HP Spectre 13 (2016) review – like it or not, here’s the future

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HP’s updated portfolio for 2016 seems promising but the device that really stands out is the HP Spectre, which the company claims is the world’s thinnest 13-inch laptop. And it’s hard to argue with that, to be honest. The HP Spectre amazes with extremely portable and more importantly, durable chassis. However, these key selling features come at a price and we don’t mean money. We are referring to the design limitations engineers over at HP probably faced putting together the Spectre 13.

Despite these limitations, however, the Spectre features all the hardware that’s needed for more than satisfying performance for your daily tasks, even if they are more CPU intensive. The ultra-thin machine rocks the latest Skylake Core i5 or Core i7 U processors paired with 8GB of LPDDR3-1866 SDRAM and up to 512GB PCIe NVMe SSD for speedy data read or transfer. As far as the display is concerned, it’s a Full HD IPS panel with Corning Gorilla Glass 4 protection on top, although we can’t really think of a reason to include this protection since the display isn’t touch-capable. Which, by the way, is a considerable drawback for users looking for diversity but in our opinion the decision to miss this feature is spot on. More on that later. Without further ado, let’s begin with the device at hand.

You can find all of the available configurations here: http://amzn.to/2ds6uD9

Contents


Retail package

The final package contains the usual user manuals, AC adapter and power cord are included. Keep in mind, though, that the device is charged via USB-C cable and port. And the AC adapter seems smaller and more compact than what we are used to seeing, which is a plus.

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Design and construction

Probably the key selling point of this device is its looks and feel. The housing is made of fiberglass and aluminum blend but doesn’t feel like an ordinary high-end notebook. It’s something more. Every detail and every part of the ultrabook feels extra nice and exceptionally sturdy. We can think of only a few devices that can match the presented craftsmanship – Dell’s XPS 13, Lenovo’s Yoga 900S and probably the ASUS ZenBook Flip UX360. All of which, however, fall into different price and market segments.

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Anyway, let’s start with the lid. It’s covered in carbon fiber plate with a smooth matte finish that’s rigid as hell. Even strong pressure doesn’t cause the plate to bend or cause ripples on the LCD screen. The new HP logo also stands out and looks astonishing. It’s simplistic, subjectively aggressive but stays true to the company’s aesthetics. If we may ask, where has this logo been for the last couple of years? Unfortunately, the downside of this design is the fingerprint magnet surface. Smudges stick easily and the same applies for the copper-colored spine on the back. Speaking of which, the hinges feel unlike anything we’ve seen before. HP calls them “Piston Hinges” and we can clearly see why. The design allows smooth and linear movement of the lid and opening the device with one hand is possible as well. The bottom piece is also made of carbon fiber featuring the same matte, silky-smooth finish with three silicone strips for extra stability and two vent openings near the back.

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The sides of the notebook are clean and simplistic with razor-sharp edges. To be honest, maybe too simple. With a thickness of just 10.4 mm – some smartphones are thicker – there isn’t much room left for the bare minimum of ports. So instead, the notebook skips all the connectors on the side and adopts just three USB-C 3.1 ports on the back – where the metal-like copper-colored part is – and, of course, the 3.5 mm audio jack. Leaving out the conventional USB ports is a bold move from HP and a bit rashly. The new USB Type-C standard hasn’t been adopted by the market and it won’t in the next couple of years. The good news is that you can get yourself a USB-C to normal USB adapter and you can use all three for charging. Sadly, we can’t be sure whether HP will include a USB-C to USB 3.0 adapter in the package. We sure hope they do or it’s going to be that MacBook USB-C outburst all over again.

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As for the interior, it keeps the same appearance as the rest of the notebook. Carbon fiber with matte finish on top is used for the whole surface. It definitely feels nice and the keyboard is placed apart from the hinges probably to minimize the heat from the CPU during prolonged workload. Two grills for the loudspeakers are placed on both sides of the keyboard featuring interesting pattern. It definitely looks nice and the front-facing position is welcomed as well. Anyway, the keyboard experience is spotless and despite the incredibly thin profile of the ultrabook, the keys provide excellent feedback and compensating for the short travel. They feel stiff at the start but this eliminates that annoying “jiggly” sensation while providing comfortable and fast typing experience. The backlight is discreet with white LED and just enough to be useful in the dark without getting in the way. The glass trackpad goes along with the keyboard in terms of usability. It’s responsive, accurate and the surface is silky-smooth. Probably a bit shallow but it’s okay for a 13-inch device.

