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Saturday, 12 January 2013

HP Spectre XT TouchSmart Ultrabook Personal Review (15t-4010)

14:50 Posted by kashyap bhansali , , , No comments

Highlights: Stylish with a full HD 15.6" IPS touchscreen display, Core i7 ultra low voltage cpu, 8GB RAM, 500GB hard drive with 32GB SSD cache.


The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is HP's top of the line Windows 8 ultrabook. Like all ultrabooks it has a dual-core ultra low voltage Core i-series cpu with HD4000 graphics; in this case HP has chosen to pair a Core i7 with 8gb RAM, which adds a 15-20% speed boost over the Core i5's with 4gb RAM often seen in ultrabooks. The screen is a 15.6" wide-angle IPS touchscreen. A 5400rpm disk with a 32GB SSD Intel Smart Response cache provides storage. The HP is powered on the go by a 4 cell 48wh battery.

The HP comes nicely presented in a black cardboard case. A soft beige cloth bag encloses the laptop, and a black nylon bag stores the power accessories.

On the outside the HP is a stylish and thin brushed aluminum wedge which calls to mind a largish MacBook Air. Weight is just under 5 lbs, about 1/2 lb heavier than the 15.4" MacBook Pro Retina. It feels very sturdy, if a bit unwieldy when held by the side with one hand due to the width, which is 14.87 inches. The bottom is a nice soft-touch material with a vent in the back for the fan, and vents on the sides for two speakers (two more speakers are under the screen behind the keyboard). Inside is a wide palm rest with a large trackpad. The trackpad is set in a depression, and is made of glass. The spacious keyboard eschews the common practice of adding a numeric keyboard to 15.6" laptops. The hinges are sturdy and a bit stiff - the display can be opened without holding down the base of the laptop, until a certain point when the base starts to lift.

Connectivity is good. The HP is one of the few Windows laptops to have a Thunderbolt port. Unlike many other laptops, the two USB 3.0 ports on the left are not blue colored. The USB 2.0 port on the right can be used a charging port when the laptop is off. Rounding out the ports are an HDMI port, Ethernet RJ-45, a headphone/microphone combo jack, and an SD/MMC card slot. A Kensington MicroSaver lock slot is also included.

The 2x2 a/b/g/n WLAN is provided by Intel and supports wireless display (WiDi) for connecting the laptop to compatible TV's or adapters. Intel Smart Connect Technology can be configured to wake the laptop from sleep periodically and download email, etc. This could be useful if you need to just pick the laptop up and go with all your email already downloaded. Bluetooth 4 and an HD webcam are also included.


The HP comes pre-installed with Windows 8 64-bit. A recovery partition is included to reset the laptop to factory settings. Windows 8 makes this easy via the settings menu.

It is not easy to get inside this laptop. Fourteen Philips screws protect the underside. More await inside. However, once opened up the 6Gb/sec SATA hard drive and 6Gb/sec mSATA cache drive can be replaced, although the cache will need to be disabled first via the included Intel Rapid Storage Technology console. The single memory slot is populated with 4gb RAM, and another 4gb is wired on.

The warranty for the non-customizable model 15-4010nr is standard at 1 year. However, the customizable 15t-4000 (not always available on the HP web site) comes with a 2 year warranty. This model can be customized with Windows 8 Pro, a faster 7200rpm hard drive, or an SSD.

The black keyboard is wide and spacious. Unlike most 15.6" laptops, the HP does not have a numeric keypad which means the keyboard is centered, and combined with the spacious palm rest provides a decent typing experience; although it is no match for the Thinkpad keyboards of old. The arrow keys skimp on the size of the up and down arrows; it would be better if the 4 arrow keys extended below the rest of the keyboard slightly (as in some Lenovo's) to make them easier to find and allow for full size up and down keys. The Windows function keys are tied to brightness, loudness, screen, wireless on/off, etc, which means that you must press the "Fn" key to activate the regular Windows F1 - F12 function keys. This is particularly annoying when having to refresh web pages with Fn-F5. In a nice touch, Alt-F4 works as usual to exit a program (Alt-Fn-F4 would be a bit much). In contrast, the Lenovo Yoga does this better by dedicating the F5 key to refresh and the F4 key to the exit function (particularly important with Windows 8 Metro style apps which often have no other way to force an exit). The caps lock and wireless on/off keys have a small LED to indicate when they are on. The keyboard backlight can be turned on and off by the F5 function key. This key always remains lit itself so it can be found in the dark.

The highly configurable Synaptics touchpad works well and the glass surface is smooth to the touch. It is set in a depression and there is no question when your finger gets to the edge of this trackpad - a good thing. The touchpad can be turned off by tapping at the top left, which illuminates a small LED next to it. This functionality can thankfully be disabled in settings. The pressure required to click the touchpad is a bit too much and doesn't have very good feel; however it is rarely necessary to actually click it as a tap for left click and two-fingered tap for right click are usually sufficient. Selecting text is the main exception, where a click and drag is often required.



