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HP’s New Spectre X360 Is Probably The Best PC Laptop Around

Enlarge Peter Bright reader comments 122 Share this story Specs at a glance: HP Spectre x360-13t Entry level Top spec As reviewed SCREEN 1920×1080 IPS at 13.3″ (166 ppi), multitouch OS Windows 10 Home 64-bit Windows 10 Pro 64-bit Windows 10 Home 64-bit CPU 2.5-3.1GHz Core i5-7200U 2.7-3.5GHz Core i7-7500U 2.7-3.5GHz Core i7-7500U RAM 8GB 1867MHz DDR3 16GB 1867MHz DDR3 16GB 1867MHz DDR3 GPU Intel HD Graphics 620 HDD 256GB NVMe SSD 1TB NVMe SSD 512GB NVMe SSD NETWORKING Dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n/ac 2×2, Bluetooth 4.0 PORTS 2×Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.0, headset jack SIZE 12.03×8.58×0.54″ WEIGHT 2.85lb BATTERY 3-cell 57.8Wh Li-ion WARRANTY 1 year depot 3 year onsite 1 year depot PRICE $1,049.99 $1,499.98 $1,299.99 OTHER PERKS 1080p webcam with Windows Hello

HP’s Spectre x360 was one of our favorite laptops of the Broadwell generation. It was a thin, light, stylish ultrabook with solid battery life and a flippy hinge enabling it to be used as a (chunky) tablet or (more usefully) to hold the screen up in the kitchen or while watching movies on the plane.

The x360 received a minor refresh to upgrade to a Skylake processor, and this year HP added an optional OLED screen. Aside from these small changes, the Skylake model was little changed from its predecessor.

But now HP has a third revision, using Intel’s new Kaby Lake processors. While Kaby Lake itself is not a major update on Skylake, HP has used the occasion of the processor upgrade to perform a more substantial overhaul of the Spectre x360.

For my money, tent mode is the most useful thing enabled by the hinge. Very useful in the kitchen or on a plane. Enlarge / For my money, tent mode is the most useful thing enabled by the hinge. Very useful in the kitchen or on a plane. Peter Bright Putting the x360 on a diet

As a general rule, we want our laptops to be smaller and lighter. But we also want them to have bigger batteries for greater longevity away from the wall. The new x360 manages to do all these things: HP has shaved 19mm (0.76 inch) from the system’s width, 2.1mm (0.08 inch) from its height, and 0.35lbs (0.16kg) from the system’s weight.

But in spite of being smaller and lighter, the system’s battery is slightly bigger than it used to be: it’s a 57.8Wh unit instead of a 56Wh one. It also has a fast charge feature. With the system powered off, it can hit 90 percent charge after 90 minutes of charging. Even brief airport layovers should be enough time to get a decent amount of juice into the system.

To achieve this reduction in size, the x360’s screen bezel has been slimmed right down. It’s still very slightly larger than the bezel on Dell’s XPS 13—5.45mm to the Dell’s 5.2mm—but is substantially narrower than the old version’s 15.1mm (or the MacBook Air’s 20mm).

The keyboard, conversely, has been made a little wider with an extra column of keys down the right hand side. This gives direct access to home/end/page up/page down without needing any Fn-key combinations. The keyboard also now occupies almost the entire width of the system, giving the x360 a slightly peculiar look. It brings to mind an 11-inch laptop.

The keyboard spans nearly the entire width of the system. Enlarge / The keyboard spans nearly the entire width of the system. HP

The keyboard itself is very solid. HP says that the key travel is ever so slightly decreased compared to its predecessor, but even if this is the case, it’s not noticeable. The key action is crisp and comfortable, almost clicky, and typing on the system is precise. It’s a good keyboard that’s pleasant to use. For someone with a profession that’s heavily text-oriented, having direct access to the page navigation keys is also a nice touch. It’s definitely more convenient than Fn-key combos.

Even better, the keyboard backlight is much less annoying. It’s still not the best example of a backlit keyboard that I’ve seen due to some unevenness of the lighting, but it does fix one flaw of the earlier version: on the original x360, turning off the backlight left the F5 key brightly illuminated (so that you could find the backlight toggle in the dark, I guess), which was incredibly distracting. Now the keyboard is dark all over when the backlight is off.

