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HP Envy 14 Spectre Ultrabook Review

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Not all that long ago, many were predicting the downfall of the once venerable Hewett Packard. Their Touchpad was an abysmal failure from a sales perspective, upheavals on their executive team tanked the company’s value and rumors swirled concerning the possible elimination of their PC division. Thankfully, the outlook is looking much brighter these days.

As they say: sometimes you have to get lost in order to realize where you’re going. That’s exactly what happened with HP as they’ve emerged from a rocky 2011 looking more ready to compete than ever. There is no better example of this than the new Envy Spectre Ultrabooks which spearhead a reinvigorated lineup that contains some of the best looking notebooks we’ve seen in a long time.

The Spectre series comes in two forms: the XT and the non-XT Envy 14. The former uses the same basic 13.3” design we’ve seen on countless Ultrabooks, comes decked out in premium materials like an all metal body and has a reasonable price of $999. The Envy 14 Spectre on the other hand is the so-called “premium Ultrabook” we’re looking at today and with a staggering price of $1400, few will argue against the high end branding of this product.


Regardless of its price, the Envy 14 Spectre doesn’t include anything special in terms of specifications. The 4GB of non-upgradable memory, integrated graphics, low voltage processor and 128GB SSD are par for the course in the Ultrabook market and certainly won’t be drawing consumers away from the competition’s offerings. These options can be augmented by the addition of more memory (up to 8GB) or a 256GB SSD. Versions sporting Intel’s Ivy Bride processors will soon be arriving as well but for the time being, there are still plenty of these perfectly capable Sandy Bridge units around.

Other than extremely high standards of build quality, the Spectre’s real claim to fame is its long list of features. Not only does it include the standard Bluetooth module but Intel’s Wireless Display technology and Beats Audio have been thrown in for good measure. Another interesting addition is NFC compatibility which allows for data sharing between an Andriod smartphone (provided it too has NFC support) and the Spectre.

HP’s warranty system is complicated maze to navigate and it is filled with conflicting information but we’ll do our best to explain it. Contrary to what the marketing documents would have us believe, the original 3000-series Spectre (and the one we happen to be reviewing) comes with a 1 year warranty in Canada and the USA. On the other hand, the newer 3100-series model with an Ivy Bridge processor receives a 2-year warranty south of the border while Canada retains its one year of Total Care coverage. Even with the class-leading coverage, there's also access to HP's interesting Concierge Service, giving Envy buyers access to a number of advanced customer care initiatives.


Upon first glance the Envy 14 Spectre won’t look all that different from its competitors and many will likely roll their eyes heavenward at the ultra glossy exterior, thinking it will be marred with scratches in no time. Well, we’ve got news for you: part of the $1400 you just invested went towards an exterior that’s been encased in Gorilla Glass.

We put the exterior to the test (while risking permanent expulsion from HP’s reviewer program) by constantly lugging it around in a travel bag filled with other items and the Spectre emerged unscathed. This is one durable finish but it is also an absolute fingerprint magnet so be sure keep the included microfiber cleaning cloth handy at all times.

Naturally, with nearly a square foot of 3mm Gorilla Glass, some sacrifices were bound to be made. At 3.97lbs and 0.79” thick, Spectre is on the chunky side of the Ultrabook spectrum but to us it boasts Marylyn Monroe-esque form rather than most other Ultrabooks’ anorexic European runway model look. In other words, you won’t be sacrificing much in order to get great looks and additional longevity.


Flipping open the lid, we’re greeted with a palmrest that –like the exterior lid- has been liberally encased in Gorilla Glass along with a chassis built with machined aluminum, magnesium and plastic. The design may look futuristic and somewhat flimsy but there is no flex anywhere, closing the lid results in a satisfying “thunk” and we couldn’t detect a single fabrication misstep. All in all, the Spectre is solid, well built and simply exudes quality at every turn. In our opinion, this is what a $1400 Ultrabook SHOULD feel like.

Aside from the obvious attention to detail, HP’s design gurus have also managed to cram a 14” screen into an Ultrabook that’s no larger than many 13.3” models. So while the Envy 14 Spectre may be a bit thick around the hips, it should still fit into most compact carrying cases.


While the Envy 14 Spectre certainly can’t be considered subtle in its approach, its interior design seems to be geared towards the professional user who doesn’t want marketing in their face. Tone on tone decals and subtle hints of the Beats Audio partnership run hand in hand with seamless construction.



