Review: HP ElitePad 900 Atom tablet
'And finally, monsieur, a wafer-thin Win8 slab... sort of'
If HP’s ElitePad 900 is anything to go by, not everybody expects a business Windows 8 Pro Atom tablet to be a pocketable wafer. You only have to hold it in your hand to get the impression that this model has been built for endurance rather than designed as a fashion accessory. That’s not to say that it doesn’t look good, quite the opposite in fact. Although perhaps that has more to do with familiarity; its aluminium casing certainly lends an Apple iPad-esque quality to the tablet.
HP's ElitePad 900 comes fully laden with enterprise security apps.
Yet unlike a 3G/4G iPad’s rather discreet finger of black rubber covering on the back for its antennae, HP’s NFC-equipped tablet makes a meal of this, taking up nearly a quarter of casing surface. A saving on metal perhaps or just a way to keep its weight down to 630g? Maybe. Even so, the ElitePad comes across as a tad chunky despite the dimensions suggesting otherwise.
Indeed, this 10.1in tablet measures up at 281 x 178 x 9.2mm which is a shade thinner than a Retina iPad. No, this isn’t going to turn into a comparison sheet, but to stick with appearances for a moment, the HP's casing is nicely curved at the back, as with some other popular designs, but the top side rather spoils this, having framed the Gorilla glass touchscreen with sharply tapering metal sides. What you get are not exactly tactile edges for holding the tablet in landscape view. They stick out about 4mm either side and contrast with the black screen borders, all of which emphasise its proportions. It doesn’t seem particularly well thought out, but there is a reason for this, which I’ll come to later.
The underside cover protects the micro Sim card and micro SD slots
Inside the HP ElitePad 900 is a 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760 CPU, 2GB of RAM and 64GB eMMC storage – there’s a 32GB model available too which is around £35 cheaper. As the Windows 8 Pro OS, rescue partition and extras swallow about 20GB of the capacity, it’s just as well there’s a micro SD slot under a metal cover to expand this further. And if you splash out another £50 you get a micro SIM card option too. On test is a fully loaded top-of-the-range model that’ll set you back £688.
When it comes to spec, there’s currently not much variation among WinPro 8 Atom tablets, so differentiation shows itself in other ways. Beyond the look and feel, it’s typically the available interfacing that’s the stand-out feature. HP keeps it simple with just a power button, auto rotate toggle switch, a mic/headphone socket along the top edge, and a docking connector in the base. The up/down volume button is positioned on the curved area on the back, within easy reach of fingers when clasped for landscape viewing. Its position is mirrored by the SIM/storage slot that needs a prod from a paperclip to snap open.
The docking cradle adds four USB ports and then some
So, no pen tucked away underneath - or in the box either. No, that’s an optional extra, but if you’re looking to kit out your tablet with whatever it takes to turn it into a desktop PC, then HP has accessories aplenty for you. I’m typing this out with a wired keyboard plumbed into the ElitePad Docking station. It’s a deliberately weighty cradle that delivers four USB ports, 100Mbps Ethernet, HDMI, VGA and stereo line out audio interfacing. Being a paperweight dock (rather than a mere stand) does mean it's fixed in landscape mode, when portrait would work well when writing documents. Still, it’s a netbook evolution of sorts and when it comes to running Office 365 and hammering out text on Word, the ElitePad handles it briskly, with no latency if you save locally. Using the SkyDrive to save documents to the MS cloud service did give it a momentary "not responding" seizure at first, but a few seconds later it regained its composure and got on with things.
The only obvious quirk with the dock, however, is that the viewing angle is fixed - and given the notion of flexibility is much the point with a fondleslab, this does niggle a bit.
I spent a fair amount of time trying to get the 3G connectivity to work as the HSDPA+ modem had decided to throw a Code 10 error and wouldn’t run. Having gone through the various disable/enable and driver reinstall options, I noticed that the Device Manager showed it as working normally when attached to the dock. So I fired up the connection to Three mobile broadband and hey presto, it’s online. Now would it continue to work if I detached it from the dock? Indeed it has, and has remained stable over numerous restarts too. Microsoft states that Code 10 errors have frequently been reported as USB issues and this internal modem is connected that way. Perhaps the dock and its proliferation of ports refreshed the bus when they become active and woke the modem up.
