HP Spectre x360 13t Review: A thin-and-light that hasn't taken away all the good stuff

You want a full-travel keyboard? An upgradable SSD? A USB-A port? Long battery life? You got 'em.

Credit: Gordon Mah Ung

HP’s latest Spectre x360 13t has something to say to other thin-and-light laptops, which, it seems, are all about taking good things away from you. Keyboards with travel, USB Type-A ports, and even the opportunity to replace your SSD are features that have all gone by the wayside in some of Dell and Apple’s newest and thinnest laptops.

In the face of all that No, the HP Spectre x360 13t simply says Yes. You want a standard M.2 SSD? Got it, the Spectre x360 13t says. NBA-level of travel in your keys? Sure thing. USB Type-A port?! Of course the Spectre x360 13t has that, too.

hp spectre x360 13 5th gen 14 Gordon Mah Ung

HP gets a USB Type-A using a “drop-jaw” type design typically seen for ethernet connections. And yes, you’ll have to pry my USB Type-A from my moist sweaty hands.

And that’s just for starters.

While vendors have been happy to trim away bezels in laptops, that’s also meant leaving behind one of the coolest features in Windows 10: Windows Hello and facial recognition login. Yet somehow HP has fit what appears to be the smallest IR-enabled camera we’ve seen to date into the tiny Spectre x360 13t. And if you don’t like the facial recognition feature, you can also use the integrated fingerprint reader.

That Windows Hello support is fast, too. We’ve previously found Microsoft’s implementations have been the best at speed and recognition, but the new Spectre x360 13t will go from lid-closed to the desktop in an impressive 1.5 to 3 seconds. Performance is fastest when the laptop isn’t in its deepest sleep state. Sometimes it’s so fast, you almost wonder if you even have a password on the laptop.

hp spectre x360 13 5th gen 3 Gordon Mah Ung

Despite having tiny bezels, the 5th-gen Spectre x360 13t (right) maintains an integrated Windows Hello-enabled camera.

It’s smaller

What’s amazing is how HP added all of these features some vendors say can’t be done while getting smaller. Physically, the new Spectre x360 13t takes the footprint down by about an inch compared to the prior generation. The new Spectre x360 13t is actually a bit smaller than Apple’s beloved MacBook Air 11, which people coveted for its teeny footprint. Just like that MacBook Air 11, the Spectre x360 13t slips into your bag so discreetly you won’t even know it’s there.

About the only thing we wish it had was dual AC charging ports. But one is fine. 

hp spectre x360 13 5th gen 2 Gordon Mah Ung

The new 5th gen Spectre x360 13t is about an inch smaller than the older model.

There is a cost in thickness. When Dell and Apple decided to go with a low-travel MagLev 2 keyboard and soldered SSD, it wasn't to annoy you—it was to make the laptops thinner. The Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 is legitimately thinner than the Spectre x360 13t by about 2mm at its thickest point. In fact, the 5th-gen Spectre x360 13t is about 1mm thicker than the previous model.

The question many will ask is whether that sacrifice in thickness, or “Z-height,” is worth giving up an M.2 SSD, a keyboard with travel, and a USB Type-A port. We’d bet not. At least, that’s what consumers themselves have been screaming for years now, in response to the sacrifice of features at the altar of thin.

hp spectre x360 13 5th gen 15 Gordon Mah Ung

The new 5th-gen Spectre x360 13t (top) is slightly thicker than the Dell’s new XPS 13 2-in-1 (middle) and actually slightly thicker than the previous Spectre x360 13t.

HP Spectre x360 13t specs

HP doesn’t scrimp on hardware specs, either. The obvious standout part is the new Intel Ice Lake 10nm CPU, but other highlights include a 1-watt IPS display with pen and touch support and the Intel Optane H10 drive, which combines Intel’s whiz-bang Optane with a traditional NAND SSD. The result is actually very impressive for most of what people do, but it does have limitations that you can read about in our review of the Optane H10 drive.

