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HP Spectre Folio review

Wrapped in fine leather, the Spectre Folio is the laptop of luxury

hp spectre folio review feat
HP Spectre Folio
MSRP $1,399.99
“The leather-wrapped Spectre Folio isn’t just a pretty face – it’s a great 2-in-1”
  • High-quality leather provides a luxury feel
  • Convertible 2-in-1 design keeps keyboard protected
  • Battery life is outstanding
  • Precise keyboard
  • Excellent low-power display
  • The touchpad is small and doesn’t support Microsoft Precision
  • Y-series CPU limits performance

There’s nothing that says luxury likes real leather. Buy your first car with fine leather seats and it feels like a real upgrade from cloth. Why not on laptops? That’s what HP had in mind with its new Spectre Folio 2-in-1 laptop.

Our review model was configured with an 8th-generation low-power Core i7-8500Y CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB PCIe solid-state drive (SSD), a new 1-watt Full HD display (that’s 1,920 × 1,080, or 166 pixels per inch), and LTE connectivity, all for a premium price of $1,608. You can also spend $1,300 for a model with 8GB of RAM and a Core i5-8200Y, and without the LTE. HP will offer a 4K UHD option (a whopping 3,840 × 2,160, or 331 PPI) at some point soon as well.

Leather is certainly an unusual material for a notebook PC, and the Spectre Folio incorporates the material directly into its interesting take on the convertible 2-in-1. But is a luxury material and a very different form factor enough to justify a relatively high price?

The leather is luxurious, and the design is thoughtful

You’ll begin to discern the Spectre Folio’s special nature the minute you open the box: The 2-in-1 is wrapped in the kind of crepe paper usually reserved for quality men’s dress shirts. Tear that open and slip the Folio out of its soft protective bag, and you’re instantly struck by how closely it mimics a fine leather portfolio – and how little it looks like a notebook. Even the cloth-covered USB-C power cable evokes an extra impression of quality.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

It’s hard to communicate just how different the Folio feels in your hand. It exudes warmth and elegance in a way that no metal can, and it also doesn’t feel – or smell – like a notebook at all. At the same time, there’s a distinct impression of durability, afforded by the chrome-tanned leather (think automobile seats) that’s more stain-resistant than vegetable-tanned leather (think bags and belts). The Folio is comfortable to hold when it’s closed and it’s just as comfortable to use, because the leather not only serves as the notebook’s chassis but also lines the keyboard’s wrist rest.

That’s an important point. The Folio isn’t a leather-wrapped notebook. Rather, the leather serves as the Folio’s chassis, with aluminum and magnesium parts holding things together inside. It is, therefore, both structural and functional, and the leather is what makes possible the Folio’s very different 2-in-1 configuration. It’s also lovely to look at, in its two color options of Cognac Brown and Burgundy.

The Folio’s leather chassis exudes warmth and elegance in a way that no metal can.

Other than the Folio, there are three basic kinds of 2-in-1 today. There’s the 360-degree convertible where the display swivels around into tablet format with media and tent modes in between. Consider the HP Spectre X360 13, for example. There’s the detachable tablet: that’s a slate with a tablet that usually snaps on magnetically. And there’s the Microsoft Surface Book 2 style, where the tablet PC portion tears off from a sturdy keyboard base.

The Folio is different from all of them. The display is split in half and held by magnets in a normal clamshell format that’s as stable as any dedicated clamshell notebook. Then, the display can be flipped inward at the center and pulled forward to just behind the touchpad, where magnets hold it in media mode. Finally, the display can be pulled even further inward until to a tablet mode where it assumes a slight angle that’s comfortable for inking. All the while, unlike 360-degree convertible designs, the keyboard is covered by the display and kept safe from the elements.

