HP Inc, even when it was just plain HP, has never been much of a smartphone maker. 2014's HP Slate Voicetab 6 came and went without much fuss, an anomaly amid an ever-growing laptop and tablet output from the firm.
The Elite x3 phablet, revealed today at Mobile World Congress 2016, 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.
We had the chance to try it out with the proviso that we were handling a very early model, which quickly became apparent.
Case in point: the fingerprint sensor was missing. HP Inc said that this, once 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 water-proofing and dust-proofing certification. It's supposedly 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, and there's no bending, flexing or creaking, and a conveniently capless USB-C port.
That said, this is no brick. The 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 fitted the smooth, metallic case (the finish isn't final) with dual-array front-firing speakers and a card tray that can take one SIM and one microSD card, or dual nano SIMs.
A huge screen demands a huge resolution, and the Elite x3's 2560x1440 OLED panel is just the thing. The pixel density of 490ppi makes for a splendidly sharp screen, with 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 webpages 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 much harder than Microsoft ever did. The feature allows a smartphone to connect to a monitor, mouse and keyboard PC-style. Key accessories include a USB dock and the fairly mad-sounding HP Mobile Extender, effectively a 12.5in laptop with no motherboard.
It works only when paired with 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 a smartphone and a fully equipped Windows laptop at the same time.
We suspect that the attractiveness of this setup will depend on price, 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, 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. We imagine that most Elite x3 owners would still want to use it as their personal device, despite its business focus, 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 general release, the firm has created HP Workspace, a VPN service that enables the use of legacy applications when using a mouse and keyboard in Continuum, which Windows 10 Mobile can't manage by itself.
Security has also been bolstered to business-worthy levels, and the operating system's standard hardware encryption is complemented by secure boot, anti-roll back and image encryption features, as well as VPN-SSL support and a Trusted Platform Module 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.
A quick run though the Sunspider benchmark showed a promising score of 269.9ms, the third-fastest 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 obvious. Menus stuttered, apps took several seconds to load, and there was 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. The Elite x3 is surely capable of much better optimisation, particularly considering its outstanding Sunspider score, 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 the 4K video recording capabilities.
The 8MP front camera is more modestly specced, but at least it worked properly. In fact, it was downright impressive. Detailing was high and colours were vibrant even in the low light of the basement showroom. There was a bit of noisiness in the darker areas of the images, but nothing ruinous.
Battery and storage
The Elite x3's 4,150mAh battery is gigantic on paper and will last "a full day, in the full sense of a full day", according to Michael Park, HP Inc's vice president and general manager of mobility.
That might actually sound like a conservative estimate. The 3,450mAh Nexus 6P phablet can easily last for a day and a half, although the Elite x3 likely to see much heavier use than the average consumer smartphone if it ends up as someone's main work device. Thus, anything less than a hefty battery might well have been inadequate.
Internal storage is, unfortunately, pretty badly compromised. The 64GB test unit had 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 is a faintly ridiculous 2TB, so in other words a more realistic 256GB card will have no trouble.
We like the Elite x3 in theory. 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. We probably wouldn't choose Windows 10 Mobile as the best mobile OS for consumers, but it does offer some unique benefits for the productivity-minded 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 kind of performance and camera problems 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.
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