In a previous life, the HP Envy 14 was a laptop's laptop: a 5.69-pound slugger with an optical drive, discrete AMD graphics and a battery that couldn't last four hours in our battery rundown test. That notebook -- one of our favorites in the 2010-2011 year -- met its fate last fall when HP redesigned its high-end Envy line, but instead of going wherever it is gadgets go to die it was reincarnated as an Ultrabook. The new Envy 14, dubbed the Spectre, has shed almost two pounds, along with its discrete graphics and outmoded optical drive. It's also one of the first 14-inch Ultrabooks to hit the market, but even if it weren't so oddly sized we'd have no trouble remembering it: after all, how many laptops have a built-in NFC chip, or a glass palm rest?

There's no doubt about it: the Spectre is a premium machine, and it's not just that HP needed something high-end to take the place of the last-gen Envy 14. This also happens to be the company's first consumer-grade Ultrabook, and it arrives at a time when there are many to choose from. Enter HP's marketing department: the outfit's touting this thing as a "premium Ultrabook" -- the kind of machine you'd choose if you wanted a 1600 x 900 IPS-quality display or an unorthodox design. For that kind of beauty, though, you're looking at $1,400 and up -- a princely cost of entry when you consider lots of similarly specced models go for $1,100 or less. But perhaps that splurge comes with more than just a head-turning design? There's only one way to find out: follow past the break for our in-depth review.

HP Envy 14 Spectre review

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Look and feel


It's obvious HP chose this machine as a guinea pig for some bolder design choices.

Though the Spectre clearly shares some genes with the new Envy 15 and 17, it's obvious HP chose this machine as a guinea pig for some bolder design choices. For starters, the PC is swaddled in Gorilla Glass. You heard right: glass. That includes that flat fingerprint magnet of a lid, along with a thick shield stretching across the palm rest, creating a plateau below the keyboard. Think of a table at a pizzeria, the kind where the management uses thick glass to protect that all-important checkered tablecloth from marinara spills. A corny analogy? Why yes, you're welcome. But really, hear us out: this is pretty much what HP was going for. In a recent conversation, product managers who shepherded the laptop through the development process told us they particularly wanted to reinforce the palm rest, that part of the laptop constantly getting scuffed up by watches, bracelets and those pesky high school class rings. Why glass, though? It's lightweight and tough, stays cool to the touch and plays nice with the NFC radio.

What HP's claiming, essentially, is that contrary to whatever you might have guessed, the glass actually makes the laptop less fragile, not more so. Whatever the ratio of materials (HP used magnesium, aluminum and plastic in the chassis), there isn't a hint of flex in the body. The glass-coated bits don't feel rugged, per se, but definitely resilient. Try rapping your fingers against the lid and palm rest if you see this thing on display at a store: that low-pitched click has a reassuring ring to it. But reassuring of what, exactly? The laptop's durability? The quality of your $1,400 investment? We'll let you be the judge.

As singular as the Spectre is, though, it isn't so experimental that it would look out of place in an Envy family photo. That glowing logo on the lid is still there, and that conspicuous Beats branding should seem familiar, right down to the analog volume dial. The metal chassis also looks more or less the same, even though the Spectre doesn't share the same unibody construction as its big brothers. You may also notice the Spectre's mag-alloy body has a slicker feel than the Envy 15. That's not a bad thing, especially since those smooth surfaces seem impervious to scratches. All told, the design is arresting and well-thought-out -- lovely, even. If you've been wondering why you should choose this over HP's budget Ultrabook, the Folio 13, you're looking at most of the reasons right here.


When the Spectre was first announced, most of the Ultrabooks we'd seen to date had 13-inch screens, and weighed almost a pound less. Indeed, compared to the ASUS Zenbook UX31, Toshiba Portege Z835 and HP's own Folio 13, it seems chubby at 3.97 pounds (1.8kg) / .79 inches (20.1mm) thick. Little did we know just how many plus-sized Ultrabooks were on the way. If Intel's estimate is right (and Intel should know a thing or two about Ultrabooks) half of the 75-plus models to be released this year will have 14- or 15-inch displays. Even in the first few months of the year, we've seen models with optical drives and discrete graphics -- PCs that feel more like good old-fashioned laptops than so-called Ultrabooks And wouldn't you know? In that sub-class of 14-inch Ultrabooks, the Spectre is on par with the 3.95-pound Samsung Series 5 and ThinkPad T430u, which weighs in at "under four pounds," according to Lenovo.

