PCs learn new tricks, but can tablet/notebook hybrids rescue Windows 8?

Summary:What does a PC maker do when the PC market is shrinking and demand for tablets is exploding? One option is to design hybrid PCs, which can switch from conventional PC to tablet and back again. In this post, I look at clever hybrid devices from Samsung, Dell, and HP.

HP Envy X2

I had my first hands-on session with the Envy X2 last year, in a private session at the IFA tradeshow in Berlin. My first reaction when I picked it up was, “Whoa. This thing is light.” That’s exactly what I said, again, when I unboxed the review unit HP sent me last month. It’s what my wife said when I handed it to her.

I suspect you’ll say the same thing if you get your hands on one. Because whoa, this thing really is light.

Like the Samsung Smart PC Pro 700T, the Envy X2 has a detachable base that includes a keyboard. The tablet portion weighs exactly 700 g, which is one ounce more than an iPad despite having a significantly larger screen. It is noticeably thinner than an iPad.

hp-envy-x2-detached

And it is quite distinctive in looks, even handsome. The 11.6-inch display is surrounded by a black bezel. The back is aluminum, with an HP logo in the center, a camera that bulges slightly out from near the top, and a pair of subtle, slightly recessed switches on either side: one for power, the other a volume rocker. The only visible external connections are on the bottom, where you’ll find a headphone jack and a Micro SD Card slot.

The base is also aluminum on the outside and plastic on the inside, with a full-size keyboard (in black) and a decent-sized trackpad. Snapping the tablet into the hinge turns the device into something resembling a small Ultrabook, one that’s noticeably larger than either Surface.

hp-envy-x2-clamshell

So far, that sounds like what Samsung has done with the Smart PC Pro, right? Yes, except for two things.

First is the price tag of the Envy X2. At a list price of $700 (recently reduced to $599), it costs roughly half what the other two notebooks in this roundup cost. (And you can probably do better if you shop carefully. My ZDNet colleague James Kendrick snagged one recently for $525 . That’s a bargain.)

What’s the difference? On the power-versus-portability scale, Envy X2 is designed for extreme battery life and deliberately sacrifices performance to get there.

It has a lower-resolution screen (1366x768) that only recognizes 5 touch points, a 32-bit Atom Z2760 CPU, 64 GB of flash memory for storage, and only 2GB of RAM, for starters. With those specs, it’s not surprising that the Envy X2 is sluggish at some tasks. (Just look at the Windows Experience Index below. Those aren't impressive numbers.)

hp-envy-x2-wei

But it has such great battery life that you might not care.

That low-powered hardware, plus a second battery in the detachable keyboard dock, is what makes it possible for the Envy X2 to get epic battery life. There’s a 25 WHr battery in the lid, along with all the other componentry. The base has a second 21 WHr battery along with two USB2 ports, a headphone jack, HDMI out, and a full-size memory card reader.

HP’s engineers did a good job with battery management. When the tablet portion is snapped into the base, the system uses the battery in the base first and charges the battery in the lid. That means you’re likely to have a full charge when you detach the display and switch into tablet mode.

In my tests, the battery in the base ran for an impressive 6:55 before handing things off to the second battery in the tablet portion, which then carried on for another 7:29. That’s a total of well over 14 hours of nonstop HD video playback. In basic productivity work, including Office 2013, this device worked for three solid days before it needed a charge.

Overall, I had high expectations for the Envy X2. Maybe they were too high for the device itself to live up to. In use, the hardware limitations occasionally made themselves very noticeable, with tasks that would take seconds on a Core i5 or i7 dragging out. The limited RAM and storage exacerbated that feeling.

But still, with 18-20 hours of real world battery life, that’s forgiveable, isn’t it? And the Atom processor runs so incredibly cool that it doesn’t need a fan. I occasionally felt faint heat on the back, but nothing remotely like what you would expect from an i5 or i7 under even moderate load.

The Clover Trail graphics of the Atom chip also drag down performance. An HP product manager conceded that the chip wasn’t designed for 3D graphics, although it does just fine with video playback and Angry Birds or Pinball. I felt compelled to test those scenarios and can confirm they all work just fine.

A bigger problem with the Envy X2 is the same issue I felt with the Samsung. Because the system was designed, by necessity, with all of the electronics in the display, the unit feels top-heavy and slightly unbalanced when used on a lap.

On a desk, the hinge mechanism lifts the base and keyboard to a nice angle for typing, and the weight is well balanced. But on the lap the display has a tendency to tip over backwards, leading to one inadvertent crash test on a carpeted floor. (The Envy X2 passed, thank goodness.)

It’s taken Intel longer than expected to get this generation of Atom chips out to PC makers like HP, which is why this device wasn’t ready when Windows 8 shipped on October 26 (or even a month later). For anyone who wants the long battery life and cool operation of an ARM-based RT device but needs the capability to run real Windows desktop apps, this might be an ideal compromise.

Topics: Hardware, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Mobility, PCs, Samsung, Windows 8

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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