Fondle the TIFKAM PC Settings and a reboot will offer Advanced options
Apparently, USB port assignments can also affect external booting and despite my best efforts trying all four ports, the ElitePad 900 didn’t want to play with a Pendrive Linux install of Ubuntu 12.10. Rebooting from PC Settings > General > Advanced brings up UEFI options. With the USB stick in the dock the screen would show Ethernet IPv4 or IPv6 choices. This would lead to Start PXE over IP... As there was no network drive, it gave up after nearly a minute and booted into Win8.
What was going on here? Well, with Windows 8 being a schizoid OS, HP's BIOS configuration tool doesn't show itself unless you're nosing around the Desktop Mode control panel. Here, you can enable/disable USB and Ethernet booting. However, killing off Ethernet booting made no difference to the outcome.
Meanwhile back in Desktop Mode, you'll find HP's BIOS control panel
I tried again with the docking Expansion Jacket which features two USB ports and HDMI for £78. Initially, this seemed more promising, bringing up a diagnostic screen but, alas, failing to run from the external drive. You might think it's Secure Boot at play, but the system info reports that it is inactive. So either the "raw" tablet has issues fully communicating with peripherals for booting or there could be some other cleverness at work that's part of the HP Client Security package installed on the device, but it didn't appear so from the device permissions listing.
And then I had the idea to use the micro SD slot, as it's internal and the ElitePad wouldn't be relying on any accessory adapters. And that's when I discovered the SD card driver was showing a Code 10 error which didn't want to go away, despite all the usual encouragement. Alas, the card wouldn't mount, nor would others I tried. I even did a wipe and clean instal on the tablet, and the micro SD card slot still produced an error. A dodgy ElitePad... or is the ElitePad dodgy? The jury's out on that one for now.
With the battery onboard too, the Expansion Jacket adds weight and bulk that can soon cause fatigue.
Some fixings for a shoulder strap would be a welcome addition.
A word on the Expansion Jacket. Remember those sharpish metal edges? Well, their shape neatly slots into the guides in the Expansion Jacket so you get a very snug fit. A separate section clips over the top where the antennas are situated, so they don’t get shielded by the top-up battery (sold separately for another £78) that fits in the main body of the external case. It’s made of pretty tough plastic with a soft-touch shell and, together with the Gorilla glass screen, suggests HP is looking to make an impression as a tough-tablet maker, which certain enterprise field divisions are embracing.
Even without the jacket, those meaty edges should afford the tablet some protection. Bash a corner on an iPad 2 and the dented metal can prise up the screen. How do I know this? No prizes for guessing.
From the front the Expansion Jacket looks neat and adds protection as well as ports
The software on the HP ElitePad 900 is an odd mix of practical apps and more consumer-centric offerings. For instance, Cyberlink’s YouCam, with its live photoframe and image-enhancing features, seems more likely to appeal to teenagers, rather than business road warriors. That said, its TrueTheaterLighting function adds a useful, if slightly unsubtle boost to dimly lit webcam sessions. There's a 2Mp front-facing and 8Mp rear camera to play with, which give decent enough results for stills and up to 1080p video. Cyberlink’s MediaSuite also provides touchscreen-friendly media navigation and basic photo editing.
Speaking in tongues
HP includes an SRS Audio control panel, which you’d typically associate with virtual surround trickery. While that is included – the speakers are loud but a bit rasping, by the way – there’s also a selection of noise suppression features. Memos, Skype chats and the like can all benefit and no doubt the surprisingly accurate Speech Recognition feature on Windows 8 can tap into this too.
Well it seems really accurate when you start the training session, but if you get bored with that and try it for real, it soon becomes painful. No doubt more training would help, but try getting it to recognise the word "stubborn" and it stubbornly refuses. I ended up with "Stalin". And going for a letter-by-letter approach, it presumed I was saying X instead of S and couldn’t get a T at all. Do more training and no doubt your mileage will vary. Apparently, it is set-up for UK English speakers too, now there’s a mixed bag for sure.
