MWC 2016: HP Elite X3 hands-on review

LET’S BE HONEST, HP Inc, even before it was known as HP Inc, has never been much of a smartphone maker. 2014’s HP Slate Voicetab 6 came and went without much fuss, an anomaly amidst an ever-growing laptop and tablet output.

The HP Elite x3 phablet, revealed on Sunday at this year’s MWC, is therefore as surprising as it is ambitious. The world’s first Windows 10 Mobile device with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, the Elite x3 is an enterprise-focused handset that aims to replace not just potential users’ existing smartphones, but their laptops and desktops as well.

We’ve had the chance to try it out ourselves, with the proviso that we were handling a very early model – something which quickly became apparent as we were using it.

Case in point: the fingerprint sensor was missing. HP Inc says that this, once actually implemented, will form one-half of the Elite x3’s dual factor authentication capabilities, the other being a front-facing iris scanner, which was, at least, present and correct.

The device is also yet to be awarded its waterproofing and dust-proofing certification, though HP Inc says it has been built to meet the IP67 standard – meaning complete resistance to dust, and the ability to survive depths of up one metre for up to 30 minutes. It certainly feels tight and sturdy, with no bending, flexing or creaking, and a conveniently capless USB-C port.

HP Elite x3 hands on

That said, this is no brick. The HP Elite x3 is just 7.8mm thin and comfortably light at 190g – if anything, we were expecting that number to be even lower, so easily does it sit in the hand despite the vast 6in display size. HP Inc has also packed the smooth, metallic case – though the finish isn’t final – with dual-array front-firing speakers and a card tray that can take either one SIM and one microSD card, or dual nano SIMs.

A huge screen demands a huge resolution, and the Elite x3’s 2560×1440 OLED panel is just the thing. With a flagship-worthy pixel density of 490ppi, this is a splendidly sharp screen, sporting deep blacks and colours with plenty of pop.

We imagine that anyone used to a smaller screen might have trouble adjusting, but as a business device, the extra inches do come in useful, such as for squeezing in a couple of extra Excel columns. Of course, the crisp resolution and vibrant colours make video and web pages look marvellous as well.

Operating system and software
The Continuum feature of Windows 10 Mobile is at the heart of the Elite x3. HP Inc is pushing the productivity and convenience benefits of Continuum, which allows a smartphone to connect to a monitor, mouse and keyboard PC-style, much harder than Microsoft ever did – key accessories include both a USB dock and the fairly mad-sounding HP Mobile Extender, effectively a 12.5in laptop with no motherboard in it. It only works when paired to the Elite x3, during which it can run the handset’s Universal Apps WITH a traditional desktop UI, ostensibly saving the need to carry around both a smartphone and a fully-equipped Windows laptop around at the same time.

HP Mobile Extender

We suspect that the attractiveness of this setup will depend on pricing, which is currently yet to be decided – it would make a lot more sense to give up a proper laptop’s fuller functionality in favour of the Mobile Extender if the latter is significantly cheaper.

Nonetheless, both the Mobile Extender and the Elite x3 could suffer from Windows 10 Mobile’s relative lack of apps. More have become available since the software-starved Lumia 950 and Lumia 950 XL launched last year, but Android and iOS still offer much more choice and variety than Microsoft’s OS. Despite its business focus, we imagine most HP Elite x3 owners would still want to use it as their personal device, and the lack of genuine apps for things like Gmail and YouTube could prove annoying.

Speaking of business, HP Inc is, at least, paying attention to the enterprise software side. Besides striking a deal to pre-load SalesForce1 on the Elite x3 before its Universal App sees a general release, the firm has also created HP Workspace, a VPN service which enables the use of legacy applications when using a mouse and keyboard in Continuum – somethings Windows 10 Mobile can’t manage by itself.

Security has also been bolstered to business-worthy levels, with the operating system’s standard hardware encryption complemented by secure boot, anti-roll back and image encryption features, as well as VPN-SSL support and a Trusted Platform Module (TPM) microprocessor.

We’ve heard encouraging things about Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 820 processor; HP Inc has clearly heard something similar, entrusting the Elite x3’s octa-core chip and 4GB of RAM to offer enough power for laptop-grade performance on Continuum.

HP Elite x3 back

A quick run though the Sunspider benchmark showed a promising score of 269.9ms, the third-fastest score we’ve recorded – after the iPhone 6S’ 219.9ms and the iPhone 6S Plus’ 232.5ms. However, the fact that we were testing an unfinished model was otherwise obvious; menus stuttered, apps took several seconds to load, and there was a significant delay between typing with the on-screen keyboard and the corresponding text actually appearing.

We frankly do not believe that this is indicative of the final product, which is still several months away from its projected summer launch window. Particularly considering its outstanding Sunspider score, the Elite x3 is surely capable of much better optimisation – and it will need to be, if HP Inc wants it to run as a pseudo-PC.

We also hit an immediate problem with the main 16MP camera, which appeared to be stuck in a half-focused state that no amount of photo-taking or fiddling with the settings could fix. That’s a shame, as we were keen to test out its 4K video recording capabilities.

The 8MP front camera is more modestly specced, but at least it worked properly. In fact, it was downright impressive; even in the low lights of the basement showroom, detailing was high and colours were vibrant. There was a bit of noisiness visible in the darker areas of the images, but nothing ruinous.

Battery and storage
The HP Elite x3’s 4,150mAh battery is gigantic on paper and Michael Park, HP Inc’s vice president and general manager of Mobility, promised that it will last “a full day, in the full sense of a full day”.

HP Elite x3 group

That might actually sound like a conservative estimate – the 3,450mAh Nexus 6P phablet can easily last for a day and a half – though if the Elite x3 does end up as someone’s main work device, it will likely see much heavier usage than the average consumer smartphone. Thus, anything less than a hefty battery might well have ended up inadequate.

Internal storage is, unfortunately, pretty badly compromised; on the 64GB test unit, we found just a 45.2GB maximum with a further 9.66GB of that already used by apps. Those willing to forgo dual SIM support, however, can add a microSD card, the supported size limit of which is a faintly ridiculous 2TB. In other words, a more realistic 256GB card will have no trouble.

First impressions
In theory, we like the HP Elite x3. HP Inc seems to have overcome its smartphone inexperience to create something with a similarly broad array of features and top-end specs as the latest Apple, Samsung or Nexus offerings, and while we probably wouldn’t choose Windows 10 Mobile as the best mobile OS for consumers it does offer some unique benefits for the productivity-minded – benefits which the Elite x3 is quick to exploit.

In practice, it still needs a lot of work. Fortunately, launch day is anything from four to six months away, but we’d be horrified to see the kinds of performance and camera issues we ran into on a finished product, first-generation or otherwise. This is to say nothing of whole features that have yet to be implemented, like the fingerprint sensor.

Really, the best thing HP Inc could do right now is get its head down and polish. Even the most currently-broken aspects of the Elite x3 show potential, and if this is realised, Windows 10 Mobile might finally get its first piece of must-have hardware. µ

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