Michael Fletcher is a Melbourne graduate student and one of three winners in our recent HP ENVY x2 competition. He’s had his new HP Windows 8 convertible for a week now — and already used it for University. This is his road test experience...
My computer is my main conduit for news and entertainment; I’m a real convert to Spotify and Pandora, and until moving back to Australia from a long stint in the UK, I didn’t own a TV, having relied on the BBC iPlayer for my entertainment.
My Atom-powered netbook has sufficient processing power for what I do, but as a way of entering and accessing information, it does represent a compromise, and its battery life isn’t that great either. For me then, the practical benefits of the hybrid notebook/tablet concept are that it delivers the portability and battery life of a tablet, without the compromises I associate with a tablet regarding typing and screen size.
The advantages of having a tablet in addition is a bonus. Despite that, I’ll admit that my sense of anticipation in getting my hands on the new HP ENVY x2 is not based of the promise of better battery life — I have been looking forward to experimenting with the tablet to see whether it provides a richer experience for accessing news and entertainment than I get on a traditional notebook. The question is whether it provides the best of both worlds.
The HP ENVY x2 packs a 1.8GHz Intel® Atom™ processor, packs 2GB of RAM, 64GB of solid state storage, an 8-megapixel camera, Bluetooth, NFC and ports galore.
It also clicks into a nifty keyboard dock to provide as good a laptop experience as it does a tablet experience. Find out more.
HP ENVY x2: First Impressions
Opening the box for the new device released immediately a reassuring wiff of new computer smell. The pleasant sensory experience continued once I removed the top layer of foam to reveal the machine, resplendent in its brushed metal and shiny HP logo. Discovering a volume button and power button on what would be the rear of a laptop screen gave the first hints of the dual functionality of the new device.
Lifting the ENVY x2 for the first time, I was surprised by both the heft of the thing, and also the immediate feeling of solidity it exuded. With the ‘lid’ closed, the unit is very rigid, and feels like a premium device. The thinness of the machine, and the slight stiffness of the hinge, make opening it a surprisingly difficult operation.
On the MacBook Pro that my wife and I share, there is quite a deep cut-away section below the touch pad which facilitates opening the lid easily. The HP clearly isn’t thick enough to incorporate that, and the slight depression around the bottom of the track pad is obviously a recognition of the need for such.
Manipulating the lid with the clamshell open does reveal some play between the hinge mechanism and the screen; more than I would be comfortable with on a standard laptop, but not so much as to be alarming given the detachable nature of the screen. It is fair to say I was looking for a compromise in this area, so I would rate HP’s effort in this regard very highly. Interestingly, with the screen open, the hinge mechanism props the keyboard up on an angle, so that the back of the keyboard sits about 5cm higher than the front, much as you get on an external keyboard.
Despite being seemingly constantly attached to some sort of smart device, I have never used a tablet or Windows 8 before. I peeled the plastic film from the front of the screen and fiddled around at the back for the power button, which, despite being flush with the back of the screen/tablet, isn’t too difficult to find and activate. Certainly it is easier to find than the power button on an iMac for instance.
Upon powering on, I was asked a few generic questions which gave me the first opportunity to use the keyboard. The keys are easy to access, and despite not having much travel compared to the keys on my MacBook Pro, seem much easier to operate accurately than the keys on my netbook. The track pad does seem to require a more emphatic prod than the track pad on my MacBook Pro.
Connection to my wireless network was straightforward. Setting up my login profile using my existing Microsoft account was also very straightforward, though I’m not sure why the delay in ‘getting my PC ready’ was necessary.
Eventually my ‘Start’ screen appeared. Various ‘tiles’ informed me of the weather in New York and London. I’m not sure whether this is just to make me feel better, since they are two places on earth where the weather happened to be less congenial than Melbourne’s at that moment. I tried pressing on the weather tile. The touch response of the screen was excellent and immediate. The app opened quickly, asked for permission to use my location, and switched the weather to Melbourne with only a short delay. I could be depressed about the weather without even opening the blinds.