Since this Ultrabook is thicker than some of the competition, HP had the luxury of vertical space and made the most out of it. On the left edge there are connectors for a mini DisplayPort, HDMI 1.3, LAN, USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 that are joined by a combination headphone / mic jack and an SD Card slot. The other edge is a bit sparser with a power connector, two small LEDs for hard drive activity and charge status along with controls for the Beats Audio. For all of you professionals out there, a HDMI to VGA adaptor is an unfortunate $50 option on this $1400 Ultrabook but otherwise, this is one of the richest connector selections we have seen in a while.


HP’s attention to detail extends to the Spectre’s underside as well. Here, a supple finish nearly eliminates scratches and provides a surface that’s easy to grip while protecting your exposed lap by evenly distributing any heat buildup. According to HP the battery can be replaced –making this a first in the Ultrabook category- with the built-in latching system but we couldn’t get it to work properly.


The last item we wanted to touch upon is the power supply; something normally so innocuous by its presence that many take it for granted. In this case, it provides equal measures of convenience and frustration. HP deserves some credit since their inclusion of a USB connector for external device charging is nothing short of brilliant and the cord’s locking system ensures it doesn’t run amok at the most inconvenient of times.

Unfortunately, with great innovation comes a serious misstep in our books: the cord length between the Ultrabook at the power brick is far too short. The brick will either have to remain on your desk or dangle midway between the floor and your tabletop since there isn’t enough cord to actually get it anywhere else. Thankfully the Spectre is nearly 4 lbs so it won’t be dragged straight off of your work surface.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,857
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Montreal
Keyboard & Touchpad / Audio Quality

Keyboard & Touchpad



Let’s summarize our opinion about the Spectre’s Radiance keyboard in one word: awesome. This is hands down the best keyboard we’ve used on an Ultrabook and while opinions about such things are highly subjective, in many ways HP’s design outstrips the one included on the vaunted MacBook Pro.

Once pressed, every one of the keys features a satisfying, muted “click” which subtly registers in your subconscious and vastly improves typing accuracy. Even the throw distance is spot on with just the right amount of feedback to satisfy touch typists and the spacing between keys is spot on. Unfortunately, our unit came with the dreaded Canadian bilingual layout that features a mini-me sized left shift key but otherwise we really couldn’t have asked for more.


Each key has an individual LED integrated into its backer, resulting in an even illumination of every typing surface on the Spectre. The quality here is literally second to none. While HP didn’t include an ambient light sensor for auto-dimming, the backlight function can be controlled through the motion detection routine within the proximity sensor so it will turn itself on once it senses motion nearby. Naturally, this function can be modified with the included software.


There are a number of other interesting features packed into this keyboard. The function keys act as what would typically be considered secondary commands such as increase / decrease screen brightness without pressing and holding the Function key first. To get the “normal” commands (for example "F2") you need to press the Fn key first, followed by the function key of your choice. Essentially, the secondary key bindings have become primary commands on this keyboard. This may present a steep learning curve for anyone that normally uses keyboard shortcuts in Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD or other professional programs but it should become second nature for media commands and general commands. There are also a number of other shortcuts built into the Spectre like immediate Twitter access through the ALT+T input.


While the keyboard is a resounding success, HP’s self-branded “ImagePad” is nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. Items like pinch-to-zoom and two fingered scrolling work perfectly and its glossy surface somehow manages to provide some resistance but that’s where the fun stops since the rocker-style touchpad just doesn’t work all that well.

Normally, touchpads with integrated buttons are flaky at best but in this case the entire surface can tilt from left to right leading to inputs when you least expect them. With the ability to be depressed anywhere for double clicking, drag selecting and icon moving will become an infuriating experience as the entire area goes slightly off kilter at the slightest of touches. To add insult to injury, at times the Imagepad acts erratically by picking up phantom clicks that aren't even there. Luckily, double tapping the upper left corner will turn off the touchpad and we found ourselves using this option far too often throughout the course of writing this review.


Upgrade Options



The Spectre may feature a removable battery cover but don’t expect to be upgrading your own memory and SSD anytime soon. Like most other Ultrabooks, this one doesn’t offer the possibility of accessing its internal components.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
Staff member
Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Screen & Audio Quality

Screen Quality



Under normal circumstances we’d be complaining away about the Spectre’s ultra glossy screen that makes it nigh-on impossible to use in high light conditions. But in this case our typical sob story will have to take a back seat because HP’s 14” Radiance LED display is nothing short of spectacular.

