The HP Spectre Folio’s name is more than just marketing hype. This 2-in-1 convertible laptop bucks the futuristic designs that dominate premium laptop lineups from the likes of Dell, Apple, and Asus in favor of a simple, luxurious, comfortable leather exterior. When closed, it looks just like a portfolio cover you might use to bring copies of your resume to an important job interview. Does leather mesh well with the silicon, pixels, and other laptop guts, though? And would you be wise to spend $1,299 (or $1,758.98, in the case of the version I’m reviewing) on the completed package? Unless you’re willing to make a few key sacrifices, probably not, alas.
In a Leathery League of Its Own
The Spectre Folio is so different from anything else in the laptop aisle of your local electronics superstore that you could spend days trying to figure out what it is with no success. I know; I’ve tried.
The best I can come up with: This really is a leather document folio that just happens to store a laptop instead of important papers. But that distilled description belies the fact that HP poured a ton of innovation into the Spectre Folio. Even if you don’t buy it, you should hope the clever design work trickles down to less expensive models in the future.
Lenovo Yoga C930
HP EliteBook x360 1030 G2
HP Chromebook x2
Asus ZenBook Flip 14 (UX461UN)
Lenovo ThinkPad X280
Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (9365)
Microsoft Surface Book 2
Apple MacBook Air (2018)
As it stands, a starting price of $1,299 cements the Spectre Folio into the premium 2-in-1 category, and it certainly looks the part. When closed, the full-grain leather looks and feels luxurious. The unit I’m reviewing is clad in Cognac Brown, but you will soon be able to opt for a darker burgundy variant, as well. The luxury is understated, however. The exterior is essentially two slices of leather that hang over the left and right edges of the laptop and gracefully curl over the hidden hinge.
Open the lid as you would a conventional laptop, and you’ll see how well HP has integrated the leather into the design, rather than just strapping it on like a permanent case. The leather extends to the palm rest below the keyboard, surrounding the touchpad on all sides. The ash-colored metal of the keyboard deck extends a bit more than halfway down the laptop’s base.
Viewed from the side, the wedge-shaped metal part of the base seems impossibly thin. It disappears into the leather, and it’s far thinner than the latest revision of the Apple MacBook Air($999.00 at Amazon) , which made wedge-shaped laptops mainstream. HP managed to fit a pancaked, capacious battery (six cells, 54 watt-hours) underneath the keyboard and the leather base. In fact, the battery takes up so much room that the motherboard is relegated to a thin strip just forward of the Spectre Folio’s hinge. That’s the reverse of a typical laptop arrangement, in which the motherboard is the internal component that takes up the most room and the battery works around that.
The hinge that connects the base to the display, partially visible behind the leather as you open the lid wider, is reminiscent of the curved detachable hinge on the Microsoft Surface Book 2($999.00 at Amazon) . The screen is not detachable, though, and neither does the hinge rotate through 360 degrees. Instead, the Spectre Folio transforms into its tablet mode in a way that no other current mainstream convertible does.
You pull the bottom of the display toward you, and it splits in two slivers. After you split it, you pull it forward to lay it flat on top of the keyboard, where magnets once again secure it into place. It’s not always a seamless experience—a few times during my testing, the display awkwardly broke free as soon as I opened the laptop from a closed position—but when it works, it’s quite satisfying.
Indeed, all of this, from the leather to the thinness of the metal to the unique way in which the Spectre Folio transforms into a tablet, leaves you with an impression of smart engineering. But there’s one major downside: The complete package is heavy, even a bit unwieldy, for a 13.3-inch convertible laptop. It weighs 3.3 pounds, far enough above the 3-pound limit that most ultraportables tend to adhere to that the Spectre Folio is startlingly heavy when you pick it up. The Lenovo Yoga C930, for instance, is 3.1 pounds, and that with its larger 13.9-inch display. The HP Spectre 13, HP’s flagship ultralight clamshell laptop, which the Spectre Folio will certainly upstage in the eyes of many laptop shoppers, is just 2.41 pounds.
Despite the thinness of the metal, the leather adds significant bulk, further contributing to the meaty feeling. The Spectre Folio measures 0.6 by 12.6 by 9.2 inches (HWD). That’s almost exactly the same dimensions as the bigger-screen Yoga C930, and noticeably larger than other premium 13-inch conventional ultraportables like the Dell XPS 13 (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches) and the Apple MacBook Pro (0.59 by 12 by 8.4 inches).
As with the human body, inches and pounds can inflict some painful truths, and in the Spectre Folio’s case, they’re reinforced by the reactions I got from people who saw me using the machine. Nearly everyone’s first reaction was a variant of, “Wow, that is a pretty laptop,” followed by, “Wow, why is it so heavy?” when I let them hold it.
A Pleasure to Behold, Less So to Hold
But perhaps you appreciate innovative designs and are willing to accept that while the Spectre Folio is a looker, it’s not always a joy to hold. In that case, you might fawn over the display, a full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) touch screen behind a layer of protective Gorilla Glass. It’s not unique because of its wide viewing angles, sharp colors, or generous 400 nits of brightness. Most of its competitors have those, too. It’s unique because it’s the first laptop display PCMag has tested that consumes just a single watt of power.
