Home Mobile devices HP Elite x3 Continuums to impress (review)

There is only one way you should consider HP’s interesting Elite x3 – as one of the world’s smallest pocket computers that, as a benefit, can also make phone calls and do other smart things.

This is not a consumer device so consumers need to stop reading now. From a business perspective, it is a highly competent, premium smartphone that allows amazing computing flexibility on the road and in the office by running many Windows programs.

HP made this device to extend computing from mobile to large screens as demanded by its enterprise customers – they wanted a total HP solution, not a mixed BYOD environment.

In fact, HP’s enterprise customers drove the design and specifications of the x3 – it was not a product simply developed by HP and put on the market. To do so, HP acquired some of the Nokia/Microsoft Team and vowed it would be a premium product.

Windows 10 Mobile (W10M) and the elephants in the room

HP x3 1We need to address the elephants in the room that Android and iOS users will inevitably raise before we move onto the one device that can literally be every device.

Its operating system (OS) is W10M and while it is an extremely competent enterprise smartphone operating system, its take-up in the consumer space is hampered by the sheer number of apps that Android and iOS enjoy.

I cannot see that changing, but after four weeks of “business” use there were few, if any, apps I missed. The app argument is much less relevant for a business user as (a) malware threats are accordingly much lower and (b) the OS has so much baked in that are optional apps on other platforms.

W10M uses the Continuum feature to extend its use well beyond its smartphone roots. That means it can hook up to an external keyboard, mouse, monitor (or another docking device like the svelte Lap Dock) and run any Universal Windows Program (UWP) like Office 365 as a reasonably competent computer. So, it should not be reviewed as a smartphone but as a pocket-sized, mobility computing device and, in that context, it blows everything else out of the water.

Windows 10 Mobile is not dead – it is not making a blip on market share or intent to purchase charts because it is sold as a computing device. And recent news that Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 835 chip will run Windows 10 and Win.32 apps natively may be yet another game changer, but Microsoft state that Continuum will continuum as the bridge between mobile and larger devices.

Price-wise it is reasonable, as unlike consumer phones, it does not need layers of marketing, distribution, and retailer margins to sell it – it “walks out the door” to customers needing a mobility business solution and is sold via established enterprise channels like HP, Microsoft, Telstra, Optus, distribution and value-added resellers that provide HP commercial products.

Who is it for?

HP says the technical services field, like telecoms technicians, has seen huge productivity gains because they can use the desktop programs which with they are familiar.

Government adoption has been good due to the high level of security and no known malware.

C-suite sees this as an extension of their familiar work environment where their computing device is not for games or to run often insecure apps. It also allows ultra-secure VPN access to corporate networks.

A multinational company that I am aware of recently offered the option of a HP Elite x360 or x2 notebook or a HP x3, and Lap Dock — all connecting to a 27” monitor/keyboard/dock at work — and while it is early days, the take-up of the x3 has exceeded expectations coming in at a five-to-one preference after initial trials.

I used it for just over four weeks as my primary computing device – in fact, I researched and typed this article on it – and it is very good at what it does. That is unmatched productivity.

Specifications

HP appeared to be following Apple’s lead in only marketing on the basic specs. Finally, I found a PDF here that restored my faith in the spec-driven HP.

HP Elite x3 – APJ model

  • Screen: 5.96”, AMOLED, 2560 x 1440, 494ppi; 72.2% screen-to-body ratio; covered in Gorilla Glass 4; low smudge finish.
  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, four core (2x2.15 GHz and 2x1.6 GHz).
  • RAM/STORAGE: 4GB LPDDR4 RAM; 64GB eMMC 5.1; microSD and OTG support to 2TB.
  • Rear camera: 16 MP, f/2.2; larger 1.31um pixels, OV16860 1/2.4” OmniVision PureCel sensor; phase detection auto-focus (also called PDAF focus pixels); high-output CRI single LED flash; 4:3 16MP native format – 4608 x 3456 (total image area 6055 x 4551), 16:9 10MP.
  • Front Camera: 8MP, f/2.2, 1.12um pixels, Sony IMX268 sensor; 16:9 Native Format – 3872x2192.
  • Audio: B&O front-firing stereo speakers (one is the earpiece); ANC with dedicated mic; 3.5mm 3/4 pole jack, Snapdragon Audio+ DSP.
  • Comms: Cat 6 300/50Mbps LTE with carrier aggregation, APJ model Bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 19, 20, 26, 28; 38, 39, 40, 41 plus 2DL carrier band aggregation.
  • Sensors: Wi-Fi AC, dual band, 2 x 2 MIMO; Wi-Di (Miracast); hotspot; Bluetooth 4.0; GPS; NFC.
  • Battery: 4150 mAh; USB-C 3.0 5V/2A 10W charger; Qi/PMA 5W wireless charging.
  • OS/HP software: Windows 10 Mobile with OneDrive and HP suite (a cloud-based virtualisation suite to run x32 programs – like Citrix or Remote Desktop).
  • Size/Weight: 161.8 x 83.5 x 7.8 mm x 195g.
  • Other: MIL-STD 810G salt, fog, humidity, transport shock and thermal shock resistant – 1.2m drop onto every side, angle and edge onto 50mm of plywood over steel over concrete.
  • IP67 dust and water-resistant up to a metre for 30 minutes.
  • Expansion: Pogo pins for future module expansion.
  • Security: biometric iris and fingerprint readers; FIPS 140-2 cryptography; Secure Boot; 128-bit key Unified Image Encryption; 256-bit key Full Disk Encryption; Anti-roll back and fTPM 2.0 security; Windows 10 includes 128 key Bitlocker encryption and Enterprise grade VPN.