It may be one of the more reflective screens out there but the images displayed by this high resolution 1600x900 panel are noteworthy, even at this price point. Contrast is spot-on, colour reproduction will impress even the most jaded of professionals, movies exhibit no detectible blurring or motion artifacts and content had just the right amount of saturation. With the low quality displays packed into most notebooks, there’s typically there’s something to complain about but in this case, we just couldn’t find any glaring faults.

Sitting directly above this stunning display is a TrueVision HD webcam with dual omni directional microphones, both of which work magnificently. There is also a pair of proximity sensors which glow a muted red and caused us to think Big Brother was watching through the webcam but all these do is pick up movement in order to engage the keyboard’s backlight.


Horizontal viewing angles were impressive as well with contrast and colours staying perfectly balanced even when looking at the screen from an oblique angle. On the other hand, picture quality did decrease a bit when shifting positions on a vertical plane but the difference was only noticeable when viewed from nearly 45 degrees off center.


Audio Quality



The HP Spectre makes no qualms about showcasing its Beats Audio support and with good reason: this is one of the best sounding Ultrabooks currently available. The notes from its angled speakers are clear and unlike many similar setups, the bass is actually quite distinguishable. It even gives the B&O system in ASUS’ HP-SPECTRE a real run for its money once the included software’s settings are tweaked a bit. When it comes to headphones, we were surprised to discover that Beats Audio was perfectly capable of driving our Grado headphones without the need for a dedicated amplifier.

HP has also included an oh-so-cool analog volume knob which has been perfectly integrated into the Spectre’s chassis so it won’t be accidentally moved, a small Mute button and the ability to turn off the Beats Audio via a dedicated toggle. In our opinion, the whole audio design on this Ultrabook is well implemented from every perspective.


The included Beats Audio manger may be a simple software wrapper for all of the auditory functions on this notebook but it really does make a difference. With it enabled, the Spectre outputs clear, well defined sound from the speakers and headphone jack. The manager also gives you comprehensive access to a full range equalizer and complete control over the microphone (the included noise cancellation technology is second to none in our opinion), all while taking up a minimum system resource footprint. If you don’t like the soundstage it produces and would rather default to the standard Windows driver, just press the aforementioned button and Beats will turn itself off.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,857
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Included Software

Included Software




In most reviews we shove the Software section into a part of the review that only a few people ever read because it typically consists of the same spiel: Norton or McAfee hogging system resources with a bunch of other banal software along for the ride. This time, we need to do things a bit differently. Even though the usual buggy, pay-to-use Norton software is still there (albeit with a 2 year “subscription”) HP has loaded the Envy 14 Spectre up with a host useful and sometimes intuitive programs. Granted, this does result in a total of 1.2GB of valuable system memory being taken while the notebook idles but as usual, ridding yourself of Norton in favor or MSE will free up another 250MB.


First up on our whirlwind tour of the Spectre’s software is the Wireless Audio Manager. When using a compatible HP-certified wireless headphones or speakers, the WAM will automatically pair your notebook with any such device. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a compatible device on-hand (standard wireless headphones won’t connect) so this feature couldn’t be tested but from reading a number of forum threads about the topic, it seems to work quite well.


At first glance Touch to Share is an interesting addition to this Ultrabook since it allows you to transfer files between your smartphone and the Spectre. Unfortunately, its uses are severely curtailed since only android phones with NFC modules are compatible and those are few and far between unless you get a flagship phone.


HP’s CoolSense technology does exactly what its name suggests: it augments the Spectre’s performance and fan speeds in order to best suit a given situation. Unlike other technologies, CoolSense actually monitors exterior temperatures and strives to keep things within lap-centric comfort limits. As you’ll see in the exterior temperature testing, it works remarkably well without increasing fan noise.


Running hand in hand with CoolSense is HP’s Power Manager. This takes the place of Windows’ own power settings and the different modes can be changed through the use of keyboard hotkeys or a few mouse clicks on the system tray. In our experience, the HP Recommended mode gives a perfect balance of power consumption and performance but make sure not to overlook Power Saver when you’re running on the battery.


