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Hiawatha Bray | Tech Lab

Pricey Spectre laptop oozes cool, but performance is lukewarm

I just paid about $500 for a new laptop, a perfectly good 14-inch Dell Inc. machine that’s treated me fine so far. It’s reasonably fast and reasonably powerful. It isn’t, however, particularly cool.

The new Envy 14 Spectre from Hewlett-Packard Co. is most definitely cool, maybe the coolest Ultrabook yet. Yet the Spectre’s sleek design and solid performance come at a gasp-inducing price - $1,399 list, or a little less if you buy online at Amazon.com. That’s a lot of money for a computer that’s hardly more capable than my pedestrian little Dell. Then again the Spectre is much more attractive: a dazzling visual confection constructed largely out of tempered glass.

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You know about Ultrabooks, right? They’re a laptop concept pioneered by chipmaker Intel Corp. to fend off the challenge of super-cheap “netbook’’ computers and fashionable tablets like Apple Inc.’s iPad. Ultrabooks are modeled after another Apple product - the company’s lean and lovely MacBook Air laptops.

The typical Ultrabook lacks an optical drive for playing CDs or DVDs. You install new software over the Internet. Most Ultrabooks also abandon traditional mechanical hard drives. Instead, data are stored in a package of flash memory chips. They’re faster and more durable than hard drives, but a lot more expensive. As a result, these skinny little laptops carry a premium price - generally $900 and up.

Way up, in the case of HP’s Spectre. But you’re paying for a host of little luxuries, some of them splendid, others not so much.

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First, there’s all that glass. The Spectre’s lid is made of gleaming black tempered glass, wrapped around a sharp and colorful LCD display screen. Flip it open, and you find another slab of glass just below the keyboard, where you rest your wrists when typing.

The glass wrist rest feels far nicer than the sticky plastic or chilly metal found on other laptops. And the keyboard itself is among the best I’ve ever touched, light and responsive without a hint of mushiness. The keys, by the way, are illuminated for easier use in dark environments.

The Spectre boots up in well under 30 seconds and shuts down in less than 10. Battery life is pretty good, too.

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But as for the glass lid - why? It makes a gorgeous first impression, but performs no better than any standard laptop cover. And it’s far thicker and heavier than the thin metal lids found on other Ultrabooks, with the result that the Spectre weighs 3.3 pounds. That’s nearly half a pound more than the latest Ultrabooks from Dell.

Another of the Spectre’s luxury features is a sound system from Beats Audio, the electronics company founded by hip-hop artist Dr. Dre. It includes a pleasantly old-fashioned rotary volume control, and a pushbutton that gives access to a frequency equalizer and other audio settings.

But the stylish controls can’t make up for the Spectre’s unimpressive speakers, which made music sound imprecise and a little buzzy. Fiddling with equalizer settings helped, but not enough. Indeed, I think my cheap Dell laptop sounds better.

Apart from such dubious luxuries, the Spectre is a middle-of-the-road machine. The base model features a dual-core Intel i5 processor and four gigabytes of memory. For long-term storage, you get a mere 128 gigabytes of expensive flash memory, compared with the half-terabyte or more you’d get with a much cheaper hard drive. Then again, Ultrabooks are for people who keep most of their information online and can get by with very little on-board data storage.

Besides, flash memory is fast. The Spectre boots up in well under 30 seconds and shuts down in less than 10. Battery life is pretty good, too. Streaming a full-length movie via Wi-Fi used half the stored power, but there was plenty left over for Web surfing and e-mailing. Under moderate use, the Spectre should get you through a cross-country flight. You’ll be comfy, too, because the Spectre doesn’t just look cool; it barely gets warm, even after hours of use.

My cheap Dell is hotter and heavier than the Spectre, but just as good for workaday computing tasks. So why pay a $900 premium? The Spectre’s superb keyboard and low running temperature are worth a few extra bucks, but the glass lid and Beats Audio system are not.

In short, the Spectre is a halfway decent Ultrabook that could be 100 percent wonderful if HP dropped the useless gimmicks. And, of course, the price.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.
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