One of the chief complaints users have about Windows 8 is that its gesture controls aren't intuitive enough for first-time users. HP addresses that gripe head-on with the new Spectre 13t-3000 Ultrabook. Large areas on either side of the notebook's Control Zone touchpad make it easier to activate Windows 8's gesture-based Charms and Recent Apps menus. That's not all this $1,019 ultraportable has to offer, though. With the latest Intel Core i5 processor, a solid-state drive, beautiful 13-inch 1080p touch screen and a dead sexy design, the Spectre 13t is one of the best Ultrabooks money can buy.
Like many of HP's Ultrabooks, the Spectre 13t-3000 features a gorgeous, all-aluminum chassis. For the Spectre 13t, however, HP has added some panache, throwing in a truffle-brown-colored, brushed lid and base that are offset nicely by the notebook's champagne, brushed-aluminum keyboard deck. In the center of the lid, a reflective bronze HP logo adds a touch of class.
Open up the notebook, and the first thing to catch your eye will be the Spectre 13t's oversized Control Zone Touchpad. Developed to make it easier than ever to use Windows 8 gestures, without having to reach up to the touch screen, Control Zone features a standard touchpad flanked on its left and right sides by areas specifically designed for interacting with Windows 8's Recent Apps and Charms menus. (More on this later.)
Measuring 12.8 x 8.7 x 0.59 inches and weighing a scant 3.3 pounds, the HP Spectre 13t is a hair thinner, though a bit heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Air (12.8 x 8.9 x 0.11 - 0.68 inches and 3 pounds). At 12.6 x 8.8 x 0.54 inches, Samsung's ATIV Book 9 Plus is slightly smaller than both the Spectre 13t and Macbook Air, and weighs 3.2 pounds. Acer's Aspire S7 measures just 12.7 x 8.8 x 0.51 inches and weighs 3 pounds.
The Spectre 13t sports a beautiful 13.3-inch, 1920 x 1080-resolution HP Infinity touch screen display that's far sharper than the $1,099 MacBook Air's 1440 x 900 panel. The Acer Aspire S7 offers a 1920 x 1080, 13.3-inch display, while the $1,399 Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus comes with a Retina-like 3200 x 1800 QHD+ screen. If you want to shell out an extra $70, however, you can equip your Spectre 13t with an HP Vivid QHD Infinity display (2560 x 1440 pixels).
A trailer for "X-Men: Days of Future Past" looked considerably better when viewed on the Spectre 13t's 1080p display than it did on the MacBook Air. Fine lines in characters' faces were sharper on the HP, and colors appeared warmer. Skin tones also looked more natural, and blacks looked endlessly deep on the Spectre 13t. The MacBook Air's display looked washed out by comparison. Similarly, a high-definition image of a lush mountain landscape looked far greener and sharper on the HP.
With a display brightness of 254 lux, the HP Spectre 13t's screen barely outshined the ultraportable laptop category average of 249 lux, and was neck and neck with the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (251 lux). The MacBook Air's display topped out at 263 lux, while the Acer Aspire S7 hit an impressive 329 lux.
The Spectre 13t's touch screen proved accurate and responsive during our time with the notebook.
As with many of HP's more-premium notebooks, the Spectre 13t-3000 comes loaded with the impressive Beats Audio software. Jay-Z and Kanye West's bass-heavy "No Church in the Wild" sounded excellent as it thumped through the Spectre's bottom-mounted speakers. We noted a similar experience while listening to Coheed and Cambria's "Mothers of Men," as guitar squeals and symbol crashes filled our conference room.
Switch off Beats, however, and audio sounds muddled. In fact, at one point, it sounded like we were listening to a smartphone rather than a laptop. So just keep Beats on. On the LAPTOP Audio Test, the Spectre 13 pumped out a steady 84 dB at a distance of 23 inches. That's just above the category average of 83 dB.
The HP Spectre 13t's keyboard provided consistently solid feedback throughout our testing. We experienced a good amount of travel and little to no flex. We're also fans of the keyboard's beautiful white backlighting, which evenly illuminated each key.
