9.5

HP Spectre x360 15-inch (2017) Review: The Best Windows Convertible is Bigger and Better

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HP Spectre x360 15-inch (2017) Review: The Best Windows Convertible is Bigger and Better

When we reviewed HP’s refreshed 13-inch Spectre x360 late last year with its nearly bezel-free 13-inch display, we thought it was the Windows 10 convertible to beat thanks to futureproof specs like Thunderbolt 3 ports, a powerful Intel 7th generation Kaby Lake processor and its wallet-friendly price point.

Unfortunately for the excellently rated 13-inch Spectre, it’s reign at the top of the laptop world has been cut short; HP managed to outdo itself with a larger 15-inch version of the Spectre x360, which now holds the title of the convertible to beat for its performance, design and value.

“Our job is to make decisions and tradeoffs on behalf of the customer,” Mike Nash, HP Vice President Consumer PC & Solutions, Printing and Personal Systems Group, told me in a meeting. The good news, I found out, is that HP made no compromises when designing the Spectre x360 15-inch. While the 13-inch variant was sorely missing a 4K screen, the 15-inch version only comes with a 4K display, and pen support is now back in full force to prepare for Microsoft’s release of the Windows 10 Creator’s Edition upgrade this spring.

To appeal to creative professionals, HP pulled a major surprise with the 15-inch Spectre x360 that will surely delight this target audience: it included discrete graphics.

Like the 15-inch MacBook Pro ($2,799) that it competes against, the Spectre x360 packs in a machined aluminum body with a high resolution touchscreen, yet HP’s model comes with an even newer Intel processor architecture and costs nearly $1,000 less. It includes a touchscreen, like Surface Book ($2,699), but comes with a more spacious 15-inch display at $1,200 cheaper.

Design

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Originally unveiled in January at CES, the 15-inch Spectre x360 carries the same design DNA as its smaller 13-inch sibling. With a machined metal body, this convertible laptop is as visually stunning as it is durable.

Our 15-inch review unit comes in an “Ash Silver” hue, but the color looks more like burnt copper. The left and right side edges of the laptop is finished with polished gold trimming, and the combination is simply stunning.

I really love the color and design of this notebook. On a desk, the Spectre feels more like decorative art than a piece of technology, and even though metal is cold to the touch, the darker color makes the laptop feel warm and inviting to hold.

However, unlike our silver 13-inch Spectre x360, the finish here is more likely to show fingerprints and smudges. Also, the polished gold edges are prone to scratching. The biggest downside with the Ash Silver finish on the 15-inch model is that it scratches easily—I was working with the laptop on a concrete bench, and the hinge and back of the bottom side of the laptop showed serious scuffs when I lifted up the notebook.

Coupled with a larger display size, the machined aluminum design makes the laptop weighty, coming in at a hefty 4.42 pounds—0.4 pounds heavier than Apple’s 15-inch notebook. However, the weight gives the laptop a reassuringly solid feel. The Spectre feels dense, and you won’t feel any creaks when carrying it or typing on the keyboard.

Even though the weight feels balance, you’ll need two hands to open the laptop, which reveals a nearly bezel-free display. HP has outfitted the Spectre x360 with a 15.6-inch 4K screen that supports multitouch and pen—an N-Trig-based active pen is included in the box—and the bonded glass IPS display is bright and gorgeous.

That 360-degree hinge is solid, allowing you to convert the Spectre x360 into a variety of use modes: laptop, tent, display and tablet. The downside with a larger display is that the weight will cause the screen to wobble when using the Spectre on a bumpy train commute.

By slimming down the bezels, this year’s 15-inch model feels more like a 14-inch laptop. The bezels are 70 percent slimmer than last year, which means the 2017 edition will occupy a smaller footprint on your desk or in a bag. The notebook measures just 14 × 9.88 × 0.7 inches. When compared against its rivals, HP claims that the Spectre’s bezels are 40 percent smaller than the MacBook Pro and 18 percent slimmer than the Dell XPS 15.

