Always-on connectivity is one the key stated advantages of Windows 10 on ARM and the Always Connected PC initiative. But in using the HP Envy x2 to switch semi-seamlessly between cellular data and Wi-Fi networks, I can see that nothing has really changed: This is how this type of connectivity has worked in Windows 10 for years.
This isn’t the first time I’ve been confused about how the HP Envy x2—and other Always Connected PCs—actually works. When the device arrived, I noted the absence of an eSIM (embedded SIM), which I was told was a requirement to qualify as an Always Connected PC. But HP told me that wasn’t the case. And the Envy x2 ships with a normal nano-SIM tray instead. Just like any other cellular-equipped PC.
To try and read between the line here, I went back to Microsoft’s original Always Connected PC announcement and to the first few articles I wrote about this topic. But the title of Microsoft’s “Always Connected PCs” Initiative Brings eSIMs to PCs pretty much says it all about what I thought was the central point.
So what did Microsoft say about the seamless connectivity functionality when it first announced this initiative?
Well, for starters, eSIM is not a requirement. To be fair to myself, however, that fact was cleverly obfuscated. Read these few sentences carefully:
“Microsoft device partners ASUS, HP, Huawei, Lenovo, VAIO, and Xiaomi, are committed to this new category of Always Connected PCs using eSIM technology,” the Microsoft announcement from May 2017 explains. “In addition, Microsoft announced Always Connected devices will be coming from ASUS, HP, and Lenovo on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset. These new devices will feature Windows 10, always-on LTE connectivity and great battery life.”
HP, specifically, committed to delivering Always Connected PCs using eSIMs. And, separately, to delivering Always Connected PCs based on ARM, which will feature always-on LTE connectivity. But not necessarily using an eSIM.
Then, in December 2017, Terry Myerson appeared at the Qualcomm event at which the HP Envy x2 was first announced. Tellingly (in retrospect) the word “eSIM” does not appear in Microsoft’s write-up about this milestone. But here’s what it does say about connectivity.
The firm notes its “new vision for connected computing with built-in LTE connectivity, devices that are instantly on and battery life that went beyond hours into days and weeks.” Is some of that new? Perhaps. But the built-in LTE connectivity is not. In fact, this functionality hasn’t changed since Windows 8, from what I can tell. Aside from connection speeds, I guess.
That 4G/LTE connectivity is more pervasive and less expensive today is not related to Microsoft’s initiative. But modern, always-connected PCs are, of course, better positioned to take advantage of this capability. The HP, as currently configured, supports what’s called Category 9 LTE-Advanced, which provides up to 450 Mbps of download bandwidth. But the PC utilizes a Qualcomm Snapdragon X16 cellular modem that supports Category 16 LTE-Advanced at speeds of up 1 Gbps. This isn’t enabled in the HP right now—curiously, it is enabled in the ASUS NovaGo, the only other Qualcomm-based PC that is currently shipped—but the firm told me that it can and will ratchet up the speed of the X16 modem in the Envy x2 over time via firmware and software updates. This will happen in phases, and x2 owners can expect to see Category 9 speeds—about 450 Mbps—first.
I’ve done a bit of speed testing on the Envy x2, but performance will of course vary with the quality of the signal. I need to do more testing, but it appears that my Project Fi data SIM consistently delivers lower speeds than my phone’s Project Fi connection (which, by the way, uses an eSIM). Is this because of the PC or the SIM? There’s no easy way to know. But I hope to have more information in time for my final review of the Envy x2.
In any event, there’s very little to say because the HP Envy x2’s cellular connectivity functionality is literally identical to that of any Windows 10 PC that offers cellular connectivity. Which means that Windows 10 does its usual mixed job of handling the switch between Wi-Fi and cellular data.
Here’s a typical example. When you drop Wi-Fi, the PC switches to cellular and a notification fly-out appears, explaining that you are on a metered network. That’s good to know: People pay for this kind of connectivity and Windows is at least smart enough to not download massive software updates—and potentially incur huge costs for the user—while on such a network.
But Windows is also dumb enough not to include any way to automatically throttle other potential data hogs. So it literally recommends that you, the user, manually pause OneDrive syncing rather than offering a way to do this for you automatically.
If you’re using a major wireless carrier, chances are good that the carrier will provide a Store application that helps you manage your account and your data usage. I’ve used the Verizon app in the past. But for this go-round, I’m on Project Fi, which of course offers no such app. And when I click the “Account Experience” link in the Network fly-out, I’m taken to T-Mobile, not Project Fi, because that’s the network I’m actually connected to. That’s not Windows 10’s fault, so no worries there.
Given the push to 5G connectivity, where access to cloud-based data will be just as fast as accessing data locally, Microsoft’s Always Connected PC initiative makes tons of sense, regardless of my own misunderstandings. And I think that the move to eSIM technology, on both Intel- and Qualcomm-based Always Connected PCs will happen over time as well and then become the norm. As Microsoft itself noted, “it is not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and how fast all mobile PCs become Always Connected PCs.” This is absolutely correct.
I believe this will be my final check-in on the HP Envy x2 before the final review.