Unlike the Series 5, the Spectre doesn't make room for an optical drive. Instead, that right edge where you might expect to find it is home to a sparse collection of ports and buttons, including a power socket, volume dial, mute button and Beats Audio launch key. With no ports on the front or back sides either, that doesn't leave much room for all the other sockets HP managed to squeeze in. Indeed, you'll find those packed in along the left side, with a DisplayPort, HDMI socket, Ethernet jack, two USB 3.0 ports and a headphone jack sitting in a row. (There's also an SD / MMC reader tucked in there, toward the front edge.)

Although the machine feels thicker than other Ultrabooks, it's clear HP couldn't have made it any skinnier -- not if it wanted to keep that Ethernet jack, anyway. Look closely and you'll see there's no room to spare either above or below that jack, suggesting this port represented one of the bigger limiting factors in terms of thickness. We can't speak for any of you, but if it's a choice between an Ethernet jack and a slightly thinner chassis, we'll pick the wired connection every time.

NFC


The Spectre has an NFC radio built into the left side of the palm rest, but you wouldn't know it from reading HP's website: the laptop's product page makes no mention of this feature. Indeed, company officials have described this addition as "experimental," which is fair since you can't actually do much with it right now, save for transferring URLs from your phone to your desktop.

HP Touch to Share on the Envy 14 Spectre

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To get started, you'll need an Android phone with NFC, along with the free Touch to Share app, which actually has its roots in webOS. (Note: when you're searching for this in the Play Store, remember that Syncables, not HP, is listed as the developer. It's also to best to search for "HP Touch to Share," since "touch to share" yields lots of irrelevant results.)

Once you download the app and make sure NFC and Android Beam are enabled, open the Touch to Share program installed on your PC. It's at this juncture that you'll go through with a one-time pairing process so that your PC recognizes your device. As you're doing this, make sure you place the phone length-wise across the palm rest, parallel to the keyboard. Thereafter, you can just run that mobile Touch to Share app in the background on your phone when you want to share pages. Eventually, we got this to work with our Verizon Wireless Galaxy Nexus, but the webpage transfers are still very unreliable in this early stage.

Etc.


Lest you think HP is simply trying to woo you with a striking design, the company's also using the rest of the in-the-box goodies to help justify that $1,400-plus price. For starters, we appreciate that the slim power brick fully detaches from its two accompanying cables -- a setup that makes the adapter that much easier to stow away. Additionally, HP threw in a neoprene sleeve that wraps snugly around the Spectre. Nothing fancy, but it's much appreciated nonetheless.

Keyboard


HP's attention to aesthetic detail doesn't pay off with a smooth trackpad experience.

With the Envy 15, HP didn't skimp on the cushy keys, and we're happy to report it's more of the same in this shrunken-down model. Here, too, the keys offer plenty of travel, though they occasionally fail to register individual letters, a nuisance that'll force you to go back and re-type them. On the other hand, they're well spaced and we ultimately managed to type the brunt of this review on it without too much fuss. In fact, as we spent more time with the Spectre we noticed fewer spelling mistakes, which suggests you just might have to conquer a learning curve before you find your typing mojo. In the grand scheme of things, with so many Ultrabooks rocking shallow keyboards, the Spectre offers one of the better typing experiences we've enjoyed on a laptop this size, though you'll still find equally tactile keys on the Folio 13, Dell XPS 13 and MacBook Air.

You'll notice there's a good deal of similarity between this keyboard and the Folio 13's, whose arrow keys leave more room for the left / right keys than the up / down ones. It's a bit of a letdown to see those arrows are still cramped, but then again, the Spectre's footprint isn't much wider than the 13-inch Folio's. For what it's worth, you shouldn't have too much a problem feeling around for them when you want to highlight text using the 'ol keyboard.

With a starting price of $1,400, it shouldn't be a shocker that the Spectre sports a backlit keyboard. As with the other Envy laptops, HP stuck an LED underneath each keycap -- a design choice intended to enhance the glow and also reduce light leakage from beneath the keys. Friends, the effect is lovely: the keys do indeed shine brighter than what you'll find on competing laptops, and the lack of a halo effect makes for a cleaner-looking panel. If you want to save battery life, you can press F5 to deactivate it, in which case everything but that function key will go dark. Speaking of the sort, that top row is home to most every control you can think of, save for volume (display brightness, etc.) and you don't need to press the "fn" button with your other hand to use them.

