Review: Can the Nirvana Phone concept finally catch on with HP’s Windows Continuum-enabled Elite x3?

So many things to talk about. TL;DR: It’s the best Nirvana phone yet and it could work for certain verticals, but Continuum needs more refinement and there’s still a Windows 10 Mobile app gap.

I’ve had an HP Elite x3 in my possession for about 5 months, and it’s finally time to write a review.

Introduction

The Elite x3 is a 6-inch phone that runs Windows 10 Mobile, and its signature feature is support for Windows Continuum. Continuum enables a phone to power a desktop-like user interface by connecting to an external monitor, mouse, and keyboard. The desktop environment can run Universal Windows Platform apps that have been specially developed to support both it and the regular phone environment. (Just to be clear, this means that Windows 10 Mobile devices with Continuum can not run Win32 desktop apps.) The Elite x3 has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 (ARM) processor.

The Elite x3 and Continuum are a realization of the “nirvana phone” concept, which we've discussed in 2015, 2014, and 2011. To this end, HP has released a desk dock, to easily connect the phone to external peripherals, and a lap dock, which is basically a small laptop that only works when paired to the phone.

Admittedly, I’ve been putting off this review for a long time, and in the meantime, several other detailed reviews have come out. But luckily for me, while getting an early review is nice, getting multiple perspectives is nice, too—especially when the concept is so unusual and the device is very rare in the wild.

Really, the reason why this review was hard to write is simply that there are so many different issues to unpack. (And doing good device, OS, and app reviews is a very intensive process. I’m out of practice since we don’t do them often at BrianMadden.com; much respect to those that do it full time!)

Here’s what was on my mind as I used the Elite x3:

  • What’s Windows 10 Mobile like? Is it really that far behind iOS and Android?
  • How well does HP’s phone and dock hardware perform?
  • How well does Windows Continuum work?
  • When new Windows updates come, how will they change things?
  • Where does the actual nirvana phone concept make sense? And how do I separate my thoughts on the concept versus this particular implementation?

Windows 10 Mobile

Setting aside Continuum for a minute, here are my impressions of the phone OS itself.

Back in 2013 and 2014, I used a Windows Phone 8 device as my daily driver for a total of about 8 months. Coming to Windows 10 Mobile, I was quite pleased with how the OS had progressed. There are better notifications, more information can be packed in the Start screen, and generally more customization options. Best of all, the “Panorama” app UI concept from 8 and 8.1—where apps scrolled side to side and wasted a ton of space on giant menu titles—is gone. (You can see a lot of the Windows 10 Mobile UI, along with a comparison to Phone 8.1, in this photo gallery at Neowin.net.) All the bundled apps are richer, and the Office apps range from okay to pretty good.

Of course, we’re still talking Windows 10 Mobile here. If you want the coolest new features (besides Continuum), head elsewhere. The app situation is better than it used to be, but still not great. Even some of the better third-party apps like Facebook had issues like less-than-smooth scrolling or occasional poor performance. And some aspects just need more polish—it took far too many steps to move an image from Dropbox to the camera roll, for example. Even Microsoft’s apps lag behind (it’s well-known that the best Office Mobile apps are on iOS.)

The verdict? This is old news, but for regular consumers and office workers that already use iOS and Android for more than just phone calls and light messaging, Windows 10 Mobile isn’t going to pass the straight face test. Yes, it’s come a long way and has some good details now, but the other OSes have simply gone that much farther in the same time.

There are still some Windows Phone devotees out there (some of them are quite passionate), and people that want to avoid the iOS-Android duopoly on principle, and for them, Windows 10 Mobile offers a lot. And for kiosks, scanners, mobile point of sale, and other vertical use cases where users don’t expect to install lots of personal apps, it can also be suitable.

HP’s hardware

I’m not going to go extremely deep on the Elite x3 hardware (I didn’t do any camera performance tests, for example) but overall it seems like a perfectly fine phone. It’s big (some people say too big), it uses USB-C (cool), and the fingerprint sensor worked well enough for me (though it's on the back, and personally I'd rather have it on the front for when I have my phone on my desk). (Here are the specs.) The bundled HP 12C calculator app is a cool touch. One issue is that the Elite x3 is GSM-only, so it doesn’t work with Verizon.

The lap dock I used was a preproduction unit, so I won’t go too deep on the performance. It has a 12.5 inch 1080p screen, the keyboard is backlit, it’s just over a half inch thick, and under 2.5 pounds. You can dock the phone via USB, or wirelessly, which is pretty slick. It has three USB-C ports and a micro-HDMI port, but only certain USB ports on it work for charging and docking the phone, which to me seems to miss out on the potential value of USB-C. (Here are the specs.) Even in wireless mode, the mouse and keyboard response were pretty good.

The desk dock is nice and solid. (Specs.) It has DisplayPort, two USB-A, one USB-C, an ethernet jack, and power; plus it has the space to dock the phone upright, and it can accommodate different cases. The only issue I had was that going from DisplayPort to DVI for my five year old Samsung monitor didn’t work; but I’m not concerned—these things happen with lots of devices and displays, and every other combination of DisplayPort and adapter (VGA and HDMI) worked fine. The display output is at 1080p, and I’ve been using it with a wired keyboard and mouse.

Continuum

I’m please to report that Continuum mode works and is completely usable. Typically, “completely usable” isn’t the quite the biggest compliment, but when we’re talking about such an experimental and unproven concept, it is. Much of the time you can dock and undock in a second or two, many of the bundle apps do happen to be enabled for it Continuum, and again, it actually works.

