HP Elite X3 hands-on impressions

The HP Elite X3 is a Windows phone that wants to be your next PC

HP is back in the phone business — kind of — with the sleek, powerful Elite X3 with Windows 10 Continuum for enterprise.

HP once abandoned its smartphone dreams to focus on more successful ventures like PCs and printers, but now it’s moving back into the smartphone business with the Elite X3, a beast of a smartphone that can even double as a PC, thanks to the Continuum feature in Windows 10.

Although HP won’t actually release the phone until this summer, the company showed off the device at a press event in New York ahead of Mobile World Congress 2016. Here are our first impressions of the device.

A surprisingly slim and sleek phone

HP put a lot of effort into the design of the Elite X3, and it’s a surprisingly good looking — if not slightly plain — phone. The back is made of a sturdy matte plastic in HP Graphite, a gray so dark it’s nearly black. The camera is centered on the back of the device above the flash, and it protrudes slightly from the body. A metallic ring loops around the camera, adding flair and protection from bumps and scratches. Along the bottom edge of the device, HP placed a shiny silver metal edge. On the back, the metal is smooth and polished. On the front, it turns into Bang & Olufsen speakers with a cool design.

The volume buttons sit below a silver power button on the right-hands side of the device. Although the Elite X3 packs a honking 4,150mAh battery, it’s surprisingly slim at 7.8mm thick. Not only is that battery nearly double the size of the 2,000-3,000mAh batteries typically found in flagship smartphones, but it should last through more than a full day between charges via the Type-C USB port along its bottom edge. It even supports Quick Charging, so it should juice up quickly.

HP put a lot of effort into the design of the Elite X3, and it’s a surprisingly good looking phone.

The Elite X3 boasts an IP 67 rating, which provides protection against water spills and dust. It’s also certified Military Standard 810G for drops, so you shouldn’t have to treat the phone like a precious object. Overall, the device felt sturdy and serviceable when we tried it out. Even though it’s technically a phablet with its 5.96-inch screen size, it didn’t feel too unwieldy.

Monster specs designed for Continuum

HP’s plan isn’t to sell the Elite X3 to actual consumers at Best Buy or AT&T — not yet, anyway. It’s initial idea is to get this phone into the hands of enterprise clients who want a secure device for their employees that can transition to become a laptop or a desktop PC on demand. To fulfill this promise, HP had to make its phone powerful enough to support Continuum. The result, is a monster phone running the full power of Windows 10.

HP Elite X3
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends
Malarie Gokey/Digital Trends

The Elite X3 is powered by a 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, Qualcomm’s latest and greatest chip, paired with 4GB of RAM. The phone fully supports Continuum, which means that it can convert into a laptop when paired with a display, dock, and other peripherals.

HP placed 64GB of storage inside the X3, which is expandable by up to 1TB through the MicroSD card slot. That slot can be used as a second nano SIM card slot too, if you’re a frequent flier. The Elite X3 also includes your standard array of wireless connections, including Wi-Fi 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, LTE, and Miracast.

Its 5.96-inch AMOLED screen boasts a stunning 2,560 x 1,440-pixel resolution, and it looks remarkably sharp and bright. An 8-megapixel camera sits on the front to ensure crystal clear Skype and video calls, while a 16-megapixel camera rests on the back. For added security, HP not only included support for Windows Hello, which lets you unlock the Elite X3 with your retinas, but also for a fingerprint sensor.

The prototypes we saw didn’t have the fingerprint sensor built in yet, so we don’t know if it will use Qualcomm’s new SenseID ultrasonic scanner or where exactly it will be positioned. One HP executive told us that it’d be on the back below the camera, but that nothing is set in stone yet.

A few Continuum accessories

HP also introduced the Mobile Extender and the Desk Dock accessories for the Elite X3. Reminiscent of the laptop dock for the original Motorola Atrix many eons ago, the Mobile Extender, equipped with a 12.5-inch display, represents the laptop front. It’s basically a laptop without any brains that relies on the Elite X3 for processing power. It does have its own battery, though, so it can top off your phone when the two are connected.

The Desk Dock, which packs a DisplayPort for external display support, as well as Ethernet, USB-A, and USB-C ports, connects the Elite X3 to a display for a full desktop experience.

HP didn’t reveal pricing details for the Elite X3, the Mobile Extender, or the Desk Dock. No firm release date was mentioned, either.

Can a phone be your PC?

The main question on everyone’s lips was, “Why now?” Why is HP making a Windows 10 smartphone? HP said that it’s betting on the power of Continuum and Windows 10 Mobile to be the future of mobile-first computing. Continuum is just getting started and we didn’t get to use the Elite X3 with its accessory dock and Continuum, so it’s unfair to pass a snap judgement on the Elite as a phone turned PC or on Continuum itself. Currently, consumer interest in Windows 10 Mobile is low and Microsoft’s share of the mobile OS market is waning. The Elite X3 won’t save Windows Phone, especially since it’s not being sold directly to consumers.

The Elite X3 won’t save Windows Phone, especially since it’s not being sold directly to consumers. 

HP claims the appeal for business owners is the comfort of knowing that all its employees are on the same secure device, which can also act as a PC when needed and runs the same OS as the desktop or laptop they use every day. In fact, part of the reason why HP introduced the Elite X3 at MWC in the first place is so that developers can get started on enterprise apps for HP Workspace, a curated app catalog designed by HP that turns the Elite X3 into a virtual PC. With Workspace, you can run a curated list of traditional Windows apps through the Elite X3. It’s impossible to say whether the platform will prove attractive to businesses or developers, but only time will tell.

Although we were impressed by the quality and power of the phone, we do question whether it holds much appeal to average consumers outside of the business space. As a Windows Phone, the Elite X3 would enter the consumer market as a pariah to begin with just because of its operating system. HP may not have said so in any certain terms, but it seems that it knows this — hence its focus on the enterprise market.

Highs

  • Killer specs
  • Sharp Quad HD screen
  • Sleek design
  • Continuum is cool

Lows

  • Enterprise only
  • Probably expensive
  • Unknown launch date
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