Speech recognition letter-by-letter can be more of a struggle than you'd expect
Trying a northern accent to say: The software on the HP ElitePad 900 is an odd mix of practical apps and more consumer-centric offerings. Transcribed thus: There is not we’re only be a tryt that how do we do not Nixon rattler signal in he was in the operating… And in my own less regional voice: The result where all the HP ElitePad nine up the is and what makes Bracknell or so and more consumer-centric are. Interesting that Bracknell comes up of all places, it's where HP's UK head office is based.
Still, Speech Recognition is a Windows 8 feature and not HP's doing although there may be a case for a better mic – SRS can't fix everything – and of course the speech training will improve matters if you think it's worth the candle. Oh, and I must say I’d also prefer to speak "Stop" rather than "Period" when ending a sentence, but never mind.
HP Protect Tools: for access restrictions, start here
Among the useful apps is HP’s Hotspot, which allows a quick and easy set-up to become a base station. My initial thoughts were: it would be great if it worked, but attempts to share the Ethernet connection failed. A restart cured it though and the three devices tried that had lucked out previously – MacBook Pro, Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 and Nokia Lumia 820 – all connected first time. Incidentally, HP's Wi-Fi Hotspot is fixed on WPA2 and Channel 11, all you can change is the SSID, password and shared networking source.
Where HP's PageLift app fits in with all this is hard to fathom. Using guides to move the corners around over an image, you can distort its perspective and that's it. Does it lift the image from the page? I tried it with a photo of an ornamental fish, I thought it might add some shark menace to it. The processing was clean enough, but you'd really need to get out more if you're wowed by this. More sensible is the inclusion of Absolute's Lo-Jack and its Find My PC and remote deletion features. As mentioned earlier, HP has its own selection of security tools that deliver a range of features from password recovery to major admin muscle.
PageLift: turns pondlife into sharks
I must admit I rather missed having a stylus for navigating in Desktop Mode. Too often a tap to close a window ended up opening the Help menu from the icon below. HP's Executive Tablet Pen would no doubt help, but doesn't appear to be in the channel yet, it costs £34. Apparently, there's no hover support, so you won't see a cursor with pen poised over the tablet, but writing with it is supposed to be improved if you take HP's word on its Active Capacitive pen tech. You can read all about it here [PDF].
The benchmark performance figure of 1443 on PCMark 7 was almost identical to the 1438 achieved by the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, which is encouraging given they both rely on the same chip. I can't say I immediately noticed the difference between the Lenovo's 1366 x 768 screen and the 1280 x 800 resolution on the ElitePad either. Although as far as executive chic goes, the Lenovo has the edge, particularly given its on-board USB and mini-HDMI ports. Like Apple, HP makes you pay for those extras although you can opt for the cheaper dock cable adapters at around £25 each.
HP claims up to 10hrs 15mins for the battery life and that probably holds true if you don't have the screen on full blast or a movie habit. If you're tempted by the expansion jacket with battery, then you should be able to notch up 20hrs in total. Incidentally, the tablet takes priority, so the jacket battery drains first and the tablet battery charges first. One weird thing I noticed was, when charging up this combination overnight, the tablet never reached 100 per cent. It remained stuck at 99 per cent, so the charging handover to the Expansion Jacket didn't happen and it failed to charge up at all. I had to charge it separately in the end.
The Reg Verdict
Overall, HP seems to have developed a sturdy offering both in terms of the ElitePad's physical form and its security software bundle, but appearances can be deceptive. The Sim and micro SD card slots proved troublesome and, as I type, I'm still waiting for a call from HP regarding the latter. Also, I get the impression that manufacturers realised all too late that for tablet users running Windows 8 Pro in Desktop Mode, it's much less painful with a stylus. So it's surprising HP doesn't include one in the box. Ideally, HP should have found a way to integrate a pen into the tablet shell, Lenovo-style, but that would have messed up the Expansion Jacket design. These decisions are all about compromises and sadly for the PC industry, Windows 8 makes that all the more obvious. ®