It’s an innovative design overall, and it works well — even though we wish that media mode had additional angles. It’s also a very simple design thanks to the inherent flexibility of the leather chassis. If someone wanted to create the same 2-in-1 design with metal, they’d have to engineer complex hinges or swivels. Dell’s old XPS 12 is an example, and that one didn’t have the same media mode as the Folio.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The design isn’t perfect. As we alluded, we’d love to have an additional, more upright angle in media mode. The power button is also obscured in both media and tablet modes, meaning that you need to move the display out of the way to turn the Folio on unless you’re already in clamshell mode. But it works well overall, and we do like its simplicity and how it keeps the keyboard covered. And if you’re not into leather, then steer clear – the leather is this notebook’s standout feature in both form and function.

We could go on, but that’s enough to give an idea of just how original the Spectre Folio’s design and aesthetic is. If you’re in the market for a 13-inch notebook, then you owe it to yourself to visit a retail location where you can go hands-on with the Folio. You won’t regret it.

This isn’t the lightest or thinnest 2-in-1 around.

One thing to note is that this isn’t the lightest (3.28 pounds) or thinnest (0.6 inches) 2-in-1 around. HP’s own Spectre x360 13 is lighter at 2.78 pounds and thinner at 0.53 inches, and the Asus Flip 14 is also thinner at 0.55 inches, but it’s also roughly the same weight at 3.31 pounds. The updated MacBook Air is roughly as thick at the rear (0.61 inches), but it’s quite a bit lighter at 2.75 pounds.

In addition, the Folio’s bezels aren’t the smallest around, and the leather extends beyond the metal components by a fair amount. You won’t find the Folio to unnecessarily weigh you down or take up too much space in your backpack, but it’s not the most diminutive option.

Finally, the Folio’s connectivity is typical for modern premium notebooks today. There are three USB-C ports, two of which support 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3, and any of them can be used to charge the notebook. The 3.5mm combo audio jack is the only other physical connection.

An Intel Wireless-AC 9560 adapter provides for the 2×2 MU-MIMO 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity, and you can also opt for an LTE SIM slot that supports up to gigabit LTE for always-connected convenience. We tested our review unit with the included AT&T account, and while we didn’t get nearly gigabit speeds, we never found ourselves without internet connectivity.

A snappy keyboard mated with a too-small touchpad

If you look at a blowup of the Folio’s engineering, you’ll notice that the motherboard is one of the smallest ever design for a notebook (specially made in conjunction with Intel) and that the insides of the notebook are mostly taken up by a fair amount of battery capacity. That didn’t leave a lot of room for a full-size keyboard, but HP still managed to squeeze in plenty of key travel.

In addition, the key mechanism is snappy, with a soft click at the end that helps avoid any uncomfortable bottoming action. There’s more travel than you’ll find in Apple’s MacBook Pro 13 and the same as is offered by the Dell XPS 13 and HP’s Spectre 13. The Folio’s keyboard feels precise and responsive.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The touchpad, on the other hand, is a bit small for our tastes. It also perpetuates HP’s weird reluctance to go ahead and embrace Microsoft’s Precision Touchpad protocol. They Synaptic drivers work fine, and multitouch gestures are usable, but most other manufacturers have moved on to Microsoft’s drivers and we wish HP would as well.

The Folio also ships with the HP Active Pen, which offers 1,024 native levels of pressure sensitivity (interpolated in firmware as 4,096 levels) and a couple of buttons for selecting and erasing ink. That’s a bit behind the 4,096 native levels provided by the Microsoft Surface Pro 6 and several other 2-in-1s, such as Lenovo’s Yoga C930, and there’s also no tilt control. You can pick up the HP Tilt Pen that provides tilt support for $65.

The Folio is well-suited for standard productivity tasks like web browsing and Office work.

This is a pen that’s intended mostly for taking notes and making simple drawings, and not really for making fine works of art. HP includes a leather pen loop that attaches to a cutout on the inside of the flip-out portion of the display. Of course, the display is fully touch-enabled, and it serves well for those times when a quick tap or swipe is best done with your finger.

An infrared camera perched in the proper location above the display provides for Windows 10 Hello support. Logging us in without a password was completely seamless.

