Review: HP Elite x3 system: Wrap-up, but not a final verdict


The review process for smartphones used to be simple - the device would arrive, I/we'd test it for a week or two, and then deliver an illustrated verdict. However, things are more complicated with the HP Elite x3. There's the long, drawn out initial availability cycle, there's the premature nature of early firmware and then there's the same all over again for the Lap Dock, such an integral part of the Elite x3 'vision'. So this isn't a true wrap up, a true verdict - yet. It's... a summary of the product(s) so far!

The background to the timing of this feature is that after my recent (on video) woes with stability with the Lap Dock, HP has collected all the kit under the theory that because both the x3 and Lap Dock were among the first off the production line, there's a chance that newer hardware will produce more reliable results. And HP has promised to wait until the Lap Dock at least has newer firmware before replacement review devices arrive. By which time I'd bet that the Windows 10 Mobile Creators Update (Redstone 2) will be officially available as well. Meaning that my second full-on exposure to the HP Elite x3 should be more positive than the drawn-out original.

But on with the wrap-up of our HP Elite x3 coverage over the last nine months, it's been something of a roller coaster ride!

Elite X3 vision

June 2016: First impressions of the HP Elite X3, Desk Dock and HP Lapdock: Rafe and I got to spend an afternoon with the whole system at HP's offices in London. From my coverage:

There was a definite sense of the Elite X3 being a long term play from HP - they're by far the number one in the world of commercial computing and the Elite X3 and accessories are backed by the same sales, distribution and support network. We're not talking a quick launch and then withdrawal from sale, as we've seen from other industry fly-by-nights. HP wouldn't have got into Windows 10 Mobile and Continuum if they weren't deadly serious. And company IT strategies are measured in years, not months, so it could be a while before we know any numbers of take-up in enterprise.

In the meantime, we expect consumers to be able to buy the HP Elite X3 and Desk Dock in the July/August time frame, with the Lap Dock around a month later. There's no definite pricing for any of this yet, but the phone itself (given the specs) has to be well over £500, and (just a wild guess) the Lap Dock might be in the £150 price range (again, given the build and specs).

As we now know, the time frames and prices quoted were very optimistic (especially for the Lap Dock!) The Elite X3 did indeed first appear for sale in August, but (against my advice to HP's product manager) with the outdated 'Threshold' version of Windows 10, and it took the best part of two months for the Anniversary Update to be finally approved and shipped. Pricing was indeed £500-ish, but ex-VAT, meaning that the Elite x3 phone itself was expensive to individuals/enthusiasts, while the Lap Dock pricing guess was dramatically wrong. As I write this, it's also in the £400-500 region and is clearly over-priced - I'll come to that in the quotes and comment below.

August 2016: Early verdict on the HP Elite X3: borrowing an early retail Elite x3 (with Desk Dock) from Clove, I lived with it for a week, concluding:

So a mix of both good, indifferent and bad so far with the Elite X3. Could I use it as my main smartphone right now? Absolutely not - the horrible lag every now and then (e.g. in Edge), the rebooting after taking most photos, the image corruptions, and so on. With the issues resolved, we'd then be down to a camera that's leagues below what Lumia enthusiasts have been used to, set against better audio and far greater durability. In which case it's a tough call.

This was with the initial 'Threshold' build and with buggy initial x3 firmware, in fairness - both stability and camera performance improved dramatically with the September updates. The 'tough call' aspect remains to this day though, in comparison to the Lumia 950 XL - the Lumia does just win out for overall functionality and imaging, but is blown away by the HP's ruggedness and superior audio output.

HP Elite X3

October 2016: Review: HP Elite X3: part 1 - intro and hardware: my initial verdict with a full retail x3 with Redstone onboard plus fixed firmware - this should have been the 'real deal'. From my review text, here's a snippet on build:

Certainly the Elite X3 impresses from the moment you hold it - it's so much more solid than the Microsoft Lumia 950 XL, which is the other current Windows 10 Mobile device that it's closest to. Admittedly, you can't take the back off here and replace the battery, but the benefit is that the X3 is very, very sturdy. It's rated at MIL-STD-810G and IP67 in terms of durability, meaning that it'll take drops onto concrete from waist height without much worry (unless it happens to land squarely on the glass front) and that you can drop it in a bath or toilet and fish it out half an an hour later and it'll carry on without a hiccup.

Such durability is hugely welcome, of course, in the world of 2016, and especially so given the use case for the X3, with employees perhaps not being as kind to their 'work -provided' phones as they would be to their personal iPhones (or whatever). In extreme cases, with the X3 used in 'vertical' environments (think surveyors, delivery drivers, anyone using a hardware add-on that uses the pogo pin connectors on the X3's back), the amount of abuse the X3 would get would shock the average domestic phone owners, I suspect.

