- SPEED—faster than any thin-and-light laptop has a right to be.
- Excellent battery life
- Premium fit and finish
- ClickPad has left-click/right-click problems
- Integrated Intel graphics are just “okay”
- May not be enough to sway MacBook fanboys
This Windows laptop really is as good or better than an Apple MacBook Air in almost every way imaginable. But is that enough to convince Apple owners?
If you are looking for a truly impressive laptop with premium build quality, fantastic specs with solid performance, great battery life, and wrapped in an attractive thin-and-light package, then you’ve probably been shopping for a MacBook. HP is hoping to change all that with the introduction of the HP Spectre x360 (starting at $899.99).
This 13-inch ultrathin laptop not only delivers premium performance with premium hardware wrapped in premium materials, but the Spectre x360 also surpasses the 13-inch MacBook Air in terms of battery life, Wi-Fi performance, and the ability to function as a tablet. Before we explain why we think this is the most impressive HP consumer laptop we’ve ever seen, let’s address the elephant in the room and provide some background on the old “Windows vs Mac” debate.
While the overwhelming majority of businesses worldwide purchase Windows PCs to get serious work done, Apple’s MacBook line of notebooks are one of the most desired purchase options for U.S. consumers who want a “premium” computing experience.
Sure, Macs owners only make up 13 percent of the U.S. PC market, but that 13 percent of customers are willing to pay much more for each computer they buy. Every Windows PC manufacturer recognizes the monetary value of customers who not only see a product as “desirable” but who are willing to pay a “premium” price to own that product.
We’ve seen countless Windows laptops from a wide variety of manufacturers over the years that were designed to look “similar” to a MacBook and built “almost” as well as a MacBook for “around” the same price as a MacBook. None of the previous Windows-based MacBook clones competitors have dethroned Apple, and those Windows-based products usually failed due to at least one of the following issues:
- MacBooks have arguably superior build quality with metal construction, lighter weight, and a simple, attractive design.
- MacBooks include unique design features that improve the overall user experience (e.g., large gesture-enabled touchpad, high-resolution display, super-fast ports for transferring data, and MagSafe AC adapters).
- MacBooks deliver a better user experience because Apple built the OS and the computer (resulting in optimized hardware and drivers for faster startup, better battery life, and fewer problems related to miscommunications between software and hardware).
- When those consumers shopping for a premium PC saw a MacBook and a Windows laptop that was “almost” as good as a MacBook for around the same price, consumers usually said, “I’ll just buy the Mac.”
Which brings us back to the HP Spectre x360. Keep reading to see why we think Apple should be worried.
Build and Design
As the lengthy introduction suggests, the HP Spectre x360 is clearly targeting current and potential MacBook Air customers. This HP laptop isn’t a “clone” because it features multiple unique design elements along with durable multimode hinges that allow the Spectre x360 to function as a traditional laptop, a tablet, and move into two more positions for presentations. That said, you cannot help but notice several design similarities when you look at this HP next to a 13-inch MacBook Air.
The HP Spectre x360 features an all CNC aluminum chassis (each part of the chassis is milled from a single block of aluminum) and weighs just 3.3 pounds with a maximum thickness of 15.9 millimeters (0.625 inch). One design element that we really appreciate is that HP polished the metal on the sides of the chassis; this not only gives the edges a jewelry-like finish but it makes the edges of the Spectre x360 feel pleasingly smooth to touch when you plug in a USB drive or if you’re holding the x360 like a tablet for several hours.
Opening the screen lid on the x360 and moving it into the variety of multimode positions is a likewise enjoyable experience thanks to the innovative new hinge design that HP is using here. Each hinge contains a set of three spiral gears that force the two hinges to move in precise synchronicity. In other words, if you grab one corner of the screen and move it the other corner of the screen will move smoothly and precisely so there is no “flex” in the screen as you move it from one position to another.
The geared hinges supply a nearly perfect balance of resistance and freedom of movement; the screen won’t move out of position simply because you press the touchscreen, but you won’t need to apply noticeably strong force to open the lid or move the screen into tablet mode. Additionally, the unique hinge design allows the x360 to maintain the exact same height/thinness in tablet mode that it has when the lid is closed (most “flip-screen” convertible laptops are slightly thicker in tablet mode because of the way the hinges move).
The bottom of the Spectre x360 features a large base plate that is secured by eight T5 Torx screws. While this isn’t ideal for those who want easy access the internal components for service or upgrades, you can open the chassis.
On the other hand, the x360 suffers from the laws of physics just like a MacBook Air or any ultrathin laptop; in order to make a notebook this thin the manufacturer cannot use standard SATA connectors for hard drives (SATA is too thick). Thankfully, most consumers won’t want or need to upgrade the x360 since HP uses quality LPDDR3 RAM and impressively fast M.2 solid state drives (SSDs). We’ll talk more about the internal hardware in the performance section.
