Two high end ultraportable notebooks aimed at the frequent traveler and esthetically demanding buyer: the HP Envy 14 Spectre vs. MacBook Air. Granted, the MacBook Air is more portable at 3 pounds vs. 4 lbs. for the Spectre, and the Envy is thicker, but they share a nearly identical footprint. One is clad in Gorilla Glass, the other in aluminum. One runs Windows and the other runs Mac OS X but can also run Windows. Which should you buy?
Disclosure: I own the 2011 13" MacBook Air. It's my personal work machine and it's the one you'll see in our video comparison. I also own the latest generation HP Envy 15; it's my gaming rig and go-to guy for 1080p video editing and other heavy lifting. I've been using Macs since... well, longer than some of you have been alive. I use Windows 7 too, and like it quite a lot. This is not an Apple vs. Windows comparison. They're both cool, and both have their strong points.
My point? The MacBook Air excels when running Mac OS X. Apple wrote the drivers and tuned everything to work nice under their own OS. Things aren't as earth-shattering when you Bootcamp into the Windows world. Battery life drops, the trackpad loses some of its glory and you won't see any performance tuned drivers for Windows. There are command key differences on the keyboards. It's not an unpleasant experience to run Windows 7 on a Mac, but it's not stunning either. If you want to run Mac OS X--do it! If you want to run both Mac OS X and Windows on one machine, do it! But if you're really looking for a Windows machine, I'd suggest a Windows machine over the MacBook Air now that there are so many fine Ultrabook choices.
Specs and Horsepower
It's a dead heat here. Both base machines come with a second generation Sandy Bridge Intel Core i5 ULV CPU and Intel HD 3000 integrated graphics. The Mac is 1.7GHz while the Envy Spectre base model comes with a 1.6GHz Core i5, and that 100MHz isn't significant in terms of performance. Neither has a dedicated graphics option, and they offer the same graphics performance for photo editing, video playback and gaming. This is NOT an Envy 15, Envy 17 or even the older Envy 14 when it comes to dedicated graphics and wicked (or semi-wicked in the case of the old Envy 14) performance. The machines score similarly in PCMark Vantage. Both have 4 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD with a 256 gig option. Both are available with 1.8GHz Intel Core i7 dual core ULV CPUs. The Envy 14 Spectre has a standard notebook DIMM slot for upgrading memory up to 8 gigs, but oddly, HP doesn't offer that option in build to order models, and it's a real bear to access that DIMM slot to upgrade the machine at home (but it can be done, unlike the MacBook Air with its soldered memory).
Both generally ship with SATA 2 SSD drives, but the Envy 14 Spectre has two mSATA SSD drive bays vs. one SSD drive bay on the MBA. Nice. Less nice is the 256 gig SSD upgrade option for the Spectre, which uses two 128 gig drives instead of a 256 gig SSD drive (dual SSDs in a RAID 0 config usually take a performance hit, and we assume this might be what HP will use). Oh, and HP, you're letting Dell walk all over you with the Dell XPS 13 SATA 3 128 and 256 SSD drive options.
Winner: HP Envy 14 Spectre for the upgradeable RAM and dual mSATA drive bays.
The base HP Envy 14 Spectre costs $100 more than the MacBook Air 13". The top model Envy Spectre costs $1,899 vs. $1,699 for the Mac. We don't often see Windows competitors with higher prices than Apple, and that's generally considered a dangerous move. But the 14" Envy is a bigger laptop with more features like the RAM slot and SSD expandability we mentioned, a better display and more versatile external display options.
Winner: MacBook Air if you go by the lowest price, but there's a "you get what you pay for" warning here. The Envy 14 Spectre offers more stuff for the added dollars. Ultraportables come at a premium; we wouldn't call the Spectre a bargain vs. the much more powerful HP Envy 15 that costs $100 less.
Design, Materials and Build Quality
Really, HP has hit a home run here: the Gorilla Glass Envy 14 Spectre is both unique and drop dead gorgeous. It will turn heads. It will make you smile and feel proud if you have even a smidgen of vanity. It's one of the few notebooks on the market that can make the MacBook Air look a little pedestrian. HP took chances here, and we applaud them for thinking different. But, is it so wise to carry a glass-clad ultraportable? Gorilla Glass is tough, but only time will tell. You don't have to think twice about throwing a metal-suited MBA into a bag for travel, while it's hard to stop worrying about the glass Envy Spectre.
Then there's HP's quality control issues. We've seen quite a few complaints about those, and our own brand new Envy Spectre arrived with a warped lid and a less than perfect battery door closure. Our Envy 15 has a trampoline for a keyboard (some have this problem while others don't, which indicates a quality control issue) and a mismatched lid seam. My 2 year old HP TouchSmart TM2 arrived with a hide and seek charging indicator. It's odd that HP's high line products seem to suffer more QC problems than their cheaper notebooks. Apple is famous for shipping products without cosmetic problems or defects, and their support staff is more helpful with such problems.
Tie. HP is the winner for a unique and incredibly beautiful design, and for fitting a 14" display into a 13.3" footprint. Apple is the winner for better durability and portability, as well as better QC and support.
No need to ponder for a moment, the hands down winner is the HP Envy 14 Spectre. You get a higher resolution IPS-class panel. We'll take it any day over conventional TN display panels, and the Spectre's 1600 x 900 14" display in a 13" case takes down the MacBook Air's 13", 1440 x 900 display. Viewing angles are wider on the HP and yes, the reds are really red, unlike the Envy 15 with its orangey reds. The only drawback? The Envy Spectre's display isn't wildly bright.
Winner: HP Envy 14 Spectre.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Some things never change, no matter how much we wish they would. Nothing beats the Mac's glass multi-touch trackpad, at least when the Mac is running OS X (the Windows drivers aren't quite as awesome). We pick on HP for their buttonless trackpads, but honestly it might not match the Mac, but it's not bad among Windows machines. But you get the idea, the Mac trackpad still rules. The keyboards are close: Apple makes an excellent backlit keyboard with great tactile feel and as much travel as you can squeeze out of such a thin design. HP's roomy Chiclet keyboard is more like a standard notebook keyboard than an Ultrabook's. The backlighting is incredibly even with no bleed around the key edges, and there's even a little red eye next to the webcam that looks to see if you're there, so it knows when to turn the keyboard lighting on and off.
Winner: Both are quite good, but the HP Envy 14 Spectre comes closer to a touch typist's dream.
Ports aren't plentiful on Ultrabooks, with a few exceptions like the Toshiba Portege Z830. The HP Envy 14 Spectre is above average here with two USB ports (1 is USB 3.0), a full size HDMI port, a Mini DisplayPort, Ethernet RJ45 and a full size SD card slot. It also has Intel WiDi wireless display so you can throw away that HDMI cable if you just want to throw your desktop and movies onto your TV.
The Mac has two USB 2.0 ports, a hybrid Mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt port and an SD card slot. Nothing says "I love you" like an Ethernet port when on the road, please add one, Apple.
Winner: HP Envy 14 Spectre
Here's our HP Envy 14 Spectre MacBook Air 13" Comparison Smackdown Video.