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The new Spectre is so lightweight at just 1.1 kg it’s comparable to some 12-inch devices while the overall build quality and usability of the input devices matches some regular-sized laptops in 14 and 15-inch form factors. It’s extremely well-built but all that weight reduction and thin profile come at a very big cost. The design limitations can’t allow any of the usual connectors like standard USB, HDMi, SD card reader or even a DC plug. Instead, you have to rely on the three USB-C connectors at the back for data transfer, connecting to an external display and charging. Moreover, some users might prefer other alternatives with touchscreens since the new Spectre had missed on that as well in order to keep the weight and thickness as low as possible. The latter in our opinion is a good choice because let’s face it, will you use the touchscreen if the device isn’t a hybrid? Probably not, but that’s just us. Also, the price is lower because the touchscreen costs more compared to the conventional IPS panel. All in all, the Spectre’s main key selling point is its design and portability and we can clearly see why. The missing connectivity options will be a deal-breaker for some, though.

Disassembly, maintenance and upgrade options

Any kind of manipulation requires a lot of patience and time. The bottom cover comes off really hard even with all the screws removed, which, by the way, are located under the silicone strips. We suggest using a thin plastic tool to crack open it because the surface is prone to damage. Also, be careful when prying up because the clips holding the plate are really tight.

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Storage upgrade options – M.2 SSD slot

Quite expectedly, the ultrabook uses an M.2 drive for storage. The unit ships with 256GB PCIe NVMe-enabled Samsung PM951 drive.

Slot Unit Upgrade price
2280 M.2 slot Samsung PM951 256GB PCIe NVMe Upgrade options

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RAM

The RAM chip is soldered to the motherboard upgrading it is impossible.

Other components

The Wi-Fi card is easily accessible and it’s right on the opposite side of the notebook across the M.2 drive.

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You can see that the 38Wh unit takes most of the free space inside the base unit.

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Cooling system

The cooling system consists of two really small fans and none of them is connected to the heat sink and heat pipe. The system relies on vents to push out a stream of hot air without making a solid connection to the CPU. This has proved to be a bad cooling solution and our tests in the full review confirm that. So in fact, the thermal throttling of the CPU isn’t caused by the thin design of the notebook but because of the cooling design.

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IF you require more instructions, you can visit our full disassembly article here.

Display quality

The notebook’s IPS display is listed as CMN1367 manufactured by CHI MEI and has Full HD (1920×1080) resolution in a 13.3-inch diagonal. This means that the pixel density of the screen is 166 ppi while the pixel pitch is 0.153 x 0.153 mm. It cam be considered as “Retina” when viewed from a distance equal or greater than 50 cm.

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Viewing angles are excellent from a 45-degree angle.

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The display’s maximum brightness is exceptionally high in the middle – 370 cd/m2 and while the average score across the surface is considerably lower – 338 cd/m2, it’s still considered as pretty bright. The maximum deviation is a bit high, though – 18%. Color temperature appears to be a bit off – 7840K in the middle and 7760K as average, so colors will appear a bit colder and blue-ish. The optimal value is 6500K.

We’ve also gathered som information about the color deviation in the different parts of the screen. The maximum deviation exceeds what appears to be acceptable – 4.8 in the upper right corner of the display. Values above 4.0 are unwanted and can be easily spotted with a naked eye.

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Color reproduction

To make sure we are on the same page, we would like to give you a little introduction of the sRGB color gamut and the Adobe RGB. To start, there’s the CIE 1976 Uniform Chromaticity Diagram that represents the visible specter of colors by the human eye, giving you a better perception of the color gamut coverage and the color accuracy.

