Gears & Gadgets

Hands-on: HP’s leather-clad laptop might just be the best convertible around

In unveiling its new leather-covered Spectre Folio, HP claimed that it was “reinventing” the PC. At the risk of being called cynical, I must confess to rolling my eyes somewhat at HP’s grandeur. My skepticism was confirmed when we saw what HP had actually built: it’s a new take on the two-in-one convertible, a system which—like the Surface Pro and so many others—can be used as both a laptop and as a tablet.

But having held the thing, looked at it up close, and used it a little? I think HP could have something quite special here.

The big talking point is, of course, the leather. The Folio is not a regular metal laptop that has been slid into a leather case: it’s a laptop with a metal skeleton on the inside, leather on the outside. The leather isn’t removable, and there’s no finished metal surface hidden beneath it: the leather is an integral element of the design. The leather even has a functional role: the joint between the screen and the rest of the system does not contain a metal hinge—its flex and bending is all due to the leather joining the two parts.

The result is a distinctive and, I think, rather attractive look. Folded up and carried around, it feels very comfortable. There are no sharp edges to cut into your wrists, just soft, supple real leather. I look at the contrast with Microsoft’s Surface Laptop, and I think it’s striking. That system, too, uses unusual materials, with its fabric-covered keyboard tray, but for the Laptop it makes no real sense. It doesn’t seem to have any real functional aspect; it’s just a design gimmick. By contrast, the Folio’s use of leather feels much more purposeful. It has a practical function that has been fully embraced as a material.

The other screen joint—the one at the top of the keyboard—is a proper stiff hinge from a laptop. Using it felt uncanny at first. With its leather skin, the Spectre Folio looks for all the world like one of those folding keyboard covers for tablets—you know, the kind of thing that can hold the screen at maybe one or two particular angles and will collapse if you try to open and close it as if it were a laptop. Using the Folio for the first time, my instinct was that pushing the screen would provoke just such a collapse. But it didn’t; this is a real hinge, as you might find on a regular laptop, and you can adjust the angle it’s open to (up to about 135 degrees). It is, for pretty much all intents and purposes, a real laptop.

But the Folio has a trick. The screen is attached to that stiff hinge at its midpoint with the flexible leather joint. Fold it back a little and it magnetically latches to the base just below the keyboard, leaving only the touchpad exposed. Like this, it’s ideal for watching movies or reading, with the reduced footprint that’s so convenient on an economy-class tray table. Push it back further and it lies near-flat, turning the Folio into what is effectively a tablet.

Looks good, feels good

The result is a system I enjoyed using. The keyboard, with its 1.3mm of key travel, felt fabulous: crisp, precise, and comfortable, with a layout that will be familiar to users of HP’s systems. The touchpad is not the biggest or smoothest I’ve used, but it seems to be OK. I welcome HP’s embrace of Thunderbolt 3 (two of the three USB Type-C ports are Thunderbolt 3, and all three ports support charging) and use of an IR camera for Windows Hello facial authentication.

The display, a 13-inch, 1920×1080 unit, was surprising. It’s an IPS screen, with a maximum of 400 nits of brightness, and it looked decent. But somehow it uses just 1W of power. At Computex earlier this year, Intel announced (but didn’t really describe) “Low Power Display Technology,” which, in conjunction with panels from Sharp and Innolux, slashes the power that the screen uses. The Folio is one of the first machines to use the tech. But how it actually works isn’t clear, and I don’t know what trade-offs it implies. HP insisted that there were none and that it really is just plain better, but to me that sounds too good to be true.

The low-power display, along with the low-power, Y-series processor and 54Wh battery, give the Folio an impressive battery life. Depending on spec and workload, HP estimates it can run for as long as 21 hours on a charge. This is all-day battery life and then some. A fuller picture of the battery life and processor performance will, of course, have to wait for a full review. The Y-series chip certainly gives up some performance compared to its 15W U-series siblings, but it should be up to the demands of a Web and Office productivity system.

This practicality is enhanced with the option of integrated LTE. LTE is starting to shift from being a rare option, included on perhaps one or two machines, to an option (or perhaps even a standard feature) we see across a wide range of systems. The use of LTE does sharply reduce the battery life—by perhaps about a quarter, based on HP’s figures—but the ability to be online just about anywhere is compelling.

HP isn’t the first to use this dual-hinge design; the Vaio Z flip, for example, was an all-metal version of the same concept, and I’m sure there have been others. But I’m happy to see HP picking it up, because I think for many people, it makes more sense than the Surface Pro-style kickstand. I know the Surface Pro has its fans, and for those who truly value it as a tablet, it’s a solid choice. But if you’re after a laptop that you can also use as a tablet or with a stylus, the Folio’s design is a lot more practical because of that hinge. You can use the Folio on your lap without having to precariously balance the kickstand on your knees. Most of the Folio’s weight is in the keyboard rather than the screen, so it’s much better balanced as well. Not having a kickstand means that its footprint is smaller, too, making it handy in cramped conditions.

Tomorrow, Microsoft has an event where we’re going to see refreshes of at least some of the Surface range. I’m not exactly sure what to expect at the moment—little has leaked, but the entire line-up (save for the newest Surface Go) would benefit from a processor upgrade, if nothing else. But already I wonder if HP has eclipsed it. Another minor increment to the Surface Pro isn’t going to make it a better laptop; an iteration of the Surface Laptop is unlikely to make it as flexible as a convertible or two-in-one. For a lot of people, I think the Spectre Folio will be better than either Microsoft system. I don’t think it’s quite the reinvention that HP claims, but it’s definitely a smart refinement and improvement of the convertible concept.

Listing image by Valentina Palladino

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Tech – Ars Technica