These specifications reflect the August 2016 launch date for a premium smartphone. But the MIL-SPEC 810G is a rare commodity, something you expect on HP’s Elite range and highly appreciated by tradies and techies alike.

If you are wondering why Australian reviews are appearing now, it is that HP Australia finally has the telco carrier approved APJ stock and the support required to get serious about it here.

What is in the very big box

A very big, attractive, phone. I like a big phone so that is not an issue to me – compare it to the 5.5” Apple iPhone 7 Plus 158.2 x 77.9 x 7.3 mm x 188g and it is in the ballpark, but it provides a 12mm larger screen, stereo speakers, and a 3.5mm audio jack.

It comes with a 5V/2A USB-A socket charger, USB-A to USB-C cable, a set of earbuds/mic and in this case, the dock – more on that separately.

But I don’t want to compare it to other smartphones – that is not the point of this device. It is available with dock (Y2T26PA) or without the dock (X5V52AA) at $1199 and $1099 respectively and there are single and dual SIM versions (single has a dedicated microSD slot).

HP x3 threesome

Setup

If you have used W10M before then you will appreciate how easy it is to set up – choose the language, select default security/privacy settings (or not – it is totally flexible), connect to a Wi-Fi network, and enter your Windows User account. Yes, like iOS and Android you need a maker’s user account.

I have been a long-term user of Windows Phone/Mobile/Desktop devices so the live tile interface did not surprise me. In my opinion, it is the easiest to use, most logical, most comfortable interface of all and live, real-time, tiles that can feed things like news streams, photos and more is very useful. A tile can also be a contact person, web URL – anything.

The 6” home screen can display 60 quarter-sized tiles (about the same size as Android/iOS icons) compared to about 25 icons at most on a similar sized device. Or you can mix and match – anywhere from 15 full-sized tiles upwards.

The settings page is comprehensive and allows for a high level of device and OS customisation.

The screen

AMOLED is best and this screen (made by Samsung) is up there with the best at 2560 x 1440, and a maximum of 550 nits with high brightness mode. Blacks are pure and infinite contrast shows up “most” of the colour spectrum, verging a little on the cool side. Apart from brightness, there are no other adjustments (that the screen is clearly capable off).

My only comment is the lack of a glance screen (always on display) that could easily be enabled in firmware updates.

Apps – there are more than you think

A swipe of the home screen to the left reveals an alphabetic listing of everything on the phone – external apps as well as a wealth of baked in apps like Office 365 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Skype, Outlook (mail, calendar, tasks), OneDrive; as well as a range of HP apps like the device hub, display tools, mobile print, and HP Workspace.

The top free apps include WhatsApp, Spotify, Uber, Viber, Netflix, Stan, TED, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Translator, Accuweather, Lastpass, and around 2000 specifically for W10M – OK, not 2.7 million as on other platforms.

A business user will be more than satisfied with the apps and remember that almost everything else can be accessed via a browser (which can be linked to a Live tile as well). It is not short on music or movies either.

But here is the interesting thing – get on a W10 desktop and have a look at Windows Store because in addition to dedicated W10M apps it runs UWP apps, the same app that runs on the desktop, tablet, phone, Xbox, HoloLens, Surface Hub and more. At the core of UWP apps is the idea that users want their experiences to be mobile across all their devices, and they want to use whatever device is most convenient or productive for the task at hand.