Trackpad


Based on conversations with company reps, it's obvious HP took great pains to design the trackpad. Unfortunately, their attention to aesthetic detail doesn't pay off with a smooth experience. Since the outfit already committed to decking out the palm rest in glass, it had to follow up with a glass touchpad. And though it went out of its way to use a different kind of glass on the Synaptics-powered pad, that surface still presents too much friction, even when it comes to rote gestures like dragging the cursor across the screen.

With two-finger scrolling as well, you'll have to apply a little extra pressure, and move your fingers up and down very deliberately. With pinch-to-zoom, though, we actually found the pad to be a little oversensitive, making it all too easy to zoom in when we didn't mean to. Other times, when we were actively trying to adjust the size of the text, we had a heck of a time scaling to size in modest increments. Worst of all, the button mechanism inside the clickpad feels stiff -- a complaint we had about the Folio 13 too.

As with the Folio 13, there's an icon in the upper left corner of the trackpad that you can double-tap to disable the pad altogether. Once you do that, you'll know the touchpad's turned off because an icon will flash onscreen and a small LED light next to the trackpad will glow orange until you enable the pad again.

Display


The audio is some of the best you'll enjoy on a laptop, particularly an Ultrabook, where robust sound typically fall by the wayside.

We've got a few rounds of good news to share here, so let's dive right in. First off, the Spectre is blessed with a 14-inch, edge-to-edge display whose 1600 x 900 pixel count bests the 1366 x 768 resolution you'll find on most other Ultrabooks. Though HP says this isn't an IPS display, technically speaking, it nonetheless offers wider viewing angles than a run-of-the-mill TN panel. Watch from the side or with the lid dipped forward, and those vibrant colors hold their own. Within reason, the screen won't get washed-out, and the contrast levels shouldn't get too severe. If anything, your biggest obstacle might be that super reflective finish.

So far, so unsurprising. We had similar things to say about the 1080p Radiance panel crowning the Envy 15. One thing soured that, though, and that was some imprecise color calibration -- a flaw that caused reds to appear orange, and purples to take on a bluish tint. Given that all these displays fall under the Radiance umbrella, we resigned ourselves to another heaping dose of red-orange. Interestingly, though, when we lined it up against the MacBook Pro (comparison shot above), the colors seemed more evenly rendered. Turns out, our eyes weren't deceiving us: HP's product managers confirmed the Spectre's display has a richer color gamut than the Envy 15's (it is, however, comparable to the Envy 17, they say). It's too bad, then, that HP couldn't have used a larger version of that screen in the Envy 15. As it is, disgruntled Envy 15 owners will have to settle for a forthcoming tuning utility and hope for the best.

Finally, the Spectre packs Intel Wireless Display, which allows you to mirror your desktop on and stream 1080p to a television or external monitor. Though Best Buy sometimes sells laptops bundled with a compatible adapter, you'll have to bring your own, to the tune of about $100. We've tested this before, so here's our one-sentence summary: the setup is consistently fast and easy, and the streaming is fluid.

Sound


Say what you will about Beats being a gimmick (heck, we've written thousands of words on the subject), but the audio here is some of the best you'll enjoy on a laptop, particularly an Ultrabook, where robust sound typically fall by the wayside. The speakers are loud, as you'd expect, but in particular, we found the audio doesn't get distorted, even when you crank the volume to the max. And though Beats has been tailored to make the best of thumping bass notes, it also handles other sounds, such as classical strings, quite nicely. All in all, a top-notch musical experience, right up there with the Bang & Olufsen speakers on the Zenbook UX31.

By default, you still need to push the dial up to lower the volume, but if this feels unintuitive just press the Beats key on the right side of the laptop, go into advanced settings in the onscreen Beats console and program the dial to work the opposite way. While you're there, you can adjust the master volume or tweak it for certain outlets, such as the speaker. You can also select from different Beats EQ profiles (music, movies or 3D content), or adjust the sound properties manually. Hey, you can even turn off Beats altogether, at which point that light-up "b" on the palm rest ceases to glow red.

Like the rest of the Envy family, the Spectre has HP Wireless Audio built in, which means you can wirelessly stream tracks to as many as four KleerNet-powered speakers. Alas, though, we didn't test this feature, as we happen not to have any Kleer equipment lying around.

Performance

PCMark Vantage
3DMark06
HP Envy 14 Spectre (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,335 3,468
Dell XPS 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) N/A 4,130
HP Folio 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 6,701 3,387
Toshiba Portege Z835 (1.4GHz Core i3-2367M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,894 3,601
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s (1.8GHz Core i7-2677M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,939 3,651
ASUS Zenbook UX31 (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 10,508 4,209
Acer Aspire S3 (1.6GHz Core i5-2467M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 5,367 3,221
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223
2011 Samsung Series 9 (1.7GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240
Note: the higher the score the better.