As in the old model, the Synaptics touchpad is very wide. It’s not terrible by any means, and its glass surface allows your finger to glide effortlessly, But I’m a little disappointed that, just as with the old version, it’s not a Precision Touchpad. Touchpads using Microsoft’s spec are picking up new features with new Windows releases to support more gestures and more consistent behavior—they mean that the hardware gets better when the software gets better.

On the right of the machine we have the two Thunderbolt 3/USB Type-C ports. Enlarge / On the right of the machine we have the two Thunderbolt 3/USB Type-C ports. Peter Bright And on the left is the USB 3 generation 1 Type A port and the headset jack. Enlarge / And on the left is the USB 3 generation 1 Type A port and the headset jack. Peter Bright

One slight oddity of the new x360 is that it’s only available with an IPS 1920×1080 screen; there are no options for either higher resolutions (the old version was available at up to 2560×1440), nor for OLED. The screen is bright, and colors look rich—it’s certainly not a bad screen—but resolution junkies will be disappointed.

HP has also packed in an extra two speakers for four in total. Laptop speakers are always going to be at the weaker end of the market—their size and form factor ensures that much—but the x360’s speakers are respectably loud and go surprisingly deep. For listening to music or watching movies in a hotel room, HP has done a solid job.

The result of all this is that it’s one of the thinner and lighter 13-inch laptops out there, especially considering that it has a touch screen and 360-degree hinge. Pure laptops, such as HP’s own Spectre 13, are thinner still, but not by a whole lot. It’s not bad looking, either, with HP’s new “premium” logo on its lid. This laptop feels solidly built.

If the only thing that HP had done was to shrink the size, enlarge the battery, and put in a Kaby Lake processor, the new x360 would still be a very compelling system. HP has made a good laptop even better by enhancing the things that laptops need to be—small, light—without compromising on the keyboard or battery life.

Killer features

But that wasn’t the only thing HP did. The latest x360 has two new features that we’re very pleased to see: Thunderbolt 3 and Windows Hello.

The reduced thickness of the system has had one casualty: connectivity. The original x360 included a mini-DisplayPort, a full-size HDMI port, three USB 3.0 ports, a headset jack, and an SD card slot. The new one drops the mini-DisplayPort, HDMI, SD, and two of the USB 3.0 ports, but it adds two USB Type-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. Both of the ports support can be converted to display outputs (with suitable dongles), and both support charging. With one traditional USB Type-A port too, this means that the new x360 has plenty of connectivity and is ready for the future.

This is encouraging to see. Type-C ports and Thunderbolt 3 fill many roles on this kind of thin and light system; they remove the need for separate graphics and charging ports, and they open the door to high-speed expansion and even things like external GPUs. Even if only used for USB devices, the inclusion of Intel’s Thunderbolt 3 controller means that the ports support the faster USB 3.1 gen 2, at 10 gigabits per second, instead of the 5 gigabit gen 1.

For Windows Hello biometric authentication, HP has elected for facial recognition. Having used this on Microsoft’s Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, this is probably my favorite implementation of Hello, because it’s so incredibly effortless. Just sit in front of the computer and it unlocks for you. While the x360 has a very narrow bezel left and right, the top bezel is a more conventional size in order to have enough room for the webcam and infrared components that Hello requires.

This is a very sensible decision. While the narrow bezels do look good (and allow a smaller machine), webcam placement matters. Dell’s XPS 13 has a slimline top bezel, too, and that positions the webcam awkwardly below the screen. This renders it close to useless, as it shoots from such an incredibly unflattering angle. HP’s top and centre placement ensures that the camera is actually usable.

 

  • I don’t have an XPS 13 on hand at the moment, so can’t make a direct comparison between the webcam angles. However, HP provided these images taken with the laptop in the same place. This is the Spectre x360… HP
  • … and this is the substantially less useful Dell XPS 13. HP

 

After training the x360, the authentication was quick and reliable, bringing all the convenience that we’ve come to expect. At the limit, this kind of biometric system is not going to be as good as a very strong password. Just as fingerprint readers can be spoofed with careful use of molds and prints lifted from convenient surfaces, I’m sure that the facial recognition can be spoofed with a suitable mask or perhaps even a sufficiently good print-out. Still, this is going to be harder to spoof than an empty password, a password taped to the side of the machine, or some short password picked because it’s really easy to type.

And if you do have a strong password, Hello makes it a hell of lot less annoying to use. It means that you can have your system aggressively lock itself during inactivity—something that’s particularly desirable on any kind of easily stolen portable—without the annoyance of having to retype the thing every few minutes.

