HP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook Hands On Preview

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HP started the TouchSmart line several years ago with the introduction of a single-finger-touch-enabled all-in-one desktop (whew! that was a lot of hyphens). Not long after came the first TouchSmart laptop. With the release of this new SpectreXT TouchSmart laptop, the TouchSmart line has come to an end.

Well, not quite.

Much like how Dell once took XPS and made it a sub-brand, indicating high quality, so has HP taken the TouchSmart mark and turned it into a sub-brand. Now you’ll see the Spectre xt, and the SpectreXT TouchSmart – the latter of which has a fun, 10-finger, multitouch display.

Microsoft hasn’t exactly had a great experience introducing touch sensitivity to the world’s most popular operating system. Windows XP had pen and touch support hacked into it, though even Redmond’s talented engineering teams couldn’t make it a pleasant experience to use.

Several years later, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer demoed multitouch working in the next-generation Windows 7 operating system, while on-stage at CES. Still, Windows 7 isn’t as easy to use with one’s fingertips as those OSes that have been designed from the ground up around touch, like Android, iOS, or Windows Phone 8.

It’s from the latter, of course, that Microsoft drew inspiration for Windows 8. I talked a bit about how responsive and intriguing the operating system becomes, once you have direct, touchable, interactivity. You can read more about that here. You can also read more about how Windows 8 works in general by checking out our Wait for 8 series.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

Let’s talk about what makes the new SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook different from its competition. 

HP brought the Radiance Display moniker to the new Spectre TouchSmart. What that means tends to vary from model to model, as longtime users of our forum well know. After a short time with the unit, however, what I can say is that the Spectre’s new screen is a delight to use. Contrast seems high, and despite the glossy screen and bright hotel room environment, it was easy to read and interact with.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart UltrabookHP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

Viewing angles are wide, thanks to the underlying IPS tech involved – you’ll get 178° of visibility in both vertical and horizontal directions. The Spectre’s screen isn’t quite as sharp as Apple’s new MacBook Pro with its Retina display, but it’s certainly no slouch. The 15.6-inch panel is packed with a Full HD resolution of 1920×1080 (sure, we can all wish for a slightly taller 1920×1200, but I’ll take what I can get).

Sitting atop the new display is a capacitive touch panel that’s capable of accepting ten simultaneous touch points. In other words, you could use every one of your fingers and both thumbs, and the computer could still recognize what you were doing.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart UltrabookHP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

Chances are high, however, that you’ll never really want to do that – first of all, this is a regular notebook, not something convertible. Secondly, you’re going to have a hard time finding software that really does anything with that many fingers. Most of the apps in the Windows Store only support one or two inputs, but as time passes, that number will likely grow.

The rest of the machine looks almost as nice as the display itself. Like most premium notebooks these days, the Spectre is clad in silvery aluminum. Its hinge is set back from the rear of the notebook, which has become a feature present in all of HP’s recent high-end notebooks. Pushing the same ID across the lines makes the company’s offerings form a more cohesive whole. 

Measuring just under 18 millimeters thick toward the edges, the SpectreXT TouchSmart weighs 4.77 pounds, which is pretty great for a 15-inch notebook. As a point of comparison, I snapped a few pics of it sitting next to and astride the new MacBook Pro. These two are pretty evenly matched, at least in terms of their similar physical designs. The MacBook Pro is thinner and a bit lighter, but none of it is truly noticeable – at the end of the day, it comes down to shoving one of these beasts into your laptop bag and heading out, and at that point a millimeter or two and a tenth of a pound won’t make much of a difference.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart UltrabookHP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

Opening it up, the SpectreXT TouchSmart offers an island-style keyboard, and a glass, multitouch trackpad. It’s smooth, and the touch gestures have been mapped to take advantage of Windows 8. That is to say, you won’t need to scroll two fingers up and down to navigate the new Start screen interface; instead, you can swipe them left and right, and pinch-zoom in and out. The Beats Audio logo is present on the speakers just below the screen – I find it something of a meaningless classification, but I will say that the speakers do sound pretty great. The HP staff played some random music at my request, and I don’t think any non-audiophiles will find much to complain about.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart UltrabookHP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

When it comes to port selection, however, the new Spectre does seem to have the MacBook Pro outclassed. Where the latter has two Thunderbolt ports, two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, headphone jack and an HDMI-out port, the former has an HDMI port, headphone jack, Gigabit Ethernet (the hinged port design is extremely solid; there’s no plastic here), two USB 3.0 ports, and a third USB 2.0 port that features HP USB Boost (which allows you to charge connected devices while the notebook is turned off). HP said that the USB 2.0 port was included as part of their internal debugging process – another employee told me that it costs them nothing to make all the ports USB 3.0 now that support is included in the chipset.

There’s also, if you spotted it in the pictures, HP’s first product that features Intel Thunderbolt support. HP decided to be smart and go with Intel and Apple’s implementation of the Thunderbolt spec by using a mini-DisplayPort port, not a USB port like at least one OEM tried. It’s a strong sign that manufacturers are starting to find faith in the budding connector, and good news both for consumers and accessory manufacturers.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart UltrabookHP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

Additionally, it means that all of these SpectreXT Ultrabooks should be able to power at least two external displays, possibly in addition to the one built in. Powering all of those pixels is Intel’s integrated graphics – the HD4000 Ivy Bridge GPU. HP said that there will be no versions of this computer sold with discrete graphics options, which is a disappointment for an almost 16-inch notebook with this kind of display.

Still, the HD4000 is pretty capable, and can even manage to play some games, though you won’t be doing anything too hefty.

HP SpectreXT TouchSmart UltrabookHP SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook

As part of the value proposition surrounding the new notebook, HP has partnered with Adobe to provide every customer with a free license to both Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Adobe Premiere Elements 10. That’s a really great bargain for users looking to do a little photo and video editing on the move. It’s also a year of ‘Absolute Data Protect’, two years of Norton Internet Security (bleh) and Intel’s Anti-Theft technology. There’s also some interesting software working to make sharing and streaming pictures and music between devices a lot easier.

The one other free bonus that’s worth discussing is HP’s new ‘SmartFriend Complete Service’, which gives new users 90 days of one-on-one assistance to help customers figure out how to use their new computer to do what they want. It’s not quite sufficient for novice users, but it goes a long way to where the industry needs to be.

Despite dinging the new SpectreXT TouchSmart Ultrabook for its integrated-only graphics subsystem, I can’t fault HP on the pricing. This is a pretty outstanding computer, and it’s scheduled to go on sale for just $1,399.99. That’s a lot of technology for the dollar, and it’ll be exciting to see what sort of new multitouch apps you’ll be able to use the new Spectre to run when it launches. With an estimated ship date of December, Windows 8 will have been out for nearly a month and a half at that point, giving potential buyers a lot to look forward to.

Be sure to check out the rest of our hands-on pictures and HP press photos in our image gallery!

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