First Impressions: A Tale of Two Dragonfly Pros

In February, I went on my first work trip since November 2019, to attend an HP reviewer’s workshop in New York City. It was a long-overdue chance to catch up with some HP and reviewer friends I’d not seen in person in a long time. And, of course, to see some new products. In this case, two new Dragonfly Pro PCs, one running Windows 11 and one powered by Chrome OS. Physically, the two are very similar, but not at all identical—indeed, the differences between the two are quite interesting—-and both seek to redefine what it means to be premium in a market that is currently weathering some challenges.

I will be reviewing the HP Dragonfly Pro and the HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook separately, of course. But here, I’d like to look at this new family of PCs, the audience they seek to attract, and how they compare to each other. And to do that, I first need to explain how these PCs fit into HP’s various premium PC offerings.

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As you may know, HP created its first Dragonfly-branded product in 2019 with the Elite Dragonfly, a more colorful, outgoing, and attention-grabbing take on the firm’s staid EliteBook x360 1030. Since then, the Dragonfly lineup has expanded to include multiple Windows and Chrome OS models, the most recent being the HP Dragonfly Folio G3 that I reviewed recently. As Dragonfly has evolved and expanded, there have been some changes, but each PC has remained true to the original vision of providing premium PC buyers with more design-forward alternatives to the business-class workhorses that dominate this part of the market.

Then, HP announced at CES 2023 in January that it was expanding its Dragonfly portfolio yet again, with its first Dragonfly Pro laptops. Aimed at freelancers, the Dragonfly Pro and Dragonfly Pro Chromebook are both partnerships, similar to how HP partnered with Microsoft on the first Spectre x360, in this case with AMD and Google, respectively. But despite their Pro monikers, which to me suggests even higher prices than the already bespoke other Dragonflies, the Dragonfly Pros are both much more affordable than other Dragonflies. (This isn’t the first time a Dragonfly name threw me for a loop: the Dragonfly Elite Max was no bigger than other models.)

Both Dragonfly Pros target productivity and developer freelancers, a group that Statista Research says will constitute 50 percent of the U.S. workforce within five years. Being self-employed, freelancers have certain freedoms when it comes to what work they will accept and from where they prefer to work. But they also suffer from some issues that don’t typically impact what I’ll continue calling knowledge workers, or people who are employed full-time in productivity work at a company. The most obvious being that any computer or tech issues are on them: there’s no IT department that will troubleshoot, repair, or replace their PCs if something goes wrong.

To solve that problem, both Dragonfly Pros come with 24/7 Pro Live Support free for the first year. This premium offering is built into the bundled mHP app (on Windows, or HP Support Assistant on Chrome OS), and it allows you to speak or chat with a human support agent, along with expected features like having them call you back if there are wait times. Dragonfly Pro owners can subscribe to a Care Pack, separate from 24/7 Pro Live Support, that costs $10.99 per month and provides 1 incident of accidental damage protection with repairs or device replacements once per year for up to three years, while extending 24/7 Pro Live Support past the first 12 months.

(I haven’t yet been able to test this feature because of an accident of timing: HP loaned me pre-production Dragonfly Pros at the reviewer’s workshop but shipped updated production units that are compatible with 24/7 Pro Live Support after I’d left for Mexico. So I will test this when I can.)

These computers are laptops, not 2-in-1s or convertibles, and that’s by design. The target audience will absolutely use the same PC for both home and work activities, but that audience doesn’t include artists or others like students who may enjoy or prefer the touch- and smartpen-based activities afforded by a PC that can contort into a tablet. So the Dragonfly Pros were both designed to be best-in-class Windows PCs and Chromebooks, respectively, and they’re optimized for performance, working inside while docked, and working outside when needed.

A few points related to performance and product design.

With the Windows-based Dragonfly Pro, HP is partnering with AMD to further the efforts it’s made with recent-generation premium PCs to bypass the limited power management options provided in Windows. To date, this has basically meant that users have had two places to view and modify power management: the Windows settings and the HP settings that override Windows. With the Dragonfly Pro, however, HP and AMD are taking the next logical step forward and obviating the need for power management settings. Now, it’s all handled for you.

This, to me, is the most interesting aspect of the Dragonfly Pro: thanks to AMD’s unique processor architecture, which foregoes the big/little design from Arm (and now Intel) and instead uses more versatile cores that can adapt to be more performant or more efficient on the fly, the Dragonfly Pro seeks to prioritize both responsiveness and real-world performance throughput without sacrificing battery life. And in doing so, HP is implicitly admitting to something I’ve long claimed, that benchmarks do not matter. What matters is real-world performance.