Getting Microsoft And Google To Play Nice
I assumed that calendar and email functions were going to be the most essential for this new type of device to prove worthwhile, so I decided to set up the email and calendar apps to work with my existing Google accounts. This did not go well. The email app was happy to work with my Gmail accounts (my University uses Google Apps), but only if I told it not to use them for calendar and contacts.
The Windows 8 calendar app does not play well with Google, as a web search soon revealed, and I could only sync one Google account to contacts. This was fine for me, as I keep all my contacts in one Google account anyway, but I needed my Google appointments. So I followed advice from web sources and exported my Google calendars to a file on disk, and imported them into my online Outlook calendar. This worked well, except that using the online (Microsoft) Outlook calendar in (Microsoft) Internet Explorer often ground to a halt with an error that a script had stopped running. This happened several times, and was very annoying. Having then told my iPhone to display Outlook rather than Google calendars, I opened the calendar app. The app pulled in most of my appointments from the online account, but not all of them. Despite all of my appointments appearing online, they didn’t appear in the app. In the end, I had to go online and delete all of the offending appointments (with the every-present risk of the script stopping) and then re-enter them in the app. This then synced with the online account. You can imagine how much I appreciated this process.
With the calendar app working now, I was reminded that my mid-semester exams were approaching with unsettling inevitability, so I decided to test out the machines productive capabilities, leaving exploration of its entertainment functions for later.
For this I was going to need to do two things; firstly I was going to have to install the packaged 1 year subscription of Office 365. Secondly, I had to get Dropbox up and running, since I entrust Dropbox with my lecture notes. It may well be that I transition to SkyDrive at some point, but I will leave an investigation of the potential benefits of such a move to another time.
First then, to Office. This simple process, documented in a small and stylishly orange booklet, involved logging into a website and entering a product key supplied. A setup file downloaded and installed itself. This process opened a more traditional windows desktop for the first time. I was informed during the process that Office now exists in a cloud. This is reassuring to me, as I often feel like I exist in a cloud also. A long presentation then explained that Office can now do things involving storing documents to the cloud and facilitating collaboration that I have been doing with Google Drive and Dropbox for several years. Despite absorbing this riveting episode, Office was still ‘wrapping things up’ when I returned to the desktop. I managed, eventually, to get back to the Start screen. I opened the app store and swiped in from the right to search for Dropbox from the charms menu. A Dropbox app was duly found, and I touched the install button. The install seemed to proceed without other assistance from me. The new app appeared at the far right end of the Start screen, and I logged in without further ado. I was able to press on the file I wanted to open and Dropbox asked me if I wanted to open it in word on the desktop. I answered, ‘yes I do’. With that failing to elicit a response I actually pressed the relevant button and my file was opened in word.
This is not word as I know it however. The design is sparse, with the formatting options hidden away until the relevant ‘tabs’ are activated in lieu of the traditional menu items. This not being an Office review, I will not comment further but to mention that saving the document at that point did not simply drop the file back into my Dropbox account, so further investigation was required. It turns out that the, ahem, ‘Metro’ version of Dropbox doesn’t really provide the device sync that I need, so I installed the desktop version from the Dropbox website, and all was well. This does however demonstrate the benefit of full Windows 8 – had it been the RT version of Windows, matters would really have proved problematic, since the desktop version of Dropbox would not have been available to me. Having installed office and Dropbox, I could no longer put off my studies.
By the way: All this resulted in my happy discovery that Word can now open OpenDocument files (my software of choice on my Ubuntu netbook being Libreoffice).
The next day was a day of lectures and an excellent opportunity to see how the device fits into my day to day activities.
After charging for the evening, I dared to leave the power pack at home, slipping the still svelte seeming ENVY x2 into the padded satchel originally designed for my MacBook. The thinness made it much easier than usual to fit the other inevitable accoutrements of legal study (sandwich container, umbrella, digital camera, my 2 year old daughter’s hand knitted chicken) into the bag.
