One of the reasons people attend Microsoft's BUILD developer conference is the fantastic attendee give-away each year. In year's past, attendees have received things like Xbox One and Surface tablets. This year, Microsoft supplied the HP Spectre x360 2-in-1 to each and every attendee. I've been hammering away at our HP contacts for a couple months to try and at least get a review unit, but the company has only been attentive sporadically, answering a single email here or there seemingly on a whim.
Here's what we received from Microsoft at BUILD 2015:
HP Spectre x360 model 13t-4000
Intel i5, 2.20 GHz
8 GB RAM
128GB flash solid state drive
Weight: 3.26 lbs
First off, remember that I'm an avid Surface Pro 3 user. I've bought into the complete Surface ecosystem, using the dock with multiple monitors, external keyboard and mouse, and several connected gadgets. This setup allows me to sit at a desk during the day, but be highly mobile and untethered the rest of the time. The Surface Pro 3 has been a trusted traveling companion for the last year or so and I thought I'd never replace it until the Surface Pro 4 was available. I was uniquely interested to see if the Spectre could at least be comparable to the Surface Pro 3 for traveling. So, for the first time in over a year, I left the Surface Pro 3 at home during my recent trip to Microsoft Ignite. Here's what I found…
The Spectre is a solidly built machine – more like a laptop than a tablet. And, that's not a bad thing. Compared to the Surface Pro 3 it's noticeably heavier and only slightly thicker, but, the brushed aluminum casing makes it feel extra dense. I've not seen any drop reports, nor do I want to test it myself, but the 2-in-1 feels like it could take a bump or two.
I said that the Spectre is slightly thicker than the Surface Pro 3, but the real value of this unit (which I'll get to later) is as a laptop. As a laptop, the Spectre is incredibly thin. Compared to the most recently released Macbook, the Spectre sits at 3.26 lbs and 0.63 inches while the Macbook sits at 3.48 lbs and 0.71 inches.
The Spectre has plenty of port options. It comes with 1 SD card reader slot, 1 HDMI port, 3 USB 3.0 ports, and 1 MiniDisplay port. Again comparing the Spectre to the Surface Pro 3 and the Macbook, the more ports you can fit in such a thin space, the better. When I travel, I rarely take advantage of more than a single port, maybe two at a time, so this is not a huge plus for me, just nice to know that HP has provided additional functionality should the need arise.
There are only a couple dings I've given the Spectre, one is with the touchscreen responsiveness (described later) and the other is for the pen support. With the Surface Pro 3 I'm always ready to jot notes down. The pen comes with it and I actually used it a lot more than I originally thought I might. It's a great option to have, particularly with a tablet.
The Spectre has full pen support, but only for HP's own Active Pen, which is a separate $60 purchase. But, to be honest, with the amount of time I'm spending with the Spectre, I'm seriously considering grabbing one.
There's a couple really obvious standouts for the Spectre. The screen (I talk about that next), battery life (covered in a little bit) and the TrackPad. HP has done an amazing job providing a TrackPad that I actually don't mind. I've never been a fan of TrackPads at all, and in fact, I'm still not. But, HP has built one that makes it less cumbersome and less despicable and despite some rough spots getting used to it has proved to work great. The reason it's better, I think, is the size. The Spectre's TrackPad is roughly half the size of the keyboard, making it harder to deliver erroneous taps and easier to find the elusive mouse right-click. It supports Windows 8.1 gestures, allowing you to swipe right and left to pull up menus for Windows and Windows apps. These are turned off by default for some reason, but the Synaptics control panel makes it easy to configure. In fact, there are so many customizable options for the Synaptics driver, you can almost make the TrackPad do anything you want.
It's amazing to me how a great screen can improve your whole computing experience. The Spectre's screen is so bright and clear it makes the Surface Pro 3's screen (which is no slouch at all) look cloudy and incoherent. The Spectre's screen is just incredible. During both BUILD 2015 and Microsoft Ignite I used the Spectre to catch up on The Flash and Marvel's Agents of Shield over Hulu Plus. I normally do this with the Surface Pro 3 when traveling, but the Spectre screen output was far and away just a much better experience.