These features are things that I feel every premium laptop should have. If you’re spending a thousand bucks or more on a computer, it ought to support the most up-to-date, forward-looking interface available. Thunderbolt 3 (and USB 3.1 gen 2) is that interface. And Windows Hello is just so tremendously convenient that switching back to a non-Hello machine after using Hello for a while feels like a step back in time.

Irrelevant internals

For all these improvements to the x360, it’s perhaps striking that the change that actually prompted the hardware refresh—replacing the Skylake processor with a Kaby Lake part—is the one that’s least likely to be felt. Kaby Lake is a very incremental upgrade over Skylake, and in a lot of circumstances, the difference is going to be hard to notice directly. Kaby Lake has clock speeds about 8-10 percent higher than comparable Skylake parts and it uses a slightly modified version of Intel’s 14nm manufacturing process, so it’s expected to be a little faster and more power efficient.

 

 

This does show up in the benchmarks we run to an extent. Kaby Lake is a little bit quicker than comparable Skylake systems, with both processor and GPU performance slightly increased. But for the most part, these improvements will go unnoticed. Certain workloads will see more substantial gains—Kaby Lake includes acceleration of 4K video, with both 10-bit HEVC encoding and decoding, and 8-bit VP9 decoding, performed in hardware. But if you don’t hit one of these workloads, the incremental improvement is likely to be negligible.

 

 

Other classes of system might show more benefits from the new processors. Among the ultra low power parts (formerly called Core M), the clock speed difference can be as much as 18.5 percent. Those Core M systems can feel noticeably slow, and the extra 18.5 percent will be greatly appreciated.

Under load, the left hand side of the system did get quite warm, though not uncomfortably so, and the sound of its fans (necessary to cope with the 15W processor) while not loud was nonetheless noticeable.

One area that did show more significant gains was the storage. The SATA SSD of the original model is now a PCIe SSD, and transfer rates have approximately doubled as a result. This is another feature that probably ought to be compulsory nowadays; we’ve heard from OEMs that the SATA SSDs can be ever so slightly more power efficient than their PCIe counterparts, but the performance gap is so vast that it feels hard to justify the use of the older technology.

 

 

With its larger battery and newer processor, the new x360 should boast substantial battery life. Its score is respectable but not as impressive as I’d expect. Direct comparisons to the Broadwell model that we tested are unfortunately impossible due to changes that have been made to our battery test, but the x360 was tied with the Skylake-based Spectre 13, which contains a battery with a mere 38Wh capacity. As such, it feels like the x360 is underperforming in some way, though precisely why and how isn’t clear.

It’s possible that there’s some immaturity at play. The Spectre x360 doesn’t yet run the Windows 10 Anniversary Update (version 1607). Instead, it uses last year’s November Update (version 1511). We’re told that there are driver issues with 1607 that mean it shouldn’t be used on Kaby Lake systems. These issues are expected to be resolved this coming November. The x360 also disabled some (minor) PCIe power management features with Windows saying that there was a hardware incompatibility.

 

 

Our battery tests also don’t stress any of the areas where Kaby Lake has made more substantial improvements. If we were testing, for example, streaming 4K media then the new hardware acceleration would likely yield dividends. But that’s rather the nature of this kind of acceleration; it has no general purpose value.

In keeping with the x360’s position as a premium laptop, HP has kept the x360 refreshingly light on crapware. It still ships with a 30-day McAfee LiveSafe trial, sure. But whereas previous review systems have bombarded me with messages from the McAfee software, this time it was unobtrusive. Nonetheless, I still feel that most people would be better off without such software—even if it doesn’t nag up front, it’ll nag when the trial is up, and who needs that?

The PC laptop to beat

The original x360 was a good laptop, and it gave HP a strong foundation on which to build. The new model takes what was good about the old one and makes it even better, both with a remarkable improvement to the size and weight and the addition of highly desirable new features.

This means the new Kaby Lake HP Spectre x360 is the PC laptop to beat. The size and features make for a compelling mix, and the pricing is competitive, too, It starts at $1,049 for a Core i5, 8GB RAM, and 256GB storage, and it tops out at $1,499 for a Core i7, 16GB RAM, and 1TB SSD.

The good

  • Keyboard
  • Size
  • Weight
  • Windows Hello
  • Thunderbolt 3

The bad

  • No Precision Touchpad

The ugly

  • Intel and Microsoft conspiring to make the Windows 10 Anniversary Update unsuitable for Kaby Lake for another few weeks