I was a big fan of Ultrabooks—or at least the concept of Ultrabooks—when they first debuted in 2012. After all, who doesn’t like the idea of sliver-thin laptops that run Windows?
Unfortunately, it seems like the definition of an Ultrabook has since expanded to include any relatively sleek-looking ultraportable laptop—other specs be darned. HP’s latest Spectre XT TouchSmart shows how the definition can stretch in awkward ways. It’s got the look of an ultrabook—and it’s a great look. The touchscreen display is awesome. But the weight puts it closer to a mainstream notebook computer, and it suffers from the shorter battery life (but not the higher performance) of a desktop replacement. It’s a luxe-looking laptop for your living room, which may be all some people want, but it’s not really an Ultrabook.
Ultrabook look with laptop heft
The Spectre XT TouchSmart still (barely) meets Ultrabook standards. It’s under 0.9-inch thick, it’s got an Intel Core i7 processor and an SSD boot drive, and so on. But it weighs in at almost five pounds–4.96, to be precise, which is a half-pound heavier than a 15-inch MacBook Pro. It’s trying hard to be an Ultrabook, but it’s too heavy to qualify.
It sure looks good, though. HP may have dropped the “Envy” moniker from its Spectre line, but this is still an eye-catching computer. The Spectre XT TouchSmart (we reviewed the 15-4010nr model, which starts at $1400) has a brushed-aluminum cover with lightly tapered edges and a soft-touch, rubbery bottom. Inside, the keyboard deck sports the cover’s same brushed-aluminum pattern. The backlit, island-style keyboard sits behind a large glass trackpad.
Large, beautiful touchscreen display
The Spectre’s biggest win is its display, which is a 15.6-inch IPS touchscreen with a native resolution of 1920 by 1080 pixels. The screen looks awesome, with bright, crisp colors, excellent contrast, and decent off-axis viewing angles. The display isn’t quite as bright as I’d like, and the glossiness can cause some issues in bright sunlight, but these are minor issues. This is also one of the best touchscreens I’ve used: it’s responsive, gestures are smooth, and touch is very accurate.
The rest of the Spectre’s input options—that is, the keyboard and the glass trackpad—are also very good. The keyboard’s island-style keys are a tad on the small side, but they offer decent feedback and are easy to type on quickly and accurately. The trackpad is smooth and accurate, if a little overly sensitive at times. Luckily, the trackpad has a small box in the upper left corner that you can use to toggle it on and off.
Surprising shortfalls in performance and playback
General prettiness aside, this Spectre has some problems that I just can’t overlook in an Ultrabook.
First of all, it’s got terrible battery life. In our lab tests, we managed to eke out two hours and 52 minutes worth of battery on HP’s recommended settings. To put this into perspective, most of the Ultrabooks I’ve seen get around five (or more) hours, while most of the desktop replacements I’ve seen get around two and half hours.
It’s not particularly fast, either. While the Spectre does perform fairly well for its class (it scored 61 out of 100 on WorldBench 8), it’s nowhere near desktop-replacement status.
The other real issue I noticed with the Spectre was its audio playback. HP has been working with Beats Audio for some time now to boost the quality of its laptop speakers. For the most part, this partnership has been yielding excellent results. Sound from the Spectre’s native speakers is tinny and grinding, however, with no bass to speak of. It’s actually kind of painful to listen to, and there’s clearly no Beats Audio enhancement at work. The Beats Audio is there—you’ll hear it when you plug headphones into the laptop. But really, don’t even think about playing audio over the laptop’s native speakers.
HP is clearly marketing the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart to the Ultrabook-cool crowd, but it doesn’t quite fit. It looks great when it’s sitting here on my desk—hooked up to external speakers and a power block—but it’s hardly something I’d want to tote around with me on a regular basis. And it would definitely need to have better battery life, speaker quality, and weight before it could really be called an Ultrabook.