The excellent display sips power, and the sound’s pretty good, too

Our review unit was equipped with a new Intel 1-watt display that promises to help the Folio last longer on a single charge of the battery. Read on to find out if that claim is true, but for now, the important question is: does the display sacrifice the viewing experience to achieve its power savings?

Fortunately, the answer is unequivocal: No, it does not. In fact, this is one of the better Full HD displays you’ll find in a notebook today. According to our colorimeter, the display is plenty bright at 315 nits, and it offers exceptional contrast at 1030:1. That’s significantly better than the display HP used in its other Spectre models, including the Spectre x360 13 and the Spectre 13. Only the Dell XPS 13’s Full HD display is better.

The display’s color gamut is also good, at 73 percent of AdobeRGB and 96 percent of sRGB. Again, Dell’s panel is slightly better with a couple extra percentage points of color gamut, but these are still good results for today’s typical premium notebook. Colors are also accurate at 1.49 (1.0 or less is considered accurate), and gamma is perfect at 2.2. HP’s other Spectre notebooks aren’t nearly as good, and even the new MacBook Air’s display falls well short in brightness and contrast.

In subjective use, the Folio’s display is quite pleasant. Colors pop, black text on white backgrounds is highly legible, and watching a YouTube video in movie mode is a real treat. We don’t know what voodoo magic made this display so good while sipping so little power, but we’re glad to see its effects here.

Audio is also very good. There are four speakers tuned by Bang & Olufsen, and they pump out some serious volume. Better yet, you can get very loud without distorting, and mids and highs are excellent. There’s not a ton of bass, as usual, but you don’t need to pull out your headphones when you’re watching Netflix or YouTube. Thanks to the leather chassis, there are also no bothersome vibrations when you crank the dial.

Low-power doesn’t mean low performance

The Spectre Folio is one of the earliest notebooks to utilize one of Intel’s dual-core 8th-gen Y-series CPU, in this case, the Core i7-8500Y. It joins the Google Pixel Slate and MacBook Air in this growing club. It still uses five watts or less and runs cooler, allowing for fanless and perfectly quiet operation, but it promises to perform better than previous generations.

We’re happy to report that the CPU is, indeed, a better performer. Looking at Geekbench 4, the Folio was competitive with the very latest 8th-gen U-series CPUs found in a handful of notebooks like the Dell Inspiron 7386 and Asus ZenBook 14 UX433FN, in the single-core test at 4,821. The Core i7-8500Y couldn’t keep up with those same CPUs in multi-core mode though, at 8,593, but that’s competitive with 7th-generation U-series processors.

However, the Core i7-8500Y still can’t run at full speed for as long as its faster siblings. That’s likely exacerbated by the fanless Folio, which explains the relatively slow performance (566 seconds) in our Handbrake test that encodes a 420MB video as H.265. The Folio took more than twice as long as full-power notebooks like the Lenovo Yoga C930 and the Dell Inspiron 13 7386. The fanless Surface Pro 6 with a Core i5-8250U took 433 seconds, and so there’s some evidence that the lack of active cooling was important in this test.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

These results indicate that the Folio is well-suited for standard productivity tasks like web browsing, Office work, and multimedia consumption. We also appreciated just how quiet the Folio runs, though, and it never gets more than just warm — likely aided by the thermal properties of the leather chassis. At the same time, it’s not a great choice if you need to edit complex images or conduct video editing. The two cores will also limit multitasking a bit, though our typical workload was handled just fine.

This performance should all be considered with the price – the Folio starts at $1,300, which is a premium price for low-power, dual-core CPU, and you can get Dell and other HP notebooks with faster U-series processors for less. That pricing scale is even more an issue on our Core i7 $1,600 model.

The Folio also utilizes a Samsung PM961 PCIe SSD, and it performs well. Its storage speeds are in line with other premium notebooks like the XPS 13 and the Spectre x360, and you won’t find accessing and saving data to slow things down.

You guessed it – don’t bother trying more than casual games

The Core i7-8500Y has integrated Intel UHD 615 graphics, and that’s not going to provide much in the way of gaming performance. You’ll want to look at a notebook like the Asus ZenBook Flip 14 with its discrete Nvidia GeForce MX150 GPU for anything more demanding than casual Windows 10 gaming.