Battery Life

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HP claims you’ll get 12.75 hours of use with the Spectre x360 15-inch, which makes battery life competitive against the MacBook Pro and Surface Book. In real world use, I found HP’s claims to to be largely true. Although I didn’t achieve 12.75 hours, I managed to squeeze in a comfortable 9 hours of mixed use, so the Spectre x360 should comfortably last through an entire work day without requiring a charger.

To achieve this long battery life on the Spectre with its bright 4K display, HP made a conscious decision to increase the thickness of the Spectre x360 by 1.9mm compared to last year’s model. This allows the Spectre to accommodate a 23 percent larger 80Whr battery, and slimmer side bezels means that the laptop is still compact enough to slip into a bag despite its girthier dimension. Even if you need to top off during the day, HP’s Fast Charge is a technology that is unmatched by its competitors, allowing you to get 50 percent of your battery juiced up in as little as 30 minutes with the included 90W USB Type-C charger.

From my experience, HP has found the right balance of form and function in a market that is trending toward thinner devices with less battery life.

Dongle-Free and Futureproof

While Apple went all in with its Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C ports, HP is offering more flexibility to customers by including support for legacy peripherals. It’s a decision that I welcome, as this means that I won’t have to spend additional money to buy dongles and adapters. I also won’t need to remember to pack the dongles when traveling.

“We wanted to give variety to creators,” said Bonnie Jiang, HP’s Product Manager for the Spectre x360, in addressing the Spectre x360’s variety of ports. The notebook comes with a USB Type-A port, combo audio jack, power button and SD card reader on the left polished gold edge. On the right edge, you’ll find a volume rocker, Thunderbolt 3 port and a USB Type-C port. There are vents for the fan on both sides of the laptop, and either the Thunderbolt 3 or USB Type-C port can be used to recharge the notebook.

As a photographer, I appreciated the return of the SD card reader on the 15-inch model—it was omitted on the late 2016 13-inch Spectre.

Display

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To create a crisper display, the Spectre now no longer uses a PenTile-based screen. The 4K panel is crisp and sharp, and the Panel Self Refresh technology helps conserve battery life.

With 72 percent Adobe RGB color accuracy, the display is good, but not the most color accurate. The Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book offer more accurate displays, I found, but compared to OLED panels, colors are more balanced, without overly punchy saturation, on the Spectre. Viewing angles are wide, and at 340 nits of brightness, the screen is easily viewable indoors without glare issues thanks to the directly-bonded screen. Outdoors under bright sunlight, the Spectre x360 struggled a bit. In general, you won’t find much to complain about the display.

Keyboard

There is only one word to describe the keyboard experience on the Spectre x360 15-inch: joy. The Spectre x360 15-inch is the closest thing your fingers will get to keyboard nirvana.

The 1.5mm of key travel, compared to 1.3mm on the smaller 13-inch Spectre, matches the Surface Book’s keyboard, and this is easily one of the most comfortable keyboards I’ve used on a consumer notebook. The typing experience easily rivals that of business laptops, with full sized keys, proper spacing and plenty of key travel.

All this boils down to ergonomics, and it means you won’t experience the same finger fatigue when typing on flatter keyboards, like the one found on Apple’s MacBook series.

There are only two minor gripes that I have with the keyboard, however. The first is that even though the backlight is not adjustable. The second complaint is that HP added a column of navigation keys to the right edge of the keyboard. While the navigation keys are useful for going over longer documents, touch typists will likely need some time to adjust to the extra keys, as it makes the keyboard shift over to the left slightly.

Overall, once I adjusted to the column of navigation keys, typing has been a pure pleasure. The keyboard is clicky and responsive, but it’s also dampened enough to not be distracting when taking notes during a meeting. The only thing that HP could have added from its enterprise laptops to make the Spectre x360’s keyboard even better is waterproofing, in case you spill coffee or water at your desk. Short of that, you won’t find a better laptop keyboard for home use at this time.

Trackpad

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The Synaptics trackpad that HP employed on the Spectre x360 is spacious. Like Apple, HP decided to outfit its notebook with a larger trackpad, but unlike the recent MacBook Pro models, the Spectre’s laptop is bigger in width, and not in height.

