Another attempt to prove Windows 8 hybrids can actually work
The more Windows 8 devices I review, the more refined my idea of a perfect Windows PC becomes. A convertible device (a tablet and dock) makes the most sense for me, but I need full-blown Windows 8, not Windows RT and its lack of app support. I’ve found that 13 inches is too big, and 10 is too small — if you’re looking for the “one device to rule them all,” 11.6 inches is the only useful size.
That's why I was looking forward to spending time with the HP Envy x2. It runs Windows 8 and supports every app you can think of, but its two pieces dislodge and the device becomes a totally functional tablet. Its 11.6-inch, 3-pound body is just the right size, and its $849.99 price tag is totally stomachable.
But I had some lingering questions, especially about the x2's Intel Atom processor, which is a much less powerful chip than the company's Core i5 or i7 CPU. Plus, I've seen too many bad keyboards, bad trackpads, and poor screens on Windows 8 devices. Can HP finally get everything right? Let's find out.
Let's just get this out of the way up front: when the tablet and dock are connected, the Envy x2 looks a lot like an 11.6-inch MacBook Air. A lot. Its silver aluminum finish is almost exactly the same color and texture, and its wedge design (slightly thicker in the back, tapering to a sliver at the front) is almost exactly the same as Apple's laptop. But frankly, there are worse laptop designs to copy, and the x2 is a very good-looking device even if it's not the most original one. It’s well-made, with no flexing or creaking, and it definitely feels like a premium device.
HP made a number of design decisions that feel odd for a laptop, but work well for a tablet — little things like port location and button placement are hard to do well on these hybrid devices. When it's set up like a laptop, the x2's power button and volume controls are set flush on the sloped edges of the aluminum lid, behind the screen; they can be hard to find with your finger, and I had to half-close the lid a lot to find the controls. You can control volume with the keyboard, though, and a press of the Windows key wakes the x2 from sleep – I eventually just stopped looking for the buttons except for the rare times I powered the device all the way off. In tablet mode, both sets of controls are exactly where your fingers rest on the back, and are pretty handy.
There are two cameras on the x2, which are just about what you’d expect. The 8-megapixel camera on the back takes decent pictures, but it’s really clumsy to take pictures with a tablet, and you look ridiculous. So please don’t do it. The front-facing camera is a serviceable webcam, but not good for much else.
Beyond that, there's not much to the tablet itself. The proprietary charging / docking port sits on the bottom as you hold the device in landscape, along with a headphone jack and a microSD card slot. The headphone jack is blocked by the dock (there's a separate 3.5mm jack in the dock itself), so you'll have to unplug and re-plug your headphones every time you switch from laptop to tablet mode. That’s kind of a pain, and seems like it could have been easily avoided by putting the headphone jack somewhere else, which would have made for a better tablet experience anyway — having the headphone jack on the bottom is kind of awkward. A big, silver HP logo adorns the back, which is smoothly sloped save for a bump at the top for the 8-megapixel rear camera and LED flash. The fingerprint-magnet front of the x2 has logos for Beats Audio and the Envy line, plus a capacitive Windows button. Otherwise, it's just a big black bezel around the 11.6-inch display.
Very much both a laptop and a tablet
That you could use the x2 forever and never know its top and bottom were separable is a testament to how well the device's dock works. It's the same size, color, and material as the tablet, and has a sturdy hinge that connects easily and holds tight. The hinge sticks out considerably when the laptop is closed, a look I don't love, but it’s sturdy at almost any angle, and there's only the slightest bit of wobble as you tap on the screen. The dock’s four rubbery feet keep it in place on your lap or a desk, and its minimalist design fits right in with the MacBook Air-like aesthetic.
The 1.5-pound dock (in addition to the 1.5-pound tablet) adds a keyboard and trackpad to the x2, plus a handful of ports. The proprietary charger plugs into the right side, next to a USB 2.0 port and a full-size SD card slot. There's another USB 2.0 port on the left side — no USB 3.0 anywhere, unfortunately — plus a full-size HDMI port and a headphone jack.
The x2 is a good-looking, well-made device that feels 100 percent like a laptop, and 100 percent like a tablet. Few manufacturers have gotten that right so far, and I was starting to wonder if it could be done at all. Evidently it can.
