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No Ordinary Laptop: Hands On With HP's Leather Spectre Folio

HP Spectre Folio

At first glance, the new HP Spectre Folio just looks like a conventional—albeit very thin—ultraportable sheathed in a leather case. But upon further examination, you realize that the expensive-looking Cognac Brown leather exterior is actually fused with the laptop itself.

Yes, HP made a leather laptop, and it looks and feels gorgeous. Unlike last year’s Spectre 13, which was also gorgeous but sleekly post-industrial, the new Spectre Folio is far more old-fashioned looking, which is apparently all the rage in design circles these days.

“It’s a little bit of retro,” Stacey Wolff, HP’s head of systems design, said as he unveiled the Spectre Folio in a converted warehouse beneath New York City’s trendy High Line linear park. Indeed, you get the sense that the Spectre Folio is designed to look good in a coffee shop, not fit in with the angular lines of a corporate boardroom.

HP Spectre Folio 3

The laptop’s biggest set-apart feature, though, isn’t the leather that envelops it. That would be its complement of several magnets, which let you unhinge the display from its back and attach it to the base of the keyboard, forming a sort of easel for easier movie watching or consuming any other type of content you can think of.

This “easel mode” qualifies the Spectre Folio as a convertible laptop, but it’s not a convertible in the traditional sense of being able to flip the screen around 360 degrees to use the laptop as a tablet. Instead, there’s a second magnet that lets you secure the screen flat atop the keyboard, which means no keys protruding awkwardly out of the bottom in tablet mode.

During a brief demo, I found the magnets easy—even pleasant—to use. There’s nothing awkward about manipulating the screen into its various modes. Still, I couldn’t help but notice that the Spectre Folio isn’t particularly thin and light. At 3.28 pounds and 0.6 by 12.6 by 9.23 inches (HWD), it’s actually larger and heavier than the Spectre 13 conventional laptop that it’s designed to replace. That’s especially noteworthy when you consider that the actual electronic parts—the screen and the keyboard base—are absurdly thin. Essentially, HP is sacrificing thinness and lightness for luxurious leather.

HP Spectre Folio 2

And it is indeed luxurious. You can pre-order one right now in the Cognac Brown color for a starting price of $ 1,299, and HP expects to sell one in Bordeaux Burgundy before the end of the year, in time for holiday shopping. Both are full-grain leather, and an HP engineer who worked on the design of the product said that it’s intended to evoke a luxury handbag as much as resemble a laptop. That means traditional physical exterior parts that you’d expect on a laptop, such as rubber feet to hold it in place on a desk and provide room for airflow, aren’t there. Instead, you get a thin, raised strip along the back edge.

Come to think of it, there’s actually somewhat less need for clearance around the bottom of the laptop, because no cooling fan vents outward there. The Spectre Folio uses one of Intel’s new eighth-generation Y-series ultra-low-power CPUs, which generates much less heat than the U-series chip that powers the Spectre 13.

Not only is the CPU power-efficient, but it and the rest of the interior electronic components are custom-designed to eke out as much computing performance from as little space as possible. Because everyone hates plugging in their devices, HP decided to devote 70 percent of the real estate in the keyboard base to the battery, which should result in 18 hours of battery life, according to the company’s internal tests.

HP Spectre Folio Motherboard

That means everything else has to fit in the remaining 30 percent of the base. So Intel made a custom motherboard for the Spectre Folio that’s essentially just a narrow strip of silicon and transistors. (You can see it above.) There are only four ports—three USB-C connectors and one headphone jack—but the base is so thin that it wouldn’t accommodate the headphone jack’s height, so it had to be relegated to the side of the display.

Gigabit LTE With an eSIM

In the midst of all this rejiggering of familiar parts, HP managed to fit some wireless components that you won’t find on most ultraportables in the US today: specifically, a gigabit LTE modem, an eSIM chip, and a physical SIM card slot. In the US, it’s compatible with T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint. What’s more, if you activate a new Spectre Folio on the Sprint network, you’ll get unlimited data for six months.

The prospect of a laptop that always has internet access for no initial additional monthly cost (well, access anywhere Sprint’s admittedly lagging network has service) is enticing, and it’s something that Microsoft and Intel earnestly have been pushing manufacturers to offer for more than a year. HP appears to have heeded this call.

HP Spectre Folio 4

Nearly everything else about the Spectre Folio is as intriguing as its physical design and wireless capabilities. There’s a full HD (1,920 by 1,080) display, 13.3 inches on the diagonal, with 400 nits of brightness. It’s covered in Corning Gorilla Glass for strength, and the panel consumes just a single watt of electricity, key to achieving those 18 hours of battery life. HP does plan to offer a higher-resolution (but power-hungrier) 4K UHD option in time for holiday shopping, if you really want that kind of fine-grained screen at this size.

HP also works in a very comfortable keyboard with sturdy keys and relatively long travel for such a thin design. You can configure the Spectre Folio with up to 16GB of RAM, up to 2TB of SSD storage, and Core i5 or Core i7 Y-series processors. An included digital pen with 4,096 levels of pressure sensitivity easily slips into the leather loop on the right edge. Perhaps the only downright disappointing aspect is that the laptop uses the same laughably small touchpad as the Spectre 13, which makes mousing around with large fingers very difficult.

HP Spectre Folio 1

It’s clear that HP set out to do something different with the Spectre Folio. It’s neither a conventional laptop nor a conventional hybrid convertible design, yet it does double as a tablet or an easel for watching movies. To buy this machine requires an eye for design and a willingness to overlook the fact that the leather adds just as much bulk as it does style. Still, we can’t wait to get one into PC Labs for formal testing. Stay tuned.

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