Despite exploring a number of compelling ideas, the Elite x3 is very much for Windows phone die-hards only, and even then, might not quite be enough to keep them in the fold
Outright Cost: From $1099
What Is It?
HP's Elite x3 is one of the few remaining Windows phone flagship devices currently around. In fact, you could even call it the Windows Mobile flagship, given that Microsoft hasn't made any new high-end smartphones since 2015.
On top of running Windows 10 Mobile, the Elite x3 doubles down on Continuum, a feature that delivers a "desktop-light" experience of Windows 10 when you to slot your Windows phone into a dock connected to a mouse, keyboard, and monitor.
In addition to having a more traditional desk dock, HP has also launched what it calls the Mobile Extender, or the "lapdock": a 12.5-inch laptop that's actually just a screen, keyboard, and battery. The lapdock's brains come from the Elite x3, which you connect wirelessly.
To preface this review the issues around Windows phones should be obvious to most, namely the app gap. If you're familiar with Windows Mobile, you're probably aware of this, and I'm not going to spend time knocking the Elite x3 for having far less apps than iOS or Android devices.
It's also worth noting that the Elite x3 is predominantly aimed at business users. WhistleOut is far from a business-focused publication, so I'm writing about this from the same consumer-facing perspective we cover every other phone.
With a Quad HD display measuring in at 5.96-inches, the Elite x3 is one of the biggest phones currently on the market. Fortunately, the display is top notch, offering a sharp and vibrant smartphone experience. At 5.96-inches, the Elite x3 is far past the point where you have a chance of using it one handed. Sure, scrolling in the Edge web browser is fine, but banging out a message or an email with just leftie or righty is next to impossible.
While the Elite x3 isn't built from metal and glass like most other flagship smartphones, its polycarbonate body has a refined feel to it. With a little less bezel, the Elite x3 could have been quite a nice, unique looking device.
As a camera, the Elite x3 is more than capable. The camera app is a little slow to open, but you'll get pretty good photos in daylight and lowlight conditions. These photos won't wow you in the same way as images from the latest and greatest phones from Apple, Huawei, and Google will, but you won't be left complaining either.
One quirk worth noting is that the Elite x3 looks like it cranks shutterspeed when dealing with lowlight. This can help get a sharp image with minimal motion blur, and prevents bright lights from blowing out, but it also leaves the remainder of the image looking very dark. I'd attribute this to what seems to be quite a limited dynamic range. Ideally, a flagship smartphone camera should be able to capture dark areas without overexposing lighter elements of an image.
I also ran into some issues with macro photography. Depending on the distance between the object I was shooting and the background, the Elite x3 would often automatically refocus on say, the street behind the plant I was trying get a close up off, rather than the plant. Forcing the phone to focus on what I wanted was next to impossible.
HP packs an enormous 4,150mAh battery into the phone, so it's not surprising that the Elite x3 can go and go when used as a phone. You'll get a full day - even with heavy usage - and in many cases, you'll have large enough a buffer to make it through day two, as well.
The Elite x3 also scores points with IP67 water-resistance and 64GB of expandable storage.
What's Not So Good?
On paper, the Elite x3 is a powerful phone. The internals aren't on the bleeding edge, but they're still pretty dang powerful. In practice, the Elite x3 feels oddly sluggish. Everything from unlocking the phone with your fingerprint, to opening an app, to just navigate the settings menus feels like it takes two or three seconds longer than it should. Even midrange devices like the OPPO R9s feel faster when it comes to day-to-day usability.
On the subject of the fingerprint reader, I actually had to install quite a hefty software update to enable it. Iris authentication was ready to go out of the box, but the Elite x3 wouldn't let me use my fingerprint without installing the latest software. If you're after a Windows phone, this is far from a deal breaker, it's just a little odd to see a core feature not available from the get go.
Continuum is a feature that I really want to love, and I really want to see executed well, but unfortunately, the HP Elite x3 isn't the device to nail the whole smartphone-that-can-also-be-a-PC thing. As aforementioned, you've got two options for using Continuum: a desk dock, or the Mobile Extender. The desk dock comes bundled with the Elite x3 starter pack ($1,199), while the Mobile Extender is a $799. The problem is, neither is great.
Whether you're using the dock or the Mobile Extender, Continuum feels slow. It's not terrible, but it's slow enough to be annoying. Multi-tasking is next to impossible, given that you can only run one full-screen app at a time. You're not able to run anything in a window, which is a little ironic, given the operating system is called Windows (though this is isn't on HP, given that Microsoft is the company behind the software). For me, this is a massive red flag, given how frequently I hop between apps and have multiple windows opened side-by-side.
Even if you're happy with only running one app at a time, you're limited to apps that support ARM-based processors, which isn't many. HP does offer a virtualisation service which wraps your favourite programs in a virtual machine that can be run in Continuum, but for an additional monthly fee.
Performance issues aside, Continuum doesn't always feel practical. To use it with a desk dock, you need the dock, a keyboard, a mouse, and a monitor. If you want to use it more than one location, you have to double up on everything, cause throwing even just a keyboard, mouse, and dock in your bag isn't going to be easy, and that's assuming you have a monitor you can connect to on the other end.
The Mobile Extender is slightly more practical (since it actually will fit in a bag easily), but given the $799 price-tag, just spending a little more on proper laptop just seems like a better solution. The lapdock does have have a nice display and a great keyboard, but its not much lighter than an ultrabook, has a flimsy frustrating trackpad, and well, is useless with a phone to pair it with.
In terms of aesthetic, the Elite x3 is pretty uninspired. It looks like a phone. It has a good chunk of bezel. It's a bit boring. I doubt the Elite x3 was ever meant to compete on looks, but the silver speaker stripe at the bottom of the device bugs me more than it should. It ruins the symmetry of the device, and makes it look top heavy. Sure, this is nit-picking, but no matter how long I used the Elite x3 for, it didn't stop bothering me.
Who's It For?
Do you want a Windows-powered smartphone in 2017? If so, the HP Elite x3 is pretty much your only choice. But even if you are part of that contingent, it might be time to move on. The Elite x3 has some interesting features, and while the implementation of Continuum is better than in past Windows devices, it doesn't feel polished or fast enough to be a day-to-day replacement for a traditional PC, and is too impractical to have on hand to replace a PC "in a pinch".
HP deserves praise for trying to push forward fascinating technology like Continuum, because a smartphone that can genuinely double as a PC would be downright amazing. At the same time, HP hasn't quite nailed it with the Elite x3, leaving it neither here nor there.
What Else Can I Buy?
Samsung Galaxy S8
Samsung is trying its hand at the whole smartphone-that-can-be-a-PC thing with the Galaxy S8 and its DeX dock. The biggest point of difference between Samsung's and Microsoft's implementations is that you're actually able to run apps in windows on the S8 when its docked. And interestingly, Microsoft and Adobe will both have DeX optimised versions of their Android apps for the Galaxy S8.
OPPO R9s Plus
If the large screen is what's got you interested in the Elite x3, the OPPO R9s Plus could be a solid Android-powered alternative. The 6-inch 1080p display is lovely, the battery life is equally hefty, and you'll save a reasonable amount of money.
BlackBerry's comeback phone - the KEYone - is still a couple of months away, but if you're looking for a work ready device, it could be one to keep an eye on. The KEYone pairs the classic BlackBerry design and keyboard with Android, and while a physical on-phone keyboard won't ever match a full-size desktop keyboard for extended typing, it could still do the trick if you've got the BlackBerry muscle memory.