HP Spectre 13 Pro Notebook PC (F8Z33PA)

HP's 13.3in Spectre 13 Pro Ultrabook is a solid piece of kit that ships with a 1440p screen and an ultrawide touchpad

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HP Spectre 13 Pro Notebook PC (F8Z33PA)
  • HP Spectre 13 Pro Notebook PC (F8Z33PA)
  • HP Spectre 13 Pro Notebook PC (F8Z33PA)
  • HP Spectre 13 Pro Notebook PC (F8Z33PA)

Pros

  • 1440p, IPS screen
  • Strong build quality
  • Good keyboard

Cons

  • Wide touchpad can get in the way
  • Glossy screen
  • Audio not great

Bottom Line

HP's Spectre 13 Pro is a 13.3in Ultrabook with a strong build quality and a vibrant, 1440p screen. It's comfortable to use, it's fast, and supplies decent battery life. It's worth checking out if you're after a new notebook for work or personal use.

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The HP Spectre 13 Pro Ultrabook (or Notebook PC, as HP calls it) is blessed with good looks, high-quality construction, and a configuration that allows it to perform well under most office-style scenarios. It’s a fourth-generation Intel Core i7-based unit, but its slight frame doesn’t give that away, and it also features a touchscreen that has one of the highest resolutions on the PC market.

Build quality and user comfort

An all aluminium construction gives the 13-inch Spectre 13 Pro plenty of rigidity while also keeping the weight down, and even with a touchscreen, it only tipped our digital scales at 1.48kg. It feels well balanced to hold, and we love the ability to open the notebook using one hand without the base lifting up off the table. The lid itself feels very stiff and only minimal puddling was noticeable on the screen when we tried to flex it.

There is a brushed finish on the palm rest’s aluminium that looks good, but it can feel a little warm and sweaty against the skin after prolonged periods of typing. The base is only 18mm thick at its thickest point, and this thickness includes the little rubber stops on the base, which grip a regular office table with vigour. We like the flatness of the base, which makes it comfortable to use on your lap, and it has vents that are located close to the spine so that there is less chance of them being covered up while resting it in this way.

A cooling fan pushes warm air out through an exhaust vent located along the spine and up in front of the screen. It’s the same of cooling design we’ve seen on other laptops, such as the ASUS Zenbook UX301 and the Dell XPS 13. We didn’t feel too much warmth from the base when using the laptop for basic Web browsing, viewing YouTube and photos, and typing documents, but the base can get warm if the laptop is left on a soft surface, such as a couch, and the underside vent is blocked.

Noise wasn’t an issue for us when the internal fan kicked in. It makes a slight whirring sound that is audible in a quiet setting, and it revs periodically depending on how hard the notebook is working, but overall, we weren’t annoyed by any noises coming from this laptop. It has what HP calls CoolSense technology, which is claimed to adjust the temperature of the laptop based on how it’s being used. It seemed to work transparently in the background.

One of the things that immediately stands out about this laptop is its touchpad, which is wider than others we have seen on 13.3in laptops to date (it’s 140x65mm). The reason for this extra width is to allow you to perform Windows 8 swipe-in functions without having to slide your finger over the palm rest and onto the pad. All the swipes can be initiated right there on the pad. Furthermore, once you swipe in to bring up the Charms on the right side, you can then move your finger up and down to select the Charm that you want and tap on it. On the left side, you simply swipe in to switch between open apps (if you have more than one open).

As is the tradition with Windows laptops, there are multiple ways to do things, and you can also use a four-finger swipe to switch between applications. There are a couple of drawbacks to the touchpad. Sometimes it can get in the way while typing; the Charms bar can be invoked and the Windows icon can accidentally be pressed, but this only occurs if you accidentally drag your right palm across too far. We ended up disabling the swipes so we could avoid mishaps while we typed. The other annoyance is lack of support for three-finger flicks. This is a gesture we're used to performing on other laptops, especially while browsing the Web to go back and forth between pages.