Add in that one of the requirements for the X3 was that it was fully Qi and PMA compatible for wireless charging (again, think delivery drivers and workers in the field, who just want to throw their phone down on a pad in their vehicle and not have to keep reaching for a USB Type C cable), and it's pretty obvious why HP went for a plastic body rather than the 'sexier' full metal jackets beloved by the likes of the iPhone, Google Pixel, Huawei and many others from the consumer world. Yes, metal feels great in the hand, yes, it looks shiny, but when dropped it dents rather than deforms. Moreover, it doesn't let radio waves pass through, a requirement for wireless charging.

The plastics used in the X3 are a long way from those in the flimsier Lumia 950 range though - they mostly feel solid and hard wearing, plus the choice of black or err... black means that dirt and microscratches from any abuse won't disfigure the body easily. The exception to all this is the shiny chrome-effect bottom strip (with the B&O logo on). Although my review unit is still unmarked, I can see this chromed plastic surround getting scratched up in a more visible fashion. Still, this strip was introduced to break up the 'boring black slab' design - which it does successfully, so it's a compromise here between ultimate ruggedness and having at least a sliver of style.

Overall, I was optimistic and only the need to keep the Elite x3 away from the sexy Insider rings from Microsoft (as I didn't want to disrupt the production update flow from HP) kept me from using the Elite x3 rather than a Lumia 950 or 950 XL.

End of October 2016: Review: HP Elite X3: part 2 - performance, Continuum and the Desk Dock: here's a quote from this review part:

Once docked, it's Continuum as we've grown to know it, improving by small increments over interminably long periods of time(!) The Anniversary Update was a step forward, with applications that were 'running' in the task bar still there after undocking and re-docking (e.g. to take a call), but the blue 'active' line beneath each is missing, i.e. each app has been tombstoned and then has to be brought back by clicking its task bar icon.

It's still a far cry from a normal Windows experience. Until Microsoft (and HP) work out a way to remember what you were doing when you undocked - and then to restore that screen and applications to the 'Alt-tab' list when you dock the Continuum-compatible phone again - it's tough to really believe that this could replace a day-to-day laptop or PC. But Redstone 2 will apparently bring many more improvements to Continuum, including a custom Start screen and multiple application windows, so let's stay optimistic. The Elite X3 is a long term play by HP and this solution will still be around and benefitting when Redstone 2 hits production devices in March 2017.

We've been reporting on more and more UWP apps appearing on AAWP and there are relatively few major titles which don't work with Continuum, i.e. using the Deck Dock here to hook the Elite X3 up to a secondary display. Which means fewer and fewer greyed out icons on the current Start screen, as seen on your Continuum display.

There were few surprises here, other than the Elite x3 on Anniversary Update being significantly slower, despite a faster chipset, than the Lumia 950 XL on the first Redstone 2 OS builds - this is down to optimisations in the latter and hopefully the x3 will acquire the same when the Creators Update hits in a couple of months. The HP Desk Dock was superbly made and I had no issues, other than needing to acquire a Display Port to HDMI adapter for my own TV set-up.

November 2016: Review: HP Elite X3: part 3 - HP Workspace: looking at HP's virtualised solution for running Win32 apps 'on' the Elite x3 via Continuum, here's a section of the review:

For those that are interested, I installed a third party specs tool, both to prove that you can install anything you like on 'your' virtual PC and also to show the (virtualised) specifications:

Screenshot, HP Workspace

All isn't quite as rosy as I make things sound though - at least, not yet. When starting a remote Win32 Office application it always complains about needing to 'activate' - so you click through and activation succeeds. But then it asks you again the next time you start a HP Workspace session. In fairness, this might be something unique to our test set-up (by HP PR)... or it could be an early bug or teething trouble...

...I struggled to find the "@" character when typing an email address, the characters in the Elite X3's on-screen virtual keyboard are NOT the same as those passed through and accepted by the remote HP Workspace server, i.e. the keyboard character sets are different (I eventually found '@', which appeared when I typed speech marks!) This, surely, is an early issue and should be simple to solve, HP? Or perhaps, in a real world Workspace implementation, the admin people set this up before letting users loose on the system?

Next, the delays when setting up a Frame session and starting a remote application are a little offputting, we're talking of tens of seconds overall, though this could be addressed server side by putting more resources behind each session.

A lot of the issues I experienced back in November are surely fixed by now - I'll certainly try again in the future. HP Workspace certainly showed that the concept is workable, or as workable as any remote desktop solution ever is (i.e. slower and glitchier than running native apps locally). And it's only one virtualisation option, there are plenty of others for anyone with a Windows 10 phone to access, usually under the care and attention of a corporate IT department.

November 2016: Review: HP Elite X3: part 4 - Imaging:  onto more familiar territory for me, the Elite x3's camera had got a lot better with updates. Here's some of my review text:

Overall, I was much more impressed with the Elite X3 camera than I was a few months ago - the OS, application and firmware updates have worked wonders, as you can hopefully judge for yourself above. It's certainly more than good enough for the X3's intended market. Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile enthusiasts will be wondering how far it sits behind the Lumia 950 XL, a device which has far more 'focus' on imaging - and I'll come to that shortly.

Rather odd were discrepancies which still haven't been sorted out - the Elite x3's capture resolution remains at 10MP to this day and PDAF still isn't enabled. Roll on further updates, eh?