After the CPU and the cooling hardware (and perhaps the graphics chip, in the case of a gaming-minded model), the display is often the power-hungriest laptop component, and reducing its power consumption is a key priority for many companies. Intel showed off a 1-watt screen prototype in June, and HP appears to have figured out how to implement it with few sacrifices.
One of those sacrifices is that while a full HD display is perfectly adequate for a laptop, the Apple iPad($999.00 at Amazon) and many other tablets have significantly higher resolutions. So if you’re migrating to the Spectre Folio from one of those leading tablets, you might want to sacrifice power savings for the 4K (3,840-by-2,160-pixel) display option, which HP plans to offer by the end of the year. Note that HP also offers a more conventional 1080p screen option, rated for 300 nits versus the 400-nit rating in the 1-watt panel.
The touch screen plays nice with your fingers. I noticed a bit of screen bounce when tapping it in ordinary clamshell mode, but none with the laptop set to tablet mode or the unique Easel mode. To get into Easel, you attach the screen’s lower-edge magnets to other magnets that lie between the touchpad and the keyboard. You get a slanted-but-standing orientation with just the touchpad visible.
The screen also works well with HP’s active digital stylus, which is included at no extra charge. It does a good job of ignoring your palm if you’re resting it on the screen while you’re drawing or taking notes, and I find the pen itself accurate and comfortable to hold, and its battery easy to replace. Even better, HP includes a leather pen sleeve that attaches to the left edge, which is far more secure than the finicky magnets that Microsoft, Samsung, and others use to attach their stylus pens to the sides of their laptops and tablets.
When you’re not using the pen or tapping with your fingers, you’ll find a very comfortable backlit keyboard to type on. As you’d expect from such a thin keyboard deck, there’s only minimal distance for the keys to travel up and down when you type, but the switches are supremely stable, and the keys are full-size and well-spaced.
Unfortunately, the Spectre Folio’s touchpad needs a rethink. It’s small and cramped beneath the keyboard, and it uses clumsy, confusing Synaptics software to adjust facets such as sensitivity, scrolling, and multi-finger gestures. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t adjust the settings to my liking, and I frequently found myself tapping when I meant to scroll, and vice versa.
Now, these problems are common on HP laptops, including the HP Spectre 13. Moving to the better, if still imperfect, Windows Precision Touchpad would solve many of them, and I hope future versions of the Spectre Folio do that instead of clinging to the Synaptics setup (or that the Synaptics software sees an update).
Connectivity: Prepare for a “C” Change
You get three USB Type-C ports on the Spectre Folio: one on the left edge, and two on the right edge. An audio input/output combo jack is built into the lower left corner of the display. And that’s it, all of the ports you get. Even the power adapter, with its luxurious braided fabric cord, plugs into one of the USB-C ports. That isn’t surprising, but neither is it generous compared with the inclusion of a crucial USB 3.1 Type-A port on the Yoga C930. You’ll need an adapter or a special cable to connect external displays or mice.
The Spectre Folio also lacks an SD card reader. But if you are planning to transfer lots of large files from a newer external drive, you’ll appreciate that one of the USB Type-C ports also supports the lightning-quick Thunderbolt 3 protocol. Thunderbolt 3 is overlaid on the straight USB connectivity of that port; you can also use it as an ordinary USB.
The Spectre Folio comes with a face-recognition webcam, which means that you can log in to your Windows 10 account simply by looking at the screen. The deck lacks a fingerprint reader, however, and the power button is positioned, conventionally, forward of the keyboard. That means if you need to wake up or turn on the system while it’s sleeping in tablet mode, you’ll first have to detach the display to access the power button. Many convertibles, including the Yoga C930, move the power button to the left or right edge to ease this process.
Audio quality is only fair, but remember that the entire motherboard has to fit in that thin strip between the keyboard and hinge, where the speaker grille is, so there’s little room for substantial speakers. As it stands, the quad speaker setup is fine for watching video clips in quiet rooms, but after watching an entire episode of Seinfeld, I longed even for the speakers of my 2017 Apple iPad.
Gigabit LTE Is Optional
In addition to Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, the Spectre Folio unit I tested comes equipped with an optional Intel XMM 7560 LTE modem, which is the same one that Apple uses in the new iPhone Xs($999.00 at Amazon) .
In general, that means the Spectre Folio should offer the same upload and download speeds as that phone. In my testing on the AT&T network, the Spectre Folio managed 35MBps downloads and just over 5MBps uploads when I used it on a high floor of a Manhattan office building. I measured those speeds using Speedtest.net from Ookla. (Note: Ookla’s parent company, Ziff Davis, also owns PCMag.)
A download speed of 35MBps is suited to pretty much any web browsing and HD video streaming scenario I tested. For example, I managed an hour of flawless video streaming even while connected to a VPN. The relatively low upload speed may give some users pause, though.
Of course, speeds will vary greatly based on your location and the wireless carrier you’re using, among several other factors. In fact, the Intel XMM 7560 is capable of gigabit speeds, which might not be achievable on wireless networks today, but should as 5G networks begin to roll out next year. The Spectre Folio has support for two SIM cards, so you could even switch between carriers based on which one has the fastest speeds wherever you are.