Put another way, any device maker can design a product that targets specific benchmarks and delivers a desirable score. But in the real world, what the user cares about most is that their PC performs tasks immediately. HP used the example of sorting a huge Excel spreadsheet, where it would be possible to optimize performance for that task, but all it really needs to do is make it happen within 100 milliseconds, a time frame that is perceived by the user as instantaneous.

There’s a lot that goes into this, and it involves the AMD Platform Management Framework and how it integrates with the Dragonfly Pro’s incredibly quiet cooling system and software. But in real-world terms, the Dragonfly Pro competes head-to-head with a MacBook Pro 14 with a 10-core M2 Pro CPU and delivers almost identical performance while plugged in and while on battery.  PCs based on 12th Gen Intel Core i7 P-series CPUs are about 30 percent behind on average.

That’s the story, anyway. But here’s why this is so compelling to me: I’ve watched as HP bypassed the Windows power management controls in previous premium PCs, and I’ve wondered why this thing wasn’t simply extensible so that HP and other PCs makers could adapt those controls to their own needs. And the very strong hint from both AMD and HP is that this change is coming, and that this kind of override will soon integrate directly with the platform. Excellent.

The second product design-related point is that both Dragonfly Pros may seem a bit portly—at 3.2 pounds—for a 14-inch premium portable PC in this era of thin and light wonders. But that, too, is by design. As I learned long ago, all products are an exercise in compromise, with the designers choosing where to optimize and where to let things go to benefit that optimization. And in this case, HP decided that reliable performance, battery life, and whisper-quiet thermals were worth more to the devices’ freelancer audience than a few shaved millimeters of thickness and a small percentage of a pound in weight. This was the right decision. This is almost always the right decision. At least for my needs and, I suspect, for many others, especially the target audience.

And it’s not just size and weight, as you can see this type of decision-making throughout the product. For example, the display bezels and lid on both PCs are not what I’d call notably thin (nor are they obnoxious). But that’s the point. The lids have a quality feel to them, are not flimsy, and they feel like something that will last.

And the webcams used by each are notably good. On the Windows PC, you get a 5 MP front-facing camera with AI-based controls for the field of view, head tracking, background blur, and so on, plus Windows Hello facial recognition capabilities. And on the Chromebook, you get an 8 MP webcam—a first in any Chromebook—that was co-engineered with Google for image and video quality tuning.

Each Dragonfly Pro also features four speakers, with two upwards-firing tweeters with prominent speaker grills on either side of the keyboard that don’t just look good but pump out impressive sound. Quite impressive: we have been using the Dragonfly Pro Chromebook for music nights out on our balcony here in Mexico City.

Both are clearly premium devices. Aside from the look and feel, and general quality of the products, there are nice touches all over. For example, both ship with identical (and new) 96-watt chargers that are both unique in the HP product family and have high-quality braided cords. And both color choices—Sparkling Black and Ceramic White—give off quality vibes.

I’m intrigued by the idea of premium Chromebooks. Granted, the original Chromebook Pixel from 2015 was the first such device, and it is perhaps not coincidental that HP is trying to create its spiritual successor in the Dragonfly Pro Chromebook. But most of the work we’ve seen in the higher end of the Chromebook market over the past year or so has been in the gaming space. Which, depending on your opinions of such devices, may seem a bit off.

The Dragonfly Pro Chromebook is not a gaming Chromebook, though it is also not a stripped-down PC and it performs as good or better than existing gaming Chromebooks for the most part. And that’s because it is full of modern, high-end components, including a 3.67 GHz 12th Gen Intel Core i5-1235U processor, integrated Intel Iris Xe graphics, 16 GB of fast LPDDR5 RAM, and 256 GB of PCIe NVMe SSD storage. The 16:10 display is 14 inches on the diagonal, has a resolution of 2560 x 1600, has multitouch capabilities (for some reason), and is the brightest Chromebook display ever, with up to 1200 nits of brightness.

It has four Thunderbolt 4/USB4/Type-C ports, as noted, two on each side, but no legacy ports. It supports Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3, and has four speakers with tuning by Bang & Olufsen but no way I’m aware of to customize the sound.

