HP Envy x2 (Qualcomm) Review

Posted on April 25, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Hardware, Mobile, Windows 10 with 81 Comments

HP Envy x2 (Qualcomm) Review

The HP Envy x2 represents a brave new world for Windows PCs with its always-on connectivity and mobile device-based hardware platform. But it falls short in too many ways and will disappoint the typical PC user.

Understanding this product

In my review-check-in Taking Stock, I explained how I had come full circle on the HP Envy x2 after answering—for both myself and others—some key questions about the underlying platform. And that my conclusion was to use the PC in the way in which the platform makers—in this case, Microsoft, Qualcomm, and HP—intended.

That was the wrong conclusion. I apologize.

We should never have to contort ourselves—in this case, how we get work done, or how we use a familiar PC design—because the product itself is limited. Instead, technology should make our lives better, more efficient. And this where the Envy x2—really, the entire Windows 10 on ARM platform—fails us.

I elaborated on this issue more in The Problem with Windows 10 on ARM (Premium). But for you non-Premium members in the audience, let me just say this: While Windows 10 on ARM is, in some ways, a technological marvel, the performance and compatibility issues are far too problematic for PC users. This platform is wrong for traditional PCs.

As Microsoft positions it, Windows 10 on ARM is its attempt to bring the legacy Windows code base to a newer, more mobile-focused hardware platform. In doing so, Windows 10 benefits from ARM’s integrated cellular connectivity, stellar battery life, and weeks-long standby times, helping the system behave somewhat like a smartphone.

Microsoft has been down this road before, of course: Windows RT was a previous attempt at bringing Windows, in that case, Windows 8, to ARM. But it suffered from two fundamental stumbling blocks: The performance was terrible and it could not run traditional Windows desktop applications.

The performance of Windows 10 on ARM is likewise terrible. But this system partially solves the second problem thanks to a Microsoft-created software emulator. That is, Windows 10 on ARM can run Windows desktop applications. But it can only run 32-bit desktop applications. 64-bit apps, like Adobe Photoshop and many others, will never run on Windows 10 on ARM. Neither will software drivers that require an Intel-compatible chipset. (Note that all software drivers require this.)

The issue is that the types of customers who might otherwise be drawn to one of these PCs will not understand which software will and will not work. It’s basically a game of whack-a-mole where you just pray for the best. But you will be disappointed: I ran into all kinds of unexpected roadblocks here.

So the question emerges: Does Windows 10 on ARM make any sense at all?

My conclusion is that, no, it does not. And that somewhat renders the rest of this review somewhat moot. Which is too bad, because the Envy x2 is, in fact, a beautiful and elegant device.

The Envy brand

HP has, perhaps, a few too many premium PC brands in its stable and you may wonder how/where the Envy fits into the scheme of things.

I think of Envy as a cross-over, if you will, from a branding perspective. Which means that Envy-branded devices fall beneath HP’s premium Spectre (consumer) and Elite (business) products, and above their more mainstream brands like Pavilion.

From what I can see, this positioning results in the proverbial sweet spot. That is, Envy brings enough style and new technology from HP’s truly premium brands to please virtually anyone. And it does so at price points that a far bigger audience can afford.

For the x2 in particular, the Envy positioning is smart: This device is too underpowered to be a Spectre or Elite product, but it has a beautiful industrial design that elevates it above the mainstream.

Design

The HP Envy x2 is a wonderfully thin and light portable tablet PC with a 2-in-1 design. It very clearly targets Apple’s 10.5-inch iPad Pro, and is an alternative to the low-end (Core m3) version of Microsoft’s Surface Pro.

And from a design standpoint, it holds up well in these comparisons. This is an elegant and professional-looking device.

With its type cover attached, the HP Envy x2 lands at just 0.6 inches (15.29 mm) thick and 2.67 pounds. That is just a bit thicker and heavier than an iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard cover, but it provides far more versatility: The HP’s keyboard cover is included, and not an added cost, and it covers the entire device when closed (the Smart Keyboard leaves the back of the iPad Pro exposed). It also provides for multiple screen angles, where the Smart Keyboard provides just one, and two keyboard angles where, again, iPad gets just one, flat. And, it includes a glass touchpad where no such capability is available on the Apple device.

I described the Envy x2 as a 2-in-1 because the type cover is included with the device. Truth be told, it’s really just a tablet: You can easily—perhaps a bit too easily—detach the tablet part from the keyboard cover and use it with the HP Pen, which is also included in the cost of the device. (Again, unlike iPad Pro, where an Apple Pencil is a $100 extra.)

