HP Spectre Folio review: This lightweight leather laptop is different in a very good way

I can't take my hands off of it. It feels that good.

Credit: Daniel Masaoka/IDG

I can’t take my hands off the HP Spectre Folio. Lightweight and fully sheathed in leather, it feels great in a way that a metal- or plastic-clad laptop never could. Thanks to its energy-sipping Intel Core Y processor, it generates scant heat, and its battery lasts a very long time.

Of course, there are good reasons why we make computers out of hard materials that hold up well to use and abuse. That’s why I spent several months using the Spectre Folio on trains, buses, and planes, in and out of my bag, and on and off my lap. The miles and hours were enough to prove any laptop.

The verdict? I’d gladly take the HP Spectre Folio anywhere. It’s a thin-and-light laptop made even better with its unique looks and design, and unprecedented comfort.

No beauty comes without sacrifice, though. The Spectre Folio sacrifices some performance to keep its slender chassis cool, though it should be hard to notice if you stick to mainstream applications.  

There's also one big unknown: how the leather will hold up over years. In the latter case, at least I can say that based on my experiences with the Spectre Folio and other high-quality leather products, I think reasonable care will keep it looking great. 

HP Spectre Folio pricing and specs

HP stuffed a surprising amount into the skinny Spectre Folio. The laptop has a starting price of $1,300, and our review unit costs $1,600 from HP.com. As we run through the specs, we’ll note options different from those in our review unit.  

hp spectre folio lid detail Daniel Masaoka/IDG

Yep, it’s all leather from the lid to the base.

Shell: Full-grain leather, in Cognac Brown (our review unit) or Bordeaux Burgundy. 

Display: 13.3-inch Full HD (1920x1080) IPS WLED backlit touchscreen with Corning Gorilla Glass 4 (our review unit). The maximum brightness is a very nice 400 nits. A 4K UHD panel is a $120 upgrade. 

Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 615 (integrated).

Memory: Starting at 8GB of LPDDR3-1866 SDRAM (16GB on our review unit).

Storage: 256GB PCIe NVMe M.2 SSD.

Networking: Intel 802.11b/g/n/ac 2x2 Wi-FI and Bluetooth 4.2 combo with MU-MIMO support. Our LTE review unit has two e-SIM slots under the display hinge.

Camera: Front-facing HP WideVision FHD IR webcam .

hp spectre folio on train metro north dec 2018 Melissa Riofrio/IDG

The HP Spectre Folio sat very comfortably on my lap during a two-hour train trip. Note I’m in no need of the AC outlet by my seat. 

Pen: HP’s battery-powered Pen comes standard. The Tilt Pen, which recharges via USB-C, is an $80 option.

Ports: Two USB 3.1 Gen 2 (10Gbps)/Thunderbolt 3, one regular USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps) Type-C, and one 3.5mm audio jack. Sorry, no HDMI, ethernet, or SD card support (for those, check out our USB-C hub buying guide).

Battery: 6-cell, 54.28Whr lithium ion polymer. HP estimates 12.75 to 21 hours of life. Your mileage will vary, especially if you crank up the screen brightness or buy the LTE model. 

Dimensions: 12.6 x 9.23 x 0.6 inches.

Weight: 3.24 to 3.28 pounds, depending on the model.

Spectre Folio design: Thin is in

HP worked hard to make the Spectre Folio so thin. As I detailed in my hands-on with the Folio, the bottom consists of an aluminum panel bonded to the keyboard tray. HP used lighter magnesium under the leather lid so the laptop wouldn’t be top-heavy. 

hp spectre folio interior motherboard
 
HP

The HP Spectre Folio has an aluminum panel on the bottom and magnesium on the top. The slender motherboard nestles above the keyboard. 

The full-size, island-style keyboard has 1.3mm of travel—pretty good for something this thin, and comfortable during my many hours with it. The keys are completely flat, and slightly matte so they aren’t too slippery (but they do show greasy fingerprints).

I’m not a fan of clickpads, but the Spectre Folio’s works fine. It’s a little small, and color-matched to the leather.  

hp spectre folio keyboard
 
Daniel Masaoka/IDG

The keyboard has 1.3mm of travel, not bad for a laptop this thin.  

