Review: HP Elite x3, The First '3-In-1' Computing Device

Kyle Alspach

After several days of trying out the new HP Elite x3 at the CRN Test Center, we’re not ready yet to predict whether this is the future of computing.

But the device is definitely futuristic.

It feels legitimate to say, as HP does, that the Elite x3 is a new category of device—the ’3-in-1.’ Meaning, the phablet-sized device provides the computing for mobile, desktop and laptop experiences.

[Related: HP Elite X3 Windows Smartphone Is For Business People, Not Gamers]

With the PC market withering, HP deserves credit for this ambitious, inventive vision for where business computing could be headed.

You will need additional hardware—a display, dock, keyboard and mouse—to use it as a desktop. And you’ll need HP’s new ’Lap Dock’ to use it as a laptop.

But the Elite x3, which runs Windows 10 Mobile, can serve as the one computer behind all three.

The device is HP's answer to the mobile-ization and Millennial-ization of the workforce. Though to us, the initial version of the Elite x3 seems best suited for the workers that only spend a very limited amount of time in the office.

In our tryout, the Elite x3 was just not as fast for all tasks as typical desktop or laptop PCs.

The device uses the quad-core Snapdragon 820, a great processor that also powers Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge.

The Elite x3 was ultra-speedy when we were using it just as a handheld mobile device.

But in our test, it didn’t have the horsepower we were looking for in desktop mode.

Desktop mode requires docking the Elite x3 with HP’s new ’Desk Dock.’ That connects the x3 to an external display using Windows 10 Continuum technology.

The speed shortfall for the Elite x3 in desktop mode wasn’t universal. We found that many native apps actually loaded faster in desktop mode than their counterparts on a normal PC typically do.

For instance, the native app versions of Word, Outlook and Twitter all loaded instantly on the external display when the phone was docked.

The PC versions of those apps are usually not as quick to load, in our experience.

For us, this was the most impressive and most futuristic aspect--seeing how nicely the native apps on the Elite x3 worked on the external display using Continuum. HP, Microsoft and Qualcomm are breaking some ground here by making that work so well.

But it’s a different story on web browsing in desktop/Continuum mode. Loading web pages in our test of the x3 in desktop mode was significantly slower than we’re used to.

We ran a number of side-by-side comparisons—loading the pages simultaneously on the Elite x3 in desktop mode and on a laptop in the Test Center—and found that the Elite x3 in desktop mode couldn’t keep up.

So for web browsing in desktop mode, the Elite x3 feels like a bit of a step backward.

More Browser Woes

And there were other troubling issues with the desktop mode, such as the fact that two hugely popular sites did not work at all in our desktop-mode tryout.

Google Drive would load, but we were unable to create new documents and were unable to type more than one letter into existing documents. It could be that the Elite x3 and/or Continuum was having trouble with the auto-saving feature on Google Drive.

In repeated tests, Netflix episodes would not load on the Elite x3 in desktop mode. In some cases, the sound would play but both the x3 display and the external display would go black.

By the way, we were trying out Netflix in the web browser that is pre-loaded on the x3 (Edge). While there is a Windows 10 Mobile version of Netflix, the Netflix app doesn’t work with Continuum yet (a problem affecting a lot of popular apps on Windows 10 Mobile—others include Spotify and Facebook).

In our view, this isn’t a great sign--because it’s not enough just for the apps on the Elite x3 to work flawlessly in desktop mode. Web browsing on the x3 in desktop mode probably deserves some attention from HP and Microsoft.

Seamless Experience?

One other quibble we have with the Elite x3 is over switching back and forth between mobile and desktop modes.

A lot of the marketing for the device revolves around the idea that today’s on-the-go workers demand a more-seamless experience between mobile and office work. (As in, the Elite x3 "delivers the seamless experience you've been dreaming of for your office and on the go from a single device.’)

The x3 is the solution, HP says, because when you dock your device and the external display turns on, your work is there just the way you left it on mobile.

That’s not exactly what happened in our test.

After docking the Elite x3, none of the apps we had up on the mobile screen were up on the external display. If we were typing in Word, for instance, we still had to go to the Taskbar or Start Menu and open up Word once in desktop mode.

We did find that the document was at the right place on the page, at least. But it’s not ideal—not ’seamless’—to have to go and re-open any apps you were working in after switching from mobile to desktop.

The same thing goes for switching from desktop to mobile mode. If you’re in the middle of writing an email in Outlook, and you need to run and want to finish the email on the subway, you can’t just pick up your phone and keep going with the email.

In our test of switching from desktop to mobile, we had to launch Outlook, go to our drafts folder and find the email in order to keep working on it.

Again, not seamless. Lots of seams here.

Virtualized Apps

One other new product is being introduced for use with the Elite x3, as well.

That product is HP Workspace, a virtual desktop that gives users access to legacy apps. HP is offering a service that will virtualize an organization’s legacy apps and make them available through the HP Workspace app on the Elite x3.

However, it needs to be noted that access to the virtualized legacy apps is only possible when the Elite x3 is in desktop mode. The marketing of HP Workspace is not exactly crystal clear on that point; for instance, on the Elite x3 page, under the ’On the Go’ tab, HP shows an image of the Elite x3 (not docked) and includes the following statement: ’Need to work in your corporate applications? You can with HP Workspace.’

The fine print on the page clarifies, however, that doing this ’requires the HP Elite x3 to be docked with the HP Elite x3 Desk Dock or connected to the HP Elite x3 Lap Dock.’

So don’t expect to be using your mission-critical legacy version of QuickBooks from your Elite x3.

We can’t report how the x3 works in laptop mode because the Lap Dock wasn’t made available for review at the same time as the x3.

A Really Nice Phone

As a smartphone/phablet, the Elite x3 delivers what it promises—including strong battery life (constant use during a four-hour trip only put a dent in the battery life for us) and a terrific 6-inch display (with a minimal bezel).

Overall it was a pleasure to use in mobile mode, which is a major accomplishment on its own for a device in a category--Windows phones--that’s widely been pronounced dead.

It’s an encouraging sign that HP has nailed the mobile experience. And most of the desktop issues we found in our test seem, on the face of it, to be solvable with more work and processor upgrades.

Quite possibly, some of the issues may have more to do with the Microsoft side (Continuum is still pretty nascent, for one) than with the HP side.

The bottom line for us is that HP has produced a good device that is focused, through-and-through, on meeting the needs of modern business users. We see it as a worthy addition to the device market for that reason alone.

There’s no mistaking that this is Version 1.0 of the 3-in-1 category. But the original iPhone didn’t instantly turn it into a massive phenomenon, and we think the first version of the Elite x3 shows a ton of a potential.

For a device with this much going on, further exploration is definitely warranted, though--so please consider this just our first impression of the Elite x3. Stay tuned.

The HP Elite x3 is available now for $799 with the phablet and Desk Dock, or for $699 for just the x3. A bundle including the x3, Desk Dock and Lap Dock is available Oct. 21 for $1,299. Those who purchase an Elite x3 bundle also get a free 60-day trial of HP Workspace (the service is $579/user/year, or $939/user/year, depending on the level of service an organization needs). It’s worth mentioning again here that these prices don’t include the other hardware you need for running the x3 in desktop mode—display, keyboard and mouse.

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