Upon settling comfortably for two hours of unreasonableness (a ground of judicial review, not a reflection on my lecturer), I reflected on how easily the ENVY x2 insinuated itself amongst the sea of MacBooks of various flavours, busy absorbing the arcane wisdom of High Court determinations (and more than the occasional Facebook update).
The full-sized keyboard on the ENVY x2 showed its value, with nothing compromising the sense of using a standard laptop. Connecting the University wireless network was also easy, which impressed me given how prickly I have found it to be on every other system I have used.
A lunchtime tutorial gave the keyboard its first real test. These tutorials are accompanied by a bizarre soundtrack of frenzied tapping which seems to blend together into one continuous sonic blur, as somewhat more than a hundred students attempt to keep pace with the tutor’s rapid monologue.
Two things became evident pretty quickly; the control key on the far left of the keyboard was a bit dodgy, often failing to register; I ended up with a lot of random i’s, u’s and b’s in my notes. The other problem is that the application switching gesture on the track pad (swiping in from the left) is very easy to activate accidentally, dropping you into some forgotten email conversation when you desperately need to record some detail before it is lost from short term memory.
After the tutorial I went to the library to do some study. For the first time, it occurred to me to detach the screen from the keyboard in order to read a scanned pdf document.
Being able to hold the screen in portrait mode seemed more natural and provided a tangible benefit. It did become evident however just how wide the screen is when using it as a tablet. I think it is at extreme end of what I would consider comfortable, and I have quite large hands and long fingers. It also seems slightly out of proportion. Having a smaller screen would have compromised its performance as a notebook though, so I guess this is one of the things you have to get used to.
Having used it in both modes, I would have to say that both the hardware configuration (in terms of ergonomics) and the software make the ENVY x2 seem more like a notebook that can operate as a tablet, rather than a tablet with an attachable keyboard.
Sunday morning provided the tablet with perhaps its most obvious setting. After a quick Bing search to confirm the quantities for my pancake batter, I opened the news app, hoping for something to parallel the Flipboard and Google Currents apps I use on my iPhone. I was very impressed with the clean and attractive ‘magazine style’ layout, and also the range of Australian news sources it pulled in as standard. Somewhat like Flipboard, it allows you to add topics as well as sources, but I noticed that some of the sources I wanted to add, like Gizmodo, were not found using the search function in the charms bar. I did finally manage to get Giz into my source list by copying and pasting the RSS URL from the website. A bit of fiddling aside then, the app is attractive and gives you a good reason to detach the screen.
Given what an unusually lovely day it was on Sunday in Melbourne, I ventured outside to sit in the sunshine with my daughter to see how the screen performed out of doors. Despite being shaded by an umbrella, and turning the brightness to full, the screen was difficult to use due to the reflections from the surroundings.
For the sake of comparison, I brought out my MacBook Pro with its very shiny screen. It was much easier to read from, the screen being far brighter.
My final test involved inviting some friends around for drinks on a Sunday evening. I handed the ENVY x2 around in its tablet mode.
As Windows 8 novices, none of them knew what to do with it though, even after I had turned the screen on, often getting stranded in apps, not intuiting how to return to the start screen.
Sound And Cameras
To test out the front-facing camera, I opened skype. Given Microsoft’s ownership of Skype, it’s not too surprising that it has a ‘Metro style app, and it is quite attractive.
I thought that the best way to evaluate the webcam was with a direct comparison, so I called my wife’s account on the MacBook Pro so I could see, side by side, what the images looked like. After recovering from the shock of seeing myself in stereo, I compared the images.
My assessment was that the image taken by the camera in the tablet was more pixelated, but picked up the image better in the relatively dark, indoor environment, with more natural colours and better contrast. The MacBook camera’s image therefore was less pixilated, but it was simply harder to pick out my features from the background. Many would say that this is in fact an advantage in my case.
Overall, I suspect most people would prefer the image from the HP device for use in video chats.