Inside the black triangle, you will see the standard color gamut (sRGB) that is being used by millions of people in HDTV and on the web. As for the Adobe RGB, this is used in professional cameras, monitors etc for printing. Basically, colors inside the black triangle are used by everyone and this is the essential part of the color quality and color accuracy of a mainstream notebook.

Still, we’ve included other color spaces like the famous DCI-P3 standard used by movie studios, as well as the digital UHD Rec.2020 standard. Rec.2020, however, is still a thing of the future and it’s difficult for today’s displays to cover that well. We’ve also included the so-called Michael Pointer gamut, or Pointer’s gamut, which represents the colors that naturally occur around us every day.

So the display covers almost all of the sRGB colors – 96% and will be perfect for office work, browsing and multimedia purposes.

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Below you will see practically the same image but with the color circles representing the reference colors and the white circles being the result. You can see main and additional colors with 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% saturation inside the sRGB gamut.

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The 2.27 gamma curve almost aligns with the optimal one of 2.2 while the contrast ratio is 1040:1.

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Gaming capabilities (Response time)

We test the reaction time of the pixels with the usual “black-to-white” and “white-to-black” method from 10% to 90% and reverse.

We recorded Fall Time + Rise Time = 22 ms.

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PWM (Screen flickering)

Pulse Width modulation (PWM) is an easy way to control monitor brightness. When you lower the brightness, the light intensity of the backlight is not lowered, but instead turned off and on by the electronics with a frequency indistinguishable to the human eye. In these light impulses the light/no-light time ratio varies, while brightness remains unchanged, which is harmful to your eyes. You can read more about that in our specialized article on PWM.

Our oscilloscope recorded PWM below 60% brightness, which is around 95 cd/m2 but even then, the frequency of the emitted light is extremely high (25 kHz) and will probably affect users only with extra sensitive eyes. If you keep the slider above 60%, though, you don’t have to worry about the PWM.

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Conclusion

The notebook has many strong suits and the screen quality is definitely one of them. The panel provides vivid colors, high contrast and high maximum brightness that makes possible using the laptop outdoors. However, the reflective surface of the screen might pose a bit of a problem. The white point needs some adjusting but that’s not a drawback to be considered. Even the recorded PWM isn’t aggressive and it’s present only below 60% (95 cd/m2) making it perfect of everyday extended use.

Sound

The general quality of the loudspeakers is good but there are slight distortions in the low and high frequencies.

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Specs sheet

The specs sheet provided below applies only for the unit we’ve reviewed and may differ from yours.

CPU Intel Core i7-6500U (2-core, 2.50 – 3.10 GHz, 4MB cache)
RAM up to 8GB (1x 8192MB) – LPDDR3, 1600 MHz
GPU Intel HD Graphics 520
HDD/SSD 256GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD
Display 13.3-inch – 1920×1080 (Full HD) IPS, glossy
Optical drive
Connectivity 2×2 Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1
Features
  • 3x USB-C 3.1 (2x are Gen 2 and support Thunderbolt standard)
  • combo audio jack (microphone/headset)
  • Bang and Olufsen loudspeakers
Battery 4-cell, 38Wh
Thickness 10.4mm (0.41″)
Weight 1.111 kg (2.45 lbs)


Software

The laptop came with pre-installed Windows 10 (64-bit) and that’s what we used for testing. But if you wish to perform a clean install of the OS, you can download all the latest drivers from HP’s official support page.

Battery

The battery life is another thing that has been crippled due to the incredibly thin design. Yes, the notebook still features a small 13.3-inch display along with a ULV (ultra-low voltage) CPU rated at 15W TDP it seems that the folks over at HP couldn’t fit a larger battery pack so they settled for a 38Wh unit. So web browsing runtimes will be exceptionally low compared to other premium offerings on the market.

All the tests were run using the same settings as always – Wi-Fi turned on, Windows battery saving feature switched on and screen brightness set to 120 cd/m2.

Web browsing

In order to simulate real-life conditions, we used our own script for automatic web browsing through over 70 websites.

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Way below average battery performance – 298 minutes (4 hours and 58 minutes).

Watching a movie

For every test like this, we use the same video in HD.