Corporate/enterprise users often set up their own “Store” within Windows Store to provide approved apps and universal apps – an additional layer of security. Developers like UWP as it runs on both Win32 and W10M so there is no recompiling – one app for all.

Connectivity docking options

I am going to go overboard a little here as USB-C is the way to the future and therefore any USB-C dock or dongle should work.

The HP dock V5H01AA (sold separately for $199) has a full-sized display port, gigabit Ethernet port (with full Windows network discovery), two USB-A 3.0 socket (with charging) and a USB-C port (with charging). The phone docks via another USB-C leaving the 3.5mm audio socket exposed at the top. It has removable base plates to allow for phones fitted with optional cases and one plate has a USB-C extension cable to allow you to use the phone as if it is physically docked.

The dock charger provides 19V/2.31A or 45W via a typical HP small-sized brick. It will fast charge the x3. Size is a hefty 108 x 95 x 30.5 mm x 450g plus the charger at 300g.

HP x3 dock frontHP x3 dock back

My only negative is that you may need to buy a DisplayPort to HDMI (or whatever) adapter or cable to connect an external 1080p monitor – otherwise it does a great job.

However, I also tested it with other third party USB-C docks and dongles and you may want to investigate these as well.

HP x3 MS dockMicrosoft has a $98 HD-500 dock (for its Lumia 950/XL) that provides pass-through power (5V/3A so no fast charging), HDMI and Display Port (both 1080p), 2 x USB-A 2.0, 1 x USB2.0 (with charge) in a svelte 64 square x 25 mm x 230g plus a 70g 5V/3A travel charger – in fact, I found this a better alternative to HP’s for travel except that the phone docks by cable, not upright.

I also tried various USB-C dongles (including a Laser brand MacBook adaptor). Apart from fast charge, the pick has to be Samsung’s TabPro S Multi-port adaptor that provides HDMI, USB-A 3.0 and pass through charging.

But wait, there is more. Kensington has an external USB-C powered dock SDC4600P that has both HDMI and Display Port (2 x 1080p or 1 x 4K – either, but not both), 3 x USB-A 3.1, 3.5mm audio in/out, and provides up to 60W for USB-C fast charge. It will drive two 1080p monitors off the x3 but the content is mirrored, not extended.

You can also use Wi-Di to cast to any Miracast-equipped screen and use a Bluetooth keyboard, mouse, and speakers if you wish.

There is also a range of USB-C to “anything” adapters (Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, etc.,) from HP and third-party manufacturers that should work with this.

The Lap Dock – this is the future of pocket computing

The $799 Lap Dock is a “dumb”, 12.5”, HD, almost bezel-less, IPS screen (non-touch) in a polycarbonate, fan-less, clamshell-style notebook chassis – a very slim 289 x 201 x 13.8 mm x 1kg body.

HP X3 Lapdock

It has a backlit, spill-resistant, keyboard, and touchpad; integrated B&O stereo speakers; noise cancelling mic; 3.5mm audio combo jack; micro-HDMI output (1080p); and a 46.5WHr battery for around 6-7 hours use (or powered by a 45W USB-C connection). It has three USB-C sockets – one for data/charging connection to the x3 and two for data/power in/out. It can also connect via Wi-Di to the x3.

During the test, I found myself increasingly drawn to this device – x3 in the pocket and using it via Wi-Di on the go. I plugged in printers, an external monitor, mouse and more. All worked, a fine testament to the Windows universal driver model – if it works on a desktop device it likely will work on a dock.

Continuum – the secret sauce

Continuum is good and getting better since I first tried in on the Lumia 950 XL in November 2015. It will also get better with more work in the W10 Creators update coming soon. There will also be a lot more cloud and remote desktop support.

To say it is the same as a desktop experience would be stretching things a little. It supports a single external screen in full-screen mode (a responsive design to accommodate screens from phones to large screen TV), independent of the x3 screen.

For the most part, UWP apps have the same features to the desktop. Office 365 was a no brainer – open, create, edit, save (to the device or cloud although the latter is recommended for ease of picking up on a desktop) and even printing to a range of inkjet, laser and cloud interface printers.

Initially, I enjoyed using the phone screen as a touchpad, but after a while realised that it was better showing Outlook mail, calendar, messages etc., and I found a mouse and keyboard more useful. Continuum also continued to work after the lock screen was enabled and I could make and receive phone calls, messages etc., without the second work screen being interrupted.