If benchmarks are any indication, the Spectre isn't the fastest Ultrabook on the planet, but it holds its own against some stiff competition. Its PCMark Vantage score of 9,335 puts it in the same neighborhood as a Core i7-powered IdeaPad U300s, along with the similarly specced MacBook Air. (Curiously, the Spectre scored 2,600 points higher than the Folio 13, which has the same CPU, graphics card and 4GB of RAM.) In the disk benchmark ATTO, meanwhile, the Samsung-made solid-state drive delivered top read speeds of 232 MB/s, with writes maxing out at 187 MB/s -- almost exactly what we got from the Samsung SSD inside the Folio 13. That's also in the same ballpark as the U300s, which notched 250 MB/s reads and 200 MB/s writes. Of course, none of these amateurs can match the ASUS Zenbook UX31, which managed read / write speeds of 550 / 500 MB/s, respectively.

The Spectre notched a score of 3,468 in the graphics benchmark 3DMark06. That's around 700 to 800 points less than what the Dell XPS 13, MacBook Air and UX31 scored, though at the end of the day, panning an Ultrabook for a lackluster 3DMark06 score is a bit fruitless. After all, they all have the same watered-down Intel HD 3000 graphics card. So just how serviceable is it? If you haven't graduated from crudely drawn games like The Sims, you should enjoy 65fps frame rates, though attempt Call of Duty 4 and you'll want to quit within the first minute, thanks to the sluggish 15fps gameplay (and that's at 1024 x 768 resolution, mind you!).


Booting into Windows takes 23 seconds, which is reasonable, though not quite as fast as the UX31 (16 seconds), IdeaPad U300s (18 seconds), Folio 13 (18 seconds) or the MacBook Air (15 seconds). The machine takes a sluggish nine seconds to resume, compared with two for the UX31. As you should be well convinced by now, a machine with these specs (namely, a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD) is more than powerful enough to use as an everyday machine -- assuming your everyday tasks consist of email, web surfing, chat, word processing, video streaming, basic photo editing and some light gaming. Yours truly easily spent a leisurely evening writing this very review -- with a healthy dose of web browsing, YouTube and Grooveshark thrown in for variety's sake. If anything, that stiff, flaky clickpad is the most likely thing to slow you down.

Though the Spectre makes use of HP's CoolSense technology, we noticed the machine gets a bit warm on the bottom side, even if you're just goofing around in Chrome. Still, those slightly warmer temperatures never registered as uncomfortable.

Battery life

Laptop
Battery Life
HP Envy 14 Spectre 5:30
HP Folio 13 6:08
Toshiba Portege Z835 5:49
ASUS Zenbook UX31 5:41
13-inch, 2011 MacBook Air 5:32 (Mac OS X) / 4:12 (Windows)
Lenovo IdeaPad U300s 5:08
Dell XPS 13 4:58
Samsung Series 9 4:20
Acer Aspire S3 4:11

Though the Spectre's five-and-a-half-hour battery life is a big improvement over its predecessor's four-hour runtime, it's about 40 minutes short of what you'd get with the $800 Folio 13. Still, the Spectre's performance is average compared with other Ultrabooks. (Really, take a look at that table up there: the Spectre bests four laptops, and loses to just as many.) If you do as we did, and loop a movie off the local disk with WiFi on and the screen brightness fixed at 65 percent, the four-cell battery should last about at long as both the MacBook Air and UX31. We found, though, that if you select the default "HP Recommended" power settings and stick to web surfing, the runtime stretches to about six hours. That's just half an hour more, but if you're scrambling to wrap up that last paragraph at a trade show where there are no outlets in sight (what? who's projecting?), every minute counts.

Software


Like the Folio 13, the Spectre comes with full complimentary versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 10 and Premiere Elements 10 -- two apps we actually don't mind PC makers tossing in without our permission. Other staples include Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition and a two-year subscription (not trial, but subscription) to Norton Internet Security. Now it's true, Norton's pop-ups sometimes got the better of us when we first booted into Windows, but we appreciate getting something for nothing, and we can also respect HP for refusing to saddle its high-end Envy laptops with trialware. Now, if only it would be so generous with its Pavilion customers...

