HP Envy 14 Spectre Ultrabook
Shiny slab of laptop lusciousness
Review The test unit I reviewed was forwarded on to me from the Harrods press office. That alone should tell you a lot about the HP Envy 14 Spectre. For you, Harrods may conjure images of oil sheiks browsing bling, affectatious middle classes buying ham and feeble-minded tourists ogling Saint Diana's soiled crockery, but Harrods makes a point of not selling crap.
HP's shiny Spectre: glass even covers the full width of the base in front of the keyboard
Forget about money and demographics for a second and instead consider appearance and reputation. If I was the kind of person who bought computers from Harrods, the HP Envy 14 Spectre is exactly the type of laptop I want the great unwashed who linger zombie-like near the entrance to see me walking out with.
The combination of an almost mirror-like black glass lid backed with a cool aluminium body is reminiscent of modern smartphones and tablets but somehow more grown-up and less toy-like. Sure, the HP Envy 14 Spectre probably looks like an executive toy to many of you reading this, but it's still a pretty decent Ultrabook in its own right.
I use the term 'Ultrabook' with some reservation because the Spectre is thicker and heavier than any Ultrabook I have tested for El Reg to date. But what does 'Ultrabook' really mean? Intel has trademarked the word, so it gets first dibs on a definition: apparently, Ultrabooks are "ultra responsive, ultra sleek and ultra stylish devices that are less than an inch thick and wake up in a flash."
OK, the Spectre is all of those things but let's be fair - even Dell's cheapest Inspiron is less than an inch thick. My own definition would be: "less than 0.75in thick and light enough to be held between the fingers and thumb of one hand with the arm outstretched for half a minute without your muscles trembling." The Spectre might fail that one.
Just to show everyone how spanky you are, the mirrored HP logo on the top glows when it's on
It's possible that the Spectre's thickness and weight are a little greater than expected for an Ultrabook because of its three glass surfaces. The entire top surface of the the lid, the entire surface (display and bezel) on the other side, and more than one third of the base in front of the keyboard is covered by sheets of toughened, scratch-resistant glass.
The thick of it
While this makes everything lovely and shiny, not to mention a novel way of displaying your fingerprint collection, I can't help noting that the lid/display alone is half a centimetre thick. This is comparable with some Ultrabooks, of course, but double the thickness of others.
A good range of connectivity ports are arranged along the left edge, including gigabit Ethernet
Opening the Spectre is difficult to do with finesse because of its flush edges and almost non-existent lip. I challenged a few colleagues to try this feat without using their fingernails. The brightest managed it after 10 seconds by nestling the hinge in a most unladylike manner between her thighs and prising the computer open with both hands, using brute force. The dimmest struggled for 30 seconds before asking if he could borrow a bread-knife.
The Spectre's display is bright and very clear. Although tilting it back and forward causes the image to go darker or paler respectively, this effect is much less pronounced than on most other Ultrabook PCs. No, it's better than that: the display here is excellent.
Very little bezel space is wasted on the left and right of the display, such that it boasts an active screen diagonal of 14 inches, into which HP has crammed 1600 x 900 pixels. Although HP's marketing blurb illogically hypes up the Spectre as "a 13in Ultrabook with a 14in display", what HP actually means is that you get a bigger screen with a higher resolution than you would normally expect from any notebook with similar physical dimensions.
The keyboard has a backlight that you can turn on or off manually, otherwise it will do so automatically by sensing whether or not you are sitting at the computer. Believe it or not, this feature actually works. The glass-surfaced trackpad is really easy to use thanks to its beautifully smooth touch and a clearly marked (but optional) press-click area.
Retro-chic: audio volume can be controlled using a little dial on the right-hand edge
It supports one-, two-, three- and four-finger gestures through the Synaptics ClickPad driver which provides video instructions in its Control Panel. You can adjust the level of touch sensitivity, which I believe is very important in a trackpad.
Pulling the plug
All connectivity ports are located on the left-hand edge of the computer. I'm pleased to see the inclusion of a gigabit Ethernet port – given the number of offices I visit that offer atrocious Wi-Fi signals with flaky 'guest' sign-ins – but extremely disappointed to note that the two USB ports are built a mere 2mm apart.
Oh so shiny: scratch-resistant glass covers the entire lid surface as well as the display
You may be lucky - perhaps your USB devices come with skinny plugs. Mine don't. I found it somewhere between difficult and impossible to attach two USB devices into the Spectre at the same time because there's not enough space between the ports to accommodate two shielded plugs simultaneously.
It would be bad enough if I was talking about 3G dongles or clunky memory sticks, but I struggled even to connect an external hard disk and DVD drive at the same time without one of the two plugs pushed in at an angle. On the right-hand edge, HP has provided a dial for controlling the audio volume, plus a quick Mute toggle button and another button that calls up the Beats Audio control panel. HP refers to the dial as a 'jog dial' but it's not: it's just a volume dial.
PCMark 7 Results
Longer bars are better
Beats Audio enhances the sound you get from the computer, most noticeably through your headphones. I can also tell the difference with Beats Audio enabled with the Spectre's stereo speakers, which are mounted just under the front edge of the computer, but remember that I'm talking about an enhancement from 'appallingly tinny' to 'very tinny'.
Benchmark performance from the HP Envy 14 Spectre is good, if not the best I have recorded on an Intel Core i7-2677  running at 1.8GHz. Its power management, however, is terrific: Powermark 1.1.1  estimates a real-world battery life of well in excess of four hours of intensive work between charges.
When using the Spectre a backlight shines through the keycaps, then dims automatically when you are not
Booting up the system from cold to a settled Windows desktop (with Wi-Fi happily connected) takes around 35 seconds. Waking from Sleep mode takes just 5 seconds. This is good stuff.
Also included in the price are pre-installed editions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Premiere Elements 10, and a two-year Norton Internet Security licence. There are also various little utilities littered about, and a nag window kept inviting me to upgrade to the full version of CyberLink PowerDVD - a curious promotion to put on a computer that doesn't have a DVD drive.
Despite my concern that the HP Envy 14 Spectre is perhaps a little chunky compared with other Ultrabooks on the market, it compares very favourably with the competition in terms of what you get within those two centimetres: connectivity, performance, battery life, display quality and, not least, classy product design.
If I forget for an instant that certain other Ultrabooks are as thin as a blade, the Spectre stands out as a fabulously slim notebook that (apart from lacking an internal optical drive) does everything I'd want from a supposedly full-size notebook - and it looks absolutely gorgeous. ®
Thanks to Harrods  for the loan of the review sample.
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