Review: HP Spectre XT TouchSmart
The Ultrabook that reckons it's meant for bigger things
El Reg looked at HP's 13in Spectre XT Ultrabook  in October last year and liked it a lot. What you're looking at here, then, is a meatier version with a bigger display, touchscreen support, more ports and the inevitable Windows 8. I like it a lot.
It looks absolutely nothing like an Apple MacBook Pro. Not in the slightest. Nope. No way
As usual, the brushed alloy case with a notable lack of screws and seams will invite comparisons with Apple's 'unibody' MacBook Pro range. Doing so is misleading and pointless so I won't waste your time. Take it from me, HP is not copying Apple and the look-and-feel of the Spectre XT TouchSmart is nothing like that of a MacBook Pro.
Much more striking once I hinged open the computer is the immediate impression of size. The Spectre XT TouchSmart looks substantial and this is almost completely due to the big, bright and clear 15.6in display. Glossy screens are not to everyone's taste, of course, but this one is excellent and the image remains consistent and legible when viewed from the acutest of angles. Just don't sit with a window behind you on a sunny day.
When closed, the edges of the display and base are not flush: this is intentional as part of the design.
Given its history of weird and wonderful TouchSmart products, HP has been quite restrained here. Rather than relying upon over-developed, proprietary touch utilities (great for demos, almost useless for your daily work), the Spectre XT TouchSmart adheres to Windows 8 touch conventions. It is also the most responsive, latency-free Windows 8 touchscreen at this resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) I have tested to date. Lovely.
The extra width the display affords to the overall case size has allowed HP to space out the keyboard keycaps nicely. The keyboard enjoys its own automatic backlight – a much under-rated feature that really helps when you work on the move in unpredictable ambient lighting conditions. Despite all this, I do wish the unused 3.5cm on the left and right of the keyboard could have been reclaimed for squeezing in some kind of numeric keypad. But this could be said for almost all notebook computers these days.
Despite its brushed alloy outer case, the display is too easy to tweak while adjusting its angle
The trackpad is generous at 11 x 7 cm and sensitive to those who prefer a light touch - no carpal-tunnel-crunching clicks and presses are required. Its Synaptic Clickpad 1.4 drivers support a good set of custom gestures and provide rolling mini-video demos right within the Control Panel.
Thunderbolts are go
It's only when you turn the Spectre XT TouchSmart around to access the ports on either side that you are reminded that it's an Ultrabook – it's barely over 2cm thick at its fattest point. The slimline case is achieved by dispensing with any optical drive, of course, but HP has used the 15.6in format to pack in three (not just two) USB ports, Ethernet (not gigabit, unfortunately) and even a Mini DisplayPort-compatible Thunderbolt port.
HP's provision of a Thunderbolt port could be a gamble... or forward-thinking
Since almost nobody outside Apple's reluctant and overpriced ecosphere has clapped eyes on let alone bought any Thunderbolt peripherals, I do wonder what HP has in mind. It took years before peripherals manufacturers began supporting full USB 3.0, so I estimate that my teenage son will have moved on to his second wife before Thunderbolt goes mainstream. That said, the two of you that own Thunderbolt devices today might be overjoyed to read that HP is so forward-thinking with the Spectre XT TouchSmart.
Another component that has gone large since the 13in Spectre XT is the hard drive – 500GB compared with the earlier model's 128GB – although this half-terabyte of space sits on a conventional spinning disk rather than in solid state. Otherwise, the 13in and 15.6in models are fitted with the same processor and RAM.
Everything about the Spectre XT TouchSmart looks wide and generous, which is odd for an ultrabook.
What you don't seem to get, however, is longer battery life. The Spectre XT TouchScreen is not a poor off-mains performer by any means, especially compared with conventional notebook PCs, but I struggled to keep the computer going on battery power alone for much longer than three hours. That said, this was three hours of constant use involving plenty of network use, processing and hard disk thrashing. If I just sat quietly watching small videos or mindlessly surfing the web, I feel confident that I'd be able to keep the Spectre going for longer, but I can't imagine buying a £1,200 ultrabook for this purpose.
Another concern is the lack of rigidity in the case material backing the display: it tweaks too easily for my liking. Bendy displays are not unusual among plasticky notebooks but it is unexpected in one with a metal case. If you are a brute or compulsive fidgeter, be warned.
As a final swipe, I'm a little disappointed by the sub-megapixel webcam. It does the job but its image and video quality and resolutions are decidedly ordinary for such a stylish computer.
The Reg Verdict
In terms of thickness and weight, this is unquestionably an Ultrabook. But once you open up the Spectre XT TouchSmart and switch it on, it feels like you're working with a larger, beefier notebook that suffers few of the obvious Ultrabook compromises. Connectivity is good, avant-garde even, and the combination of quality keyboard, large trackpad and ultra-responsive touchscreen display makes for very flexible handling. Sure, it's expensive, but quality costs. ®