The touchpad is the largest we've seen in an Ultrabook to date, mainly to facilitate swipe-in Windows 8 gestures.
The touchpad is the largest we've seen in an Ultrabook to date, mainly to facilitate swipe-in Windows 8 gestures.

The keyboard has large keys in a Chiclet styling. They are soft to hit and they are responsive. The only drawback is that they have an understandably shallow amount of travel, which can make them a little hard on the fingers if you hit them with a lot of force. They don’t make much noise compared to other Ultrabook keyboards we’ve seen, so we don’t think it will be a problem to use this notebook for tip-tapping away in a library or other quiet environments. Key layout is standard, with the only hindrance being small up and down arrows.

A white backlight sits behind the keys, and it can be switched on manually using the F5 key. There aren’t any intensity levels to choose from, just on or off. There is a little design detail that we love about it though: the key for switching on the backlight is constantly illuminated so that you can always find it in a dark environment and switch it on. We found the contrast of the white light against the silver keys to be poor, though, and in some cases could see letter outlines better when the light was off.

The Function keys perform settings changes and act as toggles as their primary function. As mentioned, you can enable and disable the keyboard backlight, but you can also change volume and brightness, and toggle Airplane mode in Windows 8.

A 1440p screen resolution

While the overall comfort level of the Spectre 13 Pro is high, the high-resolution screen won’t be ideal for all users. It has a native resolution of 2560x1440-pixels across its 13.3 inches, and in a typical desktop application, text can look very small. HP ships the laptop with the Windows 8 text and icons setting at Larger by default, which goes a long way to overcoming this, and text on the screen becomes easily viewable in many applications while still remaining crisp. In particular, browsing the Web through Firefox using the setting was a joy as the text on the screen was large and clear.

A strong lid protects the 1440p, IPS screen.
A strong lid protects the 1440p, IPS screen.

There are still some things such as dialogue boxes that look blurry in this Larger text setting, though. Furthermore, the Larger setting means you can’t easily line up windows side by side on the screen to improve your multitasking — and you also lose a lot of real estate in many applications. If you can, keep the screen at its native setting if you want to get the most out of it.

The sharpness of the screen and its colours are both excellent, and we can envision the Spectre 13 Pro being a great tool for a photographer (it actually comes with Adobe Lightroom 5 installed), or anyone else who needs to work with graphics and video. Viewing angles are wide thanks to the screen’s IPS (in-plane switching) technology, and we didn’t have to adjust the tilt at all to see images in proper contrast while we worked.

Like most touchscreens out there, though, this one has a glossy finish that can cause all sorts of annoyance. In particular, the screen was much like a mirror when we used it in the office, and this was bothersome when viewing dark areas of the screen. The brightness of the screen isn’t enough to overcome these reflections in a well-lit environment.

If you end up using the touchscreen for swiping through photos or while using Windows 8 apps, fingerprints will end up tarnishing the screen and could end up being noticeable when viewing photos or apps with a white background. You’ll have to remember to clean the screen before using the laptop for any work with images and video. As for the touch responsiveness of the screen, it’s very good. We actually enjoyed occasionally swiping through open apps on the system and navigating apps such as Boston Globe’s The Big Picture. We also preferred using the touchscreen to bring up Charms, rather than the extra-wide touchpad.

Specifications and performance

On the inside, the Core i7 version of the Spectre 13 Pro comes with a Core 17-4500U CPU that has two cores, Hyper-Threading, and a standard frequency of 1.8GHz. It’s joined by 8GB of DDR3 SDRAM, and a 256GB SanDisk solid state drive (SSD). Throughout our test period, this configuration ticked along at a brisk pace and we never felt like the laptop was sluggish. In Blender 3D, it recorded 44sec, which is the same time as the Dell XPS 13, which also uses the same CPU in a similar configuration, and in 3DMark’s Cloud Gate and Fire Storm tests, results of 702 and 4107, respectively, were achieved.