Trying out the camera on the tablet led to some disappointment I must admit. Outside, the picturesque backdrop of a tree-lined square seemed an appropriate place to try out the main 8 megapixel camera. Having changed the setting from the default 0.3 megapixels to 8, I took a few automatic snaps.
There were 2 problems with this really. This size and weight of the tablet made the exercise clumsy and made me look ridiculous. The other issue was that the pictures it took were poor, even compared to pictures from my iPhone 4. I have included both the tablet (left) and iPhone (right) photos for comparison:
I also tried using the camera in a lecture theatre to take a photo of the whiteboard (see above). The result, as you can see, is grainy and a bit blurry. I would definitely hesitate to describe the rear-facing camera on the tablet as a selling point. I will be interested to see what the photographer can make of it.
The video chat experiment did also bring one other thing to light, which was that my MacBook often suffers from feedback when Skyping, probably as a result of the relative placement of the speakers and microphone. The HP tablet did not suffer from this problem, so conversations sans headphones are much easier to conduct.
I continued to use the tablet part, combining writing this review in word with listening to some tunes in the music app.
Using the Xbox live music app, you can stream music for free, with ads, much like in Spotify. Compared to Spotify, the interface is much more engaging, with biographies and discographies providing a rich experience overall.
The audio quality of the built in speaker in the tablet is pretty lacklustre in comparison to other laptops I've used, with no real bass to speak of. Headphones were obviously much better.
I wouldn’t try to listen to music on it without headphones or external speakers, but they might be sufficient for watching a TV show. Again, despite the ‘Beats Audio’ branding, I wouldn’t describe its audio playback as a selling point.
Battery Life And Performance
One day during the week, after for a total of eight hours of almost continuous use as a notebook, the battery in the keyboard were basically dead, but the tablet battery was still at 75% full. Upon arriving home, I detached the tablet part from the keyboard and plugged the keyboard in to charge. This in itself seems like a very useful feature.
Writing the review without the keyboard meant that I used the onscreen keyboard, which I found to be surprisingly accurate. In fact, I doubt that my touch typing is much more accurate using a hardware keyboard, which is saying something. Predictions were only occasionally available – a replacement from someone like Swiftkey would be interesting, - but overall the experience over-delivered, at least for someone used to-on screen keyboards on phones.
After 15 hours of near continual use, including constant Wi-Fi connection, the keyboard battery was dead and there was 20% battery left on the tablet. That’s a feat that neither my netbook, despite being heavier and less powerful, nor my iPhone, could achieve.
Should You Buy It?
Overall, I admit that I really like the ENVY x2.
Stability presents more of a problem than I am used to on OSX or iOS, or even on Android. The Windows 8 interface also lacks a certain intuitive accessibility. But, after some instruction, I can open all my documents, from the cloud, in a mature and attractive word processor, and edit them using a keyboard that doesn’t feel any different from a normal notebook.
It lasts without a charge all day, and is light and slim, and seems an ideal compromise between the size of a notebook screen and a tablet screen. In the hand, it seems big, but not so big as to be absurd.
As a tablet it feels good in landscape mode.
For reading books and articles, the option to detach the screen is great. It feels like a device with which to do work. It just seems a bit odd in portrait mode. I want it to work, because it is really quite likable at the end of the day.
For me, the portability and the endurance, along with its ability to run desktop applications, make it a very attractive option. If it was an RT version without desktop windows apps, it would seem too much like a toy. Instead, it does everything I need it to do, and I imagine it will just get better as the OS improves.
The essential compromises for it to work as a notebook and as a tablet are actually the easiest to live with. It is the software glitches with Windows 8 and the associated software and cloud environment that are frustrating. But not so as to render the package ineffective as a whole.
The hardware works for me, without a doubt. Where compromises have been made to integrate the notebook and tablet platforms, I think they are well considered. The ENVY x2 seems like excellent value at its price point, and should only improve over time. So if you need a Windows 8 notebook, and a tablet would be useful to you, then I can recommend the HP ENVY x2.