I've been test driving HP's new Windows-on-ARM two-in-one device for the past couple weeks and have a mixed report card.
There aren't many Windows 10 on ARM PCs in market yet, though Microsoft and Amazon did both begin selling the HP Envy x2 and ASUS NovaGo models in their online stores this week. I think there's a reason for this limited availability: These devices are too little for power users and require too many compromises even for average users.
As readers here know, I am more of a "normal" user than a techie. Consequently, my typical "non reviewer's reviews" aren't about benchmarks and battery tests; they're more focused on what it's like for a typical user to work on a particular device.
When I first heard about Windows 10 on ARM PCs, I believed I would be the ideal user for this machine. The promises were amazing: Multiple days, if not weeks of battery life for intermittent usage; an emulation layer for those occasions when a Microsoft Store app was unavailable but a 32-bit Win32 app was; instant on and connectivity anywhere thanks to a built-in cellular option. This sounded like my dream machine.
Spoiler alert: It's not. But not for the reasons many might think.
First, the good points about the Envy x2. This 12.3-inch device is well built and looks professional. The detachable keyboard cover bounces a bit for me when I have it angled (not flat on a hard surface), but it's still quite usable. There's a sturdy pen loop attached to the keyboard cover -- not a small thing, given the cost/inconvenience of lost pens, as many Surface users know all too well. (Note: I didn't try the pen, as using a pen isn't part of my workflow, but I've seen others say it's ok for note-taking but not much else.)
Battery life is quite good, but not right out of the box, at least for me. Connected standby actually works the way we had all hoped and prayed it would, meaning the battery doesn't drain when the Envy is not in use. I've seen some wonder why battery life matters so much to me. It's all about convenience -- not having to carry the power cord everywhere, and to be able to expect I can just grab and go with a device, rather than make sure it's fully charged first.
It took a couple of days for the Envy x2's battery to start working the way I had heard it would/should. The day I first set up the Envy x2, my battery drained rapidly, even though I wasn't taxing it at all. If I got five-to-six hours, I'd be surprised. Luckily, the device charges very quickly via USB-C.
On my third day of use, I noticed that the battery seemed to be lasting longer in my real-world use. It's worth pointing out that I am not using this device in the way Microsoft and its partners seemingly envisioned. I think these Windows 10 on ARM devices were created with managers in mind more than someone like me who types for hours at a time. For someone occasionally checking email, editing a PowerPoint deck, watching a video, tweeting a bit and Skyping some, this machine probably could last for days on end before a recharge was required.
But for someone typing for three hours, closing the lid, coming back and typing several more hours, all while Skyping, Tweeting and using the browser extensively, promises of multiple day battery life don't seem realistic. I'd say I'm getting seven or eight hours now -- which, by the way, is actually exceptional in the world of real usage (not just endless video loops) for Windows 10 PCs and laptops.
Another win for this device is the "always-on" piece. The Envy switches seamlessly between wifi and cellular/LTE (Verizon, for me) networking. Once I put a SIM in this device, I didn't need additional steps to enable the machine to just more back and forth between wifi and cell, depending on availability. (I am noticing, however, that the Envy disconnects often from my wifi and tries to connect to cellular, particularly when I shut the lid and then come back shortly thereafter.)
Now, for the downsides. Unsurprisingly, given how much this device looks like a Surface Pro, it's not very lappable. The kickstand attached to the cover offers some nice options re: the angle at which the device can be used, but it's tough to use on my lap, as it's rather tippy.
I've intentionally kept this machine running in "S Mode," which is how it originally ships. Given I am a woman of few apps, being limited to Store apps (which, for me, means Office, primarily), is generally fine. (Note: Users can switch out of S Mode to Windows 10 Pro for free, but they cannot easily and cleanly switch back to S.)
Although Windows 10 S Mode is OK for me, there's one very notable exception: The limitation of using Edge. I've tried Microsoft's Edge browser before on various Intel-based Windows 10 PCs, including the Surface Laptop, and it seemed quite usable. On this ARM-based HP device, Edge is not acceptable. It is awful.
Watching Tweetdeck load in Edge on this device is like watching paint dry. Once it has loaded, it often hangs and stops working. LinkedIn.com is equally slow and often unresponsive. I've tried adding the AdBlock extension and shutting off Flash in case it was the ads making this happen. I'm not sure if AdBlock made things better or worse.
Edge's performance on the Envy, for me, is a deal breaker. I'm hoping that the new generation of Always Connected PCs running the just announced Snapdragon 850 designed for Windows 10 PCs, with 30 percent performance improvements promised, can remedy this situation. But we won't find out until this holiday season, at the earliest.
For those wondering if these problems are due to Edge or the Snapdragon 835 processor, I will note that on another ARM-based Envy x2 running Windows 10 Pro that I've had a chance to try, Chrome also ran pretty poorly. Because so much of my workflow happens in the browser these days, this is a big problem.
Speaking of performance beyond Edge, I've had relatively few problems. Every once in a while, when typing, my cursor is lagging behind a bit, but not enough to qualify as a major annoyance. Video playback is good. Loading apps is quick. Notepad runs like the champ that it is.
The ARM-based Envy x2, including the pen, keyboard cover and with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB of storage, costs $1,000. There's also supposedly an option to go to 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB SSD -- the specs of the machine I got to try -- for $1,300. The device has a single USB Type-C port, microSD slot, SIM card slot and a headphone jack. The pen is priced separately
My verdict: Although I love the "always on" convenience of the HP Envy x2, I'd wait to see the next crop of Windows 10 on ARM PCs running the Snapdragon 850 later this year rather than spring now for the current models.