Where is the balancing point for laptops? Where does the touchscreen and brushed aluminium finish start to outweigh the need for unbridled power and portability?
Can Full HD and wafer-thinness really step into the void left by an underperforming battery? These are important questions. And we’re about to find out the answer to them, with the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook 15-4000ea.
The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook is a great computing enigma. It’s why we started with philosophy and confusion. It’s a jumble of chips in a tiny box that does a number of things brilliantly and a few, sadly, quite poorly. But before we explore specifics, let’s start with the laptop’s biggest impact point: it goes straight for the psyche before you’ve even switched it on.
HP is certainly not messing about, then, in terms of the Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook’s initial wow factor. It’s thin – of course it is, it’s an ultrabook – with a deliciously brushed metal lid and wonderfully tactile silicon-coated base.
Although it lacks the immediate impact of the glassy, miniscule Acer Aspire S7 (which we’re a little bit in love with, to be frank) the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook is a perfectly lovely machine to look at. You could show it off.
For a machine in the same price band as the Sony Vaio Duo 11, Toshiba U920T and the aforementioned Acer Aspire S7, that’s one important tick in the box. Speaking of price, the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook costs £999 / US$1,199.99 (around AU$1,463).
Opening it up, the style continues with a huge raised, countersunk, glassy-feeling touchpad. Island-style keys – almost impeccably laid out, our only gripe being the compressed directional pad and HP’s infuriatingly twee lower-case naming convention – dominate the middle ground.
There’s no unnecessary number pad, which is nice; the temptation must have been there, given the vast amount of case space afforded by the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook’s 15-inch flush-mounted widescreen touch panel.
So here’s the awesome thing about the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook: the screen. Man, what a screen. Not only is it enormous, touchable, generous with the viewing angles (and did we mention enormous?), it’s a Full HD panel running at 1920 x 1080 – something that would be much more common on Ultrabooks if they weren’t all so very small.
HP has pushed the boat out with its 15 inches, making the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook a significant slab of computing indeed. It’s like the laptops we used to know, only without the sharp edges and leg-melting heat.
Everything within is very sensible. The processor – a mildly disappointing Intel Core i5 3317U running at 1.7GHz – is just enough. It’s not something that will cook you, but it also isn’t something that will let you down in a bind.
There’s 4GB RAM onboard, which is just enough, again, and we wouldn’t like to contemplate upgrading that quotient given the stature of the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook’s perfectly ventilated underbelly.
For storage, HP has opted for a 500GB/32GB hybrid drive, straddling the line between realistic internal capacity and the solid state speed that Windows 8 all but demands. It’s fine, of course, and that extra capacity once again roots the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook in ‘proper laptop’ territory.
Stuffing it with a massive SSD alone would have bumped the price up and reduced the overall usefulness.
There are other ultrabooks in the bracket that will offer more grunt under the hood, of course. The Acer Aspire S7 manages a superior Core i7-3517U in its tiny shell, and every other HP Envy Ultrabook seems to tote more RAM.
Plump for something fancy – and dare we say it, silly – such as the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga and you’ll get a huge SSD, more RAM and a more versatile touchscreen to boot. But we think HP has the balance right, here.
3D Mark: Ice Storm – 21882, Cloud Gate – 2872, Fire Strike – 399
Cinebench: OpenGL – 11.69fps, CPU – 2.25pts
Battery: 5 hours 23 minutes
So much as show a modern game to the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook, or even a relatively simple Unity title such as Kerbal Space Program, and it will shrink into a corner and cry.
The extreme resolution can’t help, and Intel’s functional 4000 series graphics chipset performs fine with games a generation past, but this simply isn’t a laptop designed for today’s heaviest lifting. With pedestrian benchmark results to boot, this didn’t make us jump up and dance with joy.
Passive entertainment, on the other hand, is spectacular. 1080p video runs smoothly on the glorious screen, and its generous viewing angles mean more that one person can share.
The cleverly angled quad speaker system, enhanced as all HP things are by Beats Audio equalisation, chucks the sound right in your face. It’s not brilliant – Beats generally means crispy trebles, fat low-end and an almost universal lack of any middle, and that’s the case here – but it’s a step above many afterthought Ultrabook sound solutions.
The touchpad is, to be honest, a little bit annoying. Its touchable area extends onto the click buttons at the bottom, meaning mis-gestures are all too common, and the initially glassy feel quickly gives way to a silicon stickiness.
Then there’s the Ultrabook staples – thickness, lightness, longevity – all of which have taken a hit. Weighing 2.2kg/77.6oz, this is at the heaviest end of its market, and it’s thin, but not spectacularly so.
We didn’t get near the claimed 9.5 hours battery life even under casual strain. Our average was around six hours, and the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook buckled at just five hours in our intensive test.
We should also mention the build quality. Those lovely looks aren’t matched in terms of stiffness: the aluminium-backed lid is highly flexible, the screen prone to some serious moire-ripples at the edges if pressed too heavily.
It works well as a touchscreen in terms of functionality, but practically we would rarely use such a feature when attached to a laptop. We’ll say nothing of Windows 8‘s odd insistence on touch, since that’s already been done to death elsewhere.
When you’re dropping £999 / US$1,199.99 (around AU$1,463) on a laptop, you need to be sure your investment is a solid one. The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook shares that price point with many awesome machines – the glorious Acer Aspire S7 among them – so it’s got to work hard.
The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook is a great looking machine. With a brushed aluminium shell accompanied by a sweet flush 15-inch touchscreen running at Full HD, it really stands out from the competition. It looks decent, sounds decent thanks to the Beats Audio branding, and it’s a veritable entertainment cornerstone. So far so good.
It’s also great for work, with a splendid keyboard, enough resolution real estate to pin fully usable windows to either screen edge, and storage aplenty. The fact that it’s packing a hybrid drive means Windows 8 boots quickly and the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook is up and running in a couple of seconds.
There’s a touchscreen in case you suddenly feel you need such a thing on your laptop, and the battery is acceptable if not storming.
But we’re not positive we’d put one in our travel bag. That aluminium casing is going to get scratched, and we’d suggest it has the potential to dent. Given the amount of flex in the screen, we’re not sold on its hardiness.
The battery isn’t as amazing as some of the others in its class. And frankly, for all its looks, it’s not as beautiful as many other machines you can pick up for less money.
Perhaps the muscle that’s atrophied from the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook was merely cosmetic. It’s not a weakling by any means. But for the price we expected a little more go to complement the show of that crispy screen.
We’ll say this, though: The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook is a milestone. Watch the ultrabook market over the next year. Watch as heavyweight chips join incredible screens as the norm rather than the exception.
If you pick up an HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook now in full knowledge of its piffling flaws, you won’t be disappointed – you’ll just be ahead of the curve.