By itself, the tablet is elegant, thin (.27 inches) and light (1.54 pounds), and would work well with the HP Pen if it wasn’t so laggy. It’s made of a single piece of CNC-machined aluminum with a scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass display, and it has proven to be stiff and durable during my usage. There are no fans, thanks to the Qualcomm chipset, and thus no fan noise or excessive heat. It would be a joy to use if it weren’t for the performance issues.

Display

The Envy x2’s 12.3-inch IPS display is both right-sized for the device and of excellent quality, with a nice 1920 x 1280 resolution and ideal 3:2 aspect ratio, both of which make plenty of sense for a device of this kind. It supports both multi-touch and smartpen capabilities, of course. And it is very bright, with deep colors and sharp text.

There’s no real bad news from a display perspective, but the bezels are a bit big on all sides. I’ve found that to be typical for 2-in-1s and tablets these days.

Components and ports

The Envy x2 is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor, a 10 nm System on a Chip (SoC) platform that is designed primarily for smartphones and incorporates Adreno 540 graphics, 2×2 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 5, and a speedy X16 LTE modem. Most Envy x2s will ship with 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. But the review unit came with a more acceptable 8 GB of RAM, plus a 256 GB SSD. I would never buy a Windows PC with less than 8 GB of RAM.

As I noted in my performance check-in, system performance ranges from acceptable to laughably bad, and this is the first modern PC I’ve used that reminded me of a netbook in this regard. No, that is not a compliment.

General UX browsing is fine, and most Store apps seem to run acceptably well. But desktop application performance—including the performance of desktop Store apps like Word 2016 and the rest of Office—is unacceptable. The issue there, of course, is Microsoft’s x86-to-ARM emulation software: Since the underlying platform is completely different from that of the applications you want to run, there’s a performance hit.

While it’s not completely fair to use a performance benchmark to make my performance point, I feel that this one is relevant: My normal video encoding test, in which I convert a 4K video called Tears of Steel to 1080p, took an incredible 2:13:44 to complete on the Envy x2. By comparison, the 2017 Surface Pro took about an hour less time, at 1:41:27. Quad-core CPU-based modern PCs like the ThinkPad X1 Carbon are even faster; the PC finished this test in just 1:21.

The good news? Thanks to the efficient design of the Snapdragon 835, the Envy x2 requires no cooling fans and it runs silently. I never noticed any real heat of any kind either.

From a ports perspective, the Envy x2 offers a minimalist approach with a single USB-C port that’s used for both power and expansion, a microSD card tray, and a proprietary keyboard cover connector.

There’s also a combo audio jack that is correctly located on the bottom right of the device when used in landscape mode with the keyboard cover.

(The USB-C port does not provide Thunderbolt 3 capabilities, but I feel that is acceptable for a device of this class.)

The Envy x2 also includes two cameras, a 13 MP rear-facing camera and a 5 MP front-facing unit, plus a Windows Hello-compatible IR camera on the front.

Connectivity

Since always-on connectivity is one of the primary benefits of any Always Connected PC, it should come as no surprise that the HP Envy x2 excels in this area. As I noted in my connectivity check-in, the PC provides a Qualcomm Snapdragon X16 cellular modem that supports Category 16 LTE-Advanced at speeds of up 1 Gbps, at least theoretically. However, as of this writing, the modem is limited to about 450 Mbps of download bandwidth. (HP says the download speed will improve with firmware updates over time, however.)

I’ve never achieved speeds like that in about a month of usage using T-Mobile via my Project Fi data SIM, at least to my knowledge. But switching between Wi-Fi and LTE is, at least, fairly seamless and I’ve not been bothered by any egregious pop-up warnings as I’d feared.

And not that it matters, but the way that the Envy x2 works with LTE is no different than how any cellular-equipped Windows 10 PC works. There is nothing special or unique about the software interfaces.

Beyond cellular, the Envy x2 provides the expected 2×2 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth 5 capabilities, courtesy of a Qualcomm WCN3990 chipset. I never experienced any connectivity issues.

Keyboard, touchpad, and pen

The included keyboard cover is excellent and is roughly comparable to Microsoft’s Surface Pro Type Covers, even though it is made with a cheaper faux-leather polyurethane material. But I like it: It seems durable and doesn’t pick up stains, and is in keeping with the Envy brands low-end premium vibe.

