HP Elite x3 review

While having a very, very small market share, there are some excellent Windows 10 phones out there. The flagship Microsoft Lumia 950 and 950 XL were and are some of the best the platform had to offer, with solid performance, good looks and high end specs.

But that was November 2015. We’ve come a long way since then and unfortunately these phones cant quite match the best smartphones out there any more. So does the HP Elite x3 manage to change that? It’s the highest spec Windows phone ever made, but is it too geared towards the business user to appeal to the wider consumer?

We actually checked out the HP Elite x3 at MWC 2016, and it’s taken nearly a year to get hold of one for review as it goes on sale in the UK. Here’s our HP Elite x3 review.

HP Elite x3 review: Release date and price

The HP Elite x3 is available direct from HP in the UK for £699 unlocked. The price includes the Desk Dock for connecting the device to a monitor to use the Continuum desktop conversion features.

It's also available from sellers on Amazon but at the time of writing for a higher price. 

HP Elite x3 review: Design and build

First things first. This phone is huge, and that’s no exaggeration. It has a 5.96in screen but the reasonably iPhone-esque wide bezels mean that it is a very big phone in the hand. It is a full centimetre taller than the Samsung Galaxy S7 edge, which has 5.5in screen. The Elite x3 is just about manageable in our small hands, but this is not a phone for one-handed operation however big your paws are.

HP is marketing the x3 firmly at the business user, and the design of it belies that. Next to the earpiece speaker there is a front facing camera and an iris scanner like that of the Lumia 950s. 

Glossy black bezels are only interrupted by a silver detail at the bottom front edge where you can cop the Bang & Olufsen logo – there are front facing speakers and mic beneath the dotted grate that oddly tries to look like a comet trail but ends up looking unfinished. 

On the right edge there are the usual power/wake and volume buttons, a USB-C port on the bottom edge, incredibly fiddly dual SIM slot on the left edge and a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top.

The neat rear of the phone has HP’s slick new logo, the camera bump with LED flash and a circular fingerprint scanner just below. HP has managed to keep the thickness down at just 7.8mm though and the weight is surprisingly under 200g which is good. This is still a hefty device though, measuring 161.8 x 83.5 x 7.8 mm.

The Elite x3 also ships with a dock which has a range of ports so you can use it with a monitor like a desktop PC.

Although the Elite x3 is unwieldy, the large size means space for things like a bigger battery (4150mAh) which is something that is often missing on a smartphone. After all, a dead handset is only really useful as a paperweight.

HP has also gone for a waterproof design with an IP67 rating meaning you can dunk it in up to one meter of water for no longer than 30 minutes.

A large part of the HP Elite x3’s attraction is the dummy laptop which works with it. Because the phone supports Continuum, Windows' cool desktop conversion tech, this laptop can run entirely off the phone over USB-C. It’s effectively a screen, keyboard and trackpad with nothing inside. It sort of reminds us of the Moto Atrix and its dummy laptop which launched a few years ago.

HP Elite x3 review: Features and specs

HP is wisely not denying the fact this phone was designed with the enterprise business user in mind. The lapdock functionality alongside Windows Continuum with the included desk dock mean this phone can be used as a phone and a desktop. Its mammoth screen size means you could conceivably do away with a tablet too, and HP hopes you’ll do just that. But what’s the Elite x3 like to use? 

Specs wise, it has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor, which at the start of 2017 has only just been superseded by the 821 in phones like the OnePlus 3T. IT zips along very quickly. with menus fast to load, apps quick to respond and the slick fluidity of Windows 10's tile based OS.

The near 6in display is capable of stunning reproductions given its Quad HD resolution of 2560 x 1440, and touch input is fast and responsive. 4GB RAM is more than enough for using the x3 as a smartphone – more on the performance with the lapdock and Continuum later. 

There’s a 16Mp rear-facing camera with autofocus capable of video at 1080p at 30fps, while the 8MP front facing camera is more than adequate for video calling. The dual front facing speakers are very loud and good for those calls and for conference voice calls, but for music and video we found them quite tinny – a shame when the handset is stamped with the B&O branding.

With business in mind, the Elite x3 also has a dual nano-SIM card slot. One of these slots can also be used for a micro SD card if you prefer. In the dual SIM set up, you can set either to roam or not roam, and would be useful if using a business number to roam abroad and avoid charges on your personal SIM. Also, obviously, it means you can receive calls to both your numbers from one device.

The lapdock is a dumb accessory, and does not come as standard – it is an additional extra that retails at $599 in the US - undoubtedly a high price when it cannot be used as a laptop without the power of the x3 behind it. It can charge your x3 when connected though, and is itself charged over USB-C.

As you can see, the Elite x3 tries to do an awful lot. It cuts out your work phone and tries to convince you that you don’t need a tablet with its 6in screen, all part of HP's vision of having created a 3-in-1 device. We will come to how it works as a desktop and laptop replacement further into this review, but as a smartphone, the x3 is highly accomplished. 

Provided you get on with the OS, and don’t mind having one of the largest handsets around, the performance for everyday tasks is easily as good as phones like the OnePlus 3 and HTC 10, though a shade below newer phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7. It’s a shame then that it costs so much - £699 is far too expensive for the average consumer (the same price as the 128GB iPhone 7), particularly without the lapdock, and this is a result of HP’s concentration on packing the device with business-centric specs and capabilities.