On the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test, we typed at a rate of 79 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate, about equal to our personal average. Our one gripe with the keyboard is the small size of its directional keys, which made navigating a bit of a chore.
Control Zone Touchpad
Using Windows 8 gestures via a notebook's touchpad can be a pain. The pad's small size limits space for swiping in from the left or right, making accessing the Charms and Recent Apps menus frustrating. To address this issue, HP and Synaptics equipped the Spectre 13t with a Control Zone touchpad. Despite its name, it's essentially a normal touchpad with two visually and tactilely distinctive wings on either side. It's designed to make using Windows 8 gestures more intuitive.
Performing gestures on the Control Zone is no different than it would be on a standard notebook. Users swipe in from the right to open the Charms menu, while a swipe in from the left opens the Recent Apps menu. In testing, however, HP said it found that the wings helped users more easily recognize how to use Windows 8 gestures. From a practicality standpoint, it makes more sense to direct users to the touchpad, rather than forcing them to use the touch screen exclusively or expecting them to know, without prompting, that they can use the touchpad for the same gestures.
Control Zone offers more than not just improved usability. When you open the Charms menu, for example, you can now simply slide your finger up or down the right control zone to select the icon you want to open. Without this feature, you'd have to open the Charms menu, then move your cursor to the icon you want. It's a small, but welcome improvement.
Adding the Control Zones to the touchpad dramatically increased its size, to a whopping 5.5 x 2.6 inches. With such a large space between the user and keyboard, we figured we'd accidentally move the cursor more often. To prevent this, HP and Synaptic wisely chose to disable the cursor in the Control Zones. As a result, we noticed little to no issues with palm rejection during our time with the notebook.
Overall, we liked the larger touchpad and its enhanced functionality. Even Windows 8 veterans will appreciate how much easier it is to use gestures with the Control Zone compared to a standard touchpad.
Ports and Webcam
As with many Ultrabooks, the Spectre 13t-3000 keeps ports to a minimum. On the right side, you get a single USB 3.0 port, full-size HDMI port, mini DisplayPort and power jack. On the left side is a second USB 3.0 port, combination microphone/ headphone jack, 2-in-1 SD Card slot and lock slot. Don't expect Ethernet or VGA.
The Spectre 13t's 720p webcam provided acceptable stills and video. Colors were accurate, and while we noticed some blurring, the lines in our shirt were still easy to make out.
The Spectre 13t proved itself to be a cool customer during our LAPTOP Heat Test (streaming a full-screen Hulu video for 15 minutes) reaching just 84 degrees Fahrenheit on the touchpad. The space between the G and H keys hit 94 degrees, falling just below our comfort threshold of 95 degrees. The bottom of the notebook, however, reached a somewhat toasty 99 degrees.
With a 1.6-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 4GB of RAM and 128GB solid-state drive, the Spectre 13t is a lightweight speed demon. We opened multiple tabs in both Chrome and Internet Explorer, streamed music from Spotify and watched Netflix without any slowdown.
On the Geekbench 3 benchmark, the Spectre 13t scored 6,436. That's better than the Intel 1.3-GHz Core i5-4250U-powered MacBook Air 13-inch's score of 6,267, and well above the ultraportable category average of 4,559. The Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus, which packs the same processor as the Spectre 13t, scored a lower 4,150.
The Spectre 13t performed equally well on the PCMark 7 benchmark, hitting 4,806 and easily besting the ultraportable category average of 3,927. The ATIV Book 9 Plus pulled ahead of the HP with a score of 5,017, but the Acer Aspire S7 was higher still, with a score of 5,051.
Thanks to its 128GB solid-state drive, the Spectre 13t booted Windows 8.1 in just 10 seconds. The Acer Aspire S7 was one second faster, while the ATIV Book 9 Plus was a second slower.
