The HP Envy 14 Spectre is designed for users who can afford the latest styles. At $1899, it's an expensive proposition considering it's a 14in Ultrabook with an Intel Core i5 CPU at the helm. In its defence, it's a laptop that stands out in a crowd; it does look good, and it feels comfortable to use. Its looks are dominated by the use of Gorilla glass: both sides of the screen are clad with the stuff and it can even be found on the palm rest.
Design and build quality
At 14in and with a thickness of 20mm (with the lid closed), the Spectre is not the thinnest Ultrabook, but its base tapers a little to make it look slimmer than it is. The Gorilla Glass doesn't really add to the thickness as it's embedded in the screen's design and, likewise, the glass on the palm rest fits right in without adding noticeable thickness. At 1.8kg it's not an overweight laptop and it's not a chore to carry around every day. This is aided by the small power adapter, which also has a USB port for charging other devices.
The notebook itself is not too big considering the screen has a 14in viewable area; it's a little smaller than some other 14in models we've seen, such as HP's own Pavilion dm4, which has a footprint that's about 14mm wider and 5mm deeper than the Spectre. It feels reasonably well built, but some creaking was noticeable on the right palm rest and the screen puddled after putting only slight pressure on the lid.
Despite the Gorilla Glass, which is scratch resistant, the Spectre is rather like a delicate flower. The edges around the screen got scratched during my tests as I transported it to and from work in my backpack. HP ships the unit with a soft pouch that should always be used when transporting it — any scratches will expose the aluminium underneath.
All of the ports (and the SD slot) are on the left side of the chassis, which could be inconvenient for some users. You get two USB ports (one is a USB 3.0 port), a Gigabit Ethernet port (which has a spring-loaded bottom portion to keep the chassis looking thin), HDMI and DisplayPort, and a combination headphone and microphone port (though I'd prefer separate ports that can also accept line input). The right side has the volume controls and the cable lock facility.
The rear of the laptop has a vent through which air is pushed downwards rather than up through the gap between the screen and the chassis. Despite this, the laptop didn't get too warm when used on my lap. There is an accelerometer in the laptop, which HP said can detect movement and adjust the laptop's setting accordingly, and this includes fan control. In my tests, I noticed that the fans (of which there are two) spun faster every time I picked up the laptop, perhaps knowing that I was about to sit it on my lap and potentially clog a few of the holes. The fans aren't overly loud, but they will be noticeable in a quiet room.
The Spectre's Gorilla Glass palm rest is roomy but it can feel a little sticky after prolonged typing sessions. The touchpad is large (100x63mm) and the keyboard isn't cramped except for the squished Up and Down arrow keys. Indeed, I really like the keyboard on this unit. They keys feel soft, have good travel and they are well spaced. Screen brightness can easily be adjusted by hitting the F2 and F3 keys and there are other useful shortcut buttons, too, such as a Wi-Fi toggle and play and skip buttons for media files. The keyboard is backlit and the level of the backlight can be adjusted to one of three levels if you press the Up or Down arrows while holding down the backlight key.
The only problem with the keyboard is that its backlight relies on a motion sensor to automatically switch it on and off, but it's not so reliable (this is similar to what I saw with the HP Envy 15). The sensor is meant to illuminate the keys when it detects that you're sitting in front of the laptop, and then switch them off when it detects that you're not there anymore, but I found it to be very temperamental. It worked on a couple of occasions, but, for the most part, the keys just stayed lit when I left the laptop on its own for a while.
I like the large touchpad, which feels smooth and provides accurate movement and gestures. It's one of those types of touchpads where extra space is gained by putting the left- and right-click buttons are under the pad itself. In the past, these have felt awkward when trying to complete drag-and-drop operations, but this one worked well for me.
However, I experienced some weird happenings with the touchpad: when I used it while the laptop was sitting flat on my desk, I couldn't move the pointer accurately across the screen. Other users in the office had no problems with it. When I touched the laptop with my free hand while using the touchpad, or when I used the laptop in my lap, the touchpad didn't give me any problems. I tried two different Spectre units and they both exhibited the same behaviour (intermittently) when I used them. It appears to be a grounding problem that only shows up when I use the laptop; HP hasn't yet replied to my queries on this issue — probably because HP techs can't replicate the issue either.
My weird problem aside, when the touchpad worked (and admittedly, this was most of the time), it worked brilliantly. It truly made the laptop a joy to use. But it's not just the touchpad that makes it a comfortable notebook to use: the keyboard, as previously mentioned, is a good one, and the 14in screen is excellent.
Despite being a glossy screen (thanks to the Gorilla Glass), it's bright enough to make most reflections tolerable. Furthermore, it has plenty of contrast and rich colour rendering — in particular, black looked solid on the screen and almost blended in with the bezel around it when I watched movies. It's definitely one of the highlights of this laptop. It has a native resolution of 1600x900, which is the same as the ASUS Zenbook UX31, and this is a resolution that allows you to view two windows side by side if you wish, and the text is still comfortably viewable (at least for those of us who still have good eyesight).