According to HP, the customer service experience offered on the Envy series is second to none and in some respects, we’re inclined to agree. Take their Support Assistant for example. Here a user can go through basic –yet handy- maintenance routines to ensure their notebook is running in tip-top shape or they can go through a point by point troubleshooting guide which dynamically adapts to the answers input and suggests realistic solutions to basic issues. There’s also a product knowledge catalog that gives some helpful hints and guides about how to best optimize your computing experience. Finally, if all else fails, the Get Assistance section allows for direct interaction with a dedicated HP customer service representative through either instant messenger or over the phone.


By far, the best and most convenient piece of software included on the Spectre is the Launch Box Manager. With it, customized program lists can be built and each application will launch in order once Windows starts. If you want to completely disable typical Start Up programs, simply use My Launch Box and disable every item. Granted, many of these options can be controlled through the MSConfig dialog box but LBM ensures that newcomers to customized Windows installations won’t go around turning off things that should have been left on. It really is brilliant but unfortunately, some built-in programs can’t be disabled.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,857
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System Benchmarks

System Benchmarks


These system benchmarks will cover the basics of a notebook’s sub-system performance along with Startup and Shutdown times. For PCMark 7 the standard test is used for most notebooks but entry level models are tested using the Lightweight Test. WPrime tests CPU performance and finally, Crystal Diskmark will give us an idea of storage (HDD or SSD) performance.







Performance is about where we would expect an Ultrabook to be: raw CPU performance doesn’t quite match up to its larger brethren but the SSD helps mitigate this differential. Speaking of the Samsung SSD, it certainly isn’t the fastest we’ve tested but it still provides extremely quick Windows start up / shut down times and an overall very responsive experience.
 

SKYMTL

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Productivity Benchmarks

Productivity Benchmarks


In this section we will be benchmarking programs which many people use on a daily basis. WinRAR will show how well a given system’s CPU, memory and storage subsystem performance work together to compress a large folder with 2.5GB of information contained within. Meanwhile, we use DriverHeaven’s Photoshop Benchmark and CineBench to recreate a professional usage environment of photo manipulation and rendering. MediaCoder x64 is also included in order to show CPU video transcoding performance within a free, vendor agnostic and multi threaded program.






As is becoming par for the course with Ultrabooks, the Spectre’s SSD is once again able to somewhat mitigate the CPU’s lackluster performance but it can only go so far. As such, programs like Photoshop tend to slow to a crawl when multiple brushes are used and transcoding applications which don’t support Intel’s QuickSync take a while to complete a task.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Entertainment Benchmarks / Network Performance

Entertainment Benchmarks


With a swift propagation of online and disk-based high definition content, testing a notebook’s performance in this area is critical. In order to accomplish this, a 720P YouTube Flash video clip is played through Google Chrome with hardware acceleration enabled.

The Blu Ray tests are conducted through Cyberlink’s PowerDVD 11 Ultra once again with hardware acceleration enabled if the system supports it. The video was run directly from the notebook’s hard drive. If the notebook doesn’t support 1080P input to its screen, we output the video via HDMI or DisplayPort to a 1080P HDTV.





HD decoding and online video viewing tests hardly stress today’s architectures but when a few programs are running in the background, they can be sufficient to cripple an Ultrabook. Luckily, most users won’t expect one of these highly portable devices to transcode a home movie and decode an HD film at the same time.


Network Performance


One of the most important aspects of any portable device is its ability to connect to wireless networks. A weak wireless card, insufficient insulation around the receiver or a badly placed antenna could all lead to connection issues and poor signal reception. There’s nothing more frustrating than getting booted from the ‘net due to insufficient signal.

In this simple test, we set up a wireless router (D-Link DIR-825) in six pre-determined locations within our 3-floor home at a rate of two locations per floor and each connected to a host PC. The notebook is placed upstairs (on the 3rd level), the router is connected to and a 1GB folder of information is transferred over to the host PC over the network. Typically, the transfer takes 5 to 20 minutes depending upon signal strength, etc.

The numbers you see below indicate how many connection points each notebook could recognize and then complete a successful file transfer. Naturally, higher recognized connection rates and successful file transfer numbers indicate better wireless performance.

Note than the floor plate between the basement and first level is concrete, which will prove to be a significant challenge for the penetration of wireless signals. The locations chosen range from 20 feet to approximately 50 feet away from the tested computer.