Our benchmark testing provided no surprises. The Folio scored 703 in the 3DMark Fire Strike test, which is in line with other similar notebooks. We managed just 29 frames per second (FPS) in the esports title Rocket League at 1080p and performance mode, and a meager 13 FPS in high-quality mode.

A power-sipping processor and display equal super-long battery life

We mentioned earlier that the Folio’s display is a low-power 1-watt version, which is about half of the typical display. Coupled with the low-power Y-series processor and the reasonable 54 watt-hours of battery life, and we were hopeful for some serious longevity.

We weren’t disappointed. In our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test, the Folio lasted for almost five and three-quarter hours. That’s the third-longest score we’ve registered for Windows notebooks, coming in behind the two Surface Book 2 models. It’s significantly better than other 2-in-1s like the Yoga C930 and the Acer Swift 7 with its 7th-generation Y-series CPU.

For web browsing, the Folio was also a standout performer at just over 10 hours. The Surface Book 2 and Yoga C930 lasted slightly longer, and the Swift 7 and Lenovo Yoga 730 managed just over half as long.

The Folio benefits from its low-power CPU and display and lasts a very long time on a charge.

Finally, when looping a local video, the Folio lasted a spectacular 17 hours and 18 minutes. That’s the longest of any 13-inch Windows notebook we’ve tested, even beating out the very strong Surface Book 2 13. You’d have to step up to the vastly more expensive and larger Surface Book 2 15-inch to get a Windows notebook that lasts longer in this test.

The bottom line is that the Spectre Folio benefits greatly from its low-power CPU and power-sipping display and will get you through a long working day on a single charge. In our day-to-day use of the Folio, we regularly got 10 hours or more while using it as our primary production notebook, and we weren’t doing anything to stretch things out.

Our Take

The Spectre Folio is a strikingly different 2-in-1, with its lovely leather chassis and unique convertible form factor. And it’s not just a gimmick — the notebook is a great performer for its target productivity user, and it lasts a very long time on a single charge. The fact that it looks so good and feels so nice in hand is just a bonus on top of it being one of the most pleasant productivity 2-in-1s we’ve used.

Is there a better alternative?

HP has some competition with its own Spectre x360 13, and that’s an excellent 2-in-1 in its own right. It performs significantly better and doesn’t get the same battery life are similar, and it comes in at a lower price of $1,294 (on sale for $995). We’ll also note that there’s a brand-new version of the Spectre x360 13 that’s only slightly more expensive than this and looks even more compelling.

A more traditional clamshell notebook is another option if you don’t need 2-in-1 functionality, and the Dell XPS 13 is a great alternative for such a user. It offers faster performance and less impressive battery life, and it’s a good-looking notebook in its own conservative fashion. The XPS 13 is also expensive at $1,870 for the same configuration with a 4K touch display, although it’s currently on sale for $1,660.

Finally, if you want a detachable tablet, then Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6 is a good option. It’s rock-solid in its build quality and it has more conservative good looks, and its performance and battery life will also please most productivity users. When you include the optional Type Cover and Surface Pen, it’s also an expensive option. An equivalent configuration with 16GB of RAM and a larger 512GB will run $1,899 plus $160 for the Type Cover and $100 for the Surface Pen.

How long will it last?

Leather is a long-lasting material, particularly the kind used in the Spectre Folio. It should do a good job of maintaining its beautiful appearance for years, and it also feels like it can take some abuse. The CPU is fast enough for whatever the typical productivity user is going to demand, and the connectivity is future-oriented. There’s a standard 1-year warranty to keep things in good working order.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The Spectre Folio isn’t just a pretty face. If all you need is decent productivity performance and you appreciate a notebook that can last a long workday and look good doing it, then this is the leather-bound 2-in-1 for you.

Editors' Recommendations

Mark Coppock
Mark has been a geek since MS-DOS gave way to Windows and the PalmPilot was a thing. He’s translated his love for…
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