With the growing popularity of tablets, some pundits seem intent on predicting the impending death of the PC. I can't speak for everyone, but I consider my slate an addition to my arsenal of devices, not a replacement. I happily use an iPad to check e-mail, browse the web, watch videos and play games, but when it comes time to get some work done, a notebook or desktop with a physical keyboard, larger screen and more ergonomic design remains essential.
That's why I still get excited when I get to try a refined piece of hardware like HP's new Envy 14 Spectre.
It's a member of a new wave of "ultrabooks" – an Intel-invented moniker denoting a category of laptops reduced in size yet capable of meeting specific battery and performance benchmarks – that are slightly larger than those that began arriving late last year. It weighs in at 1.8-kilograms and is just two centimetres thick, yet flaunts a roomy 14-inch screen and has a 4-cell, 58 Watt Hour battery that runs for around six hours under average conditions. That puts it right in line with other ultrabooks in its class.
What separates it from its competitors is its look and feel. HP's Envy line, which took root from the California computer company's acquisition of luxury PC maker Voodoo several years ago, has never been short on style, but the Spectre is probably its prettiest model yet.
Corning's famously sturdy and beautiful Gorilla Glass plays a large role. Not only is the screen covered in an edge-to-edge sheet of the stuff, but also the lid and the wrist rest. The result: Raising the laptop's cover makes for a flashy (if sometimes smudge-covered) statement at the boardroom table, and the undersides of your lower forearms will appreciate the smooth, cool surface upon which they rest.
The glass feels reassuringly solid and high-end – a good match for the rest of the case, which is made of a scratch-resistant amalgam of magnesium and aluminum. Fresh-cut fingernails scraped hard and rapidly left not a trace. Even the sharp edges of keys and pens banging against the machine's underside while carried in a messenger bag did no damage. The form-fitting laptop sleeve included in the box offers some added protection for regular commuters.
Carved into the chassis is a board of keys that depress to agreeable depth and are backlit with individual LED lights. A touch of fun frivolity comes in the form of a proximity sensor that turns the keyboard lights on upon detecting a user's presence and switches them off when you're away to save power.
The touchpad, unfortunately, doesn't earn equal commendation. Its glassy surface is fine for bone-dry fingers, but proves resistant to sweaty or oily digits. I suspect it well suited to dry-handed users in colder climes, less so for those who bathe their hands in creams or work in muggy locations.
That 14-inch HD Radiance+ LED backlit screen creates some mixed emotions, too. It boasts terrific viewing angles for a TN panel, with little blackening evident when viewed from the sides, below, or above. It also delivers bright, vibrant, authentic colours without the need for any calibration. But its beauty is spoiled slightly by a faint but frequently perceptible mesh effect. Despite its impressive 1600-by-900 resolution, I was often aware of vertical lines separating pixels – especially when reading black text on white backgrounds. This isn't uncommon on low- and mid-tier notebooks, but one expects more from a display on a machine described by its manufacturer as premium.
The audio system, meanwhile, is among the most powerful I've encountered in a laptop this small. I'd played around with the volume control – a big dial that sits on the machine's right edge – while the computer ran through its initial setup, accidentally leaving it nearly maxed. When Windows booted up its trademark four-note opening jingle was so loud I nearly jumped out of my seat. However, it's sorely lacking in thumping bass (tinkering with HP's ballyhooed Beats Audio equalizer helps a little), and I noticed some crackling when the volume was punched up. It's a better-than-average laptop sound system at lower and medium volumes, but won't get audiophiles to abandon their external speakers.
Where the Spectre really starts to fall short is in an evaluation of the specs/price equation.
My test unit had an Intel Core i5-2467M processor with integrated graphics, four gigabytes of memory, and a 128-gigabyte solid-state drive (only 66-gigabytes of which were free once the Windows installation and recovery partition were accounted for). Ports included Ethernet, HDMI, DisplayPort, one USB 3.0 and one USB 2.0 jack. And keep in mind ultrabooks lack optical drives, which will likely prove a sore point for mobile movie watchers who still see virtue in maintaining collections of discs.
A build like this makes the Spectre completely suitable for everyday home and office use. However, its price – a stunning $1,400, which is hundreds of dollars more than other ultrabooks of its ilk – suggests one might expect a something a little more robust.
To be fair, it does possess a few curious extras that will be of interest to niche groups.
It has a near-field communication (NFC) chip just under the wrist rest, which means people with Android phones can instantly transfer URLs from phone to notebook simply by plopping their device on the front of the laptop. All you need do is set up HP's Touch to Share software and pair machines. I don't see much use in this right now, but perhaps NFC will bear more fruit before you need to upgrade to another machine.
It also comes with the ability to wirelessly stream audio to external speakers and video to televisions. However, you'll need KleerNet-compatible speakers for the former and a separate receiver for the latter. Unless you don't mind shelling out for additional hardware, these features will likely go unused, too.
The most practical bonus comes not in hardware but software. Preinstalled is a two-year full subscription to Norton Internet Security, which means your PC is protected from viruses and other malware right out of the box, all the way up until HP's two-year warranty expires (coincidence?), as well as full copies of Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Adobe Premiere Elements 10. That's $275 worth of code that will prove a boon for some but useless to those who already have licenses or prefer different security and photo-manipulation solutions.
Too few people will see value in most of the Spectre's perks to justify its stratospheric price tag. It's a premium notebook only in form. If you really enjoy its beautiful and unusual glass design and have a little extra cash to burn, then spend away. The rest of the PC-buying public will be better served by cheaper machines that may not look as nice but perform just as well, if not better.
You can find the Spectre at major electronics retailers in Canada, or purchase it direct from HP at hp.ca.