The Spectre's SSD also helped it transfer files at a breakneck pace, moving 4.97GB of mixed media files in just 32 seconds. That equals a rate of 159 MBps, which is faster than the category average of 111 MBps, as well as the Acer Aspire S7's 113 MBps and Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus' 127 MBps. That said, the MacBook Air handily beat all three notebooks with its impressive transfer rate of 242 MBps.
During the OpenOffice SpreadSheet Macro, the Spectre 13t matched 20,000 names to their corresponding addresses in 5 minutes and 30 seconds. The average ultraportable takes 6:40, while the MacBook Air 13-inch took 5:33. The ATIV Book 9 Plus was a bit quicker, at 5:13. Once again, though, the Aspire S7 took the crown, with a time of 5:12.
With its Intel HD Graphics 4400 integrated graphics chip, the HP Spectre 13t is primed for watching HD videos and playing basic Windows 8 games, but don't expect to run something like "Call of Duty." On the 3DMark 11 benchmark, the Spectre 13t pulled down a score of 943, while the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus scored a respectable 913, and the Aspire S7 scored 895. All three laptops easily beat the ultraportable category average of 713.
While playing "World of Warcraft," the HP Spectre 13t delivered an average of 28 frames per second with the graphics set to auto detect and resolution at 1366 x 768. That's not quite playable. The Acer Aspire S7 averaged 39 fps at the same resolution, while the ATIV Book 9 Plus hit 46 fps. The MacBook Air averaged 45 frames per second with the resolution set to 1300 x 812.
Thanks to its 4-cell battery and low-voltage, fourth-generation Intel Core i5 processor, the Spectre will last you all day, and you won't have to worry about finding an outlet. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi with the display brightness set to 40 percent, the Spectre 13t lasted an impressive 9 hours and 4 minutes. That blows away the ultraportable notebook category average of 6:35. This runtime also surpasses the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus' 8:06 and Acer Aspire S7's 8:53. The MacBook Air 13-inch, however, ran for a marathon 11:40.
Software and Warranty
HP went relatively light on the software load for the Spectre 13t, which is a good thing. You get the standard array of Windows 8.1 apps, including the new Bing Food & Drink and Health & Fitness apps and Microsoft Office Home and Student.
The heavy hitter here is the included Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5. Regularly priced at $149, the software lets you adjust, enhance and organize your digital photos with ease. Unfortunately, unlike HP's older Envy notebooks, the Spectre 13t doesn't come with Photoshop Elements or Premiere Elements.
HP provides customers with a one-year limited hardware warranty. See how HP fared in our Tech Support Showdown and Best & Worst Brand Report.
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The Spectre 13t starts at $999. At that price, consumers get a 1.6-GHz dual-core Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 4GB of RAM, a 128GB solid state drive and a 1080p display. The Smart Buy configuration, which costs $1,229 after a mail-in rebate, has the same processor, but 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 2560 x 1440-pixel screen.
Consumers can also customize the starting model with up to an Intel Core i7-4500U processor ($195), 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD ($150) and the 2560 x 1440 display ($70). Additionally, you can outfit the Spectre 13 with 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a $20 option.
HP Spectre vs. the Competition
In some ways, the Spectre 13 surpasses the likes of Apple's $1,099 13-inch MacBook Air, offering a sharper and more vivid screen along with touch capability. However, the Air lasts much longer on a charge and boasts faster flash memory.
Samsung's $1,399 ATIV Book 9 Plus has a sharper display, but you can configure the HP with a higher-res panel, too. And the Spectre 13 offers a better keyboard. The Aspire S7 ($1,399), an Editors' Choice pick, is lighter and slimmer than the HP and offers faster performance, but it also costs $380 more.
HP's $1,019 Spectre 13t-3000 has everything you want in an Ultrabook: a sleek design, fast performance and long battery life. And while you can always use the full HD touchscreen to navigate Windows 8.1, HP gives you an excellent alternative with its Control Zone touchpad. We also like this ultraportable's keyboard and sound quality. The only complaint we have is that the bottom of the Spectre 13 runs a tad warm. Overall, the HP Spectre 13 is a superior Windows 8 Ultrabook.