The premium notebook market welcomed two new entrants recently. Apple’s venerable MacBook Air received a major refresh, sporting more modern specifications and a thinner and lighter design, and HP has attempted to “Reinvent the PC” with its Spectre Folio 2-in-1 constructed of high-quality leather.
The original MacBook Air kicked off the thin-and-light craze years ago, and the Spectre Folio represents perhaps the most modern take yet. But when they’re pitted head to head, which is the better notebook?
The Spectre Folio is literally made of high-quality leather, and it’s the chrome-tanned variety like that used in automobiles. It’s luxurious and promises good durability in either of its Cognac Brown or Burgundy colors. Most important, the Folio isn’t just wrapped in leather — the material actually comprises the Folio’s shell, and then magnesium and aluminum parts provide additional structural rigidity. The leather also makes possible the unique convertible 2-in-1 mechanism whereby the display splits in the middle and flips forward from clamshell to movie and then tablet modes. The leather’s flexibility is what makes that mechanism possible, compared to metal that would require a complex hinge to accomplish the same thing. Unlike 360-degree convertibles, the keyboard remains covered throughout.
The Folio isn’t particularly thin, light, or tiny, though. It’s thicker than many modern notebooks at 0.6 inches and a bit heavy at 3.28 pounds. The bezels are reasonably thin, but the leather protrudes to create a rather wide notebook. HP also managed to build in a very nice keyboard with plenty of travel and with a snappy and precise feel. The touchpad is a bit small and doesn’t support Microsoft’s Precision protocol, but multitouch gestures still work well enough. The HP Active Pen provides 1,025 levels of pressure sensitivity for writing and drawing on the touch-enabled display.
The MacBook Air’s chassis is far more traditional, and although it received some significant changes in the refresh it remains the same wedge shape as when it first shipped. It’s thinner, though, at between 0.16 and 0.61 inches and it’s lighter at 2.75 pounds. It also remains as well-built and robust and all of Apple’s notebooks, and it’s available in three color options — Gold, Silver, and Space Gray.
Like other modern MacBooks, the Air utilizes Apple’s third-generation butterfly keyboard, and as always, people tend to either love or hate its crisp, shallow mechanism. The Force Touch-enabled touchpad is as large as always, and it remains one of the best you’ll find on a notebook today. Of course, there’s no touch display and no support for a pen.
Both notebooks are limited to USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 ports and 3.5mm audio jacks. And of course, both offer fast Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity, though the Folio stands out with its gigabit LTE connectivity option.
The MacBook Air has been dramatically improved this time around, but it’s no match for the sheer luxury and innovative 2-in-1 design of the Spectre Folio.
The Folio is aimed directly at productivity users who don’t need to perform demanding tasks like complex image editing or video editing. Instead, it yearns to be lovely and quiet in action. HP therefore built in Intel’s latest 8th-generation low-power CPU, the Core i7-8500Y. This is a dual-core CPU that runs at five watts, and it provides solid productivity performance according to our benchmarks.
The MacBook Air also uses a variant of the same Intel 8th-generation Y-series CPU, only Apple sourced a special model, the Core i5-8210Y. It uses up to seven watts and so promises to be a little faster than usual. It, too provides very good productivity performance.
In our testing, the Folio was faster in the Geekbench 4 benchmark that test for burst speeds, but it was just the slightest bit slower in our Handbrake test that encodes a 420GB video to H.265. The differences are minimal in both cases, though and both are best for general productivity tasks like web browsing, Office apps, and media consumption. We’ll note that the MacBook’s PCIe solid-state drive (SSD) is much faster in read speeds while the Folio’s is faster in write speeds.
HP also implemented a new 1-watt Full HD display in the Folio, which uses about half as much power as the typical panel. Our review unit was equipped with this panel, and we found it to not only sip energy but to provide great quality as well. Unfortunately for MacBook Air users, Apple sourced a surprisingly low-quality display this time around. It’s higher resolution at 2,560 x 1,600, but the Folio’s display offers better brightness, contrast, and color gamut than the Air’s. HP will also be offering a 4K UHD option.
CPU performance is pretty evenly matched between these two low-power notebooks, but the Folio’s display is not only better, but it uses less power to boot.
The Folio is a bit thicker, heavier, and overall larger than the MacBook Air, but neither is going to take up too much space in your backpack or weigh you down. They’re both highly portable options.
Battery life, on the other hand, is a different matter entirely. As we mentioned, both notebooks use a low-power CPU, but the Folio benefits from a display that’s also focused on saving battery life. It also has a slightly larger 54 watt-hour battery capacity compared to the MacBook Air’s 50 watt-hours.
In practice, though, the difference in longevity is more striking. In our most demanding Basemark web benchmark test, the Folio lasted almost six and three-quarters hours, compared to the Air’s just over three and a half hours. In our web browsing test, the Folio lasted just over 10 hours compared to the Air at just over eight hours. And when looping a local video, the Folio lasted a spectacular 17 hours and 18 minutes compared to only 10 hours and 12 minutes for the Air.
The Air might be slightly more portable, but the Folio demolishes it when it comes to lasting a long time away from a charger.
The Spectre Folio is a leather-clad wonder
Probably due to its high-quality leather, the Folio isn’t an inexpensive notebook. It starts at $1,300 for the Core i7-8500U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, and goes up from there to $1,608 for 16GB of RAM and gigabit LTE. Pricing for the 4K UHD version hasn’t yet been announced.
The MacBook Air is a bit more economical, starting out at $999 with a Core i5, 8GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. The price goes up to $1,399 for a Core i7, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD.
The Folio is more luxurious, performs similarly to the Air, and it lasts such a very long time on a charge. Apple fans will no doubt flock to the cheaper MacBook Air, but the Folio wins this feature-by-feature comparison hands-down.