The speakers, designed with audio company Bang & Olufsen, lie underneath a fine grillework above the keyboard. Like most laptop speakers, they sound tinny on their own, but they achieve impressive volume. Headphones unleash better quality from the audio subsystem.

The motherboard is a mere strip running underneath the speakers, the result of a close partnership between Intel and HP. If you get the LTE version, the antenna is built into the top of the lid to avoid interference from the motherboard. 

hp spectre folio motherboard held by man
 
HP

Intel partnered with HP to make the teeny motherboard for the Spectre Folio, a mere strip running along the top of the keyboard. 

Having achieved thin and light, let's see how the Spectre Folio builds upon those qualities with its unique leather casing. 

What it’s like to use a leather laptop

To those who’d ask, “Why would you ever build a laptop out of leather?” it’s fair to reply, “Why not?” We already use leather for shoes, bags, athletic equipment, and riding tack because it’s durable and flexible. The Spectre Folio’s leather was made with a chrome-based tanning process that is also used for car seats. It’s stain- and water-resistant, with a pebbly texture.

HP advises taking care of the Spectre Folio just as you would a leather jacket or handbag. And notably, most of HP’s care instructions—such as cleaning with a soft cloth, and avoiding harsh chemicals and abrasive surfaces—would also apply to a hard-shell laptop. But there’s also a somewhat less intuitive caution: “HP does not recommend applying leather protectant or sealant products.” 

I carried the Spectre Folio in a laptop bag, as I would with any laptop, and I treated it just like any laptop. After several months of use, it still looks like new. I also appreciate how the Spectre Folio’s surface is easy to grip and doesn’t show fingerprints. The glued edges of the leather are potentially the weakest point, but so far they’ve held strong. 

hp spectre folio hinge detail Daniel Masaoka/IDG

The leather edge made ports a little hard to access.

My experience when the Spectre Folio is actually on my lap seals the deal. The leather is soft and breathable, and its texture makes it less prone to sliding off my knees. 

I also can't overemphasize the aesthetic and sensual aspects of the Spectre Folio's exterior. Cold, hard metal or plastic has nothing on the warmth and beauty of leather. HP even designed a little stitching into the lid and the pen loop to evoke handmade goods. 

One of the few, minor hassles I experienced was in port accessibility. Because the leather edges overhang each side a bit, I kept hitting them with my cable connector as I aimed for a port. 

Does a leather laptop get hot? 

Many readers have asked whether the Spectre Folio gets hot. It’s a good question because the fanless laptop has almost no ventilation—just a long, open channel (see above) where the leather loosely covers the hinge between the lid and the keyboard.

I rarely keep traditional laptops on my lap for extended periods because they generate too much heat. But the Spectre Folio is the opposite: comfortably cool the vast majority of the time. 

hp spectre folio flir heat meter all Melissa Riofrio/IDG

This FLIR heat sensor map shows the hot spot that developed occasionally around the CPU on the HP Spectre Folio’s slender motherboard.

It got noticeably hotter on a couple of random occasions, after extended use. I measured it with a FLIR sensor at 109.8 degrees Fahrenheit, concentrated (not surprisingly) over the CPU. HP confirmed this reading to be “within tolerance.” The Spectre Folio’s dismal performance in our HandBrake CPU test (see our Performance section, below) suggests that, overall, the laptop sacrifices performance to stay cool. There’s even a “Cool” mode you can set via the system BIOS (a “Balanced” mode is the default), but we’d guess performance would take a big dive if you did so.

The innovative display

The Spectre Folio’s 13.3-inch touchscreen is bright and crisp with wide viewing angles, but there’s a lot more to it. For one, it uses Intel’s low-power display technology (LDPT), which runs on as little as 1 watt of power (up to 1.5W-1.6W at maximum brightness), compared to 2 watts for a typical non-LPDT display. This frugal design helps achieve the Spectre Folio’s long battery life.

The screen design is unusually versatile. It attaches only to the top part of the lid, with a hinge in the middle, and gentle magnets at the bottom. You can flip it out from the middle partway into a tentlike viewing mode, or completely flat to use like a tablet. Notice that in tablet mode, the flipped display covers the keyboard, so you don't have that weird upside-down keyboard situation of most convertibles. 

hp spectre folio 4 positions HP

The HP Spectre Folio’s display moves from clamshell to viewing to tablet modes.

