It wasn’t that long ago when the idea of a good laptop from HP was little more than a pipe dream. The company has come a long way from the ugly, plasticky designs of a few years ago, and its Spectre line of high-end Windows laptops have been on my shortlist of recommendations for people who are looking for a new computer for some time.
While HP has experimented with a variety of unique designs in the Spectre line, the workhorse of the range has been the Spectre x360, which is available in both 13-inch and 15-inch versions. Late last year, HP announced a refresh of the x360, with the latest processors from Intel and a refreshed exterior design.
I’ve been using the 13-inch model, which starts at $1,149 and sells for $1,349 as tested, for the past few weeks, and I can confidently say it’s HP’s best Spectre x360 yet. It’s also one of the best Windows laptops you can buy right now. But there are still a few areas in need of improvement.
The design of the Spectre x360 hasn’t changed much since the 2016 model. It’s still a 2-in-1 convertible with a 360-degree hinge that allows the display to be flipped behind the keyboard. It still has a 13.3-inch touchscreen display, which you can get in either 1080p or 4K versions. The 1080p model I’ve been testing is extremely bright and nice to look at, and I don’t think it’s necessary to upgrade to 4K at this size.
HP has trimmed the bezels on the left and right of the screen just a tad, but the top and bottom bezels are still gigantic, and they make the Spectre look rather dated compared to the Surface Laptop or Dell’s XPS 13. The screen also has a 16:9 aspect ratio, which feels cramped when browsing the web or doing productivity work compared to the 3:2 or 16:10 displays that are available on other Windows and Apple laptops. HP has released some models in its business line with 3:2 displays. I’m frustrated that it hasn’t brought them over to the consumer line yet.
The fat bezel above the display is home to a Windows Hello-compatible camera for easy facial authentication, and there is a Windows Hello-compatible fingerprint scanner on the deck just below the keyboard. Having both forms of biometric authentication on the same laptop is unusual, but it makes sense here because the Spectre x360 also has a hardware kill switch on the side that will disable the camera entirely for security purposes. If that switch is engaged, you can still log in with the fingerprint scanner. Because the switch fully disables power to the camera, it obviates the need for a clumsy physical shutter or ugly tape to cover the webcam.
The sides of the laptop are where HP made the most changes from prior models. They now have a stylish-looking beveled design that’s quite different from other laptops in this class. In addition to moving the fingerprint scanner to the keyboard deck and adding the camera privacy switch, HP also moved the power button and one Thunderbolt 3 port to the back corners where they are slightly out of the way. This has the benefit of moving the charging cable back (the 13-inch model charges with a USB-C power adapter) and making it harder to accidentally press the power button when picking up the laptop.
But HP got rid of the volume rocker on the side, so if you’re using the x360 in its tablet or tent orientations, the only way to adjust the volume is with Windows 10’s on-screen controls. In addition to the Thunderbolt 3 port in the right corner, there’s a second Thunderbolt 3 port, a 3.5mm headphone jack, and a microSD card slot on the right side and a full-size USB-A port on the left. I’d have loved to have a full-size SD card slot in place of the microSD, but sadly, that’s a rarity for 13-inch laptops at this point.
Flipping the x360 into tablet mode is still as clumsy as ever, and it’s just too heavy to really use as a dedicated tablet, anyway. The tent mode is more useful for the occasional movie watching on a plane, but it’s safe the say that the x360’s traditional hinge is nowhere near as cool or useful as the Spectre Folio’s design.
The Spectre line has long had good keyboards, and the latest x360 is no exception. The keys are evenly backlit, there’s plenty of travel and space between them, and there’s a useful row of cursor control keys on the right side. I don’t think it’s quite as good as the Surface Laptop or Surface Book, but I prefer the x360’s keyboard over the Dell XPS 13 and certainly over the latest MacBook keyboards.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the trackpad. Per usual, the hardware is good — it’s large, smooth, and glassy — but just like every other HP laptop, the trackpad uses crappy Synaptics drivers instead of the far superior Windows Precision drivers every other laptop maker has moved to. That results in poor palm rejection and sluggish performance. The amount of lag from when I initiate a gesture to when the system reacts is infuriating. It’s really a shame that HP has stubbornly stuck with this setup, even after years of reviewers like myself citing it as a problem. It’s not as bad as the Spectre Folio’s virtually unusable trackpad, but it’s certainly not good.
On the flip side, performance from the quad-core 8th Gen Core i7 8565U processor has been great. The x360 doesn’t skip a beat when performing typical productivity tasks. I can be using dozens of tabs in Chrome, multiple virtual workspaces, Slack, Word, mail, Twitter, and more without making the x360 sweat or even kick its fans on. But that doesn’t mean it’s capable of gaming or video editing; it still has integrated graphics, and there isn’t even an option for discrete graphics in the 13-inch model. Discrete GPUs like Nvidia’s MX150 or MX250 are becoming increasingly common in thin-and-light laptops, so it feels like HP is a little behind the curve here.
The Spectre is not behind anything when it comes to battery life, though. HP advertises it as having “the world’s longest battery life in a quad-core convertible,” and while I couldn’t completely check that highly qualified claim, I tend to believe it. The Spectre x360 has no trouble lasting through an entire workday with the display’s brightness set to a comfortable level. Even when I’m using battery-hogging programs like Chrome and Slack, the x360 still manages to go the distance. You can ignore HP’s stated “22.5-hour” battery life, as that’s based on a looping video test, but you can expect to get 10 to 12 hours between charges easily when using it as an actual computer.
HP includes a pen in the box with the x360, which can be used for drawing or inking on the screen. There’s no place to store the pen on the laptop itself, so it can be easily lost, and it feels a bit like an afterthought.
Finally, though this option wasn’t present on my review unit, the Spectre x360 can be configured with built-in LTE connectivity for $150. This is still such a rarity for consumer laptops that it makes me very happy that it’s an option here.
Overall, aside from the trackpad issues, most of my complaints with the Spectre x360 are rather minor. HP has refined and iterated on this computer for four generations now, and changes like the relocated power button and physical camera switch show that the company is listening to criticisms. While I much prefer smaller bezels and a 3:2 aspect ratio screen, the x360’s panel has few actual faults. The same goes for its performance and battery life. You can find laptops with more horsepower under the hood, but you won’t find ones that can last as long between charges.
But a bad trackpad experience can make or break an otherwise very good laptop, and the Spectre x360’s is right on the edge. It’s possible that HP could address the trackpad with a firmware update, but I think the company needs to think long and hard about why it continues to release inferior trackpads when there are much better options available.
Should HP finally figure that out, it could have a near-perfect laptop on its hands.
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