It’s also really versatile: You can use the keyboard flat on the table or tilt it up against the bottom of the screen, as you can with Surface Pro (and can’t with iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard).

It also provides a new kickstand design that lets you angle the display itself between 110 degrees and 150 degrees, so you can find the most comfortable orientation. The iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard only provides one viewing angle for the display.

But the keyboard cover suffers from two inconveniences. It’s not terribly lappable, a problem shared by Surface Pro and other 2-in-1 designs. And because it attaches in a weird, non-standard way, and with magnets, it’s awkward to open and can separate from the tablet if you are holding it wrong.

As for the keyboard itself, it is backlit and surprisingly good, with an excellent 1.3 mm of key travel and a solid typing feel. Like any typing cover of this kind, there is, of course, a bit of flex, especially if you are a heavy typist like me. But it’s minimal and I had no issues cranking out text.

The glass touchpad is likewise excellent and is refreshingly right-sized, in my opinion, given the push to ever-bigger touchpads these days. No issues there either.

The HP Pen is less successful: It works pretty well for taking notes, which I’d imagine is its number one use case on this device. But those with artistic aspirations should look elsewhere: As I noted in my HP Pen check-in, the performance is laggy enough to be disruptive.

Portability

You won’t find a more agreeable PC from a portability perspective: The Envy x2 is thin and light, but doesn’t skimp on display size or quality, or on the keyboard and pointing experiences.

Best of all, the battery life is phenomenal: As I first reported in my battery life check-in, the real-world battery life of this PC is almost exactly what HP promised. I saw 19:55 in my most recent test.

The standby time is as impressive, if less easy to quantify. But I’m seeing weeks of standby time for sure, with the battery life only slowly declining day after day of disuse, thanks to the Snapdragon 835’s power-sipping efficiency cores.

Is this a major real-world advantage? I’m honestly not sure. If smartphones have taught us anything, it’s the value of charging these devices each night. Keeping a PC charged is not that onerous.

Software

The Envy x2 ships Windows 10 S version 1709, though I expect the PC to eventually come with Windows 10 Pro version 1803 in S mode; regardless, I upgraded it to Pro like anyone else would.

The PC ships with crapware from both Microsoft and HP, which is unfortunate. On the HP side, we see unnecessary apps like Phototastic Collage, Priceline.com, and a few others, but HP’s normal first-party utilities are nowhere to be seen, no doubt because they are Win32 desktop applications that will not work in S mode. Drivers and system updates are instead delivered through the Store, as is the case with Surface PCs. I prefer that.

The bigger software story, of course, is compatibility. And as I wrote in my compatibility check-in, it’s not a good story: The Envy x2 can run any 32-bit Store or (once you’ve switched out of Windows 10 S) desktop application, but it cannot run any 64-bit apps. Worse, it cannot install any normal x86/x64 drivers, which is a cute way of saying that it cannot install any drivers. That is a huge limitation.

Worse, it’s an unknown: You won’t know when you download an application or utility from the Internet whether it will even work. And the nonsensical error messages that Windows provides don’t help in the slightest.

Pricing and configurations

HP offers two versions of the Qualcomm-powered Envy x2. The base version, for $999, includes 4 GB of RAM and a 128 GB SSD. For $1299, you can upgrade to a version with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. Looking at HP’s website today, however, I only see one model offered, the base unit, and it’s out of stock. That may be for the best.

Recommendations and conclusions

Despite its thin, light, and pretty industrial design, the HP Envy x2 addresses a potential market so small that it may, in fact, be imaginary. This device strikes all the wrong compromises, and I believe that most potential customers would prefer and be much better served by a PC that offered normal performance and compatibility with half the battery life and standby time of the Envy x2.

This isn’t HP’s fault, of course. And the PC giant did what it could to overcome the inherent limitations of the platform. But the performance and compatibility problems are very real, and with HP and other PC makers offering Intel-based Always Connected PCs too, there is no need to compromise on what really matters.

Put simply, I cannot recommend the HP Envy x2 or any other Qualcomm-based Always Connected PC at this time.

At-a-glance

Pros

  • Stellar battery life
  • Weeks of standby
  • Premium style and materials
  • The upgrade to Windows 10 Pro is free

Cons

  • Netbook-class performance
  • Compatibility issues
  • Slightly laggy HP Pen
  • Cover and kickstand can be awkward

 

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