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November 30, 2017

HP Spectre x360 13 (Late 2017) Review

by John_A

Research Center:
HP Spectre x360 13-ae002xx

HP’s Spectre x360 13 has been our favorite convertible 2-in-1 for a while, taking the prize in our “Best 2-in-1s” list as the best for notebook use. The late 2016 model offered the best combination of performance, battery life, display quality, and price, and the early 2017 refresh added in active pen support and a new Dark Ash Silver with Copper accents color scheme. Now, coinciding with Intel’s introduction of its eighth-generation Core processors, HP has refreshed the line once again. Our HP Spectre x360 13 review looks at the latest model to see if it maintains its special place in our hearts.

Our review unit was equipped with a Core i7-8550U, 13.3-inch Full HD (1,920 x 1,080 or 166 PPI) display, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB solid-state disk (SSD). It’s priced at $1,250, including the active pen and the Natural Silver color scheme. Meanwhile, you can also choose the Core i5-8250U model to save an extra $100. When maxed out, the Spectre x360 13 costs $1,820 for the same CPU, 16GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD, a 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160 or 331 PPI), and either the Dark Ash Silver or brand-new Pale Rose Gold color scheme.

With the higher configurations, these prices break the Spectre x360 13 into premium notebook territory. The question is, did HP bake in enough improvements to keep the machine at the top of the bunch?

A thin and beautiful frame that’s just the slightest bit bendy

HP didn’t change much in the Spectre x360 13’s structural design, shaving off just a sliver of thickness (to 0.54 inches) and reducing the weight from 2.85 pounds to 2.78 pounds. The bezels were also thinned out a fraction of a millimeter to compete with the thin bezels and small footprint of laptops like the Dell XPS 13. While it doesn’t quite beat it, the Spectre x360 does thumb its nose at the XPS 13 by keeping the webcam above the display where it belongs.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

Overall, that makes the new design one of the thinnest and lightest convertible 2-in-1s, just a bit more petit than the 13.3-inch Lenovo Yoga 720 (0.60 inches and 2.9 pounds). The slightly wider 13.9-inch Lenovo Yoga 920 is just a hair thinner at 0.50 inches, but it’s also a bit heavier at 3.09 pounds. And then the Asus ZenBook Flip S beats them all at 0.43 inches and 2.42 pounds.

Making something thinner sometimes results in a bit less structural rigidity, and that’s the case with the Spectre x360 13. It’s very well-built, with zero creakiness and a rock-solid keyboard deck, but the lid and bottom give just the slightest bit under pressure. It’s not enough to cause concern about the machine’s longevity, but it also doesn’t boast the tank-like rigidity of the Yoga 920.

The Spectre x360 13 zips through everyday tasks with ease.

One area where the Spectre x360 13 does match the Yoga 920 is in the hinge. While HP’s version doesn’t possess the sheer mechanical beauty of Lenovo’s watchband hinge, it’s nevertheless just as smooth and it holds the display just as firmly in the preferred location — in whatever mode, be it clamshell, media, presentation, or tablet.

Aesthetically, the Spectre x360 13 also received a bit of a makeover. Most noticeably, the rear edges have been diamond-cut, providing some angles that catch the light better than the previous model’s rounded edges. Then venting underneath the display has also been streamlined, giving it a futuristic look. These are subtle change, but the result is a stunning notebook that stands out without being ostentatious — unless you pick the glitzy Pale Rose Gold color scheme.

Meagre but high-performance connectivity

Connectivity remains similar to the previous model, with a single USB-A 3.1 port and two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 support. The latter means that the Spectre x360 13 can connect to external GPU enclosures to provide for more powerful gaming options, along with the ability to connect to a greater array of monitors and high-speed peripherals. Either USB-C port can be used to power the notebook via the included charger.

HP also added in a new micro-SD card reader to support the needs of photographers and videographers, and of course the usual 3.5mm audio jack is on hand. The Spectre x360 13’s connectivity is matched well with the Yoga 920 in terms of USB, but outdoes it by including an SD slot. That’s at least one dongle you won’t need on the Spectre x360.

Wireless connectivity includes 2×2 MU-MIMO Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2. Overall, connectivity is relatively meager in terms of the sheer number of ports, but the dual Thunderbolt 3 USB-C connections are high performance and futureproof. If nothing else, the Spectre x360 shines compared to the single USB-C port found on the Yoga 720 and 12-inch MacBook.

