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Gallery Photo: Spectre XT 555, 300, 1020 etc
Gallery Photo: Spectre XT 555, 300, 1020 etc

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HP Envy Spectre XT review

HP goes toe-to-toe with Apple — and its own success

Three years ago, HP introduced the Envy 13. This week, we’re reviewing its spiritual successor, the Envy Spectre XT. Oh, how times have changed. Then, as now, the Envy was accused of cribbing from Apple's MacBook playbook. Then, as now, it's a shiny silver machine, with an ultra-low-voltage processor, a single-button clickpad, no optical drive, few ports, and a 13-inch screen.

So, what's new? HP's latest Envy sheds weight, girth, and adds a solid state drive to compete with the MacBook Air. At $1,000, you won't find a discrete graphics chip or a high-res screen in this Intel ultrabook, but it is $400 cheaper than the Gorilla Glass-covered HP Envy 14 Spectre we liked earlier this year.

Can the Spectre XT deliver the same potential in a cheaper package? Three months late to a market filled with inexpensive ultrathin laptops, does the Spectre XT stand a chance?

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

Putting on Airs

From across the room, my good friend didn't even realize I had a new laptop to review. He thought I was typing away on my MacBook Air. Hours later, the lack of a glowing Apple logo tipped him off, but the damage was done, regardless of what HP might have intended. While the Spectre XT isn't a complete clone of Apple's laptop — with rather different lid, hinge, speaker, and trackpad designs — the overall effect is clearly crafted to attract people who want a MacBook Air with Windows on board. I don't have any problem with that goal, as I prefer Microsoft's operating system, and I actually believe the Spectre XT improves on its Apple rival in a number of ways. We’ll discuss those in a bit. Still, while the earlier Envy 14 Spectre felt like a breath of fresh air, the Spectre XT honestly comes off as derivative.

As you can see in the chart below, it's a fairly trim machine, but it's also a bit thicker than competing wedge designs. There's not as much of a slant here.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
HP Envy Spectre XT 12.4 x 8.8 0.57-0.69 3.07
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 12.3 x 8.6 0.5 2.55
Acer Aspire S5 12.8 x 8.9 0.6 2.65
MacBook Air (2012, 13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.96
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 12.8 x 8.8 0.11 - 0.71 2.86
HP Folio 13 12.54 x 8.67 0.71 3.3
HP Envy 14 Spectre 12.88 x 8.7 0.79 3.79
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 13.2 x 9.2 0.81 4.6
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15) 14.9 x 9.9 0.68 3.96

There aren't loads of ports on the Spectre XT, but for a machine that weighs just over three pounds and measures about half an inch thick, HP's actually provided a very generous array of connectivity. On the left side you'll find a full-size HDMI port, a USB 3.0 socket, and a bona fide Gigabit Ethernet jack that opens its spring-loaded metal jaws to accept a cable with a minimum of wasted space.

On the right, there's a USB 2.0 port that can charge gadgets when the laptop's off, a 3.5mm headset jack, and a full-size SD card slot that can actually hold the entire card inside the laptop's frame, as well as the power jack. We've seen some of these ideas in other recent ultrabooks, but taken as a whole, I'm hard-pressed to think of another machine this thin with this much connectivity. HP doesn't skimp on wireless either, by the way: Bluetooth 4.0 and an Intel Advanced-N 6235 solution for dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (and WiDi, should you use the screen sharing technology) come standard. It is worth noting that the AC adapter's power plug doesn't mate well with the Spectre XT, and can get disconnected if you jolt it. The jack is clearly made for the deeper socket of a different laptop.

Visually, the Spectre XT has a fairly cohesive design, but the quality of the materials is strangely mixed. The brushed aluminum lower chassis is lovely, and as light, strong, and rigid as any recent ultralight I've used, even more so than my MacBook Air. Not only is the keyboard tray a single piece of metal, but so is that shiny beveled edge, carefully machined and polished to catch the eye, with the very welcome added benefit that it doesn't dig into your wrists. Meanwhile, the entire bottom of the laptop is covered with a rubbery soft-touch plastic material that makes it more comfortable to grip than many competing designs, and nicely insulates your lap.

Halfway there

However, all of this praise is tempered by the laptop's upper half. For whatever reason, HP chose to go with the same dark, glossy, creaky, easily scratched, vaguely translucent plastic for the screen bezel as some of the cheapest plastic laptops I've seen. Though the lid has a veneer of the same lovely brushed aluminum as the laptop's deck, it's mated to that ugly plastic with a poorly-cut four piece metal rim. Rough edges and seams are visible if you look closely, and the whole assembly flexes and creaks under pressure.

The cheap hinges work well, unlike the one on the Asus Zenbook Prime, so there is that. Still, while it's easy enough to lift the lid and keep it in place, it never quite feels properly closed. The middling quality just seems so out of place on what otherwise appears to be a painstakingly detailed frame. If it wasn't for the plainly visible "Spectre XT" logo on the bezel, I'd think the entire assembly was designed for a different laptop and placed here by accident.