It is nice to be able to do a lot of your phone “housekeeping” in desktop mode—you can enter all your complex passwords (or cut and paste them from a password manager, as the case may be) with the ease of a mouse and real keyboard, and then your apps are logged in and good to go. Another positive thing is that you technically don’t need the dock—you can just use a display adapter and Bluetooth peripherals, or even use the phone as a trackpad and mini keyboard for the desktop.

After you get done with the initial excitement, though, it becomes clear that there’s a lot of space for refinement. Desktop-mode apps are full screen only, with no free-floating or side-by-side windows. It’s not too smart about handling the displays separately for things like screen savers; when I was using the lap dock wirelessly, the phone stayed on, too, and if I put the phone to sleep, the lapdock turned off. And when I re-dock, it doesn’t bring my last-used app up on the external display. Finally, even though it looks like a Windows desktop, you remember soon that it isn’t. There are a lot of little features, such as adjusting the mouse, that you don’t get.

While docking was mostly fine, I did have occasional issues. For example, on the desk dock sometimes the mouse pointer wouldn’t show up, so I’d have to try again.

The Edge browser was the biggest problem—considering the app gap, you’re going to lean on it a lot, and unfortunately it’s just plain slow, even for a mobile browser. I ran some browser benchmark tests, and it scored 58 on JetStream 1.1, about 9 on Speedometer, and 277 on Speed-Battle. Go try any one of these on the device you have right now (Speed-Battle only takes a second) and you’ll see what I mean. All my other devices were between twice and 10 times faster in various combinations. Other issues are that video and audio playback pauses when you switch from one tab to another, and at the end of the day, it’s still an uncommon browser, so sometimes websites do weird things.

As I mentioned, the Elite x3 can’t run Win32 apps on its own. However, it can be used as a thin client, and HP is selling a hosted desktop virtualization offering to go along with it. While HP’s offering is good for getting real desktop apps and real desktop performance, it doesn’t happen to provide a persistent, fully personalized desktop experience—it’s more oriented to towards remote apps. A fuller DaaS option would be preferable if you want to make this your only desktop.

What about upcoming improvements?

As you know, the Windows 10 Creators Update is due soon, and according to a Microsoft Ignite session from last fall, we can expect some important new features (though the presenters wouldn’t commit to precise timing). These include:

  • Independent monitor idle—this should solve my problem with not being able to turn off the phone while it was in my pocket, connected to the lap dock.
  • Proximity connect—phones can already connect wirelessly, but with this the idea is you just walk up to a dock and it can connect automatically on its own. This will be awesome.
  • Customizable Start screens/menus—they’ll be independent for each mode.
  • More PC features—most notably, support for multiple free-floating windows that can be snapped or overlapped, as well as more context menus for mouse clicks.

The rub is that there are so many old desktop features and options, that no matter how many Microsoft adds to Continuum, every user will still miss a few—and the ones that I miss are likely different from the ones you miss, and on and on.

But maybe there’s a solution. Remember, Microsoft announced in December that they will bring full desktop Windows 10 to some future devices with Qualcomm chips. We’re still a long way from a firm announcement, but there were subtle hints that a phone that runs the full desktop OS is within the realm of possibility.

HP also teased a new version of the Elite x3 at Mobile World Congress, though again this was with no commitment other than HP saying “this is an example of how we see future iterations of the x3 platform.” (Photos and HP comments via PCWorld.)

The concept and overall thoughts

Like I said, in reviewing the Elite x3, we have to try to think separately about the nirvana phone concept, Windows 10 Mobile, and HP’s implementation, at the same time that they’re all inextricably linked.

As you’ve gathered, I have favorable feelings because the entire package actually works, and Windows 10 Mobile has gotten a lot better than my Windows Phone 8 experience.

However, right now I still can’t swallow the nirvana concept and the Elite x3 as working for typical consumers or knowledge workers. Why? Some of the issues are temporary, some are inherent:

  • First, there’s the Windows 10 Mobile app and feature gap. So be it.
  • Second, in this incarnation, it’s expensive. The Elite x3 alone is $684, the desk dock is $149, the lapdock is $599, the phone bundled with the desk dock is $799, or a bundle with all three is $1298. For less money, you could get a cheaper Android or a used iPhone, which automatically have app and feature advantages, as well as a Chromebook or low or mid-range laptop, which have better browsers. The price could come down in the future, though.
  • Third, it needs more refinement. I strongly believe that  you don’t need Win32 apps for a desktop to be useful (just look at Chromebooks or what I wrote about Windows Cloud rumors), but it still needs creature comforts. This is another thing that will change.
  • Fourth, Edge is slow.
  • Lastly, I still don’t know why you wouldn’t just want two different devices. Laptops and tablets are super light these days, so the bulk argument goes away. Some people say the advantage of a nirvana phone is not having to use the cloud to sync between devices. But my iPhone can already talk directly to my Macbook, and I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket. If you lose your one nirvana device, you're screwed.

I’m not dismissing the concept, or the Elite x3 though. There’s a lot of potential for industry verticals like logistics, manufacturing, healthcare, or field service, where users have line-of-business mobile devices but also have to spend a bit of time on a desktop. In these cases, supplying docks could be easier and cheaper than supplying and managing full desktops, laptops, or getting into desktop virtualization. It just depends how the numbers pencil out, and for some companies, I’m sure they certainly could come out in favor of the Elite x3 or something like it.

For Microsoft, even though Windows 10 Mobile is tiny, it’s still good for them to invest in it. Keeping up with ARM and cellular technology is key, as Terry Myerson told Mary Jo Foley last fall.

Conclusion

This is the most fully-formed nirvana phone to exist—kudos to the work HP and Microsoft put in so far. I’m curious to see how it keeps evolving and what type of customers will buy it.

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