Today, this level of connectivity is to be expected on thinner machines; ironically, stepping down to thicker budget notebooks can result in a more robust set of ports.

Mostly excellent input, with only the touchpad holding things back

The Spectre x360 13 retains the mostly excellent input options of the previous model, with only a few updates. The keyboard remains unchanged, retaining the same excellent key travel, comfortable bottoming action, and overall snappiness. The Yoga 920 and 720 have similar keyboards, and they’re fine. However, we found the Spectre x360 13’s keyboard to be even more tactile and precise, which should serve the fast touch typists a bit better. It’s also uniformly backlit, but it only has one brightness setting.

The Spectre x360 13 retains the mostly excellent keyboard of the previous model.

The touchpad is also unchanged, offering a reasonably sized wide format that matches the display’s 16:9 aspect ratio. Unfortunately, it continues to utilize Synaptic drivers rather than conforming to the Microsoft Precision Touchpad protocol, which offers better responsiveness on machines like the Dell XPS 13 and Microsoft Surface Book 2. As such, the Spectre x360 13’s touchpad is just okay, with gesture support that was serviceable but not as responsive as it could have been.

The touch display, on the other hand, was quite responsive during our testing and provided just the right amount of friction. Touch is the preferred method of input when using the Spectre x360 as HP’s stylus isn’t quite as sensitive as you’d hope.

The updated “active pen” provides 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity, which isn’t terrible, but doesn’t quite measure up to the 4,096 levels on offer by the Yoga 920 and Surface Pro. It feels fine for navigating around the UI and taking notes, but might not provide the kind of detail needed for more creative endeavors. In addition, there’s no way to attach the pen to the notebook, which is an inconvenience and makes losing the pen that much more probable. You’ll have to leverage the pen holder in the included carrying case to keep your pen handy.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

On the plus side, the active pen adds a number of new features that helped us overlook some of its problems. HP added in tilt support, a customizable button, an eraser, and a gyroscope that lets it function as a sort of “laser pointer” for presentations. All are welcome additions to a pen that was a bit basic. Interestingly, HP also engineered in a rechargeable battery, with a USB-C charging port that’s accessible by pulling up on the eraser portion.

Windows 10 Hello support is provided by two biometric mechanisms. The infrared cameras and facial recognition are brought over from the previous model, and HP also added in a very slim fingerprint reader along the right side. We found both methods fast and accurate.

The Full HD display takes a step backward, but is still serviceable

Our review unit was equipped with a 13.3-inch Full HD display, which was one of three options. You can also choose a Full HD display with the same HP Sure View privacy screen first introduced in the EliteBook x360 G2, or a 4K UHD (3,840 x 2,160 or 331 PPI) display. Full HD is the baseline for premium notebooks today, and so it’s good to see some more advanced options on offer.

According to our colorimeter, the Spectre x360 13’s display is decidedly average. Brightness was good at 301 nits, which is strong enough to outshine all but the brightest ambient lighting. Contrast was mediocre for today’s premium notebooks, however, at 770:1 at full brightness. Strangely, the previous generation’s Full HD display managed a stronger 910:1 contrast ratio, compared to the 880:1 of Yoga 920 and the 600:1 of Yoga 720.

Colors were also average, at 71 percent of AdobeRGB and 94 percent of sRGB, with a color accuracy of 2.91 (less than 1.0 is considered excellent). Again, the previous generation was much stronger at 75 percent and 99 percent, respectively, and with a much better 1.44 accuracy score. The Yoga 920 was again a bit stronger and the Yoga 720 was a bit weaker, placing the Spectre x360 13 right in the middle of the pack. HP hasn’t provided an explanation for the slight drop in quality, but we noticed average performance out of the company’s choice of display on the Spectre 13 a well.

HP Spectre x360 13-ae002xx Compared To

Lenovo Yoga 720 13-inch

HP EliteBook X360 G2

Dell XPS 13 2-in-1

HP Spectre x360 13-w023dx

Vaio Z Flip

Acer Aspire R13

Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro

Toshiba Satellite Click 2 Pro

Acer Travelmate X313

HP Spectre 13t x2

Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro

Toshiba Satellite Click

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13

HP ProBook 5330m

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge

In subjective testing, the Spectre x360 13 display was a better experience then these colorimeter results would indicate — at least in certain situations. General productivity tasks and web browsing were both very good, with solid text on white backgrounds and good enough colors. Video, on the other hand, was darker than it should be, likely thanks to a relatively poor gamma of 2.6.

