to the left and right of the display have shrunk considerably. That lets the Spectre x360 have a smaller overall footprint — this is closer in size to a 12-inch computer than a 13-inch model — yet still maintain the larger screen. And importantly, unlike the Dell XPS or Lenovo Yoga 910, the Spectre x360’s webcam is right where you’d expect it to be: centered directly above the screen. It even has an IR camera that supports Windows Hello, so you can just look at the computer to unlock it, which worked consistently and reliably for me.
A narrow frame makes for a smaller footprint
The display below the camera is a 1080p IPS touchscreen. It has wide viewing angles and vibrant colors. Unlike last year’s model, there isn’t an option for a higher-resolution display this year, but at this size I don’t consider that a loss and wouldn’t want to make the compromises for performance and battery life more pixels would require anyway.
The Spectre x360’s body is entirely aluminum and feels as premium as the competition. It doesn’t have the head-turning color scheme or crazy hinge of the Spectre 13, but its beauty is in its subtleties. The details around the speaker grille above the keyboard are particularly nice, as is the small branding on the hinge that’s only visible when the computer is in one of its tablet modes. Last year’s model had a sharp edge, which made it uncomfortable to type on for long periods of time; this model has a rounded edge that doesn’t dig into my wrists nearly as much.
Along the right edge are two USB Type-C ports with full Thunderbolt 3 support. Either port can be used to charge the computer or output to a Thunderbolt peripheral or display. The Spectre x360 is one of the few laptops with USB-C that implements it as it should be used: for power, peripherals, and external displays. (The others being the MacBook, MacBook Pro, and Razer’s Blade line.) I used the x360 with a Thunderbolt 2 display (via an Apple Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter, ironically) that also had an external drive and set of external speakers plugged into it and the x360 could see and utilize everything. You’ll need an adapter if you want to plug into an HDMI or DisplayPort display, but should you have a newer USB-C monitor, you won’t.
Though the Spectre has the two forward-looking USB-C ports that will get most of your use (it is how you charge the computer, after all), it still retains a standard USB port and headphone jack on the left side of the computer, so unlike the new MacBook Pro, you won’t need adapters for your existing USB peripherals or to charge your phone. The one thing that didn’t make the cut is a full-size SD card slot, and while I miss its convenience, the USB port means I can plug in my existing SD card reader or camera without an adapter.
The left edge is also home to the x360’s power button, and this might be HP’s only design misstep. It works fine, but it can be easy to press when picking the computer up and a couple of times I turned off the screen unintentionally.
It should be noted that the Spectre x360 is not the lightest, thinnest, or most head-turning computer you can get. But it’s an exceptionally well-executed design that doesn’t have any major flaws or drawbacks. Its sub-15mm thickness makes it easy to slip into the narrowest of bags, and its sub-3lb weight is easy on my shoulder. HP didn’t make any compromises to hit those marks, which can’t be said for most other laptops in this premium class.
The Spectre x360 keyboard is full-size, despite the computer’s shrunken frame, with a familiar and comfortable layout that doesn’t have any weirdly placed arrow keys or miniature shift keys as found on the Yoga 910. It’s snappy and responsive and rather pleasant to type on, if a bit noisy. There’s even a column of page navigation buttons on the far right that I found useful on numerous occasions. My two gripes with the keyboard are small: the backlighting could be more uniform, and the light, low-contrast color of the keycaps can make it hard to read the keys in bright environments.
The x360’s beauty is in its subtleties
Like the keyboard, the spacious trackpad on the x360 is remarkably without fault. It’s smooth, glassy, and huge, making it easy to use for multi-finger gestures. It also has better palm rejection than last year’s version, and it didn’t capture nearly as many stray clicks as before. It is not a Microsoft Precision Trackpad, but that’s only a real concern if you want to use the latest and greatest trackpad features baked into Windows 10. As it stands right now, the x360’s trackpad is excellent.
The Spectre has four speakers — two above the keyboard and two underneath the chassis. They are loud and full, and I found them to be very good for conference calling. I like the sound of the new MacBook Pro’s speakers better for music and entertainment, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the HP’s Bang & Olufsen system is very good.
You can get the Spectre x360 with Intel’s latest, seventh-generation Core processors, in either i5 or i7 flavors. And these are “true” Core i chips, not the lower-power renamed Core M processors other ultra-light laptops use. The $1,299 model I’ve been testing has a dual-core Core i7 chip with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD. It is by no means a gaming machine or video-editing powerhouse, but it’s more than fast enough for most people’s tasks. It handled my photo-editing needs in Lightroom and Photoshop without skipping a beat, and could easily multitask between browser windows full of tabs, email, Twitter, Office, and other desktop applications. Those specs are very good for this price point, even if the latest processors from Intel don’t offer huge performance gains over last year’s chips.
I did hear the Spectre x360’s fans spin up when it was working hard, and they seemed to always kick into gear every time I plugged it in. They aren’t as loud as the Spectre 13’s and I didn’t find them to be a nuisance, but the x360 isn’t a silent marauder like a fanless computer.
Battery life is the last major piece to the premium laptop puzzle, and the Spectre x360 stands out as a stamina champ among its Windows 10 peers and even keeps pace with MacBook Pros. On our standard browser-based rundown test, it lasted over 14 hours in Chrome and just under 15.5 hours in Microsoft’s Edge. In everyday use, I could get through a full 8 to 10 hour workday without having to plug in, even while juggling Slack, dozens of tabs in Chrome, Photoshop, and other apps that generally do damage to battery life. Battery life eventually just became something I didn’t have to worry about — even if I was at 50 percent or less (when I usually start to get anxious or panicky with Windows laptops), I had the confidence that the Spectre would keep trucking for at least a few more hours.
You might have noticed that throughout this review I haven’t referred to the fact that the Spectre x360 has a hinge that lets you flip the display around to use the device as a tablet. That’s because I don’t think that’s the big selling point here — it’s nice to have feature, but most people will just use this as a laptop, and the x360 is an excellent laptop. The good thing is that HP didn’t compromise the standard laptop experience to enable the x360’s gymnastics. The screen can wobble a little when you touch it in laptop mode, but there isn’t a touchscreen laptop I’ve used that doesn’t succumb to this at least a little.
That lack of compromise is the overall theme with the HP Spectre x360. It’s a thin and light computer that doesn’t skimp on power or battery life, nor does it pigeonhole you into a limited port selection or require you to learn a new keyboard layout or deal with a lousy trackpad. It’s the closest thing to a perfect laptop I’ve used in a long time and it’s better than all of the other options in its class.
Moreover, the Spectre x360 has an excellent value. It’s certainly a premium laptop — anything priced above $1,000 falls into this camp — but even the entry-level model that comes with a Core i5 chip, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD is well-specced enough for most people. Dell’s XPS 13 will cost you $1,299 for a touchscreen model with less storage, while Apple’s MacBook Pro starts at $1,499 for last year’s processor. Lenovo’s Yoga 910 starts at a similar price and spec level as the HP, but has other compromises that make it less desirable.
A laptop that’s greater than the sum of its parts
The Spectre x360 is one of those rare laptops that takes all of the same parts as everyone else and combines them together into something greater than their sum. Perhaps it’s time that Dell, Lenovo, and even Apple started to take note.
Edited by Dieter Bohn.
Photography by James Bareham.