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What’s in a Name?

I want you to picture this: someone walks into Best Buy, sashays over to their pile of (mostly horrible) notebooks, finds a salesperson, and asks for the HP Envy Spectre XT. Did  you laugh? You should have. Look at that name. Write it down. Say it. Anyway you approach it, HP Envy Spectre XT is ridiculous. In fact, I would argue HP’s marketing division has done the near impossible—they have managed to put together the worst brand name in technology. Give them a hand, folks; failing this hard takes class.

The last contender for top of the terrible name dog pile was the Sprint Samsung Galaxy S II Epic 4G Touch. Horrible as that sounds, at least it tells you something. The phone has a touchscreen and it runs on Sprint’s fake 4G network, which is about as fast as AT&T’s fake 4G network. There’s a little bit of value in knowing that; not much, but some.

Now look at the phrase HP Envy Spectre XT. What the hell does that tell the average customer? A nerd could parse it out and realize a premium ultrabook is up for sale, but other than that? Nothing. HP has managed that rare marketing feat: creating an identity with zero descriptive value. That’s fine if you go with something short and phonetic, such as iPod or ThinkPad, but if you use more than two words? At least try for a few adjectives.

And just out of curiosity, what is an XT? I mean, XL I could understand, that would be extra-large, or maybe XS, extra-small, but XT? If Samsung or Toshiba used the abbreviation I might chalk it up to some kind of cultural disconnect, but HP was born and bred in the United States. What could those two capitalized letters stand for? Extra… tall? Extra torque? Extra time? Maybe XT isn’t an abbreviation, but a subliminal signpost thrown in by a caring marketer. Beware, XT screams, here lies a bullshit name. (Update: HP has gotten in touch to let us know XT stands for eXtra thin. So that’s a thing. A terrible, soul-destroying thing.) 

But the real problem with the moniker is a bit more serious. When HP announced the Envy Spectre series I wasn’t ecstatic about the branding, but I thought I understood it. Envy means premium notebook, Spectre is the line of Envy ultrabooks covered with Gorilla Glass. The two number prefix is the screen size. Not great, but at least it works.  The identifier of a product subset follows the name of the broader product line—it’s not that different from how Apple names MacBooks. A bit obnoxious, but at least you could presume it had meaning. The premium Gorilla Glass body the original Spectre sported wasn’t a perfect idea, my iPhone back attests to how fragile Gorilla Glass can be, but it helped the products stand out from the pack. The design was striking, and the promised functionality real.

The Envy Spectre branding had real promise: bad names associated with good products have the potential to take on a special allure that transcends the stupidity of their genesis. I still cringe when I see a lowercase i at the beginning of a word, but Apple has managed to turn a condescending naming schema into a golden marketing trigger  associated with a broader aspirational experience. The Envy Spectre 14 was the best of the CES ultrabooks, and with a minimal investment in raising public awareness HP’s laptop could have been the go to Air alternative. While they did turn to Cupertino for a bit of “inspiration,” the notebook still brought to the table a genuine innovation in laptop materials and build quality. The Spectre name meant something; but HP that away, the Spectre XT doesn’t have a Gorilla Glass enclosure, it’s content to simply be another boring MacBook Air parody. When HP tossed out the Gorilla Glass, it condemned the Spectre to live life as just one more poorly named clone of a clearly superior product. It does nothing to advance the conversation about the role of laptops in a tablet world, and it will never fulfill the promise of it’s predecessor. That’s sad. For one brief, faltering moment it seemed that HP was no longer the graveyard of good ides. The original Spectre was a laptop to be proud of. The HP Spectre Envy XT? Just a bad joke.