The HP X3 Elite smartphone represents Microsoft’s latest attempt to make Windows Phone relevant in a market dominated by IOS and Android devices. The latest iteration pushes the dream of a unified device that will be your smartphone, your desktop and your laptop. However, their perceived inability to fully commit to Windows 10 Phone ultimately results in this device failing on all fronts, and inconceivably in areas that Microsoft should shine.
The HP X3 Elite is a premium piece of kit. The handset itself oozes corporate sophistication. With its black polycarbonate shell and silver Bang & Olufsen speakers at the base it immediately feels like a premium device. This is something that the likes of Apple have always excelled at while Samsung have often faltered. The accompanying dock weighing in at 450g, feels like a solid slab of chrome. It is all very much in line with the HP Envy aesthetic.
It comes with all the standard premium specs that flagship phones have; IP67 certified resistance, Gorilla Glass 4, a snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB RAM and 64GB of internal storage that can be expanded by 256GB via MicroSD slot. It has a 5.96” screen that is undeniably huge. Due to the tactility of the device I grew accustomed the size very quickly, although that is not to say that this size of device will suit everyone. The size also has an impact on where you store it. While it will sit comfortably in the inside pocket of a suit jacket, if you are supposed to embrace this device in casual situations also I found it problematic to store in my coat pockets and too big for jeans.
One undeniable advantage of having such a large phone is that it comes with such a large battery. I have grown used to measuring battery life in hours, however the X3 lasts more than 24 hours with heavy use and days if you are trying your best to ignore it. There is the question mark as to what impact the act of docking the device all day every day would have on the handset’s ability to retain charge particularly when the device is sealed so cannot be replaced on any practical level.
The phone’s weakest attribute is its 16MP rear camera. I am not a keen photographer or selfie addict or member of the Instagram community, however in tests the camera shutter has a perceptible delay from the point where I took the photo to it taking the shot. This is probably a software issue, but in the two updates I have installed since powering up for the first time, the problem endures. And if I were to use it often it would swiftly become annoying.
While not as bad as I was expecting, Windows Store is still a significant way behind the App Store and Google Play. Social media is well represented with LinkedIn, Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram all present and correct. Your favourite match three games from King are all available, as are applications such as TFL, Trainline and Network Rail. Spotify is also there to my personal relief, as are Amazon’s suite of core applications. However, Google has absolutely no presence in the Store, leaving it up to third parties to fill the void with mediocre browsers and solutions for Youtube etc.
Continuum is the X3 Elite’s USP. Developed by Microsoft, when the phone is docked it will seamlessly project the illusion of a Windows 10 desktop onto your monitor. The image below has Windows 10 on the left monitor and Continuum on the right.
The likeness is very similar and immediately puts the user at ease as they are faced with something familiar. You will note that some of the trademark Microsoft tiles on the Continuum screen are faded out, this is how it represents the apps that aren’t currently compatible with Continuum. I use the term apps and not applications as this is not an x86 environment, the X3 is still a phone and Continuum only an illusion of PC desktop. Vendors still need to make their apps compatible with Continuum to run in this environment, and not even Microsoft has managed to make all their main products compatible with Continuum. This most maddening of situations comes to light with its approach to Office 365.
The behemoth that is Office 365 combined with this device was the vision I had when I initially lobbied for an X3 when I saw it first announced in early 2016. I have been a champion of fully hosted productivity solutions for a while now. Indeed, I have transitioned from a server based environment to leveraging OneDrive and SharePoint in my working life. In the X3’s hyperbole I saw the potential for a device that truly could replace my desktop. All it needed to do was provide the functionality of Office Online in an offline suite for Windows 10 Phone that put the Office 365 apps for IOS and Android to shame. Not only has Microsoft failed to do this, in certain areas it is removed functionality.
Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, OneDrive, Skype and Skype for Business are all available for Windows Phone. With the exception of Skype for Business, they are all available via Continuum. However, they represent a shadow of their fully featured PC iterations.
Inconceivably, despite having so much space available in the phone OneDrive only keeps a reference cache of your personal documents, it doesn’t keep a local copy meaning you cannot access any documents offline. I can do it on my iPad, but not on my Windows phone. Assuming you do have network connectivity and you are docked, any document you open via the app has limited functionality.
This is the view of a word document via the Word App in Windows Phone
What makes this so insulting is that it is just a skin overlaying Office Online. Were I to open the document in the browser I would be presented with this view.
It is the same experience with all the applications, where the online versions of the suite are superior in every way to the Windows Phone alternatives. And I hope you don’t use Outlook Tasks to assist managing your daily life, as Microsoft have removed them from the phone entirely. Outlook Calendar gets its own dedicated app but Outlook Tasks have been removed as you are supposed to be using Cortana for that now. It is harrowing really, as here was something that could have made this a viable solution for the SME market. Instead Microsoft has completely neglected this opportunity in favour of handing over the reins to its partners to provide and monetize a solution.
For $50 HP will provide each user 40 hours of up to 10 virtualized applications via its HP Workspace program. Its marketed key line of business applications that it is promoting are Microsoft Office, Google Chrome and Adobe Reader. At the time of writing I am still waiting for my 60 day free trial to be approved. But $600 a year to access Microsoft Office for one working week per month is going to be a tough sell for most SMEs.
If you have a terminal server then Windows Phone does have a remote desktop client that is compatible with Continuum, which is a suitable alternative to HP workspace. If you provide your work force with thin clients in the office and mobile phones for the field, then this could be a viable solution for you. But that forms a very small niche of the business landscape.
You can print from Continuum via HP’s AiO Printer Remote App. It is only compatible with more recent HP printers but it does work well, allowing you to map your phone to your local printer.
At £700 the HP X3 Elite with Desk Dock is cheaper than an entry level 5.5” 32GB iPhone 7, it is the same price as but also considerably less flammable than a Samsung Galaxy Note 7. As a phone, it is perfectly serviceable; it is a quality piece of technology and has enough apps, at least for me, to be a viable alternative to my trusty Android phone. And that battery life is a coup. If you need a phone that will last a full day with email push enabled and a decent virtual keyboard and browsing experience, then I cannot recommend the X3 enough.
But as a replacement for my desktop, my laptop and my phone Microsoft has a long way to go. I found myself resenting the experience after a few days of using Continuum and began craving the complete experience of Windows 10 x64, which in turn made me resent the experience even more as nobody should ever long for Microsoft Windows.
Windows Phone finds itself in a catch 22 situation, it needs more apps in general, particularly for Continuum. But even with Microsoft’s Unified Windows Platform initiative, if Microsoft won’t get its own applications to work well with the solution and thus generate some genuine interest in the market why would any other developers?
It could have been the next great evolution in computing, I fear the HP X3 could be consigned to a foot note in the history of technology next to the Palm and WebOS. There are rumours abound that Microsoft will be releasing its own iteration in 2017 via its Surface division. Make no mistake, HP have done a fantastic job of delivering Microsoft’s confused vision, I cannot see how Microsoft’s in-house hardware arm can improve on what HP have already achieved.