However, despite the stellar screen output, the Spectre seems to have slight issues as a touchscreen. The Surface Pro 3's touchscreen capability is spot-on and responsive, but the Spectre seems to suffer from what I'll call "tap-lag." I have to tap two, sometimes three times before the touchscreen recognizes my intent to open a Windows 8.1 app. Finger scrolling the Windows 8.1 Start screen works fine, it's just getting the Spectre to understand that I want to actually launch an app is where the trouble happens. And, good luck getting the Windows 8.1 side-swipe menus to show up at will. That takes a couple attempts sometimes, too.
HP touts 12 hours battery life for the Spectre x360. And, while I might agree it could potentially achieve that just surfing the web or streaming video, it's actually much less when doing actual work. Running around Microsoft Ignite in Chicago, I was able to go all day long without having to scramble to find a power outlet. From my experience and the way I used the device, I was regularly getting the Spectre battery to last 6 hours or more without a charge. That's pretty phenomenal.
What makes the Spectre unique is that it is a 2-in-1 device, meaning using a special hinge it can be used in laptop mode, tablet mode, stand mode, and tent mode. Lenovo innovated the hinge design, but HP has gone a step further and created a hinge that is solid, smooth, and looks like it's actually part of the overall device design.
The Spectre x360 is a phenomenal device. I would gladly purchase this thing on my own in a heartbeat. The 2-in-1 hinge feature makes it a great laptop that can do other things. And, depending on your needs, the Spectre comes with enough RAM to run Virtual Machines and disk space to store them. The unit I received came with standard Windows 8.1 and not Windows 8.1 Pro (which is required to run Hyper-V), so I had to upgrade the license.
Based on my experiences with the touchscreen lag it actually makes a much better laptop than a tablet. As a laptop it's a perfect purchase. Something that really shocked me was that the Spectre turned out to be more "lapable" than the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft promotes the Surface Pro 3 as a "lapable" device that is a tablet able to replace your laptop. If the touchscreen were only a bit more responsive, HP could use the reverse logic and tout the Spectre as the laptop that can replace your tablet.
The Spectre x360 starts at $899. Based on the battery life, excellent screen, and handy TrackPad it's highly recommended for those looking to get into the 2-in-1 crowd and anyone wanting to invest now in preparation for the Windows 10 upgrade.
So, now you're probably wondering – is the Spectre x360 capable of replacing my Surface Pro 3? Not completely, but I've taken to using the Spectre quite a bit, leaving the Surface Pro 3 sitting on my desk alone at times. And, to be honest, if it weren't for the investment I've made into the Surface ecosystem (that I mentioned in the beginning of this review) I'd feel more comfortable using the Spectre all the time. I can live with the tap-lag – it's not annoying enough to keep me away. I'm just hoping that Microsoft does some great things with the Surface Pro 4, or I may eventually decide to shift to the Spectre x360 (or one of its future, improved siblings) completely.
P.S. There is one potential gotcha, though. It could be nothing, but I believe worth highlighting. I've been using the Spectre constantly for over a week and like any device I carry I treat it with kid gloves. Despite my conscious babying of the 2-in-1, the fan has started to make a whining noise in the last couple days. This is not the normal sound of a fan, but the sound of a fan that could have become unleveled, or captured some dust or other foreign substance. I've blown the fan compartment with compressed air but the noise still exists. I hope that this is not a flaw in HP's design. I'm going to call support soon to see what can be done about it.
UPDATE 1: I spoke with HP yesterday, and they suggested that there's a newer video driver that may fix the touchscreen lag issue. I'll be testing that soon. Also, they have promised to replace my unit to fix the fan issue, as this is not a commonly reported problem.
UPDATE 2 (May 20): I have received my replacement unit. Interestingly, the models given to BUILD 2015 attendees was a special configuration created just for Microsoft. Its much the same as the retail model, except the BUILD version has a smaller hard drive (120GB). My replacement is the retail version which has a 250GB hard drive. Obviously, replacing the unit completely solves the fan issue, but even after driver and firmware updates, the new unit still suffers from the screen lag. HP still believes it's not a hardware issue and can be fixed with software. We'll have to wait and see how quickly a fix can become available.
UPDATE 3 (May 29): As of today, I am still opting to use the Spectre for travel. I will be attending HP Discover shortly and will be carrying this unit with my - by choice. I am still very much enamored with it. One issue I've found with my replacement unit, is that it doesn't work with Miracast, while my original unit did. HP is researching.