I'm increasingly convinced that 11.6 inches is the right screen size for a hybrid or convertible device. It's a little big for a tablet — you need monstrous hands to reach everywhere on the screen with your thumbs — and a little small for a laptop, but is still completely usable in both cases. But while HP may have gotten the size right, the particular screen it picked isn't very good. The IPS display's contrast is seriously lacking, so blacks and whites both look a little grayer than they should. The screen's also a terrible mix of very reflective and not very bright, which meant that during particularly dark scenes in The Walking Dead I was watching my own face more than I was watching the actual show. It's an excellent touchscreen, at least, totally responsive to gestures and taps.
1366 x 768 is a fine resolution for a laptop, which you're usually looking at from a few feet away, and on an 11.6-inch machine it’s sharper than many laptops out there. But when you hold the x2 closer to your face and use it like a tablet, it feels pretty low-res. Text looks blurry when you look from up close, and images look vaguely impressionistic. Again, it's a delicate balance — a 1080p screen on the x2 would look fantastic when you hold it to watch movies, but would make everything too small too see and use when you're using it like a laptop. The x2’s screen is definitely chosen for laptop use first and tablet purposes second, which undoes some of the smart design choices HP made in making the x2 feel suited to both modes.
Speaking of sub-par, the x2's speakers are awful. They produce decent-sounding audio, but that's not of particular use since they're so insanely quiet that you can barely hear that there's something playing in the first place. Music is at least audible, so long as you have the volume cranked up and there's no ambient noise whatsoever, but dialog is so muted that everything's basically a silent film. The speakers are cleverly hidden in the x2's bottom bezel, but they're almost always blocked by your hands or the dock, which makes matters even worse. If the x2 is your first experience with Beats Audio, I'd bet it'll also be your last. (Actually it should probably be your last no matter what, but that's a whole different story.)
If you're going to imitate two things from the MacBook Air, they should be the keyboard and trackpad — both are among the best in their class, and the trackpad in particular remains unrivaled. The x2's keyboard does look a lot like the Air's, from the black chiclet keys to the thin, sans-serif font for the letters and symbols. More importantly, it works almost as well too: the keys have nice tactile feedback and perfect travel, meaning you're never forced to mash the keys and your fingers never feel like they're hitting bottom. They're a little mushier than the Air's keys, but not enough to cause any real problems. The only thing missing? A backlight, which always strikes me as a frustrating and unnecessary omission. I don't like playing the close-the-screen-slightly-to-light-the-keys game, and too many laptops make me do so.
There are plenty of function keys on the top row, mapped as the primary functions of the F1-12 keys — to actually hit F12, if for some unknown reason you'd ever like to, you have to press Fn first. You can quickly change screen brightness or control playback and volume, Wi-Fi, and the like using the keys. The up and down arrow keys are mushed together in the bottom right corner, but that means you get full-size Shift keys and bigger right and left arrows, which I think are much more important.
I get nervous every time I use a Windows computer, because the trackpads are almost always terrible — I've been hurt too many times. Windows 8's focus on gestures has made the trackpad even more important, and too many machines still stumble. All that in mind, I'm surprisingly happy with the x2's clickpad. It doesn't feel particularly good to use – its ribbed texture feels ever so slightly like sandpaper as you run your finger along it, and it's a bit smaller than I'd like – but it's responsive, gestures work perfectly, and against all my better instincts I'm even starting to get used to this whole "natural scrolling" thing.
'They work' is surprisingly rare praise for a Windows 8 machine
One of the biggest reasons I was curious to review the Envy x2 was its processor. It runs on an Intel Atom Clover Trail chip, low-powered silicon that promises longer battery life without sacrificing the full Windows 8 experience. The 1.8GHz Atom Z2760 inside the x2 does indeed run everything you throw at it, and does fine with anything designed for Windows 8 — though as we've talked about before that ecosystem is pretty seriously lacking — but it crumbles under the weight of legacy apps. Even launching Steam takes 10-15 seconds, and almost every older app I tried was slower and less responsive than I'd expect from Intel's more powerful processors.