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Interestingly, when it comes to video playback the notebook performed pretty well – 408 minutes (6 hours and 48 minutes).

Gaming

We recently started using F1 2015’s built-in benchmark on loop in order to simulate real-life gaming.

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This test got the most of the battery since it’s the most demanding one – 137 (2 hours and 27 minutes).

CPU – Intel Core i7-6500U

Intel_Core_i7_logo1Intel Core i7-6500U is part of the Skylake generation of processors and it’s positioned in the the ULV lineup (ultra-low voltage), with a 14nm FinFET manufacturing process. It has two cores that support Hyper-Threading technology, resulting in up to 4 threads. The chip is a direct successor to the Core i7-5500U Broadwell CPU – expecting slightly better performance with emphasis on the power efficiency features.

The CPU is clocked at 2.5 GHz and can go up to 3.1 GHz for one active core or 3.0 GHz for two active cores. Also, the silicon includes an Intel HD Graphics 520 iGPU that sports 24 Execution Units ticking at 300 MHz and can go up to 1.05 GHz. The whole SoC supports DDR4-2133/DDR3L-1600 memory in a dual-channel array. So the whole chip is rated at 15W TDP including the memory controller and the integrated graphics, thus making it suitable for 11-inch notebooks or bigger. It also supports the cTDP down feature and the OEM can lower the TDP to 7.5W.

You can browse through our top CPUs ranking: http://laptopmedia.com/top-laptop-cpu-ranking/

Here you will find other useful information and every notebook with this processor that we’ve tested: http://laptopmedia.com/processor/intel-core-i7-6500u/

Fritz

Fritz is a chess benchmark that tests the computing capabilities of the CPU with various chess moves. The Intel Core i7-6500U reached 5.406 million moves per second. By comparison, one of the most powerful chess computers ever, Deep(er) Blue, was able to squeeze out 200 million moves per second. In 1997 Deep(er) Blue even beat the famous Garry Kasparov with 3.5 to 2.5.

GPU – Intel HD Graphics 520

intel_hd_graphicsIntel HD Graphics or also known as GT2 is an integrated graphics processor used in ULV (Ultra-low voltage) chips from intel that are part of the Skylake generation processors. The GT2 core boasts 24 Execution Units (EUs) that are clocked up to 1050 MHz, but the latter can be changed depending on the CPU that’s used in. The graphics processor supports up to DDR3L-1600 or DDR4-2133 RAM and uses two channels for reaching maximum bandwidth.

The revised GPU now supports H.265/HEVC hardware decoding but the most notable feature here is that the chip supports DisplayPort 1.2 while the HDMI support is limited to the older 1.4a. The GPU can support up to three displays simultaneously. The power consumption of the whole chip (along with the CPU and memory controller) is 15W.

You can browse through our top GPUs ranking: http://laptopmedia.com/top-laptop-graphics-ranking/

Here you will find other useful information and every notebook with this GPU that we’ve tested: http://laptopmedia.com/video-card/intel-hd-graphics-520/


Temperatures

This two-staged test doesn’t represent real-life situation since the general user can’t reach 100% CPU and GPU load for longer periods of time but it still a good way to assess the cooling system and the stability of the laptop in the long run.

We started off with 100% CPU load and the maximum Boost frequency immediately dropped down to 2.5 GHz, which is the base frequency of the Core i7-6500U. After a few minutes, the chip started throttling and clocked down to 2.0-2.3 GHz. This means that the chassis and the cooling design of the notebook don’t allow the full utilization of the processor, which was kind of expected given the ultra thin profile. Anyway, a really small number of the ultrabooks we’ve tested so far had throttling issues during the stress test. In fact, during normal use the CPU’s temperatures exceeded 50-60 °C and during load hit 96 °C.

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On contrary to the first phase, the notebook behaved just as we expected. We turned on the GPU stress test to run alongside the CPU torture test and saw the processor dipping down to 1.0 GHz, which is absolutely normal for an ultrabook with a ULV processor without a discrete GPU. This is due to the CPU giving enough headroom for the GPU to perform at its full potential. And thus, the temperature of the CPU cores went down to around 70 °C.