Ports and Features (and a freaking awesome Wi-Fi antenna)
The x360 might be as thin as a 13-inch MacBook Air but it’s packed with a noticeably superior variety of ports. The left side Spectre x360 includes the AC adapter connection, the cooling fan exhaust vent, a USB 3.0 port, the power button, and a SDHC/SDXC card slot. The right side ports include a second Windows button (for use when the x360 is in tablet mode), a rocker-style volume button, mini DisplayPort, full-size HDMI out, two additional USB 3.0 ports and a headset audio jack.
We should also point out that all three of the USB 3.0 ports on the Spectre x360 are “sleep and charge” USB ports … so you can charge USB devices even when the notebook is in sleep mode.
One feature that really surprised us was the Wi-Fi performance of the Spectre x360. HP has dramatically improved the Wi-Fi performance in terms of both speed and connection reliability thanks in large part to a new “antenna slot” that is milled out of the front/top edge of the screen lid. The antenna slot prevents the aluminum chassis from blocking the Wi-Fi spectrum and allows for more effective reception of both the 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz bands of the various 802.11 protocols.
Setting aside the techno-babble, the bottom line is the x360 delivers spectacular Wi-Fi performance. Not only did the x360 provide a stable connection to our test routers with impressive upload/download speeds at a variety of distances, but the x360 even managed to detect several distant routers located in nearby buildings that other laptops (including a 13-inch MacBook Air from 2014) couldn’t see on their lists of available Wi-Fi signals.
We compared the x360 against the 13-inch MacBook Air at the same location in our Wi-Fi test environment. The x360 managed a fairly consistent download speed that peaked at 53.0 Mbps and a reasonably stable upload speed that peaked at 5.8 Mbps with a ping response of 21 ms. The MacBook Air’s download speed was less consistent and peaked at just 42.8 Mbps but delivered similar upload and ping speeds.
Screen and Speakers
The high-resolution touch display on the Spectre x360 is another jewel in this attractive laptop. The touch panel surface is optically bonded to the display so less light from the LED backlight is diffused/lost, making the display brighter and making the screen easier to see at lower brightness levels (and helping to extend battery life).
HP offers two different IPS display options for the x360; either a Full HD (1920 x 1080 resolution) IPS touch-enabled display with 72% Adobe RGB color gamut or a Quad HD (2560 x 1440 resolution) IPS touch-enabled display for those who demand more screen real estate.
Our review unit comes with the FHD screen which delivers exceptional color accuracy, great contrast, and fantastic viewing angles combined with bright and evenly distributed backlighting. In short, this is the type of IPS touch display you want on a notebook. While we might have enjoyed playing with the Quad HD display, the reality is that the FHD screen is gorgeous and 1080p resolution is more than enough for most people using a 13-inch touchscreen (small icons on a Quad HD display will prove more difficult to reliably touch due to all those extra pixels being crammed into a 13-inch surface area).
The small stereo speakers located on the bottom of the x360 are easy to overlook since these are non-branded speakers instead of the BEATS-branded speakers on previous HP premium notebooks. Nevertheless, these pint-sized speakers deliver quality sound at all volume levels. The audio playback has a decent range from highs to lows with good clarity but these little speakers can’t deliver the kind of bass you only get from a dedicated subwoofer.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The full-sized keyboard on the x360 features Chiclet-style or island-style keys with LED backlighting. Unlike some 13-inch (and smaller) laptops, there is adequate spacing between each key to avoid the typos common to more cramped keyboards. HP was clearly focused on delivering a great typing experience with this laptop; each key has 1.5 millimeters of travel with good resistance and the perfect amount of feedback as you type.
Our only complaint about the keyboard on the x360 is relatively minor: There is no option to adjust the brightness of the LED backlighting. The shortcut key controlling the keyboard backlight simply switches the backlight on and off. While the backlight is adequately bright for typing in a dark environment, we would have liked to make the keyboard slightly dimmer or slightly brighter.
In general, we enjoyed using the massive, gesture-enabled Synaptics ClickPad on the x360 because it provides ample space and features excellent palm rejection so the cursor doesn’t randomly move around the screen every time your wrist or palm brushes up against the touchpad as you type. The fundamental problem we have with the buttonless ClickPad on the x360 is the same problem that plagues every Windows laptop that tries to use a buttonless touchpad surface: Windows requires at least a left click and a right click for mouse operations.
The reason that the buttonless touchpad works so well on Apple MacBooks is that the Mac OS was designed for a one-button mouse (yes, you can use multiple mouse buttons on a Mac, but the point is the default mouse setup is a single mouse button). A MacBook touchpad doesn’t need to worry about where a click happens because a click is a click, period. Windows requires at least a two-button mouse for left-click and right-click operations … and this is why buttonless touchpads have problems.
During our testing period we frequently pressed the glass ClickPad surface for a left click and the x360 would register a right click. Similarly, sometimes we would try to make a right click and the x360 thought it was a left click. Worse still, occasionally the ClickPad would simply ignore the fact that we made a click if it couldn’t determine whether the click was a left click or a right click. We managed to “partially” remedy the problem by adjusting the default Synaptic driver settings so the ClickPad did a better job of recognizing left clicks and right clicks, but we never completely eliminated the problem.
Bottom line, unless Microsoft switches to a single mouse button control interface in Windows 10, every notebook with a buttonless ClickPad will struggle with these issues to some extent.