Fresh ideas are in short supply in the tech industry, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that you’ve seen the HP Spectre x2 somewhere before – perhaps with a Microsoft logo on the back. However, the big difference between HP’s latest hybrid and the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 is the price. The cheapest Surface Pro (Core m3 CPU, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD) costs $1,349 and doesn’t come with a keyboard cover: you have to pay an extra $199 for that. 

The Spectre x2 review here includes a better m5 processor, a detachable keyboard and stylus for around $1,700, making HP’s 2-in-1 around $150 more expensive than its Microsoft-branded rival all told. 

Sadly, the Spectre x2 doesn’t get off to a great start. Where Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 looks every bit the modern tablet – all crisp edges and millimetre-perfect curves – the Spectre x2’s design is achingly bland.

You can still tell it isn’t a budget tablet; the metal unibody construction and Bang & Olufsen logos give that away. However, there’s nothing about the Spectre x2 that will make people want to snatch their credit card and buy one at first sight. Perhaps it’s personal taste, but there’s something about the flat metal rear, softly curved edges and thick bezels that look clunky and dated alongside Microsoft’s rival tablet.

It’s a touch larger and heavier than the 786g Surface Pro 4, too. Despite measuring a mere 7.8mm thick, the Spectre x2 weighs 820g as a tablet and has a noticeably larger footprint. Nor does the extra weight translate into rock-solid build quality. There’s a little flex in the chassis, and it’s nowhere near as rigid as the Surface Pro 4. 

HP’s “unique” kickstand design also leaves a little to be desired. It’s inset neatly into the tablet’s rear, but although you’re meant to press the button on the tablet’s side to release it, the stand flips out if you flex the tablet from side to side. Once out, it adjusts to pretty much any angle you could want.

The detachable keyboard adds a further 370g and feels like a carbon copy of Microsoft’s Type Cover. It connects magnetically to the tablet and folds back along the lower edge to tilt the keyboard up a notch. Provided you’re on a flat surface such as a desk, it’s every bit as comfy to type on as the Type Cover – perhaps even a touch better. The wide touchpad works well, too: with palm rejection dialled right up, it does a good job of ignoring brushes from your palms while typing. Again, just like Microsoft’s keyboard, it’s unstable if you try to use it on your lap.

The bright points

The Spectre x2’s 12in touchscreen follows in the gloriously squared-off 3:2 footsteps of the Surface family – a wise decision. The display isn’t quite as sharp as its rival thanks to a lower 1,920 x 1,280-pixel resolution, but it still feels perfectly sharp enough for a 12in display. Wide viewing angles mean images only drop off slightly in brightness and contrast as you move away from head-on.

Brightness hits a respectable 297cd/m2, and the contrast ratio of 963:1 means images look solid, but the panel doesn’t reproduce colours with great aplomb. Everything looks pale and lacking in vibrancy, which is a shame for a $1,700 tablet. Further testing with our X-Rite colorimeter revealed the cause: the Spectre x2’s panel reproduces a mere 72% of the colours in the sRGB gamut, which compares poorly with the 97.5% of the Surface Pro 4. Side by side, the difference is night and day.

As a touchscreen, though, I have no quibbles at all. The panel supports full ten-point multitouch, and since HP has opted for Wacom’s active stylus technology, you can use the supplied pen or any Wacom-compatible stylus you have to hand. What’s more, the Wacom stylus allows the Spectre x2 to provide dramatically improved pressure sensitivity, tracking 2,048 levels of pressure to the Surface Pro 4’s 1,024. Writing and sketching is smooth and predictable and works very nicely indeed.

A quick scan around the Spectre x2’s edges reveals some nice little additions. The first of these is given away by the strip of gloss black along its top edge: this hides the Intel RealSense 3D cameras. RealSense allows the Spectre to employ a variety of 3D-scanning and depth-sensing trickery, but does it actually add anything to the Windows 10 experience? Well, unless you count the ability to 3D scan your friends’ faces, and utilise Windows’ “Hello” face-unlock feature, not really. The deciding factor will be whether third-party applications do anything useful with the technology.

The rear-facing RealSense cameras can also take bog-standard 6-megapixel photos, but don’t expect Galaxy S7 levels of quality. It often struggles to lock on to focus, and even when it does, the resulting images are soft and lacking in detail. The front-facing 5-megapixel camera takes slightly clearer-looking snaps, but upon closer inspection you’ll find photos smothered with noise-reduction and sharpening artifacts.

Even the built-in B&O speakers are disappointing. Volume is reasonable, but no amount of tweaking the pre-installed Bang & Olufsen EQ software does much to fatten up the sound. There’s enough clarity to watch movies, or just check out the occasional online video, but I’d listen to music on the Spectre x2 only as a last resort.

Finishing the physical tour of the Spectre’s sides, I’m pleased to see HP has embraced the benefits of USB Type-C, even if it means carrying a USB Type-C to USB-A adapter around. The Spectre x2 has two USB Type-C ports, one on either edge, either of which can charge the tablet’s internal battery or connect to external USB 3 adapters, docks and power external displays. There’s also a microSD slot, while wireless connectivity stretches to 2 x 2 stream 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.

Speed and spec

The Spectre x2 is available in a few different flavours, including a 256GB SSD version for $1,899. The $1,699 model here is powered by one of the newest Skylake-generation Intel Core m5 processors and comes with 8GB of RAM; the $1,899 model has the same Intel Core m5 processor and the larger SSD. A $2,299 model with an m7 CPU, 8GB RAM and a 256GB SSD is also available.

You might expect a dual-core processor that uses a mere 4.5W of power and runs at 1.1GHz to drag its heels, but in fact the Spectre x2 proved far from sluggish. This just goes to show how good the Intel Core M processor is at providing instantaneous 2.7GHz bursts of Turbo-boosted power – it flounders only once you push it flat-out for extended periods.

In everyday use, you’re only liable to notice the Spectre x2’s limited reserves of power if it’s pressed with tasks such as video rendering or heavy-duty RAW file processing – and once you increase the workload in tablet mode, you may also notice yourself getting sweaty palms, as the rear of the device becomes rather warm.

HP hasn’t used a particularly quick SSD, either. The Samsung drive gave decent sequential read speeds of 465MB/sec, but the write speeds topped out at 74MB/sec. By today’s stringent standards, that’s positively lethargic.

If you’re expecting astonishing battery life, adjust your hopes. Despite the power-efficient CPU, the Spectre x2 isn’t anything to Skype home about. With the screen brightness cranked up to a fairly bright 170cd/m2, our video rundown test kept going for 6hrs 7mins. Bear in mind, though, that 170cd/m2 is excessively bright in most indoor conditions – dial the brightness down, and I’d be surprised if you couldn’t squeeze almost eight hours out of the Spectre.

Split decision

So, you’re left with a choice. You can either spend $1,699 on the HP Spectre x2, or you can spend $1,349 on the Core m3 Surface Pro 4 (the nearest equivalent Core m CPU model) and Type Cover. 

For me, the decision is easy. The Surface Pro 4 does everything the HP does in a more refined package. In fact, the vastly superior display quality alone swings it for me, and for that, I’d happily put up with a slightly slower CPU.

Don’t get me wrong, the HP Spectre x2 is a competent, reasonably priced hybrid, and if the price shrinks further in the future it may become something of a bargain. But when its major selling point is being cheaper than one of the best tablets money can buy, being roughly half as good doesn’t cut it. 

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