HP Elite x3 review: Software and apps 

Windows phones have always been derided for being sub standard compared to iPhones and high end Android devices but this is unfair. Flagship Windows devices have always been able to hold a candle to their high end rivals, but it is true that the Windows Store has fewer apps than the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. However, that so-called ‘app gap’ is overplayed.

We used the HP Elite x3 as our main phone and had Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, WhatsApp, eBay, BBC iPlayer, Netflix and banking apps up and running in no time. There’s a Slack app for work and of course unrivalled compatibility with Microsoft Office. Sure, you’ll have the occasional tut when you can’t get the latest game or trending photo app everyone is talking about, but there’s no way we can say that Windows 10 for mobile is a totally compromised app platform. Also apps such as Sonos for home entertainment will simply never come to Windows phones.

Windows 10 is full of excellent design ideas. We still love the tile layout of the home screen, though it won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It’s highly customisable, and if you like little live changing windows into your photos, inbox and the news then you’ll also love it in no time. Be aware though that if switching from Android or iOS, at first it’s a bit confusing.

It also feels slightly on rails compared to Android and even the tightly controlled iOS, but in this instance that's OK. The Elite x3 is for getting serious work done, and Windows 10 is perfect for that. We didn't mind using Microsoft's Edge browser on mobile as it proved quite competent, but the one thing you'll have to get over is the lack of Google app support.

If your personal and work lives revolve around Google services, Windows 10 on mobile is a bit of a tough ask. Then again, if you're coming at cloud services fresh, then putting your eggs into the Mircosoft basket will work very well, particularly if you're already a PC user (as opposed to Mac).

See also: Best cloud storage services

HP Elite x3 review: Lapdock and Continuum

So, the HP Elite x3 is a perfectly adequate, high end Windows 10 phone. But as it’s targeted at business users, we also got the swanky looking lapdock to check out too. HP positions the x3 as a 3-in-1 device: a personal phone, phablet device for work and laptop. The lapdock address the latter and it’s a dumb clamshell design, meaning you need to connect the x3 to it. It then uses Windows Continuum to project the phone’s Windows 10 OS into a desktop experience.

The bottom line is: it works. It does do what it says it will do, which is allow you to browse the contents of your phone and use the apps on a laptop. However, there are a lot of performance issues with it that make it hard to recommend. 

You can connect your x3 over the local Wi-Fi network to the lapdock, or by using the supplied USB-C cable. From there, the Start menu opens your phone’s apps and you can navigate using either the touchpad of the lapdock or by using the x3’s screen as a touchpad. 

Despite the cleverness of the tech on show, our workflows and the technology simply aren’t there yet. We’d take a smartphone and separate laptop over this set up any day. The idea that Continuum will solve issues of workflow isn’t true yet – it actually compromises your productivity sometimes. The lapdock is an expensive way to project your phone for long document typing. For everything else like emailing, video viewing or gaming, the phone's 6in screen is more than enough.

Some third party apps don't run full screen, and we sometimes lost a wired connection just by opening an app. Some apps don't work. In fact, you can only rely on Microsoft's Universal apps, the ones designed for Continuum, to work every time. It's a frustrating limitation of an excellent idea.

The same unfortunately goes even if you don’t fork out for the lapdock. If you have a monitor, keyboard and mouse, you can use the desk dock that comes with the x3 and hook them all up. The experience is much the same as on the lapdock – slower than a decent laptop and limited by the nature of the set up. 

With the Elite x3 unit we reviewed, you also get access to HP Workspace, a version of Continuum designed for businesses to host corporate applications virtually. Again, it’s a feature squarely marked ‘business’ but we found it quite frustrating. Even trying to boot up Word took forever, and the resolution it produced on the lapdock was far from sharp. The regular version of Continuum worked a lot better.

The idea of the smartphone as portable mobile workstation is a good idea. However having seen Continuum on the Lumia 950 and now here, we have to conclude it is yet to be perfected. If an entire company can run a superfast network, supply its workers with x3s and give each of them a permanent monitor set up to plug into, then maybe the idea of using the phone with the extra features would be efficient. For the rest of us, it’s an expensive luxury that suffers from sluggish, buggy performance.

HP Elite x3: Specs

  • Windows 10 Mobile
  • 5.96in Quad HD
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB storage
  • Micro-SD card slot
  • 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • NFC
  • GPS
  • 16Mp rear camera
  • 8Mp front camera
  • B&O audio
  • USB Type-C
  • 4150mAh non-removable battery
  • IP67
  • 162x84x7.8mm
  • 195g
  • Windows 10 Mobile
  • 5.96in Quad HD
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 820
  • 4GB RAM
  • 64GB storage
  • Micro-SD card slot
  • 11ac Wi-Fi
  • Bluetooth 4.1
  • NFC
  • GPS
  • 16Mp rear camera
  • 8Mp front camera
  • B&O audio
  • USB Type-C
  • 4150mAh non-removable battery
  • IP67
  • 162x84x7.8mm
  • 195g

OUR VERDICT

The HP Elite x3 is an excellent smartphone, melding high-end specs with a solid design and good user experience. The Windows app store is still underrated, and the battery lasts for ages. However at £699 without the lapdock, this is not a cheap device.

We can recommend the Elite x3 as it is the best Windows 10 phone on the market, but the 3-in-1 device HP is marketing is best left to the whims of businesses and those to whom money is no object. If you can find a Lumia 950, you'll save yourself hundreds of pounds and get a similar Windows 10 mobile experience.

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