Strong audio that’s great for watching movies

Audio duties are performed by a set of Bang & Olufsen speakers running along the keyboard deck below the display. We found volume to be sufficiently loud for a medium sized room with a surprising amount of clarity.

There’s even some stereo separation, mostly apparent when watching movies and providing a better sense of where the action is happening on-screen. Music is fine for the occasional listen, with decent midrange and highs but the usual weak bass.

Excellent productivity performance, and then some

The Spectre x360 13 is equipped with the latest quad-core eighth-generation Intel Core i7-8550U processor that’s showing up in a number of refreshed machines toward the end of 2017. It’s an excellent mobile CPU that promises great high-end performance and power-sipping efficiency for lighter productivity tasks.

Once again, eighth-generation dominates. The Spectre x360 13 scored a very competitive 4,882 in the Geekbench 4 single-core test and 14,135 in the multi-core test. That compares to the very quick Yoga 920 at 4,683 and 14,566 respectively. The scores obliterate seventh-generation systems, including the Asus ZenBook Flip S that scored 4,142 and 8,158 respectively.

In the more demanding Handbrake test, which encodes a 420MB video to H.265 and stresses the CPU for a longer timeframe, the Spectre x360 13 took a competitive 723 seconds to complete the process. The Yoga 920 was faster at 613 seconds, while the previous generation Spectre x360 with its Core i7-7500U took 1,095 seconds to complete the test. Note that the Dell XPS 13, which also utilizes the same CPU, took considerably longer than other eighth-generation machines at 913 seconds.

At 2.78 pounds, the Spectre x360 justifies using it in tablet mode.

HP also engineered an updated cooling system that uses an infrared sensor to measure the chassis temperature and modulate the fans to keep things cooler to the touch. The system worked, with the chassis never getting uncomfortably hot, but it also resulted in the fans spinning up during our testing.

The newest Spectre x360 13 is an incredibly quick machine for the kinds of productivity tasks typically requested of a convertible 2-in-1, and it has some headroom for more advanced tasks like video editing. The eighth-generation CPUs push machines into different a different class of performance entirely, and the Spectre x360 13 makes good use of extra horsepower.

A speedy SSD keeps things running smoothly

HP selected a Lite-On CA1 PCIe SSD for the refreshed Spectre x360 13. We haven’t seen that drive installed in any of our review units, and so we were looking forward to seeing how it performs.

As it turns out, the drive performs pretty well. In the CrystalDiskMark benchmark, the Spectre x360 13 scored 1,769 megabytes per second (MB/s) in the write test and 998 MB/s in the read test. That’s a strong score compared to the Yoga 920’s 1,147 MB/s and 1,172 MB/s respectively, but it’s quite a distance behind the last-generation Yoga 720’s 2,060 MBs and 1,209 MB/s. The previous Spectre x360 generation used a slower SSD that only managed 1,202 MB/s read and 583 MB/s write, so we’re getting a worthy update in that regard.

In our real-world use, the Spectre x360 13’s SSD performed just as well as these would numbers indicate. The machine booted quickly, opened apps and files without delay, and generally churned through every task we asked of it. Storage performance is a real strength.

Gaming

Intel’s eighth-generation CPUs provide some real performance increases, but not for gaming. The integrated Intel UHD 620 graphics got a slight name change, but its capabilities remain the same.

Unsurprisingly, the Spectre x360 13 scored as expected in the 3DMark gaming benchmarks. The Fire Strike score of 1,034 is right where we expected, and is at the high end compared with every other machine using the same level of GPU.

We went ahead and tested Civilization VI at Full HD and medium and ultra graphics settings, and the Spectre x360 13 achieved 12 frames per second (FPS) and 7 FPS, respectively. Those scores, too, are within a frame or so of the competition. Simply put, you’ll want to buy a different machine if your goal is playing anything other than casual games — with the Surface Book 2 being the best (and most expensive) 2-in-1 option for gaming.

A thin and light chassis coupled with exceptional battery life makes for great portability

Our review unit’s Full HD display is a better choice for anyone who wants a decent viewing experience and better battery life than a 4K UHD display would provide. The efficient eighth-generation processor combined with a relatively large 63 watt-hour battery gave us hope for some serious longevity.

