HP Elite x3 phablet: The three-in-one business has been waiting for?

We gave it a spin, and it could be the last phone you ever want

Working with Workspace

To bring you up to speed on Continuum, have a read of our recent-ish hands on. The Continuum in HP's build is essentially the same.

The Workspace work space

Close up: the clock's always ticking in HP's time-metered Workspace app

Workspace offers streaming of pre-configured Window desktop apps at 15fps from a dedicated VM that you rent from HP. It’s a metered service, with a stiff list price, but things get much cheaper quickly if you make a long-term commitment to HP. So the £603 per-user-per-year tariff, giving each user 40 hours a month, falls to £228 per year if you go via HP Financing on a three-year deal. (The £679 premium package giving you 80 hours a month likewise falls to £300.) The “three-in-one” proposition isn’t a straightforward saving on hardware costs, as the full hardware setup clocks in at almost £1,000 (£999 excluding VAT); it's flexibility and a saving on IT support staff that you’re buying.

As an end-user, it’s easy to click through into the pre-enrolled VM. From a cold start, you’ll get a login screen within 10 seconds once configured. (Workspace doesn’t retain your password from session to session.)

Performance is… as you’d expect; the "multiuser Windows" pioneered by Ed Iacobucci’s Citrix is a mature technology that is now two decades old. It’s excellent if your applications don’t require much scrolling or rapid graphical refreshes. With a maximum refresh rate of 15fps, it will stutter a little at moving a window around.

Workspace is a pretty locked-down environment. It has hooks for Dropbox, Google Drive and Box, the latter two marked as betas, but not your local file system. Notice anything missing? Microsoft OneDrive perhaps? (According to this support post, it needs to be licensed and is "coming soon".) Another rough edge, unfortunately.

Slack is silent in Workspace, which doesn't handle notifications well. Or at all.

The VM set up for me by HP included Slack, for example, but don’t bother installing your own apps: without direct access to the VM’s virtual file system, they will simply disappear into the ether. I found it strange that they install at all.

The HP Workspace desktop

HP has bundled in a display tool to ensure the phone display dims after a set interval. On previous experiences with Continuum the display doubles up as a touchpad, but stays on all the time, a considerable battery drain if you’re hooking up to (say) a display or HP’s Lap Dock wirelessly. By default, the Elite x3 once in Continuum will lapse to a discreetly classy looking screensaver in a dimmed font.

The main drawback, after the absence of UWP apps, is the lack of richness in Continuum: it isn’t Windows-y enough. You must run apps in single-window mode. So you can’t run an IM client in a smaller window.

This merely exacerbates another drawback: the mangling of notifications. On HP Workspace, the Slack messages aren’t audible, and display no Notifications. If your Slack window is covered up they will simply glide by out of sight.

Imaging

The Elite x3 tries hard to keep within shouting distance of the leading cameraphones, but falls short. The 16MP sensor and f/2.2 aperture perform creditably in good light, with photos showing a good dynamic range. The autumn leaves captured here came out spectacularly well in a test several top-flight phone shooters failed. There's a little over-sharpening in the food shot. Shot to shot turnaround is also pretty good. It's a work in progress – the promised PDAF (phase detection autofocus) has not yet been implemented. And as Steve Litchfield notes in his typically comprehensive test, invoking the camera from the lockscreen reboots the phone. (Click to enlarge the images below.)

In low light, the camera consistently disappoints; nine out of 10 night-time shots with a moving object were big failures. Users are actually quite forgiving of cameraphones in low light – we've had years of overexposed flash images, brilliantly satirised in an old Nokia advert – and of noisy, grainy images. We're actually quite pleased when anything looks half decent half the time. But when the failure rate is so high you notice the difference between the price and the performance.

Conclusion

HP Elite x3 Lap Dock

Here we should note the obvious: this is for businesses – even diehard consumers will struggle to justify this purchase rationally. In mitigation of the paucity of Windows 10 mobile’s app catalogue, last year’s Lumia 950s could at least claim to offer a camera that was top of the class, and probably remains in the leading pack of smartphone cameras today. The Elite x3 camera, capable in good light, scores so poorly in low light that a bargain Android often produced better results.

As I’m sure you’ve grokked by now, the Elite x3 phone itself is only part of a thoughtful and comprehensive package of hardware and services; I can’t fault HP here. Where the three-in-one proposition falls short in reality is because of platform defects in Windows 10 mobile. The quite amazing security hole we unearthed is just one example.

HP has made a massive global commitment to creating a new device category around Continuum, and you would think its unique multi-mode capability alone would give it some strategic importance at Microsoft. But the Continuum project does not even seem to be a priority for the Windows team. Updates have been few and far between, and x3 buyers will need to wait until spring 2017 for the major platform update that promises overlapping windows in Windows.

With Android making its debut in more "computing" devices like Lenovo’s clever Yoga Book, and making strides in productivity environments thanks to Remix OS, Microsoft is letting Continuum's unique promise dissipate as it gets distracted by shinier, sexier bot things.

Continuum isn’t life or death for Microsoft, and maybe that’s the trouble. ®

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