The display is a bright, glossy 15.6", full HD 1920x1080 IPS touchscreen panel. The IPS designation stands for "In Plane Switching" and indicates that the display has great viewing angles from the top, bottom, and sides. It is a bit on the heavy side, however overall the laptop is not unbalanced. The ability to interact using touch is surprisingly natural in Windows 8; scrolling around web pages and moving/resizing/closing windows works very well. In Metro apps, touch is even better and the familiar two-finger zoom function works great in Internet Explorer, although oddly not in apps such as the news app. The panorama photos in the travel app and the maps app are particularly fun to interact with via touch. If Windows 8 is a success, touch will be an important reason why.

Alas the days of 16:10 aspect ratio displays are gone and this display is no exception at 16:9. While this is great for viewing YouTube, Netflix, etc, it is not great for viewing photos and interacting with lots of on-screen windows, because the vertical space is limited. Landscape photos have large black side borders, and portrait photos are even worse. This is one of the main usability issues of this laptop. It's a shame that manufacturers don't address this, as Apple has done with the MacBook Pro 16:10 displays.

To partially mitigate the lack of vertical real estate, the task bar can be positioned on the right or left side of the display so it doesn't take up space at the bottom. This also makes the task bar easier to interact with via touch, especially when using the "fingers behind the display, thumb in front" technique.

Display brightness is excellent, and can comfortably be used 1 or 2 steps below maximum in most situations. On battery, the brightness can be adjusted through it's full range. Contrast is good, and images and video pop nicely. Color range (gamut) is decent, but does not cover sRGB. Calibration would be required for better accuracy.

The glossy display makes for strong reflections. At certain angles, even the silver palm rest and the keyboard backlighting can cause distracting reflections (luckily the keyboard backlight can be turned off with the F5 key). In direct comparison, the Retina MacBook Pro does a better job of reducing glare.

Performance of the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is very good for an ultrabook, probably due to the 8gb of 1600MHz DDR3 memory and Core i7-3517U cpu. This cpu nominally runs at 1.9 GHz with Turbo Boost to 3 GHz. The Windows Experience Index clocks in at:
Processor 7.1
Memory 7.9
Graphics 5.7
Gaming graphics (1664 MB) 6.4
Primary hard disk 5.9

That's an overall score of 5.7, quite good for not having a dedicated graphics card.


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The SSD disk cache works surprisingly well, and the disk rarely seems to be a performance bottleneck.
Note, these benchmarks were done on an HP customized model (15t-4000) with a 7200 rpm hard drive, not the standard 5400 rpm model (15-4010nr). The 5400 rpm drive should still provide good performance due to the SSD cache.

8GB of the 32GB SSD cache drive is taken to support Intel Rapid Start, which is a kind of fast hibernate which kicks in after two hours of standby. The laptop wakes up and writes the contents of memory to an 8GB partition on the SSD, then shuts down. Pressing the power button brings the laptop back up in about 5 seconds. For some reason the Intel Rapid Start configuration utility is not included in the laptop build, however you can download it by searching for "intel rapid start download".

The Spectre XT TouchSmart is very quiet in casual use. The fan is often turned off. Even when the fan is on, it is usually not very loud, and is never obnoxious. HP Coolsense is included, which senses when the laptop is moving and runs the fan more often to keep your lap cool. In practice, the laptop doesn't get too warm, and Coolsense can be turned off to keep the fan from running as much. The one place that gets a bit warm is the well-placed fan vent on the underside at the rear.

The HP has four small speakers, two underneath on the sides and two behind the keyboard under the display. It can play quite loudly, and produces a bit of a thump on the underside. Audio enhancement is provided by Beats Audio, which boosts bass and treble, while performing all kinds of phase and other manipulations which make the audio sound "wider" and "more dynamic" (read: distorted). Thankfully there is a Beats control panel which can turn Beats off, and which also has a 9 band equalizer to customize the response curve. Dolby V4 on the Lenovo Yoga does a better job than Beats, although the HP still sounds better because it has better speakers. Once configured, the audio is pretty decent for a laptop.

Battery life is provided by a 48wh 4-cell non-removable battery.

In summary, the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is one of the top Windows 8 ultrabooks available as of this writing. HP made almost all the right choices to make this a very nice package. Although pricey compared to other laptops with similar specs, the HP stands out for its responsiveness, stylish looks, and big bright touch-enabled wide-angle HD display. The SSD cache works very well; an SSD main drive is not necessary, although nice to have as a factory option or via the ability of the end user to replace it.


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