Review: HP Envy 14 Spectre

Apple probably didn’t realize what it was starting when it decided to build the iPhone 4 out of two panes of glass, forgoing the traditional metal or plastic backing and causing thousands of geek brains to simultaneously explode at the prospect.

But somehow this worked, and Apple ended up not with a bunch of people crying over broken phones but rather kudos for drafting such an avant garde design.

Now here comes everyone else.

With the Envy 14 Spectre, HP takes an already out-there idea to its barely sane terminus by making a little more than half of this 14-inch laptop out of glass. The palm rest is made of glass, as is the front of the LCD (of course) and the exterior/backside of the lid.

There are reasons this makes sense. Glass is a better transmitter of wireless signals than metal, so (theoretically) the Spectre should have better Wi-Fi range and performance than its metal-clad counterparts. The Spectre is also outfit with an NFC reader, so you can (also theoretically) sync up wirelessly with your NFC-capable smartphone by just dropping it on top.

The Spectre feels fast and was rock-solid stable during our testing.

At its heart, the Spectre is a plus-size ultrabook, jumping from 3 to exactly 4 pounds and offering a similar experience by way of specs to other ultras. The 14-inch screen offers 1600×900 pixel resolution. Under the hood, a 1.6GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM, and 128GB of SSD storage round out the package. As with most ultrabooks, there’s no optical drive and only integrated graphics are included.

Surprisingly, despite some middling components, the Spectre performed admirably on benchmarks and other real-world tests, generally performing in line with higher-end ultrabooks and even holding its own on graphics-based assessments. The Spectre feels fast and was rock-solid stable during our testing.

Of additional interest is HP’s approach to software bundling: Full versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements and Premiere Elements are preinstalled, as is a full, two-year version of Norton Internet Security. Unlike those frustrating, 30-day trialware apps, this bundle actually adds real value to the not-inexpensive machine.

Of course, all of this would be meaningless if the Spectre was hard to use, and I’m happy to report that it’s been built with the end-user firmly in mind. The island keyboard offers very good feedback, and each key is individually backlit, so no light leaks out from the gaps. Ports include one USB 2.0, one USB 3.0, full-size Ethernet, HDMI, and mini DisplayPort, plus an SD card slot. Battery life, at 4½ hours, is on par with most ultrabooks.

As with other Envys, the Spectre is outfitted with Beats audio, and sure enough the audio performance from this laptop is exceptional. It’s one of the loudest notebooks I’ve encountered, and overall audio quality is very good, too.

The only real drawback to the Spectre is its weight: The extra screen size is negligible, but that extra pound is meaningful if you’re considering this machine against a true ultrabook. Also, it remains to be seen how durable a glass laptop would be in daily use. (One thing you will notice off the bat, though, is how quickly it picks up fingerprints.) But one thing’s for sure: That glass lid ensures the Spectre will be a real conversation piece — even more so if you manage to shatter it.

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