HP says the device can run for up to 11.5 hours on battery, but that’s for YouTube video streaming and I haven’t (and couldn’t) test that for a variety of reasons, the most important being that it is a pre-production unit. It will, however, fast charge to 50 percent in just 30 minutes with the bundled 96-watt charger. And there’s that 8 MP webcam. And a fingerprint reader on the keyboard, up in the upper right.

The keyboard is delightful. It has a similar feel to its stablemate, meaning it’s relatively quiet and has nice, short keystrokes. But it also features RGB backlighting, a feature one usually associates with go-racer gaming laptops. And I love how it’s implemented: you can configure its color in the Chrome OS Personalization hub, alongside the wallpaper and theme. There are just a handful of color choices, plus rainbow, a classic, but the more interesting option is to base the color on your wallpaper. So, for example, if you have a forest scene as the wallpaper, the keys will light up green. This is especially cool when you rotate the wallpaper each day.

Google and HP are also pushing a “better together” story that long-time Microsoft fans will find familiar. They’re pushing the Dragonfly Pro Chromebook as the ideal companion for a Google Pixel, though any Android phone will do, where you can integrate the two devices via Chrome OS’s Phone Hub, use the Fast Pair functionality that just debuted to quickly connect to Pixel Buds or other compatible peripherals, and run familiar Android apps when the native web apps fall short. Though, to be fair, the quality and quantity of web apps have gotten a lot better since Chrome OS debuted.

I’ve spent a lot more time with the Windows 11-based Dragonfly Pro, of course. And there are some interesting ideas there and, I think, a single curious mistake.

Let me get that out of the way first. For reasons I’ll never fully understand, HP has added a column of four keys on the right side of the otherwise excellent (though lacking in RGB backlighting) keyboard. These are not the Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys I want, however. They are custom keys, three of which launch support experiences in the myHP app: myHP (Home), 24/7 Support, and Camera settings. (The fourth is a programmable key.) Why anyone would need any of those options so frequently that they would require dedicated keyboard keys is unclear. By I hit them by mistake all the time, and have closed the unwanted myHP app more than I care to admit.

Other than that, the Dragonfly Pro is just about ideal for my needs and it should server its target market well. It’s powered by an AMD Ryzen7 7736U processor with integrated AMD Mobile Graphics, 16 GB of fast LPDDR5 RAM, and 512 GB of PCIe NVMe SSD storage. The 16:10 display is 14-inches on the diagonal, offers a resolution of 1920 x 1200 with multitouch capabilities (for some reason), and outputs 400 nits of brightness.

It has Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.2 for connectivity, and three USB-C ports, though the split is odd: one USB 3.2 Type-C (10 Gbps) port and one Thunderbolt 4/USB4/Type-C (40 Gbps) on the left, and a second Thunderbolt 4/USB4/Type-C port on the right.

Performance has been excellent, but even more impressive is the quiet and cool operation. Even under load—say, rendering a 4K video with Adobe Premiere Elements—this laptop made barely a whisper. Really impressive.

Audio, as noted, comes via four speakers and Bang & Olufsen tuning, and you can choose between music, voice, and auto presets, or mess around with an equalizer, in myHP. There’s a nicely integrated fingerprint reader key on the keyboard, plus that 5 MP IR webcam, and you can also customize that—and the microphones—via myHP too. (The speakers support AI-based noise removal, while the microphones support AI-based noise reduction.)

The keyboard, as noted, is excellent, and the touchpad uses haptics, which I found to be very natural. I didn’t have to turn off three- and four-finger gestures, so the accuracy is very good too.

Battery life is reported as 12 hours for wireless streaming or 15 hours for video playback, but my real-world usage netted an average of 8 hours and 20 minutes, which is terrific. (This is a pre-production unit, so I’ll update that for the review with shipping hardware. Like the Chromebook, you can fast charge to 50 percent with the bundled 96-watt charger.

Both Dragonfly Pros can be had in Sparkling Black or Ceramic White, and the pricing is quite reasonable. In the configurations noted above, the HP Dragonfly Pro Chromebook costs $999 and the HP Dragonfly Pro (Windows) is $1399. Both are available now, and there are PC configurations with more RAM (32 GB) and storage (1 TB) as well.

When I get home from Mexico City next week, I’ll send the preproduction units back to HP and get started with the shipping units. But I should be able to turn around my full reviews a bit more quickly because of all the time I’ve had with the first units this month. Barring any unforeseen irregularities, these both look like winners to me.

More soon.

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