It also doesn't help that there's a sub-par screen inside that glossy bezel.

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Screen and speakers

Screen and speakers

Not a screen worthy of a premium laptop
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Since the very first HP Envy three years ago, the company has sought to provide Envy customers with displays a cut above. While one of those screens had some color issues and another one annoyingly ran out of stock, HP's generally offered brighter, more vibrant, high-resolution displays at a lower price than anyone else. Just a few months back, the Envy 14 Spectre's 1600 x 900 display was lovely. Here, you're stuck with a comparatively dim 1366 x 768 panel that loses brightness and threatens to invert or wash out your colors with the slightest change in viewing angle. It's not quite as bad as the display that comes with, say, the Dell XPS 13, and it’s bearable if you keep your head and the lid in a single position and don't move either one, but there are far better screens to be had in other laptops.

Speaker quality is almost always an afterthought in these thin notebooks, whether they have a fancy audio brand associated with them or not, but the sound that the Spectre XT produces isn't bad at all. The laptop has four drivers, two angled up towards the user in a speaker bar right beneath the screen, and two more pointed down in the curved sides of the chassis. Between those four drivers and some Beats Audio magic, the audio is reasonably full, and surprisingly loud for a laptop its size. It can't handle high highs or low lows, and layered combinations of instruments get lost, but anything which sounds like it was written specifically with the radio in mind sounds fairly good.

Keyboard and touchpad

Keyboard and touchpad

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Keyboard

HP figured out how to build a good thin keyboard a while back, and the company actually improved on it here: despite the thinness of the Spectre XT, the keyboard is excellent. It's much like the one on the MacBook Air, in fact, with practically identical key size and spacing, a similar scissor-switch mechanism underneath each key, and a very similar cushiony feeling when I press down.

The tops of the keys are flat here, though, rather than the Mac's concave keys, which makes them feel a little bit different in use. Honestly, they're still a teeny bit cramped and shallow, and if you don't like MacBook Air keys you won't like these any better, but they're really, really good vis-a-vis the Windows ultrabook competition. I typed every word of this review on the Spectre XT itself, and I can't complain one bit about the results.

Competent controls

The whole keyboard is also backit, making for easy typing in the dark. While you can't dim the lights — only turn them on and off — the keyboard backlight key itself glows when the rest of the keyboard is shut off, making it easy to find (and thus turn on the rest of your keys) when the lights are out. The function keys are mapped to hardware shortcuts like screen brightness, volume and media playback rather than the standard F1-F12 keys, which I prefer, though you will have to avoid tapping F12 if you don't want to immediately turn your Wi-Fi off.

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Touchpad

After reviewing a string of laptops with iffy touchpads, I was fully prepared to hate the Spectre XT's single-button unit as well, but I was surprised to find that the glass-topped Synaptics Clickpad does a truly excellent job. It's the best touchpad I've used on a Windows laptop, bar none, and it's within a stone's throw of Apple's solution. The glass surface is a little bit tacky when dry, but a little bit of finger grease mostly cleared that up. Single-finger pointing, two-finger scrolling, and pinch-to-zoom are all butter-smooth and gestures are extremely responsive. What's more, HP and Synaptics somehow managed to make the physical clicking mechanism take far less pressure to use (again, about the same amount as a MacBook Air) which makes depressing the clickpad far more palatable than on most any other Windows laptop. I still prefer discrete physical buttons, but it's really not bad. The only place the touchpad really lags behind Apple is in sheer size, as it's a little hard to activate four-finger gestures on the smaller pad.

HP's latest crop of laptops place the touchpad in a special valley beneath the rest of the palmrest, presumably to make edge flicks easier when Windows 8 rolls around. It has a pleasant side effect here: it keeps your palms from accidentally brushing the touchpad while typing things. I didn't skip a line once while typing this review. If you want to, though, HP's got a handy feature that lets you turn on and off the touchpad in a hurry by double-tapping the upper-left-hand corner.

Performance and software

Performance and software

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$999 buys you a fairly standard set of ultrabook specs. The entry-level Spectre XT comes with a dual-core 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U processor, 4GB of memory, 128GB of solid state storage and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. You can trade up to a 256GB SSD for an extra $200, or buy a smidgen of extra processor speed in $125 increments for a 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, or a 2GHz Core i7-3667U instead. The larger SSD might make the most sense, since HP's recovery partition and system image take up a substantial chunk of space all by themselves, leaving only 69GB for your files on the 128GB model. Meanwhile, you can't expand the system memory at all: that 4GB of RAM is soldered to the motherboard.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage
HP Envy Spectre XT 12,205 P3,224
Acer Aspire S5 12,379 P3,407
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light (CT15-A2) 11,087 P3,221
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 10,227 P4,373
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, NP900X3C) 9,173 P3,071
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 8,269 P3,159
Toshiba Satellite U845W 6,810 P3,321
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 6,916 P2,402