What’s most impressive about the Spectre 13 Pro’s performance is its SanDisk SSD, which is one of the faster ones we’ve seen when it comes to writing data. In CrystalDiskMark, it recorded a sequential read rate of 475.3 megabytes per second (MBps), which is a solid result; its write rate of 401.8MBps is a stand-out (even though it’s not as fast as the ASUS Zenbook’s 544MBps), and is one of the main reasons this Ultrabook has so much zip, apart from the Core i7 CPU.

On the right, you get USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, and power.
On the right, you get USB 3.0, Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, and power.

On the left you get the cable lock facility, USB 3.0, the headset port, and an SD card slot (cards sit all the way inside it).
On the left you get the cable lock facility, USB 3.0, the headset port, and an SD card slot (cards sit all the way inside it).

Adding to the overall theme of speed with this laptop is the Intel Wireless-AC 7620 Wi-Fi adapter, which is a dual-band adapter. We tested it with a Belkin AC1800 modem-router and achieved average transfer rates of 37MBps for large file sizes when connected to the 5GHz network. Importantly, the connection was rock-solid and produced repeatable results.

Bluetooth 4.0 is also in the mix, and we used it to good effect to stream Google Play music from the Spectre to our Bluetooth-equipped Rotel amplifier. Furthermore, it was fun to sift through our albums in Google Play Music simply by swiping and tapping at the touchscreen.

Battery life

A 51 Watt-hour battery sits inside the enclosed chassis, and it can give the Spectre 13 Pro a decent life away from an outlet. In our rundown test, in which we disable power management, enable Wi-Fi, maximise screen brightness, and loop a video file, the Spectre lasted 5hr 57min. As mentioned, this is only a decent time considering other Ultrabooks such as Dell’s XPS 13 achieved over 7 hours in this same test, but we have to keep in mind that the Spectre has a lot more pixels to push in its screen.

When we consider the 1440p screen, the battery life isn’t all that bad. The 1440p-based Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon gave us 4hr 35min in the same test, and that was with a Core i5 CPU. The 1440p-based ASUS Zenbook UX301 lasted only 3hr 24min. When we used the Spectre for mostly Web browsing, typing, streaming music over Bluetooth, and for watching the odd YouTube video, the battery actually ended up lasting 5hr 31min. As with all battery powered devices, how long the Spectre 13 Pro will last depends on the way you use it.

Charging time is over three hours for this battery, which isn’t ideal, but the power adapter has a very long cord that allows you to use it a good distance away from an outlet while it’s plugged in; you can easily continue to use this laptop in good comfort while it’s plugged in and charging.

Other features; final thoughts

You might notice the little Beats Audio logo on this laptop and assume it can give you higher quality sound than other Ultrabooks. In reality, the audio quality from the Spectre isn’t great at all. In fact, it seems weak. Music was heard to distort when we moved the volume slider in Windows 8 up past the 60 per cent mark. Furthermore, the speakers are located on the bottom of the laptop, making them very easy to muffle. We actually prefer the sound quality of the to the sound on this Spectre. (The speakers on the Chromebook 11 fire upwards). Use headphones or connect to a Bluetooth speaker like the Polk Woodbourne if you want good quality sound.

Around the edges, you get two USB 3.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI port, Mini DisplayPort, and a headset port. You also get a full-sized SD card slot. This is an SDXC-capable slot that performed well with our SanDisk Extreme Pro 64GB SDXC card. We could copy large files to and from the Ultrabook’s SSD at an average rate of 80MBps. The slot is a little stiff, though, and it can be a chore to insert and remove cards due to this, and also due to the position of the slot, which is on a slight angle on the left side.

Our overall experience with the Spectre 13 Pro was a positive one, and we think it’s a great Ultrabook overall, whether used in the business space, or as a personal unit. It’s well built and it looks good. We love the screen quality, the keyboard is mostly comfortable to tap on, it provides a good range of features, and its speed was good for us. We just wish the screen wasn’t so glossy and that the battery life was perhaps a little better.

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