November 2016: Camera head to head: HP Elite X3 vs Lumia 950 XL: as promised, a revised imaging shoot-out. From my text:

The only surprise for me was how well the Elite X3 did, given its lack of imaging pretensions. I commented as much in my official review part. Quite a bit of the time it gets photos that are more accurately coloured than the top end Lumias, which is surprising since the software is supposed to be the same - I'm suspecting a bit of magic in the HP camera firmware. Look at the details at pixel level though and the X3's images are just a bit too vague, probably down to the generic lens used. Take light levels right down and the X3 struggles more, as you can see above.

The bottom line is that you might buy a Lumia 950 or 950 XL for its camera, but you probably wouldn't make that one of the major factors in choosing to buy an Elite X3. However, just because you bought the latter for its enhanced chipset and Continuum potential, for its durability, for its stereo speakers, doesn't mean that the camera is an also-ran - it's quite good enough in the vast majority of use cases.

From there, I had a slight wait until the HP Lap Dock, the final piece in the x3 jigsaw, was available in retail form...

January 2017: Review: HP Elite x3 Lap Dock pt1 (hardware): it's a generally gorgeous bit of kit, here's some of my review text:

If all this sounds rather idyllic and gushing then don't worry, there's a big caveat coming. But when the HP Lap Dock is working, whether hooked up to an Elite x3 or a Lumia 950 XL (or similar), it's terrific and unquestionably the coolest, most useful, most impressive and (yes) most expensive smartphone accessory I've ever owned. It's not only a 'lap dock', it's THE Lap Dock, and the others linked above are but pale shadows in terms of functionality and quality.

(However) ...the Lap Dock's firmware is still demonstrably:

  1. Unoptimised - closing the Lap Dock screen to put it into 'sleep' mode and then opening it again should warrant an almost instant (say a couple of seconds) reconnection to the phone - instead it takes a good 15 seconds and is just as slow as restarting the Lap Dock from scratch - surely this can be massively sped up with a fully working sleep mode?
  2. Buggy - yanking the Type C cable out of the phone (e.g. to take a phone call in another room in privacy) and then reinserting it results in the Lap Dock losing its mouse cursor and keyboard, so the Continuum session is effectively hung. The only quick way out of this is to yank the cable out at the Lap Dock end and then reinsert it. This is clearly a bug and I'll do what I can to feed this back to HP.

The good news is that the Lap Dock's firmware is trivial to update, via the HP Device Hub application on the phone.

And my opinions on the Lap Dock haven't changed in the last month - it's still a sumptuous accessory, yet overpriced and buggy. I was even able to demonstrate some of the issues in video form in my next review piece.

January 2017: Review: HP Elite x3 Lap Dock part 2 (real world use): pushing and pulling and generally using the Lap Dock as a road warrior:

I wanted to show the HP Lap Dock on video too, demonstrating general use and also some of the issues. Grab a cup of coffee or similar and sit back, this is a 15 minute video - shot on a Lumia 950 XL (if you're interested) and somewhat crudely trimmed in YouTube's built-in editor (ditto!):

So - in summary - we have a (largely) well made accessory, but with buggy firmware and a price that makes no sense for anyone, whether individuals or businesses. Can HP turn this around with bug-fixed firmware and a price drop? Let's hope so, as the concept is currently ridden with issues.

And so to the next pause/hiatus in the Elite x3 review saga. Even though it's now nearly a year since the device's launch, availability, pricing and firmware still haven't stabilised. I would emphasise again that HP see this smartphone as part of their enterprise offerings, hence the pricing and 'leisurely' rollout - companies think in terms of multi-year cycles for their purchases, very different from the consumer world.

For the AAWP-reading Windows Phone and Windows 10 Mobile enthusiast, the Elite x3 is a very viable high end smartphone, with its only weaknesses being the relatively high price (well over £600 including VAT in the UK) and underwhelming B&O speakers. The Desk Dock is often bundled, along with a bunch of cables and adaptors, which softens the price slightly, but the unique Lap Dock is another £500 (or so) and in its current buggy state gets far less of a recommendation.

My initial guess of £150 for the Lap Dock was naive (my teardown photo shows how much is in it) but, equally, the current price is crazy, however niche the function and however nice the keyboard, screen and speakers. In hindsight, a fully working and bug-free Lap Dock should retail for a maximum of £349 inc VAT in the UK, meaning that companies would get them for nearer £250 and probably £200 in bulk. That pricing could work in terms of businesses equipping road warrior employees. IF the currently infuriating bugs get squashed.

It's been something of a wild ride then, and it's not over yet. Microsoft has stopped making its Lumia line (sadly), though these can still be picked up from various sales channels, with the likes of 'Alcatel's IDOL 4S with Windows 10' perhaps about to fly as a flagship across the world soon (as it has been in the USA). And the Elite x3 sits slightly apart, aimed at a different market, yet still making ambitious use of Windows 10 Mobile and all its possibilities. 

Watch this space for more 'x3' later in 2017.

HP Elite X3

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