There’s only one way to describe the Spectre’s results here: flawless. Intel’s Centrino wireless module has always been a class-leading performer in our charts but HP has taken it to the next level here. This is actually the first notebook to ace our wireless test.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Gaming Benchmarks

Gaming Benchmarks


The gaming tests seen below are relatively straightforward with a mix of DX11, DX10 and DX9 games being used in order to ensure full compatibility with every system. 3DMark06 and 3DMark 11 (for supporting systems) are used as well. They are all run in-game three times over so as to ensure accuracy with all settings as indicated in the charts below.





Ultrabooks aren’t gaming computers and the Spectre is no exception. Granted, it can get the job done at ultra low settings in some basic applications but don’t expect to be playing the latest a-list games on this notebook.
 

SKYMTL

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Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Battery Life

Battery Life


Battery longevity is one of (if not THE) most important aspect of any mobile device which is why we are breaking this section down into three distinct tests. The “Standard Workload” represents relatively light usage with a Flash-enabled web page being refreshed every 30 seconds. Our “Heavy Workload” runs a looped 10 minute automatic script that reflects a professional usage pattern of photo manipulation (Photoshop CS5), word processing (Microsoft Word), drafting (AutoCAD 2011) and file compression (WinRAR). Finally, the “Gaming” test runs a timedemo loop of Far Cry 2 DX9.

All tests are run until the battery reaches 5% with the Balanced battery mode enabled and the screen at 75% brightness. Wireless is also turned on but any backlit keyboard functionality is turned off.



Battery life is the cornerstone of any mobile technology and Ultrabooks are supposed to provide unplugged performance that far outstrips other models. For example, HP claims their Spectre is supposed to achieve up to 9 hours of battery life (an incredible achievement provided it could be attained) but as usual the actual numbers fell well short of that goal.

With a standard workload benchmark of nearly six hours, this Ultrabook is no slouch in the battery life category, especially when you consider it is working off of a 4-cell battery. Of course, as load increase you can expect less time away from a charging point but these numbers are certainly an accomplishment.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
Feb 26, 2007
Messages
12,857
Location
Montreal
Temperatures / Acoustical Testing

Temperatures


Temperature testing is quite straightforward: we load the system with a loop of Far Cry 2 in order to stress the dedicated GPU (if there is one) while the CPU load is handled by a loop of WPrime 32M. Battery power is used during these tests. Temperatures are recorded with HWInfo and GPU-Z. Remember that this is a worst case scenario test so typical usage patterns will result in slightly lower temperatures.

Meanwhile, exterior temperatures are taken with a calibrated Fluke infrared thermometer at various locations on the notebook chassis. For comparison’s sake, we consider exterior readings of under 85°F to be perfectly suitable for on-lap usage while temperatures between 85°F and 95°F will start to feel a bit toasty. Anything above 95°F is uncomfortable and care should be given before placing it on your lap.



Ultrabooks typically sacrifice low temperatures for slim chassis designs but HP’s Spectre charts a different course. Since it has a slightly thicker profile than its competitors, some larger internal heatsinks are used, thus allowing the internal components to operate at acceptable levels.



We’ve run the gamut with Ultrabook temperature testing: some push the limits of comfort while others simply sit on your lap and burn their way through your pants. HP on the other hand follows up their excellent CPU temperatures with one of the most even heat distribution paths we’ve seen. Instead of concentrating a ridiculous amount of heat in one or two key areas, the Spectre –by and large through its included CoolSense technology- is able to spread things around, ensuring the exterior remains at warm but manageable temperature levels.


Acoustical Testing


No one likes a loud laptop so in order to objectively determine acoustical properties, we use a calibrated decibel meter which is placed 16” away from the keyboard. A loop of WPrime is used to load the system and replicate a high usage scenario.

Any result under 35dB can be considered no louder than general background noise and usually won’t be noticed. Between 35dB and 45dB is still perfectly acceptable for notebooks yet will be much more noticeable than lower frequencies and likely won’t be heard over the noise of typing. Finally, we consider any result above 45dB to be unacceptable for a mobile device.



One may think that low interior and exterior temperatures have necessitated a move to high fan speeds but that isn’t the case here. There is some muted high pitched fan whine at extreme load conditions within hot environments but for the most part, the Spectre stays blissfully silent.
 
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