CPU: Intel 10th gen quad-core Core i7-1065G7

GPU: Intel Iris Plus Graphics

RAM: 8GB LPDDR4X/3733

Display: 13.3-inch, 1920x1080 (FHD) AU Optronics touchscreen (A 4K AMOLED is also available)

Storage: 512GB Intel H10 Optane NVMe M.2 SSD

Ports: Two Thunderbolt 3, 1 USB Type-A (5Gbps), analog combo headset jack, microSD slot.

Wireless: Intel WiFi 6, Bluetooth 5

Dimensions: 12.08 x 7.66 x 0.67 inches

Weight: 2.8 pounds (not counting AC)

Keyboard and Trackpad

As we’ve said, HP seems to have dug in its heels and decided not to take shortcuts, such as forcing you to use near-no-travel keyboards. The keyboard has what amounts to a luxurious 1.5mm of travel, which is about double that of the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1. We’ll praise it just so other laptop makers can hear it.

The trackpad supports Microsoft’s Precision Trackpad and appears to be made by Elan. One issue that still bugs us is where HP centers the trackpad: on the U key. Placing your fingers on the home keys puts puts more of your right palm over the trackpad, which, no matter how good the palm rejection, could lead the cursor to jump. On most competing laptops, the trackpad is centered on the Y key.

hp spectre x360 13 5th gen 12 Gordon Mah Ung

The new 5th gen includes a button that lets you easily mute the onboard microphone.

One thing we do want to point out in the new Spectre is a dedicated button to mute the microphone. The laptop added a hardware kill switch for the webcam earlier this year. This new mute button takes privacy one step further, because you can visually confirm the mic has been muted in the OS. The next logical step would be to allow a hardware kill switch for the mic.

Speaking of the webcam, which everyone will still cover with tape, we did a quick image quality comparison between the 5th-gen Spectre, the 4th-gen Spectre, and Dell’s XPS 13 2-in-1. To be honest, the results were all mediocre, but if we had to pick, it would be close between the 5th-gen Spectre x360 13t and the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390.

webcams 1 Gordon Mah Ung

All three of the laptops' webcams gave up basically fair performance.

Among the other amenities that deserve to be called out is the inclusion of a leather carrying case, which also securely holds the included active stylus. HP has done this for some time with its laptops, and it’s something to be lauded. The leather case won’t impress your designer-handbag friends, but it provides scratch protection when it’s sliding around in your bag. Did we mention that while Dell charges you $100 for its pen, HP includes it?

hp spectre x360 13 5th gen 16 Gordon Mah Ung

The Spectre x360 13t comes with a handy leather carrying case that lets you securely insert the included active stylus. Yes, you heard that right: The pen is bundled rather than extra-cost.

How is the pen?

Speaking of the pen, we wanted to get a quick take of the pen’s performance from a person who actually uses them, so we turned to our sister site Macworld’s Leif Johnson, who still prefers pen and paper to typing. Although not presently a Windows inking fan, we asked him to try his hand at the 4th-gen Spectre x360 13t, the new 5th-gen Spectre x360 13t, and the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390 with the optional Dell pen, and then rate them against the device he has the most experience with: Apple’s iPad Pro and the 2nd-generation Apple Pencil.

We believe the underlying technology in the Dell uses Wacom’s Active ES or Electro Static, while both of the HP’s appear to use Microsoft’s N-Trig technology.

Johnson noted that the Spectre x360 13t was far more accurate than the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 7390 when doing fine dotting. However, Johnson gave the latency on the Dell a slight edge, which put it over the top in his book. On scale of 1 to 10, with the Apple Gen 2 Pencil and newest iPad Pro as a reference point of 10, Johnson said the Dell’s Wacom-based pen would probably rate an 8, while the Spectre x360 13t’s would get a 7. Again, that’s from a handwriting fanatic. For the typical person who signs a PDF or occasionally takes notes, all would function just fine. We’ll get into more focused pen evaluations with Johnson at a later time.

hp spectre x360 13t 5th gen pen leif Gordon Mah Ung

Macworld pen expert Leif Johnson thought precision dotting with the 5th-gen Spectre x360 13t's pen was better than the Dell XPS 13 2-in-1's, but the Dell's pen offered better responsiveness.

Keep reading for performance benchmarks and more.

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Gordon Mah Ung

PC World (US online)
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