The larger surface area of the trackpad means you won’t need to move your hands away from the keyboard when switching from typing to scrolling, and I found that the bigger size is great for multi-gesture support. The smooth surface on the trackpad feels like glass—I am not sure what material is employed—and makes the experience very pleasing. Tracking was accurate—I didn’t notice any cursor jumps. The trackpad has a nice, thin gold-colored frame around the edges to give it a cohesive look with the rest of the Spectre’s design aesthetics.

Specifications

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The Spectre x360 15-inch packs all the punches of much more expensive notebooks, but at a significantly more affordable price and in a more stylish package than its rivals. The Spectre is powered by Intel’s latest 7th Generation Kaby Lake architecture, and our $1,499 configuration ships with a Core i7 processor clocked at 2.7GHz, which goes up to 3.5GHz with TurboBoost technology. There is 16GB RAM and a 512GB hard drive.

HP also offers a similar configuration with a more capacious 1TB SSD for $1,699. If you’re on a budget, a $1,279 option cuts down the memory to 8GB and storage to 256GB. All configurations ship with an N-Trig Active Pen and comes with discrete Nvidia 940MX graphics support, giving it Surface Book-like computing capabilities.

The HP pen ships with a AAAA battery and the two side buttons can be configured using software. Unlike Microsoft’s Surface Pen, HP’s pen doesn’t require Bluetooth pairing—pairing on Microsoft’s pen is needed to quickly launch OneNote by pushing the top button.

I found that you can use the Surface Pen on the Spectre, and HP’s pen works fine on the Surface Book. HP’s pen offers a very responsive experience, but I found that coupling HP’s pen to HP’s notebook offers better tracking precision than using Microsoft’s pen on the Spectre.

If you prefer to take handwritten notes, like to sketch or draw or like using a digital canvas for your creative work, the Spectre x360 is a compelling and even more affordable alternative to Microsoft’s Surface Book.

Performance

With a newer Intel processor than both Apple’s MacBook Pro 15-inch and Microsoft’s Surface Book, performance of the Spectre x360 15-inch is top-notch. HP’s laptop is no slouch when it comes to processing speeds, thanks its use of Intel’s 7th Generation Kaby Lake architecture and plenty of RAM. The Spectre uses a dual-core processor, and a quad-core option isn’t available, limiting this notebook’s potential to serve as a mobile workstation replacement.

In my use, the Spectre whizzed through most of my computing workflow with aplomb, and the notebook is capable at handling most tasks I threw its way. Web browsing, video watching, working in Microsoft Office and even creative work with Adobe Creative Suite did not slow down the system. I was able to do video editing with Premiere and photo editing using Lightroom and Photoshop without any hiccups, and the system feels just as responsive as my pricier Surface Book.

If you’re a gamer or looking into virtual reality applications, you may want to wait or look elsewhere. The Nvidia 940MX GPU, although capable, isn’t VR-ready. I found games played fine with some of the display and frame rate settings turned down, but heavy gamers will likely want to look at dedicated gaming notebooks, like HP’s OMEN series.

Home users, casual gamers, office workers and those looking for a stylish mobile setup that doesn’t compromise on performance will find plenty to love about the Spectre, and the surprise inclusion of discrete graphics is a delight that adds a bit more power to Intel’s top of the line dual-core notebook-class processor.

The notebook scored 2,903 on PCMark’s test, which seems low given the 3,354 points earned by the 13-inch model we reviewed. Both models share a similar Kaby Lake Core i7 processor, and I found real world performance between both Spectre notebooks to be very similar.

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Using Geekbench 4, benchmarked performance of the Spectre x360 is consistent with other top-of-the-line consumer notebooks, and the single-core and multi-core results match or bested its competition. The single-core result of 4,100 is consistent with Microsoft’s Core i7 Surface Book and slightly better than the Apple MacBook Pro, but the 8.022 multi-core score shows a bigger improvement than the 7,502 points generated by the Surface Book and the 7,798 points posted from Apple’s laptop.

