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HP Spectre 13 review: Screen
The Spectre 13 has a 13.3-inch screen. This is our preferred Windows laptop size for a machine intended for 'proper' work on-the-go. You get enough screen space to do justice to complex applications, without the bulk of a 15.6-inch laptop.
It's a 1080p IPS LCD screen that, as mentioned earlier, does not use a touch layer. You'll be using the trackpad 24/7 with this laptop.
A lot of our favourite portable Windows laptops of recent times use matt screens, but in keeping with the glitzy design, the Spectre 13 has a more trendy glossy finish. This means, like a MacBook, it picks up an awful lot of reflections when used outdoors or near a window.
The screen backlight has the brightness needed to compete, though, going up to 365cd/m. We've used the Spectre 13 outdoors on a number of occasions, although we did need to ramp up the brightness much higher than we might with a matt-screen machine.
HP has aimed for the sRGB colour standard with the Spectre 13, which is what gets you natural-looking rather than oversatured colours. It hits a respectable 90 per cent of the sRGB spectrum and 65 per cent of Adobe RGB.
Native contrast is good for an LCD too, at 1300:1.
At the price you can find laptops with even higher resolutions, and deeper colour, but this display is uniformly good or very good in all respects.
HP Spectre 13 review: Performance
One of the most curious parts of the HP Spectre 13 is how it defies expectations with its CPU. In a laptop this thin, we'd expect to see an Intel Core M series chipset. They're tiny, can get by with passive cooling, and offer enough power for general productivity use.
The HP Spectre 13 has an Intel Core i7-6500U. This is still part of Intel's low-voltage range of CPUs, but has access to a few more gears than a Core M chipset.
Matched with 8GB RAM and fast all-SSD storage, the Spectre 13 feels very fast in day-to-day use. Quite how different an experience this is to using any system with a hard drive is a rather sad indictment of Windows 10.
This is still not a workhorse you'd want to replace a recent desktop PC with, but only really because the CPU only has two cores. The limits of its abilities aren't as restrictive as a Core M laptop.
For example, the HP Spectre 13 can just-about handle recent games just a few years old, if you're willing to really pare back the settings. In our usual Thief 720p “low” test benchmark, the laptop managed a just-playable average 23.8fps. Granted, that’s not playable in everyone’s book.
In Alien: Isolation it achieved 37fps average at 720p resolution, low settings. That's a very playable speed. Both tests fell apart as soon as the resolution and visuals were increased, of course, but this is better than you get from most other devices this thin.
It is a shame there's no Intel i7-6650U version of the Spectre 13, though. That CPU uses Intel Iris graphics rather than the bog-standard HD 520 chipset used here. You get get it in the Surface Pro 4, suggesting fitting it in would not be impossible.
Using an Intel i7-6500U also means the Spectre 13 can handle video and photo editing fairly well, although for any professionals out there, we'd only suggest using a machine like this as a backup. You'll want a non-low-voltage quad-core CPU for that sort of work.
In Geekbench the Spectre 13 scores 6894 points, and 2735 in PC Mark 8. This is almost exactly what we saw in the Asus UX303U, which uses the same CPU.
HP has used a decent SSD here too. It can read at 1589MB/s, and writes at 578MB/s.
One of the costs of using an Intel Core i7 rather than an ultra-low power Core M CPU is that the Spectre 13 needs to use fans. It can't get by with a heatsink alone. A light-noise fan runs whenever the laptop is used, while another kicks in whenever the laptop is put remotely under strain.
When playing Thief, for example, it started before we'd even reached the title screen. With a frame this thin it clearly needs to be pre-emptive about its cooling. That step up fan noise is fairly loud for a laptop this dainty, and it may annoy if you're going to be using the Spectre 13 in a quiet environment.
Even with those fans whirring, the Spectre 13 get a little warm even with light use, with a hotspot at the back of the hinge where its heat outlets sit. The TDP of the CPU and the ultra-thin frame have an at times awkward relationship.
HP Spectre 13 review: Sound Quality
One option to combat fan noise: turn on some music. HP uses Bang & Olufsen-branded speakers in the Spectre 13, but they're not hugely impressive, especially when compared with those of the 12in MacBook.
Several parts of this laptop seems to have had special attention lavished on them, but the speakers are much like some of the other Bang & Olufsen laptops. Some sound causes mid-range distortion at top volume, and the tone is slightly thin.
These aren't dreadful speakers, and they could be a lot worse given how thin the Spectre 13 is. But the MacBooks still lead the pack in this area, by some distance.
HP Spectre 13 review: Battery Life
The other risky part of the HP Spectre 13 is battery life. While Core i7 CULV-series laptops are efficient, they can still draw more power than a Core M machine.
Sure enough, the Spectre 13's stamina is good but not standard-setting. When used out and about as a work computer, for writing and browsing, we found it lasts for six and a half hours. That’s not quite enough for a day's work for most people, and is a slightly worse than some of Asus’s cheaper ZenBook rivals.
Playing back a locally-stored video at 120cd/m screen brightness, the HP Spectre 13 lasts eight hours 55 minutes. This is almost dead-on HP’s claims, although we have noticed that battery level can drop much quicker as soon as it’s under any sort of significant strain. If you’re just browsing and start to hear a louder fan whir, it is time to head to the Task Manager to see what’s up or you won’t see anything like this performance.
Battery life is not one of the Spectre 13’s strongest suits, but that’s not surprise given its frame and CPU.
HP Spectre 13: Specs
- 13.3in (1920 x 1080) 165dpi, IPS LCD glossy
- 2.5GHz to 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-6500U two cores, four threads
- Intel HD 520 GPU
- 8GB RAM DDR3-1866
- 512GB SSD
- 802.11b/g/n/ac 2x2
- Bluetooth 4.0
- 2 USB-C Thunderbolt 3.0
- 1 USB-C/power socket
- stereo speakers
- Webcam, single mic
- 3.5mm headset jack
- UK tiled keyboard
- 38Wh lithium-ion battery
- 325 x 229 x 10.4mm
- 1.1 kg
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