On an operating system level, things run perfectly well. The x2 boots in about 12 seconds, and resumes almost instantly. The Windows 8 interface is always fluid and fast, and combined with the x2's excellent touchscreen everything feels very responsive. The core apps — Internet Explorer, News, Maps, and the like — work well too. If you're willing to shed your legacy apps and live only the Windows 8 life, the Atom processor is perfectly adequate, but as soon as you try to load even a basic desktop app you'll run into problems.
As for gaming? Forget about it. If you can get past the interminable loading processes in Steam or elsewhere, you're still left with single-digit frame rates even on older games at lower settings. When I tried to play Borderlands 2, it froze for five minutes, and then crashed so aggressively I had to restart the computer. The x2 is many things, but it is absolutely, unequivocally not a gaming machine.
The x2's Start screen has not one, but two sections on it labeled "HP apps." They're both filled with the same annoying bloatware you'd expect to see on any laptop: a few good apps, like Kindle and Netflix, and a lot of pointless ones like HP+, HP MyRoom, HP Connected Photo, and a handful of others. Fortunately, though, that's about the extent of it — there are no nagging Norton pop-ups, no obnoxious utilities you have to constantly update and download. As I said with the Lenovo Yoga, if this is the future of PC bloatware, I can live with that.
I forgot what it's like to not worry about my laptop battery
Clover Trail chips are perfect, for a specific kind of user
Not only did I not have any problems with the x2 overheating (once again thanks in part to the cool, low-powered Clover Trail chip), I actually had the opposite problem. This laptop gets cold. I'd throw it in my backpack, walk outside on a winter day, and by the time I'd walked ten minutes to the subway, ridden to work, and walked five minutes to the office, the x2 was absolutely freezing to the touch. Something about its metallic surface is just cold, far more so than the MacBook Air or any other laptop I've tried. Get a nice, warm, cozy case for this laptop, or use it by a fire or something.
The x2 makes next to no noise — there aren't even any fans on the machine. That's one of the advantages of the Clover Trail chip, but the biggest upside by far is its longevity. On the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images with brightness set to 65 percent, the x2 lasted 7 hours, 44 minutes before finally giving up, and without the dock connected the tablet lasted 5 hours, 5 minutes. It also lasted me just over seven hours of normal use while docked — writing, browsing the web, streaming music through Rdio, and watching an episode or eleven of The West Wing on Netflix. It's a bit short of a full workday, but it'll last at least an entire cross-country flight, and I can't ask much more of a laptop than that. Those numbers are fantastic for a laptop, few of which last anywhere near this long, but most dedicated tablets will run considerably longer — the latest iPad cycled through our test for nearly nine hours. There is one other caveat, too, part of the running theme of what the x2 can and can't do: if you open a heavy Windows app in the desktop, like Photoshop or Steam or Quicken, the battery starts to drain in a serious hurry. But avoid those apps whenever possible, and the x2 will last an awfully long time.
If 'netbook' weren't a bad word, I'd call it a netbook
HP came so close with the x2. It built an attractive, versatile convertible laptop at a relatively affordable price — $849.99 as I tested it — that I genuinely enjoyed using. But there are a few issues and omissions, none a deal-breaker on their own, that add up to more of a compromise than I'd like to be forced to make. With no backlit keyboard and no USB 3.0 port, and effectively no ability to run more demanding apps, it's hard to recommend the x2 to anyone as their primary machine. If it had a Core i5 or i7 processor inside, I'd recommend the x2 without a second thought, but as it is it's like the converse of the Lenovo ThinkPad Twist I reviewed a couple of weeks ago: where Lenovo's laptop is powerful but finicky and at times unpleasant to use, the x2 is pretty and usable, but it just can't do some things it should be able to handle.
On some level, the x2 is almost like a Chromebook, or what we always hoped the netbook would be. It would be a perfect second machine or travel device thanks to its fantastic battery life and small size — and Windows 8 is a much more powerful operating system than Chrome OS, even when it's being limited by the Clover Trail processor. But that $850 price tag becomes a lot harder to stomach when a Chromebook is $650 cheaper, even if the x2 does have much better hardware and works well as a tablet. If you're in the market for a second machine, whether you want to watch movies or get some work done, the x2 is a great option, but if you're looking to buy your one and only laptop you should probably settle down with something more capable.