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We’ve also measured the outside temperatures during load and they seem to be pretty normal for an ultrabook under extreme conditions. The chassis got pretty hot near the hinges since the CPU is located there but the palm rest area remained cool throughout the test. Unfortunately, though, we felt the notebook becoming a bit warm during normal use on the bottom, again near the hinges, so if it’s sitting in your lap you may feel a slight discomfort.

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Verdict

If you are looking for a good alternative to the MacBook with more ports for your peripherals and a little bit more horsepower under the hood while still being exceptionally lightweight and thin, the HP Spectre 13 is an ideal choice. However, if you the design is your top priority, be prepared to make some sacrifices along the way. The most notable flaw would be the short browsing runtimes due to the small battery capacity. It seems that engineers at HP couldn’t cram up bigger unit. A great alternative – not so thin, though – would be the XPS 13, which is by far one of the best premium 13-inchers out there. It has its own drawbacks but succeeds where the Spectre 13 fails.

Firstly, the cooling system seems to struggle to keep the Intel Core i7-6500U CPU cooled enough for normal operation and thus fails to utilize the full performance of the chip. It’s around 15 to 25% slower than what you’d expect from this silicon. A considerably lower-priced Acer Aspire S 13, for example, squeezes out 25% better readings in some benchmark tests with the same chip. Unfortunately, the cooling system doesn’t only affect the clock speeds but also struggles to keep up the lower part of the chassis cooled even under normal load.

Secondly, the ports are only USB-C and some users may find it hard to pair all their peripherals and devices using the older generation of USBs. However, HP has included a normal USB dongle and two of the connectors support the Thunderbolt standard and deliver transfer speeds up to 10Gbps. So if needed, you can snatch one of the USB-C hubs so you don’t have to replace your old devices and monitors. And thirdly, there’s no way to open up the notebook by yourself without voiding the warranty. The bottom is held by strong adhesive and if you need to clean or upgrade it, you will have to deal with a professional service.

Despite the above-stated drawbacks, we strongly recommend this laptop if the screen quality, keyboard, touchpad and build quality are of great importance to you. The design is luxurious, appealing but the finish attracts some unwanted fingerprints and smudges. The keyboard is shallow but feels excellent with super-sweet feedback. And the screen will be suitable for your everyday tasks and for multimedia purposes as well. Also, no PWM from 60% brightness and above. But since 60% means around 95 cd/m2, you won’t probably go under that value unless you are in a really dark environment. It’s a glossy screen after all.

You can find all of the available configurations here: http://amzn.to/2ds6uD9

Pros

  • Exceptionally good build quality with stealth piston hinge
  • Incredibly thin (10.4 mm) and light (1.1 kg)
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • Excellent screen quality
  • No PWM used above 60% (95 cd/m2) brightness
  • Two out of three USB-C connectors are Gen 2 and support the Thunderbolt standard
  • The M.2 PCIe NVMe SSD comes as a standard


Cons

  • Low browsing battery runtimes
  • Ineffective cooling system, gets warm under normal load
  • Can’t utilize the full potential of the CPU
  • Only USB Type-C ports
  • Extremely hard to access the storage

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jacques
jacques
6 years ago

i bought a Spectre and there are a few in accuracies in your review. The bottom panel is held in by screws, you need to remove the 2 outer silicone strips to expose them. Only the SSD is upgradeable. HP does include 1 usb-c to type A adapter in the retail version.

Benchmarks are interesting, I thought it would outperform the XPS a bit more convincingly.

Sam
Sam
6 years ago

I recently purchased the newest version of the HP Spectre 13 (i7-7500u) and only after a few weeks, the bottom of my screen/lid started to bend outwards, so when the lid was closed, the lid was curved upwards in the middle when it meets the copper chassis. It’s a small curve but it is definitely noticeable. Did you have a similar issue?

Antonio Romeo Riga
6 years ago
Reply to  Sam

Me too.
Same Problem.
Version with i5.7200u.

Fernando Lagos
Fernando Lagos
5 years ago

Another charger? I think the original charger is so heavy.. do you think of a normal charger (aukey with QC 2.0) works in this laptop??