HP Spectre 13 (2017) review

It's the thinnest touchscreen laptop, but HP's Spectre doesn't sacrifice speed

Like a ballet dancer who's also a bodybuilder, the Spectre 13 is more power than it looks.
Like a ballet dancer who's also a bodybuilder, the Spectre 13 is more power than it looks.
Like a ballet dancer who's also a bodybuilder, the Spectre 13 is more power than it looks.

Highs

  • Beautiful design
  • Excellent performance
  • Solid battery life for most tasks
  • Extremely thin and light
  • Very good keyboard

Lows

  • Thin chassis sacrifices some rigidity
  • Touchpad isn’t Microsoft Precision compatible

DT Editors' Rating

Windows PC competition moves fast, and sometimes companies make claims that are quickly superseded. Such was the case with the original HP Spectre 13, which was first advertised as the “world’s thinnest laptop.” Soon after, Acer released its even thinner Swift 7, which beat it out. Now, in our latest HP Spectre 13 review, we look at the update to the Spectre, which has been significantly redesigned and is now touted as “the world’s thinnest touchscreen notebook.”

Our review unit was equipped with an eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8550U, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD), and a Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 165 PPI) resolution display, at a retail price of $1,410 (on sale right now for $1,310). HP also offers higher-end configurations and a 4K UHD display that adds $150 to the price.

A lovely little jewel of a notebook

HP’s redesigned Spectre 13 is as thin as ever at just 0.41 inches thick, in spite of its new touch display, and it’s incredibly light at 2.43 pounds. But as you probably know, HP isn’t exactly the only company trying to slim down its products. There are plenty of notebooks around that are sold for their tiny size, including the 12-inch Apple MacBook at just over half an inch thick and the newest Dell XPS 13 that tapers from just 0.46 inches at the rear to a razer-thin 0.3 inches in front. The Spectre 13 out-thins both of those across its full dimensions — and throws in touch display electronics as the icing on top. It’s still not quite as thin as the Swift 7’s 0.40 inches, but it’s still impressive.

The refreshed Spectre 13 also sports a new Ceramic White and Pale Gold color scheme that is the yin to the previous model’s yang. You can still choose the Ash Silver and Chrome Luxe version, but our review model convinced us that if you’re going to choose such a thin and beautiful notebook, you might as well select the one that stands out. It’s a unique color scheme that sets it apart from the sea of MacBook and Surface clones.

To make sure that lovely white surface stays pristine, HP utilizes a special scratch-resistant Advanced Electro Deposition (AED) process on the aluminum lid and keyboard deck and carbon fiber bottom.

It’s a gorgeous design that looks like a fine piece of jewelry, with a fit and finish to match.

The Spectre 13 has also been trimmed of any excess width and depth, with the display’s bezels reduced to 5.3mm (from 15.03mm) and the top bezel to 9.7mm (down from 16.04mm). That’s still wider than the Dell XPS 13’s side and top bezels of 4.0 mm, but it outclasses most other notebooks. The angles have been chiseled for a cleaner look, and the diamond cut around the lid makes it easy to open.

All in all, it’s a gorgeous design that looks like a fine piece of jewelry, with a fit and finish to match.

Our only complaint with the design and build is directly related to the Spectre 13’s thinness. While the chassis feels solid enough when the lid is closed, there’s some give when pressing on the bottom and the keyboard and the screen significantly bends under relatively light pressure. The Asus ZenBook S is also small and thin, and it enjoys a tank-like build with zero flexing or bending.

As long as you’re just opening the lid and not twisting it, though, you’ll appreciate the hinge’s smooth action — which can be used with single-handedly — and how well it holds the display in place. However, the odd design, in which the display isn’t as deep as the chassis and folds down to lie flush with a metal strip along the back of the machine, means that the display doesn’t open as wide as you’ll find on most notebooks.

Overall, the Spectre 13 is a lovely-designed machine that’s as much a work of art as it is a notebook. It’s thin and exceptionally light, albeit at the cost of sheer rigidity.

