Welcome to Mossberg, a weekly commentary and reviews column on The Verge and Recode by veteran tech journalist Walt Mossberg, now an Executive Editor at The Verge and Editor at Large of Recode.
For years, Apple’s Macintosh computers, while far from the biggest sellers, have been riding high. They’ve managed to outperform a sinking Windows PC market in most quarters, even if modestly. Mac laptops are potent sellers in the lucrative over-$1,000 category. Macs are widely used in colleges and in the media. And one model, the MacBook Air, has been praised by some reviewers as the best laptop ever made.
Windows hardware makers — often stuck in a lower-price, lower-margin, lower-status rut — have long tried, without much success, to challenge the Mac. Now, the new HP Inc. (the PC and printer company spun off from the old Hewlett-Packard last year) is making a serious run at the Mac with a gorgeous new premium model: the 13-inch HP Spectre, which it’s calling the world’s thinnest notebook. It packs a punch.
HP isn’t coy about its competition. Its reviewer’s guide, specifically and in detail, calls out comparisons to two Apple laptops: the beloved but venerable MacBook Air; and the new, very thin and light MacBook, which may be more comparable.
HP is calling it the world’s thinnest notebook
I’ve been testing this new HP model, and it will likely be attractive to Windows users who are looking for something thin and light like Macs and who are willing to spend at least the base price of $1,170. But I have a few concerns — notably battery life, the trackpad, and fan noise.
Before getting into the details of this newest HP, however, I think it bears noting that both the new Spectre and another much-praised Windows laptop, the Dell XPS 13, eschew the 2-in-1, flip-around, multi-use, gymnastic designs that characterized so many Windows laptops in the wake of the Windows 8 launch, which tried to combine tablets and laptops.
This new HP doesn’t try to be a tablet. In fact, it doesn’t even have a touchscreen (just like three of the four models of the Dell XPS 13). It’s a super-thin, light, stylish yet capable iteration of the good old clamshell laptop.
The Spectre isn’t trying to be a tablet; it doesn’t even have a touchscreen
While I don’t mind touchscreens, and even think they can be useful with Windows 10, I’d rather have a smooth, large trackpad. And several of the largest PC makers, all of which make hybrid machines, have privately told me their research shows that while consumers might buy 2-in-1 devices, they wind up using them as regular laptops, rarely bending them around to be thick tablets. HP still makes 2-in-1 models, but I think it’s notable that, for this premium, flagship laptop, the company chose to produce a thin, regular laptop as possible.
If you’re aiming at Apple’s laptops, this is a good time. The sturdy, three-pound MacBook Air hasn’t seen a really fundamental redesign since 2010, though it has kept up with the latest Intel processors. And the new MacBook, now in its second iteration, is an impressively thin and light 12-inch laptop, but it’s filled with compromises: a single USB-C port, a flat keyboard, a less robust Intel Core M processor, and a high price starting at $1,299 (about $300 more than the Air).
The main design and engineering coup of the HP Spectre is that it’s a bit thinner than the new MacBook (by about 2.7 mm, HP says) and yet packs in full-fledged Core i-series processors and maintains a claimed battery life of up to 9.75 hours — almost as long as the 10 hours claimed by the MacBook. But like the more popular MacBook Air, it sports a 13-inch screen and a keyboard with decent travel that, unlike the one on the MacBook, felt normal to me right away.
The Spectre is a handsome copper and black with a vivid screen and backlit keys. The hinge enclosure is polished and contains small piston-based hinges that make its thin screen feel sturdy and steady. It’s also light, but not world-class light. HP claims it weighs 2.45 pounds, nearly half a pound more than the MacBook and only about half a pound less than the MacBook Air.
The $1,250 Core i7 model I tested, with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid-state drive, handled every task I threw at it with speed and ease. Also, unlike the MacBook, it has three USB-C ports, two with Thunderbolt capability (though you’ll still need an adapter, as on the MacBook, to use them as standard USB ports).
So what’s not to like?
First of all, the battery life disappointed me. I tested it by cranking the screen to 100 percent, turning off all power-saving measures, leaving on Wi-Fi to collect email and tweets, and then letting Netflix play old West Wing episodes one after the other. The battery lasted a pretty terrible four hours and 35 minutes.
Battery life was disappointing
There are a couple of caveats to this. I recognize that most people would keep on the power-saving features and probably turn down the screen a bit. So, in normal use, I’d estimate you’d get around six hours. HP guesses I’d have gotten seven or eight hours in my test if I’d used the Windows 10 Netflix app instead of the website on Microsoft Edge, and turned the screen down 50 percent.
But that’s still not a full day of battery life and not the maximum HP claims. And I don’t think everyone is happy to use their laptops at half brightness, even if they don’t use 100 percent.
Then there’s the trackpad, a notorious problem on Windows PCs when compared to Macs. After spending about 20 minutes setting and calibrating the thing, it still exhibited some jerkiness while scrolling or moving the cursor. But, after awhile, it seemed to heal itself, and I’d now rate it very smooth. But… it’s kind of small, especially for a non-touchscreen Windows 10 machine.
Finally, fan noise. The dual fans are part of an ingenious hyperbaric cooling system that allows potent processors to work in a thin enclosure without overheating. When I started testing last week, the fans seemed to blast at the slightest excuse. Then, HP issued a software update, and now the fans behave better. But I’m still startled by sudden fan action once in awhile, even when I’m doing nothing more than web browsing and Slack.
Clearly, controlling the thermals on this thing is a delicate task. And it’s not entirely successful. On a couple of occasions, I noted that the rear hinge enclosure got very hot.
My bottom line for Windows users is that, as long as you have the money, and figure you can live with seven hours of battery life between charges, this new HP Spectre is worth a look.
As a pure hardware device, I don’t like it as well as the MacBook Air, even though it’s somewhat lighter and thinner. The Air has a way bigger trackpad, much better battery life, and the same processors. But at least the Spectre isn’t trying to be something it isn’t — a faux tablet.
Photography: James Bareham / The Verge.