The notebook didn’t disappoint. First, in our most aggressive battery test, the Basemark web benchmark that stresses the CPU and GPU, the Spectre x360 13 lasted a strong four hours and 14 minutes, which beats out the three hours and 23 minutes managed by the Yoga 920. The Spectre x360 13’s business-oriented sibling, the EliteBook x360 G2 with a Core i7-7600U, managed four hours and 48 minutes.

Stepping up to our web browsing test that loops through a series of popular web pages, the Spectre x360 13 held out for a very competitive eight hours and 25 minutes, almost matching the EliteBook x360 G2 but falling short of the previous Spectre x360 13 generation’s nine hours and 18 minutes of longevity. As we can see, the eighth-generation Core i7 processor starts to show off its efficiency as the CPU load drops.

Accordingly, the Spectre x360 13 performed particularly well in our video playback test that runs an Avengers trailer until the battery runs out. Here, the HP lasted for a very strong 14 hours and 18 minutes, beating out the Yoga 920 and blowing away the rest of the comparison group. Of all the machines we’ve tested, only the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon (14 and a half hours) and the champion Surface Book 2 (over 20 and a half hours) have lasted longer.

Mark Coppock/Digital Trends

At a light 2.78 pounds and with some solid productivity battery life, the Spectre x360 13 is a highly portable machine. Toss it into your backpack and head out for the day, and you’re likely to get a solid eight hours — or more — of productive work done without worrying about carrying around a charger. Even if you stress the CPU, you’ll be able to get some real work done using the battery alone.

Software

HP bundles its typical support apps on the Spectre x360 13, and the usual Windows 10 apps are along for the ride as well. Otherwise, only a McAfee trial and a Dropbox promotion are installed as extraneous software, and we can forgive the Dropbox addition for the 30GB of free storage you’ll get for a year if you link to your Dropbox account (or create a new one).

Warranty information

HP covers the Spectre x360 13 with a standard one-year parts and labor warranty. As always, we’d like to see premium notebooks offer longer coverage.

Our Take

The late 2017 refresh of the HP Spectre x360 13 manages to significantly improve performance and battery life while retaining the machine’s great looks and solid build quality. Add in an improved active pen, the same excellent keyboard, and some Windows 10 Hello flexibility, and the convertible 2-in-1 maintains its place as our favorite notebook that can act as a tablet in a pinch.

Is there a better alternative?

The most direct comparison to the Spectre x360 13 is the Yoga 720 13, which offers the same 13.3-inch display in either Full HD or 4K UHD options. We haven’t tested the very latest version yet, but it’s easy to assume that it likely benefits from eighth-generation CPUs in a similar way, but doesn’t feature the same lightweight design or great battery life as the Spectre x360.

Another good option is to step up to the slightly larger 13.9-inch Lenovo Yoga 920. That machine received its own refreshed design over the previous Yoga 910, and we found it to be one of the most solidly-built convertible 2-in-1s around. It’s slightly more expensive at $1,330 for a Core i7-8550U, 8GB of RAM, 256GB SSD, and Full HD display, and it’s pricey at $2,000 for the highest-end configuration with a Core i7-8550U, 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and 4K UHD display. Performance is slightly better than on the Spectre x360 13, but battery life isn’t quite as good.

Finally, you could choose to forgoe the 2-in-1 form factor and settle on a traditional clamshell notebook instead. In that case, we’d recommend the latest Dell XPS 13, which is provides perhaps the best combination of size, build quality, and performance in the 13.3-inch notebook class. It’s normally slightly more expensive at $1,400 for a similar configuration, but also offers an affordable $800 entry-level model.

How long will it last?

The Spectre x360 13 is built well enough to elicit confidence in its longevity, and it sports a modern look that won’t become dated anytime soon. Its use of eighth-generation CPUs means it’s going to perform well into the foreseeable future, and it enjoys the most future-proof connectivity available today.

Should you buy it?

Yes. The HP Spectre x360 13 is a great looking and well-built convertible 2-in-1 in the very comfortable 13.3-inch size. It’s easy to carry around and thin enough to be useful as a tablet, and its excellent performance, great battery life, and snappy keyboard makes for a very pleasant and productive workday.

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