Next, with the Spectre 13, you can have any kind of port you want, as long as it’s USB-C. As with the previous model, the new Spectre 13 offers up three USB-C ports to go with the 3.5mm audio jack, and that’s it. Two of them support Thunderbolt 3, however, and that’s a real plus.

HP Spectre 13 2017 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Nevertheless, you’ll be relying on dongles to connect legacy peripherals (although the Best Buy version does come with a USB-C to USB-A adapter). The MacBook has fewer ports with its single USB-C Thunderbolt 3 connection, and the Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UN offers more legacy ports but skips on the increasingly important Thunderbolt 3. The Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe and the Dell XPS 13, on the other hand, both duplicate the Spectre 13’s triplet of USB-C ports, two with Thunderbolt 3. The more ports the better, but the Spectre 13 is in line with most of the direct competition in this department.

Wireless connectivity includes the increasingly typical 2×2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi adapter and Bluetooth 4.2 combo. HP has built in its Connection Optimizer technology that aims to keep Wi-Fi connections fast by picking the least congested connection available.

Surprisingly good keyboard for such a thin machine

Somehow, HP managed to squeeze an excellent keyboard into the Spectre 13’s frame, with an impressive 1.3mm of key travel — significantly more than on a laptop like the ZenBook 3 Deluxe or MacBook Pro — that provides for a surprisingly good typing experience. There’s plenty of snap, giving a precise feel, and we found ourselves quickly ramping up to our usual typing speed. The keyboard is uniformly backlit, but oddly enough there’s only one rather bright setting that is a bit much in darker environments.

The Spectre 13 sports one of the best keyboards you’ll find on such a thin-and-light notebook.

In addition, HP moved the speakers from the sides to reside underneath the display. This let the company expand the keyboard to provide excellent spacing as well as to add the same row of home keys along the right-hand side that you’ll find on some other recent HP notebooks. All the keys are the right sizes and in the right places, which is a contrast to the XPS 13’s somewhat cramped layout.

All in all, this is one of the best keyboards you’ll find on laptops of the thin-and-light variety. It’s vastly superior to the “typing on a block of wood” experience of the recent MacBook keyboards, and it’s even better than the aforementioned ZenBook 3 Deluxe’s keyboard, which we considered very good for the form factor. Only the ZenBook S presents a real challenge in this category for a “best keyboard” award.

The touchpad is a little less pleasant. To begin with, it’s not a Microsoft Precision Touchpad, but rather utilizes Synaptics drivers. Therefore, its gesture support was a little less precise than we like. The glass surface is smooth, though, and it’s been increased 15 percent in size from the previous generation, with a shape that mimics the display’s widescreen aspect ratio. You’ll be happier with the larger touchpad on the MacBook, as well as the more common Microsoft Precision touchpads you’ll find on other modern Windows notebooks like the XPS 13 and ZenBook S.

HP Spectre 13 2017 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

The display on the new Spectre 13 also supports multitouch, and it’s a nice addition. Even without pen support or the ability to rotate into tablet format, having a touchscreen makes it easier to push buttons and scroll the display, and we’re glad to see HP add the feature.

A slightly below-average display that’s just good enough

Our review unit came equipped with a 13.3-inch Full HD display, which is the baseline for today’s premium notebooks. HP also offers a 4K UHD option that should make for a very sharp display indeed.

According to our colorimeter, the Spectre 13’s display is a little worse than average compared to similar premium notebooks. Contrast was a bit low at 740:1 at full brightness, which was just 266 nits, and thus it had a hard time overcoming bright lights. The Dell XPS 13 displayed an 1,130:1 contrast ratio and 423 nits in brightness, a much better result, and the ZenBook S’s 4K display also provided better contrast at 1,300:1 and brightness at 306 nits.

Colors were also slightly less dynamic, with only 71 percent coverage of the AdobeRGB gamut and 94 percent coverage of sRGB. Most displays in this class hit at least 72 and 95 percent, respectively, and the XPS 13 was a standout at 75 and 98 percent. The Spectre 13’s color accuracy was also a little worse than average at 2.54, where anything less than 1.0 is considered excellent.