Graphics performance gets interesting when comparing the Nvidia 940MX against other GPU options on the market using Geekbench 4 tests. The Spectre x360 scored lower than the Surface Book Performance Edition’s GTX 965M GPU with both the CUDA and OpenCL tests. Performance of the 940M is actually more in line with Intel’s integrated Iris Pro graphics on the company’s 6th Generation Skylake processor.

From this perspective, you’re not really getting much of a boost with discrete graphics, and likely HP threw in Nvidia’s GPU because Iris Pro integrated graphics isn’t ready for Intel’s 7th Generation Kaby Lake processor. The alternatives would be to go Apple’s route and release the Spectre x360 15-inch with an older Skylake CPU and Iris Pro graphics, or to have weaker integrated Intel HD graphics—like the 13-inch model—with Kaby Lake’s processor architecture. I wish HP went with Dell’s route on the XPS 15 and offered Nvidia’s newer VR-ready GTX 1050 or better graphics.

The benefit of a smaller GPU is that the Spectre x360 manages to stay very cool even under heavy workloads. Most of the heat generated by the laptop can be felt in the center area right above the keyboard and on top of the speaker grills to the sides of the keyboard. The rest of the surfaces remained cool, so I didn’t have any problems with heat, even when using the laptop on my lap.

Audio

Unlike its smaller 13-inch sibling, the 15-inch Spectre comes with two speakers, rather than four. Jiang claims that the decision allowed HP to stuff larger drivers into the 15-inch model, leading to louder volumes and cleaner sounds.

I found this claim to be accurate, and the Bang & Olufsen-tuned speakers delivered clear audio with minimal distortion even at high volumes. Mids and highs sound good, but I wish Bang & Olufsen did more work to give bass and lows a punchier response without sounding over-engineered. As it sounds, the decision to drive cleaner, more pristine audio leaves bass sounding a bit flat. That being said, this is a common problem with most small speakers found on laptops, and certainly isn’t an exclusive note for the Spectre.

Camera

HP placed its FHD resolution web camera up top. This means that the laptop doesn’t benefit from the same bezel-free screen treatment at the top, and the design is less dramatic than what Dell has done on its XPS 15 laptop. However, function trumps form here, and the placement of the webcam means that you will appear more natural for video conferencing calls, whereas the bottom placement of the camera on Dell’s unit results in up-the-nose angles.

There is also a second IR camera on top, which works in tandem with the FHD webcam for Windows Hello login. When enabled, this allows you to log into your system and quickly switch between user profiles without having to enter a password or PIN, resulting in a more secure computing experience with frictionless security. I found performance to be fast the more you train the camera, and the experience is on par with what I am used to with Microsoft’s Surface Book hardware.

A dual-array microphone setup helps with voice clarity for VoIP calls, video conferencing and voice recognition. The microphones work well with voice commands when using the Cortana digital assistant on Windows 10.

Verdict

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Delivering Surface Book level performance at more than $1,000 cheaper, the price and competitive specs of the Spectre x360 15-inch make it an unrivaled convertible. It’s a laptop with few—if any—compromises, and owners of the Spectre will find a lot to love about the notebook.

The precision engineered machine aluminum design, attractive color combination, powerful and futureproof hardware specs, Active Pen support, pleasurable keyboard experience and gorgeous 4K display with a smooth 360-degree hinge make this a top laptop and convertible choice in our books.

The only thing that I’d like to see HP offer in the future is a Performance Model of the Spectre x360 15-inch with a quad-core Kaby Lake processor, similar to the one employed by Dell’s XPS 15, along with a more modern GPU that supports VR gaming. That said, the XPS is strictly notebook and won’t allow you to write on it nor will it convert to a tablet.

Other than that, you’d be hard pressed to find any fault with HPs design decisions when it comes to the 15-inch Spectre x360. The Spectre x360 15-inch comes highly recommended, and so far it’s the laptop to beat this year. Few companies will be able to deliver a product with as many compelling features at HP’s price point.

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