The first few times you use the display, you might flip it outward accidentally, especially if you grip it from the side. The flip is harmless, but it momentarily looks like the display has broken off. If you grip it from the top, it transitions smoothly.  

The Spectre Folio bundles an HP Pen. It has 1,024 levels of pressure, which HP interpolates via firmware to 4,096 levels. It attaches to the Spectre Folio using a stitched-leather pen loop that you apply permanently into a special slit in the chassis. Open pen loops are a bit of a hassle, but they’re better than nothing. 

HP Spectre Folio Performance

Let’s be clear: The Spectre Folio offers competent mainstream performance, but it’s not a workhorse laptop, let alone a gaming laptop. A fanless design in such a thin package demands that the Folio sacrifice speed to control heat, and this shows in certain tests.

We compared the Folio to similar convertible-slash-2-in-1 laptops, where the display rotates (such as with Samsung’s Notebook 9 Pen), or where it detaches (such as with Microsoft’s Surface Pro 6). We also tried to restrict our comparisons to a certain class of CPU. We haven’t tested anything else with the Spectre Folio’s dual-core Core i7-8500Y chip, so we include an HP Spectre x2 with an earlier dual-core Core i5-7Y54 processor, and a bevy of models with the widely used Core i5-8250U or Core i7-8550U.

While the latter two have the inherent advantage of being quad-core, the Core i7-8500Y’s high 4.2GHz maximum turbo frequency helps a lot. The Core i5-8250U has a 3.4GHz max, and the the Core i7-8550U tops out at 4GHz (while the Core i5-7Y54 lags at 3.2GHz).

PCMark Work 8 Conventional tests performance in mainstream computing. A score of 2,000 or higher on this test is all you need, and the Spectre Folio clears that handily. 

hp spectre folio pcmark work 8 Melissa Riofrio/IDG

The HP Spectre Folio posted a very solid score of 3,302 in PCMark Work 8 Conventional, meaning it will handle mainstream applications just fine. 

Maxon’s Cinebench R15 is a free CPU benchmark, which we run in both single- and multi-threaded loads. The vast majority of software and games rely on just one or two threads, so the Spectre Folio’s solid performance here is what matters. The Spectre Folio’s multi-threaded result is limited by its dual-core architecture. 

hp spectre folio cinebench Melissa Riofrio/IDG

The HP Spectre Folio will ably run typical single-threaded applications. The result for multi-threaded tasks confirms what we already know: It’s not a high-performance machine.

A typical laptop struggling to dissipate heat will throttle CPU speed to compensate. We often see that during the prolonged run of our HandBrake test. We set the utility to transcode a 30GB 1080p MKV file using the built-in Android Tablet preset. Given the HP Spectre Folio’s design tradeoffs, its lackluster score is no surprise.  

hp spectre folio video handbrake Melissa Riofrio/IDG

The HP Spectre Folio’s HandBrake score is in line with what we’d expect from a dual-core processor in a very thin laptop.  

Battery life

Where the Spectre Folio shines is in battery life. We charge the battery to full, set the display to 250 nits’ brightness and the volume to midrange (with earbuds connected). With the laptop in airplane mode and off AC, we loop a video until the machine dies. 

hp spectre folio video rundown battery life Melissa Riofrio/IDG

The HP Spectre Folio lasted nearly 13 hours in our video rundown test, meaning you can abandon your AC adapter for the day with confidence. 

The Spectre Folio lasted nearly 13 hours in our test. This is on the low end of what HP promises, but it’s still plenty. I left the AC adapter at home, and gloated about it to my coworkers. 

Should you buy the HP Spectre Folio?

While I love the HP Spectre Folio’s leather casing, that’s just part of why this laptop rates highly. Without the leather, it would still be remarkably lightweight, cool, and long-lasting on battery. With the leather, HP’s added feelings to the laptop—feelings of comfort, luxury, naturalness. Those are good feelings to have, and they just might sell you on the Spectre Folio.

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Melissa Riofrio

Melissa Riofrio

PC World (US online)
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