Performance-wise there was an occasional lag when the phone rang — a keystroke perhaps — but overall it did what I expected

Continuum was a suitable companion for the four weeks – I had to relearn a few habits (like the back arrow being in the task bar), no resizing of apps, and no multiple Windows (but it does support Task View that allows different tasks to run in virtual screens).

HP Workspace (not tested)

HP Workspace allows cloud-based access to virtual Windows x32 programs and corporate applications in a similar manner to a Citrix Zen desktop client.

It is available as a monthly subscription service from HP and is a simple alternative to deploying and managing corporate-licensed apps and it includes analytics.

Security

I spoke to an IT Sys Admin who supports these devices and to quote, “Windows Hello login – amazing. MFA if you want it. TPM chip is great. Windows Information protection separates corporate and private information. Malware – what malware? Mobile management including remote wiping makes my job easy. Plus, it is all Windows – no issues with this BYOD environment”.

It supports AirWatch, MobileIron and HP TouchPoint mobile device management.

Rather than go into security here is a TechNet overview.

The rear camera

It is quite a competent camera, more so in good to medium light, and quite acceptable in low light due to larger 1.31um pixels.

It has auto HDR but that disables the flash - that means low light performance is more reliant on flash.

Phase Detection Autofocus was reasonably fast – not as fast as other flagships.

It will do 4K recording @30fps but it only has average electronic image stabilisation (EIS) so that means no OIS. 1080p record is better and jitter free.

It saves images as a JPEG 16MP so there is no RAW support. There are manual settings for white balance, ISO, brightness and more.

Daylight, good natural light, auto HDR: Among the better images from my cache of reference shots with HDR bringing up detail in the shadows and evening out overexposed areas.

Daylight, low light (overcast and early evening), auto HDR: Good shots, good colours, crisp and picks up the details in the stormy sky very well

Indoors, office light, auto HDR: great colours, crisp details and HDR brings out the details

Indoors, low lights, auto HDR: Blurry images as it slows down for HDR so use a tripod. Better shots are achieved with straight flash where it produces acceptable results to about two metres.

Video: While it will do 4K scenes were too jittery with EIS. However, at 1080 it was very acceptable for daylight and motion shots and had good mono sound quality too. You can extract very good 8MP stills.

Front camera: Standard 8MP selfie and great Skype camera. No screen fill flash (could be fixed in firmware).

It does not have Panorama mode, but you can download a range of lenses and special effects for the camera.

Summary: A very competent camera for business use, good flash for closer shots and excellent for whiteboard, lecture note, and QR capture. Easy share of images while in the camera app and lots of software “lenses” for special purposes.

It makes calls too – very well indeed

The dual SIM model supports 4G LTE on SIM one and 2/3G on SIM two, or up to a 2TB microSD card. It is Cat 6 300/50 Mbps, supports 15 LTE bands (standard for Qualcomm modems) and carrier band aggregation.

Hands-free was excellent for both the caller and listener – one of the better I have used.

The sound is good via the B&O-tuned speakers and it uses the Snapdragon Audio+ DSP so it outputs good clean full range sound to Bluetooth and AV Amps.

And because this is Cat 6 LTE you can work on the move – if you can affford the carrier data.

Battery

I typically got a day — 24 hours — between charges but as it supports Qi charging that never became an issue – throw it on the charge plate for a constant top-up. I tested an HD video loop and got seven hours and that is good for such a large device.

Conclusion

Pros:

  • Huge battery.
  • Beautiful professional design – very cool looking B&O speaker bar.
  • Continuum is almost flawless.
  • Corporate app store availability.
  • Enough apps for business/productivity (not comparing it to other platforms).
  • Universal apps make huge sense for enterprise.
  • No known malware or vulnerabilities – enterprise security.
  • Qi wireless.
  • One of the better cameras but lacks OIS.
  • W10M update model ensure latest OS and features.
  • Can get on a carrier plan from Telstra and Optus.
  • HP Elite quality – on the spot swap out warranty (and as it uses OneDrive the setup is simple and quick).

Cons

  • No glance screen.
  • No Windows Ink pen and stylus support (no reason it could not have).
  • HP is not a phone company so firmware updates may be slower.

As a computer in a pocket, it occupies a niche market and it does it very well. If you are in business and don’t need all those consumer apps then this should be at the top of the list as a highly mobile computing device.

Dealing with HP or its partners means an enterprise experience and Elite means an enterprise guarantee of service.

And in breaking news, HP is working on a 14” Lap Dock with full-size USB-A 3.0 ports and more docking features.

Interesting.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw ray@im.com.au  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

 

 

 

 

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