Subjectively, the Spectre 13’s display was pleasant enough to use, although we did notice that video was darker than we’d like. That makes sense given the gamma results of 2.4 (2.2 is perfect). We wish it was brighter, though, and offered up more contrast to make black text on a white background pop more.

HP Spectre 13 2017 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

HP moved the speakers from the sides to just below the display on the newest Spectre 13, adding more space for the Bang & Olufsen-tuned speakers to work. The result is audio that’s impressive for such a tiny machine.

Volume can get very loud, enough to share a movie or TV show with friends, and music was surprisingly enjoyable. Even bass was a bit better than we expected, and the midrange and lows were pleasant — at least, up to around 80 percent volume. Beyond that, though, everything starts to run together. The good thing is you shouldn’t have to pass that threshold to properly fill a medium-sized room.

Impressively fast for such a thin and light machine

Our review unit was equipped with the eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8550U, a 15-watt quad-core processor that promises improved performance yet increased efficiency. The new CPU has provided significant performance improvements in all the machines we’ve reviewed so far.

The Spectre 13 keeps up the pace. In the Geekbench 4 synthetic benchmark, the machine scored 4,916 in the single-core test and 14,301 in the multi-core tests. Those are excellent results that compete well with the other Core i7-8550U machines in our comparison group and blow away seventh-generation notebooks.

On the more challenging Handbrake test that encodes a 420MB video file to H.265, the Spectre 13 was able to complete the process in 672 seconds. Given that this test really stresses the CPU and generates some heat, this is an impressive showing. It’s much faster than other thin notebooks using the same processor, including the previous model Dell XPS 13 and the ZenBook 3 Deluxe, and even competes with our speed champ so far, the thicker and heavier Lenovo Yoga 920.

The Spectre 13 offers impressive performance for such a thin and light machine. It’s faster than we expected it to be, and its performance is due in part to some work that HP put into it the cooling system. There’s an infrared sensor that measures when the surface of the chassis gets too hot to the touch and modulates the fans, and HP engineered a hybrid cooling solution that manages to let the CPU run at full speed for longer periods.

The Spectre 13 is a speedy little machine for pretty much any productivity task.

You’ll be more than happy with the Spectre 13’s performance for all of your general productivity needs. In real-world use, it’s plenty quick and can handle anything you’re likely to throw at it — even the occasional high-end task like video encoding, which usually makes thin-and-light notebooks stutter.

HP equipped our Spectre 13 with a 256GB Samsung PM961 SSD. That’s a great choice, given its generally excellent performance in both reading and writing data.

The Spectre 13 couldn’t quite squeeze all the performance out of the Samsung SSD in our benchmark testing. It scored 906 megabytes per second (MB/s) on the CrystalDiskMark read test and 964 MB/s on the write test. That’s slower than some other machines using the same drive, such as the Lenovo Yoga 720 that scored a remarkable 2,060 MB/s read and 1,209 MB/s write and the Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe that scored 1,349 MB/s read and 1,285 MB/s write.

Even so, the Spectre 13 is plenty fast in reading and writing information, and you’re unlikely to notice the discrepancy. Throughout our testing and in writing this review, the notebook never slowed down. It might be small, but the Spectre 13 is a speedy little machine for pretty much any productivity task.

Don’t even think about gaming

The Spectre 13 is equipped with integrated Intel UHD 620 graphics, which are unchanged from the seventh-generation version. That implies enough graphical prowess for the usual productivity tasks but doesn’t indicate a very powerful gaming system.

As expected, the Spectre 13 scored in line with other machines using the same integrated graphics. Its 3DMark Fire Strike score of 1,005 is average, and indicates a machine that’s not going to be a great choice for gamers.

We ran Civilization VI at Full HD, just for kicks. The Spectre 13 achieved 11 frames per second (FPS) at medium graphics and 6 FPS at ultra graphics. Unsurprisingly, that’s within the FPS range of every other machine we’ve tested using the Intel UHD 620 GPU. While most thin and light notebooks provide the same kind of performance thank to their integrated Intel graphics, the ZenBook 13 offers much faster gaming thanks to its Nvidia GeForce MX150 discrete GPU. It can handle games like Civilization VI at Full HD and medium graphics, for example, at a solid 33 FPS — turn down the resolution and graphics detail and you can consider other, faster titles as well.