Sound processing is handled by Beats Audio and its console can be easily accessed by pressing the little 'b' button on the right side of the laptop. Without Beats Audio enabled, the sound is just too flat and lifeless, yet the software still gives you the option of disabling it (which in turn disables the cool little Beats logo on the right palm rest).
The speakers in the laptop are located at the front and they are powerful. Their magnets can make metal objects placed on the palm rest to stick to it. (Placing a phone on the left palm rest will also result in some creepy movement as the phone is drawn towards the magnet.) The magnets also hold the latch-less screen in place when it's closed and make it a tad difficult to open — mainly because there is not enough of a lip to hold when lifting the screen. The grilles for the speakers are little loose, but there is little chance of them falling out.
I found the audio reproduction of this laptop to be great, especially considering its small size. It's perfect for casual listening and extended YouTube sessions (clip audio quality notwithstanding). You can adjust the volume via the rotational control on the right side of the laptop and there is also a separate button for muting the audio.
Built in NFC
The Spectre is one of the first laptops on the market to support NFC (near field communications) and it's not overly useful yet. It only works with NFC-enabled Android phones that have the HP Touch to Share app installed. What this app does is send any URL that you are browsing on your phone directly to the Spectre.
Before you can use NFC, you need to launch the HP Touch to Share application on the Spectre (it's pre-installed). Make sure NFC is enabled on the phone so that it can be paired with the laptop. It will show up as a paired device if you are successful.
I used a Sony Ericsson Xperia S (LT26i) Android phone for my tests.
If you are browsing a Web site on your phone, you can send it to your laptop, but it's an annoying process.
You need to open the HP Touch to Share app…
Then touch the left palm rest with the phone. It won't work on the right palm rest and it won't work unless you start the app each time you want to send a URL.
Specifications and performance
On the inside, the Spectre has an Intel Core i5-2467M CPU, 4GB of DDR3 SDRAM, integrated Intel HD 3000 graphics and a 128GB solid state drive. It's a configuration that feels zippy during everyday use: creating documents, browsing Web pages, viewing high quality streaming and local media files, and multitasking while you do all those things, won't be a problem.
Results in the Blender 3D rendering and iTunes MP3 encoding tests were 60sec and 1min 10sec, respectively, which are marginally slower than what the HP Folio 13 Ultrabook recorded with the same configuration. Even though the Spectre (and most Ultrabooks in general) are not designed for tough tasks such as transcoding, I ran our AutoGordaianKnot DVD-to-Xvid conversion test. It took 1hr 12min to complete, which is 1min faster than the Folio, but 5min slower than the Toshiba Satellite Z830, which also has the same configuration. In 3DMark06, the Spectre recorded 3458, which is pretty much what I expected.
The solid state drive in the Spectre proved to be very fast, recording an average transfer speed of 117 megabytes per second (MBps) when copying files from one location on the drive to another, and CrystalDiskMark recorded a read rate of 222MBps and a write rate of 186MBps. Again, the CrystalDiskMark scores are slightly slower than the Folio, which recorded a read of 224MBps and a write of 187MBps using the same type of SSD (a Samsung MZMPA128HMFU-000).
Basically, the overall performance of the Spectre in benchmarks was not impressive compared to the run-of-the-mill Ultrabook, the Folio 13. However, the Spectre is also available in a Core i7 version if you want the best possible performance, but this will set you back $2299.
Where the Spectre really performed well was in the battery test. After disabling power management, enabling Wi-Fi, maximising screen brightness and looping an Xvid-encoded video file, the Spectre lasted a very useful 5hr 14min. Surprise, surprise: that's still 4min less than what the Folio 13 got in the same test. Nevertheless, anything over five hours is a good show and more life can be gained by using a sensible power management plan.
The battery is rated at 58 Watt-hours and it can't be removed unless you own a set of small Torx screwdrivers. It's a thin battery that covers almost half the area of the base and it's the only thing that can be seen when the notebook's magnesium alloy cover is removed. For all intents and purposes though, it's not a unit that can be serviced by a typical end user.
The performance of the Sectre didn't impress when compared against HP's mainstream Folio Ultrabook, but it's a laptop that I nevertheless feel is worthy of consideration. Its screen is simply beautiful and its keyboard and touchpad (despite my weird problems) make it a very comfortable notebook to use for long periods of time. The Gorilla Glass panels look good (and they could possibly pave the way for some double-screen, tablet/notebook hybrid designs from HP in the future) and the sound quality is above average for a small laptop. It should be considered if you're in the market for a stylish and mobile notebook that's comfortable to use, and, of course, if you can afford it. I'm just hoping no one else out there experiences the same intermittent problems I did with its touchpad.