Note that the Spectre Folio currently supports SIM cards from AT&T or T-Mobile only. Like the identical silicon in the iPhone Xs, the modem is compatible with all major US carriers, so it’s possible that HP could strike deals with Verizon, Sprint, and other carriers in the future.
The Price of Vanity? Performance
The base-model Spectre Folio comes outfitted with an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and a 256GB solid-state drive (SSD) for storage. These specs are a bit stingy given the $1,299 starting price, especially when it comes to the processor. Ideally, HP would only offer configurations with Intel Core i7 CPUs. However, the Spectre Folio’s uniqueness means this component sacrifice is take-it-or-leave-it.
Of course, if you are willing to spend more, you get more. The version of the Spectre Folio I tested comes with an Intel Core i7, 16GB of memory, and a 512GB SSD in addition to the LTE modem, for roughly a $400 premium over the starting price. All of these specs are welcome upgrades, and at first glance they’re even a fair deal. A similarly configured latest-gen Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 (minus LTE connectivity, newer than the one at the link) is $1,499, while a 13-inch MacBook Pro with similar specs is a whopping $2,199.
Delve a bit deeper into the processor specs, however, and you will realize that the Spectre Folio and XPS 13 are using late-model, ultra-low-power Y-series CPUs, in this case, a Core i7-8500Y. This means that they consume just 7 watts of power and don’t need dedicated cooling fans, opting for passive cooling that eliminates operating noise. Unfortunately, it also eliminates the ability to use this laptop effectively for extensive multimedia creation, video or photo editing, or other similar resource-intensive tasks.
I compared the Spectre Folio to a host of competing 2-in-1 and clamshell models outfitted thus…
With that component summary as a reference point, let’s get down into the benchmarking nitty-gritty.
Productivity and Media Tests
The Spectre Folio scored just 243 points on the Cinebench test, which measures a CPU’s ability to handle sustained, multithreaded workloads such as rendering multimedia files or compressing files. Similarly priced convertibles with more powerful (albeit power-hungrier) CPUs typically achieve more than 500 on this test. You can see a few of them below.
Likewise, it took almost four minutes for the Spectre Folio to apply a series of 10 filters to an image using Adobe Photoshop CC. This result is comparable to the Lenovo ThinkPad X380 Yoga and the Acer Swift 7 but noticeably slower than both the Dell Latitude 5290 2-in-1 and the HP EliteBook x360 1030 G3.
These results don’t mean that the Spectre Folio is a frustratingly slow laptop, only that it isn’t suited to the types of tasks that power users often perform. In my casual testing, I experienced scant sluggishness while web browsing and streaming videos, even with several browser tabs open.
Indeed, on our all-encompassing PCMark 10 test, which measures everything from spreadsheet manipulation to video conferencing, the Spectre Folio’s result of 2,941 was within spitting distance of its one Y-series competitor here and, while a clear tier below the U-series-based laptops, still in the zone of respectability.
Also, it was dead-on with the pack on storage speed, as evidenced by its on-point score on PCMark 8’s Storage test. PCI Express-bus SSDs tend to cluster around the 5,000 level you see here.
Neither the Spectre Folio nor any of its similarly priced competitors will offer a satisfying gaming experience unless you stick to web-based games and less-demanding titles like Minecraft. If you do attempt to play a demanding AAA game, you’ll likely experience dismally low frame rates of around 15 frames per second, as you can see from our Superposition benchmark, even if you dial down the resolution and the detail settings.
Also, the two 3DMark trials we typically run show the Intel UHD Graphics 615 integrated solution on the Spectre Folio to be a step behind the other Intel flavors here by fair-size margins.
The Spectre Folio’s one unquestionable strength when it comes to performance is its exceptionally long battery life, thanks to its power-sipping components. I didn’t need to charge it during an entire weekend of use at several hours per day, and it took nearly 16 hours of constant video playback in our battery rundown test before the battery was exhausted.
Take a Leap on Leather?
Mainstream ultraportables such as the Dell XPS 13 and Apple MacBook Pro are now beautiful examples of engineering, but even among them, the Spectre Folio is in a class by itself. That said, its expense and its cramped, clumsy touchpad together make it hard to recommend to mainstream buyers. Also, discerning power users will find its computing performance lacking. It’s not slow, but you’re not getting a powerhouse for the money, either.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for a beautiful laptop to serve as an executive status symbol, a sometimes movie-watching machine, and an email platform—and price is not an object—the Spectre Folio is hard to beat for eyeball impact. You may even like it enough to retire your actual leather portfolio.
HP Spectre Folio
The Bottom Line
Swathed in swanky leather and kitted out with a new, power-efficient screen, HP’s Spectre Folio is a unique, innovative ultraportable. Alas, its styling and pricing are as over-the-top as its performance is underwhelming.
Like What You’re Reading?
Sign up for Lab Report to get the latest reviews and top product advice delivered right to your inbox.
Your subscription has been confirmed. Keep an eye on your inbox!