Thankfully, the entry-level spec performs fine for basic tasks, and the Samsung MZMPC128-HBFU solid state drive does a great job. During my typical workday, which consists of dozens of auto-refreshing web browser tabs, multiple push email accounts, video clips, and music playing in the background, I didn't notice any slowdown opening things. When I opened a host of websites with Flash video at once on one occasion, my Chrome browser did inform me that the Flash plugin had crashed, but I've had powerful desktop computers experience that same issue. Boot times are nice and speedy at just 16 seconds to first see your desktop, with the machine fully loaded about 22 seconds after the power button is depressed, and it wakes from sleep in just under two seconds. Just don't expect to play a lot of recent PC games on the integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. If you don't expect anything at all, you might be pleasantly surprised, but I had trouble getting my aging benchmark favorite Just Cause 2 to give me playable framerates at lowest settings at the laptop's native 1366 x 768 resolution. Newer, more demanding titles will have a hard time.

HP doesn't wipe the Windows 7 slate completely clean, but the Spectre XT's software bloat is decidedly small. It's just the Bing Bar, Norton Internet Security, the Windows Live package, a few links to websites with trial offers, and a variety of behind-the-scenes HP utilities that seem lightweight enough to justify their existence. In fact, when the annoying Norton Internet Security warning pops up, it informs you that HP has prepaid for two free years of protection. The company throws in copies of Adobe's entry-level PhotoShop Elements and Premiere Elements as well. While I can't give HP too much credit for the additions, it's a pretty clean install of Windows all told.

Just as fast as the competition
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Battery / noise / heat

Battery life, noise and heat

Two out of three
Battery Life
HP Envy Spectre XT 5:21
Lenovo ThinkPad X230 7:10
HP Folio 13 7:07
Dell XPS 14 (2012) 6:59
Samsung Series 9 (15-inch, early 2012) 6:01
Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A 5:46
MacBook Air (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:34
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 5:27
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, mid-2012) 5:19
HP Envy 14 Spectre (early 2012) 5:14
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:08
Dell XPS 13 4:55
Lenovo IdeaPad U310 4:32
Acer Aspire S5 4:24
Vizio 15.6-inch Thin + Light 3:24
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It's not easy to balance temperature, fan volume and battery life in a chassis this thin, but the Spectre XT manages two out of three fairly well. Between the cool brushed aluminum palmrests and the insulated rubberized base, the Spectre XT always seems to fall in the comfortable range between warm and cool. Fan noise is always present, but not annoyingly so, and it's much preferable to the alternative.

Last year, it seemed like HP had solved the all-day battery life equation when we tested the Folio 13, an inexpensive, no-nonsense ultrabook that got over seven hours on a single charge in our Verge Battery Test. It appears the Folio 13 has been discontinued, though, and that's a shame, because I’d rather recommend it to battery life enthusiasts instead of this middle-of-the-road Spectre XT.

Don't get me wrong, the Spectre managed a respectable 5 hours and 21 minutes on our standard drain test — which cycles through a series of 100 popular websites and high-res images over Wi-Fi with the brightness set to 65 percent — but in my own personal use I only got about 3 hours and 45 minutes on average before the notebook died in my lap. Neither number is bad for a Windows machine, but consumer expectation is pretty high these days. The former number just barely meets Intel's ultrabook requirements for five hours of battery life. The latter makes HP's quoted battery life of "up to 8 hours" seem like false advertising.

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If I was looking for a sleek MacBook Air clone for use in cramped quarters, like a cozy cafe, a short airplane flight, or a train ride, I'd happily pick the Spectre XT. It's just so rare to get a competent keyboard and trackpad in such a tidy package, and I could see myself blissfully typing away for hours on end on reviews like the one you're reading. Dual-band Wi-Fi and a nice selection of full-size ports gives the laptop some legs, though the non-upgradable RAM could prove worrisome in the future. Business users can even find a TPM module in a "Spectre Pro" variant.

Unfortunately, the laptop's iffy 1366 x 768 display is its downfall. Multimedia, multitasking and graphical applications are all far less attractive than they should be on the Spectre XT. If you're looking to impress friends and strangers with your taste, know that the veneer of luxury won't last past a single glimpse at the laptop's powered-on screen. For $200 less than the competing MacBook Air, the $1,000 Spectre XT is a well-rounded machine and actually improves upon the formula in a few ways, but you're easily losing $200 worth of quality in the lid and display. By letting these discrepancies stand, HP missed an opportunity to truly rise above the pack with an all-purpose thin and light laptop.

If style and sophistication are what you’re looking for in a Windows laptop, the $1,399 Envy 14 Spectre is still your best bet. If you want a workhorse, get a Lenovo ThinkPad X230 with a solid state drive, the premium IPS display, and a large battery instead.

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