HP’s new Windows 8 Ultrabooks are all about touchscreens (and one makes a kick-ass tablet)

Say what you will about Windows 8, but it sure is getting PC manufacturers to bring out their innovation guns. Take HP, which is today announcing three new Windows 8 Ultrabooks with touchscreen capabilities — one of which could be its answer to Microsoft’s Surface tablet.

At the high end, there’s the HP Spectre XT, a 15.6-inch beauty that truly pushes the boundaries of the Ultrabook ideal (remember, they’re supposed to be thin and light laptops like the MacBook Air). Then there’s the HP Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4, which is a more typical 14-inch consumer laptop.

Above: HP’s Envy x2 (in tablet mode)

But while those laptops are nice upgrades to HP’s current lineup, it’s HP’s Envy x2 hybrid PC that’s truly getting me excited. Not only is it a sleek 11.6-inch Ultrabook, you can also pop out the screen and use it as a fully capable Windows 8 tablet. Just like Microsoft’s Surface, which (surprisingly) got the tech world drooling back in June, the Envy x2 shows just how versatile Windows 8 can be as an operating system.

We’ve seen attempts at hybrid laptop/tablet devices in the past, but the latest generations of mobile processors and Windows 8’s touch-friendly interface is finally making them a viable PC form factor. Earlier today, Samsung unveiled its own hybrid Windows 8 PCs, and we can expect other manufacturers to follow suit. (All of these announcements are fueling my sneaking suspicion that most new computers will be hybrid PCs in the next five-to-ten years.)

The Envy x2 sports a substantial all-aluminum casing (which looks and feels a lot like the 11-inch MacBook Air), a high-quality IPS display, and it weighs 3.1 pounds altogether. The screen pops off easily to be used as a tablet, and it weighs just 1.5 pounds on its own. HP says it spent a long time developing the hinge for the Envy x2, which is notable in how effortless it is to dock and remove the screen from the keyboard. (There’s a nice hefty click when the screen locks into place, even though it requires little force on your part to dock.)

In my brief time playing with the Envy x2, I was surprised by how high-quality it felt. You could also tell that HP’s obsession with its hinge paid off. Browsing through apps felt zippy as well (HP isn’t discussing the chip powering the x2 yet, but the company says it’ll be a next-generation Intel “Cedar Trail” model). The Envy x2 also sports batteries and SD card slots in both the keyboard and screen portions — which could make it the ultimate productivity hybrid PC.

I’ll be honest with you, I was so enamored with the Envy x2 that I didn’t really have much time to spend with the other Ultrabooks in HP’s lineup. The Spectre xt looked like a noble attempt at a MacBook Pro-like PC, and it’s fairly light and slim for a 15.6-inch machine at 4.77 pounds and 17.9mm thin. It’s also HP’s first laptop with a Thunderbolt port, which makes it perfect for people who need to deal with huge files.

The Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 is basically a touch upgrade to the company’s existing Envy lineup. It weighs 4.77 pounds and measures 23mm thin.

All of the Ultrabooks feature Beats Audio — but I’ll be honest with you, who cares? In my experience, Beats integration doesn’t really add much to music quality, and in some cases (thanks to aggressive post-processing) it can even detract from the original source.

The TouchSmart Spectre xt will be available in December in the U.S. starting at $1,399.99. Pricing and availability for the Envy x2 and the Envy TouchSmart Ultrabook 4 haven’t been announced yes. (Interestingly, HP reps asked the press what we thought the ideal price for the Envy x2 would be. I voted for something in the $600 to $800 range.)

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