Actually, before we get knee-deep in congratulations, we'll say this: HP clearly isn't counting its own pre-installed utilities as bloatware. As with other machines in HP's stable, you'll find apps like Power Manager. Some of these apps, like MovieStore, stay invisible as long as you want them to, though Support Assistant in particular has a nasty habit of interrupting you while you're trying to get work done.

Configuration options and warranty


The configuration we took for a spin is the entry-level $1,400 model, which comes with a 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M processor, 4GB of RAM, Intel HD 3000 graphics and a 128GB SSD. As with most other Ultrabooks, there's an optional i7 CPU (the 2677M, for $200) as well as a 256GB SSD ($300). You can't order more RAM through HP, however, and though some other 14-inch Ultrabooks will include discrete graphics, the Spectre is only available with that integrated Intel card. In case you're wondering, the battery, memory and SSD are not designed to be user-replaceable (you could replace the 1,000-cycle battery yourself using a screwdriver, but HP doesn't condone it).

It's worth noting, too, that this $1,400 starting price includes a standard two-year warranty -- a given across the Envy lineup, but a welcome surprise compared to most other PCs, which generally come with one year of protection. Particularly when you consider Dell charges $187 to extend a one-year warranty to two, the Spectre's price tag stings a little less. But only a little: even if this were a $1,200 machine with a one-year warranty, it would still be more expensive than similarly specced Ultrabooks (that IPS-quality display not withstanding).

The competition


Unless you're a diehard display aficionado, the Envy 14 is a bit overpriced for what it is.

Given that, this might be a good time to ask, if this is a premium laptop, what's justifying that premium price? It's certainly not the performance or battery life, which aren't any more impressive than what the competition's capable of. It's not any special attention to ergonomics, with the trackpad being as stiff and jumpy as it is. The $1,100 ASUS Zenbook UX31 performs better for $300 less and has a rigid, spun-metal design that gives the Spectre's glass-and-metal casing a run for its money. The same can be said of the $1,300 MacBook Air, which also adds a comfortable keyboard-and-mouse combo -- something the UX31 and other Windows-based Ultrabooks haven't gotten right yet.

The most likely reason you'd choose the Spectre is that display, which matches the 1600 x 900 resolution found in the UX31, but does it one better with richer colors, wider viewing angles and some seriously narrow bezels. Truly, there's nothing else like it -- at least not in the Ultrabook category. You'll be lucky if you get resolution higher than 1366 x 768, much less a panel that isn't a garden-variety TN screen.

The Spectre also wins points for its bold design, but is that reflecting pond of a lid worth $1,400? Do those glass bits and enhance the experience, or are they just gimmicks? Suffice to say, we remain skeptical on both counts.

Wrap-up


On its own, the Envy 14 Spectre is a nice laptop. And we mean that in the most superficial way: this is one of the loveliest, most memorable machines we've tested recently, and its 1600 x 900 display is unparalleled -- at least in the Ultrabook category, where it's slim pickings for high-quality screens.

The problem is the price. We're not saying that $1,400 cost of entry makes the laptop any less of a solid product, but we're coming up short on reasons why you would choose this over a $1,100 ASUS Zenbook UX31, or even a $1,300 MacBook Air. Those are two beautiful, finely crafted options right there, and let's not discount the $1,000 Dell XPS 13 and $1,200 Lenovo IdeaPad U300s. We love these for their looks too, even if they are safer than the Spectre's glass-and-metal show. And while the Spectre's 1600 x 900 screen is a delight, the UX31 offers the same resolution for hundreds of dollars less. Most importantly, perhaps, the Spectre doesn't perform any better than less expensive Ultrabooks packing similar (or identical) components. Worse, it's saddled with a stiff clickpad -- something that can't be remedied with a quick driver update.

Given those demerits, the Spectre's biggest distinguishing features are its stunning display, two-year warranty, complimentary software, Beats Audio, limited NFC capability (a gimmick) and its glass design (another gimmick, but a damn gorgeous one). Unless you're a diehard display aficionado, the Envy 14 is a bit overpriced for what it is, even if it is a pleasure to use.
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HP

HP Envy 14 Spectre

Pros

  • Striking glass-and-metal design
  • Vibrant 1600 x 900 display
  • Stellar audio quality
  • Two-year warranty
  • Generous software package

Cons

  • Stiff clickpad
  • Expensive compared to similarly performing Ultrabooks
Conclusion

The Spectre looks the part of a premium Ultrabook, but its average performance and stiff touchpad don't justify the high price.

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