Incredibly easy to carry around, but take your charger if you’re working hard

HP increased the battery capacity on the new Spectre 13 from 38 to 43 watt-hours using a new step-cell design. The eighth-generation Intel CPUs also promise better efficiency, at least when the CPU is running at its lower base clock speed than the previous generation. That led us to believe we’d see solid battery life.

The combination was generally fruitful. In our most demanding battery test, the Basemark web benchmark that taxes the CPU and GPU with a series of demanding web processes, the Spectre 13 managed just over two and a half hours — an okay result. Dell’s latest XPS 13 was a leader among eighth-generation machines on this test at three and a half hours, and the 4K display-equipped ZenBook S lasted about 30 minutes longer than the Spectre 13.

On our test that shuffles through a series of popular web pages, the Spectre 13 managed five hours and 21 minutes. That’s considerably weaker than some of the competition. The XPS 13 lasted over nine hours, while the ZenBook S passed the seven-hour mark. Lenovo’s Yoga 920 was another standout at over eight hours.

HP Spectre 13 2017 Review
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends
Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Finally, we see how long machines can loop through an Avengers trailer from local storage until the battery runs out. Here, the Spectre 13 lasted for a more competitive nine hours and 51 minutes. That’s just 34 minutes less than the XPS 13 and actually beat out the ZenBook S by around an hour and a half. The Yoga 920 blew away every other comparison machine at almost 14 hours of runtime.

These are mixed results at best compared to some recent similarly-configured machines, but they generally follow the trend we’ve seen with machines using eighth-generation CPUs. If you’re doing general productivity work, then the Spectre 13 will likely last close to a full day’s work. If you’re doing work that stresses the processor, then you’ll want to make sure you have your charger on hand. The Spectre is light enough, however, that you probably won’t mind carrying along a little extra weight.

Our Take

The HP Spectre 13 has been significantly redesigned, adding in a touch display in the same ultrathin chassis and updating to 8th-gen Intel Core processors. It remains a solidly built machine with the slightest bit of flex due to the ultrathin materials, and performance is quite good. But its battery life has fallen behind the competition, which leaves the Spectre 13 slightly behind.

Is there a better alternative?

There aren’t that many Windows notebooks that are quite as thin and light as the Spectre 13. One of the more direct comparisons is the Asus ZenBook S, which is slightly thicker and heavier but still manages to fit into the same class of machine. It’s also equipped with the Intel Core i7-8550U CPU, and offers similar performance and competitive battery life even with a 4K display. The ZenBook S is a little more solidly built — and a bit thicker and heavier — while also costing $1,500 with 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.

If you’re willing to accept just a little more thickness and weight, the excellent Dell XPS 13 is a good alternative. It’s most recent update brought some nice aesthetic and performance updates, and it provides stronger performance and battery life. At $1,450 (on sale for $1,400) for a Core i7-8550U, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD, it’s also priced similarly to the Spectre 13.

We also just recently took a look at the Asus ZenBook 13 UX331UN, an interesting thin-and-light notebook that manages to squeeze in a discrete GPU — the low-end Nvidia GeForce MX150 that’s still considerably faster than the Spectre 13’s integrated graphics. That one runs $1,400 for a Core i7-8550U, 16GB of RAM, and a 512GB SSD — so it’s similarly priced but more powerfully configured.

How long will it last?

The Spectre 13 is well-built, but it’s also very thin. You’ll want to make sure you treat it gently, at least if a slightly flexible chassis gives you pause. It’s equipped with eight-generation processors and plenty of RAM and storage space, and it uses futureproof USB-C ports. If you take care of it, you should get quite a few years of use. In addition, HP offers a typical one-year parts and labor warranty for the Spectre 13. As usual, that’s disappointing for a machine that costs over $1,000.

Should you buy it?

No, unless you really need the thinnest and lightest touchscreen notebook around. Some other recent machines are more attractive, such as the XPS 13 and ZenBook 13, with either better designs, better battery life, or both.

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