HP Spectre XT TouchSmart review

There a couple of things that we’re going to do our best to leave at the door for this HP Spectre XT TouchSmart review. The first is Windows 8. This is a Windows 8 machine. There’s no two ways about it. If you buy the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart, it’s going to come with Windows 8, and you’d be being a trifle facetious if you made a point of taking it off. You may not approve of the all-touch Metro/Modern UI at the front of Microsoft’s latest OS but it’s there, use it or not, and it’s neither HP’s fault nor idea.

And that rather brings us to our second piece of technological baggage - the touchscreen. We can sit here and have a debate as to whether or not a laptop needs to, or should have, a touchscreen but, again, it’s really more to do with software than anything else, even though, admittedly it’s a piece of hardware that comes out as a result. Nonetheless, there’s no reason why its being touch-enabled should keep this machine from its duties as a laptop in any other sense.

So, disclaimers out of the way, let’s get on with the show.

A bit like a MacBook

Let’s make no bones over the design of the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart. It’s a MacBook Pro knock-off. The brushed metal finish with black, island-style, backlit keyboard and monolithic trackpad; the edge-to-edge glass screen framed by pitch-coloured bezel; the Intel Thunderbolt port; even the thickness and mass of this thing are virtually identical to Apple’s finest. Fortunately, the prices are not and, where the 15-inch Mac Pro starts at £1,800, the HP begins at £600 less.

So, what are you not getting for that? Well, the display on the Spectre XT TouchSmart is not of Retina calibre. It’s 1080p and it is, of course, touch-enabled, unlike the Mac, but we’d swap those features in a heartbeat if we could. The processor is another place you lose out with the bottom end HP; just a dual-core, third-generation Intel Core i5 rather than the quad-core on Apple’s. The final place to look is at the GPU, which is solely left to an integrated unit with the Spectre while the MacBook brings a dedicated card to help out with all that creative work all those arty Apple types obviously need while sitting in Starbucks checking Facebook. But we digress.

The point isn’t to tell you that a MacBook Pro is better or that you should buy one over what is a perfectly good machine in this HP. The point is, for those who think they’re getting something that looks and performs just as well but for much less cash, you’re not. What we’re suggesting is that the economy is a little more false than you might be thinking. In fact, once you throw in all the other criticisms we have to make about the Spectre XT TouchSmart, the value points of these two models from these two brands is about the same.

Flawed design

Out of the box the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is a delight and - while the black spongestyrine packaging, grey felt pouch and black, zip-up cable bag are all very premium - the first bite of this laptop is not with the eye. It’s with the nose. This computer smells great. It smells all wonderful and new and expensive and fills you with the sense that you want to take deep care of it. In fact, if it were down to scent alone, we’d have whisked this thing away to the Bahamas to watch the sun going down as we sip upon pina coladas served inside coconuts with mini coloured parasols from the warmth of our loungers.

Sadly, our love affair ended when we picked this laptop up.

It nearly feels right. It’s so very close but there are just a couple of shonky touches on the body that give it away. The profile, size and weight are just right. It has that density and ergonomic which speak of quality but there’s a nasty little loosish plastic black rim round the edge of the display which not only makes it look like the main bezel is a sticker frame but also produces an unpleasant crunch when you put any pressure down upon the closed lid. And as soon as you notice that, you’ll find the other area of wrong, which is essentially it’s opposite edge.

The finish to the perimeter of the of the top surface of the laptop base is, well, it’s just not right from an industrial design perspective. All that nice, sheer, matte metal finish on top and bottom is joined by an angled, shiny line that just doesn’t do the rest of the build justice. Once you’ve thrown in the power button that just isn’t nearly satisfying enough to press, one starts to wonder where the money has gone. As it turns out, the rest of the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is put together perfectly well - inside and out - but the damage is already done.

Fast and bloatware-free

When you do get working on this laptop, there are very few complaints. It takes a matter of seconds to boot up thanks to the 500GB wadge of SSD that our model came with. Don’t even think about trying to do something else before it’s time to put in your password; blink and Windows has loaded. What hits you next is the screen. Not only does the 15.6-inch display come across more like 17-inch somehow but it’s crystal clear, very bright, and the IPS technology means it’s superb until about 60 degrees and virtually perfectly acceptable all the way to the full 180.

We like the fact that HP isn’t too bad at bombarding you with its own and its partners’ software. There was one 30-day free trial we had to ditch but otherwise the HP Support Assistant actually does a very good job of making up for Windows 8’s nonsense by putting all of your devices, control panel, updates and settings that have become so hard to locate all under one roof.

HP Coolsense certainly does the trick. You might end up with a bit of a noise like a quiet version of an extractor fan that you only realise was annoying once it stops, but it works. The Spectre XT TouchSmart never so much as reaches simmering point let along boiling. As it goes, the only piece of technology that feels like a bit of a waste of time - and your money - is Beats.

Beats us 

We’re not to say that Beats in a laptop is total tosh but it’s certainly not something that we believe should be affecting your buying decision. The in-built speaker set still sounds bad. Play some music and you’ll very quickly be looking for the cables, passwords, connectors and secondary devices to hook up to your laptop in order to get your groove on properly. Sure, they’re a bit better than many computer speakers out there but the experience is still cruddy. So, instead we changed to listening with headphones to see if there was much difference. Naturally, the sound is far better but it’s no different from listening to a song through an iPad, for example. In fact, it was only very marginally better than piping the music through an old Dell Latitude business laptop we had lying around. Dr Dre, we are not impressed.

Fortunately, working at the HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is a very good experience. The keyboard is bang on. No matter how hard you hammer the thing with your fingers, it sounds and feel right, down to the last key. What’s more, even the minimum spec is more than enough to handle a hatful of your average tasks at the same time with not so much as a sign of slowing down even with more tabs open than your browser has the space to name. In fact, the only thing that really jars is the trackpad click, which doesn’t always register and that can be very annoying indeed by the tenth occurrence of the day. And that’s just about it. Apart from one more thing.

We tried but it seems that we can’t finish this review without mentioning that all-important touchscreen. You are, after all, paying for it.

The definition of a mixed bag

The hardware itself is excellent. The display is highly responsive, the screen doesn’t seem to smear no matter how many times you finger the thing. What’s total rubbish though is the point in having it at all. Why, oh why, oh why do laptops need touchscreens? The answer is that they do not. Ever. At all. Full stop. Brackets, only if they are hybrids where you can detach the top to become a tablet, close brackets.

The base of the HP is a long way to stretch to make the effort to touch the screen with your hands. It feels unnatural to do so and there’s little reward once you do. Sure, Metro is amusing to swish about but it really adds very little at all nor helps in any kind of way with computing on a laptop, and don’t even get us started on the ridiculous moment when a soft, touch-screen keyboard pops up for you to use on the screen above your actual keyboard. Total nonsense. Anyway, as we say, this isn’t really HP’s fault but perhaps the company should have thought twice about whether it was worth making a machine to service such a folly.

Verdict

The HP Spectre XT TouchSmart is on the whole a very decent machine but it’s just too expensive. It’s not expensive with respect to what the company has put in it, but it’s too expensive because much of it is a waste. Touchscreens are not cheap and there’s absolutely no need for it. All adding it does is push the value of this laptop past tipping point.

One could only be disappointed at spending any more than £900 on this computer then to find the flaws that exist in the industrial design. Functionally, this machine is a cracker. Aesthetically and ergonomically, it’s just not quite there - not for the money that’s required to buy it, anyway.