HP Elite Dragonfly review: A top-quality lightweight 13-inch business convertible

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  • Editors' rating
    9.0 Outstanding

Pros

  • Slim, elegant yet robust industrial design
  • Webcam with IR and privacy shutter
  • Optional Sure View and 4K screens
  • Optional LTE mobile broadband
  • High-quality keyboard
  • Good performance for mainstream workloads
  • Good battery life

Cons

  • 8th-generation Intel processors
  • No on-board housing for (optional) active stylus
  • 'Consumer' 16:9 screen aspect ratio
  • Premium price tag

HP's 13-inch Elite Dragonfly, announced last September, is among the first wave of premium laptops to fly under the banner of Intel's Project Athena, which aims to guide OEMs towards the delivery of advanced devices that align closely with users' needs. To that end, Intel has developed a series of Key Experience Indicators (KEIs) and a 1.0 specification (which will be updated annually), plus co-engineering support and 'innovation pathfinding', ecosystem collaboration on components, and a verification process.

Intel's KEIs cover things like responsiveness on battery power, battery life under real-world conditions, and wake-from-sleep time. The 1.0 target specification covers six key areas: Instant Action; Performance and Responsiveness; Intelligence; Battery Life; Connectivity; and Form Factor. 

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Image: Intel

"It's less a conversation around cores and gigahertz," Intel's UK client compute group director Jeff Kilford told ZDNet, "and more about the overall experience."

This review covers the first-generation Elite Dragonfly, which costs between £1,349 and £1,659 (ex. VAT; or £1,618.80 and £1,990.80 inc. VAT). Our mid-range review unit cost £1,459 (ex. VAT, £1,750.80 inc. VAT). The G2 model was announced at CES in January, adding 10th-generation Intel Core processors, 5G mobile broadband and Tile device tracking, but detailed pricing and availability is not yet available for this updated model.

Design

HP's design goals for the Elite Dragonfly include the usual suspects for a premium business ultraportable: performance, design, portability and security. But HP has gone further, decking it out in a custom 'Dragonfly Blue' colour, giving it a high screen-to-body ratio, and making significant use of sustainable materials such as OceanBound Plastics.

Inevitably there's a headline claim -- the "world's lightest compact business convertible" -- and 0.99kg for a 13.3-inch 360-degree rotating laptop is indeed impressive. How much further into 2020 that claim will stand is another matter.

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We've seen minimal-bezel and blue laptops before, but HP's pearlescent matte-blue Dragonfly shade is both smart and reasonably fingerprint-resistant thanks to an oleophobic coating. So long as they like blue (no other colour is available), mobile knowledge workers should be happy with this laptop's looks, and there are plenty of features on-board to ensure that they remain safe and secure when out and about.

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HP's Elite Dragonfly is a premium 13.3-inch convertible business laptop based on 8th-generation Intel Core processors. With the standard battery, it weighs just under 1kg. 

Images: HP Inc

The Elite Dragonfly has a sturdy magnesium chassis and, like all of HP's Elite laptops, has undergone MIL-STD 810G testing to ensure that it can handle treatment "above and beyond what a PC may endure on a typical day in business and enterprise environments". For such a slim laptop (16.1mm), there's reassuringly little flex in either the lid or the keyboard.

The 720p webcam, which is located where it should be in the 10mm bezel above the screen, is a hybrid unit with IR support for Windows Hello facial recognition. It also has a sliding privacy shutter, although this can be rather fiddly to locate and operate. Biometric authentication is also available via the fingerprint reader, which is located to the right of the wrist-rest area. Another optional security feature -- not present on our review unit -- is HP Sure View, which makes the screen less readable when viewed from the sides at the touch of a key combination (Fn-F5). (Note that Sure View only works in landscape orientation, and so won't frustrate would-be snoopers if you're using the Elite Dragonfly in tablet mode and portrait orientation.)

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The screen and the keyboard are at the heart of any laptop's design and user experience, and the Elite Dragonfly doesn't disappoint on either count.

The display on our review unit was a 13.3-inch IPS touch-screen with full HD (1,920 x 1,080) resolution, maximum brightness of 400 nits and Gorilla Glass 5 protection. This delivered a perfectly good image, but two other touch-screen options, which will both draw more power, are available: a panel with the same FHD resolution but 1,000-nit brightness and the aforementioned Sure View privacy feature; and a 4K (3,840 x 2,160) panel with 500-nit brightness. All three display options have a minimal-bezel design with, HP claims, a screen-to-body ratio of 86%. This is good, but knowledge workers might also appreciate an aspect ratio with more depth, such as 3:2, so they can see more of their documents. As it is, the 16:9 ratio feels more 'consumer' than 'business'.

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The Elite Dragonfly's backlit, spill-resistant keyboard should get the thumbs-up from touch typists (unless they're heavy users of the up/down arrow keys).

Image: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

HP has put a lot of effort into the Elite Dragonfly's keyboard, recognising that compromise in this area can render the rest of a slimline design irrelevant if you're a regular touch-typist. For example, HP has CNC-engineered each key housing on its spill-resistant, backlit Premium Collaboration Keyboard, which has a good, firm action and is not too loud. The layout is sensible, although the half-height up/down arrow keys -- which double as PgUp/PgDn with the Fn key depressed -- could irritate heavy users of those functions. The glass multi-touch touchpad beneath the keyboard works smoothly, and there's a positive action on the integrated mouse buttons. 

Rounding out the input options is the optional HP Active Pen G3, a rechargeable (via USB-C) Bluetooth device with 4,096 pressure levels and customisable button functions. This 15g stylus, which was supplied with our review unit, is quite chunky and has no home on the laptop, so if you shell out £55 (ex. VAT, £66 inc. VAT) for it, be careful not to mislay it. Usefully, the laptop notifies you if the pen goes out of range.

Features

The Elite Dragonfly is based on 8th-generation Intel Core U-series (Whiskey Lake) processors -- specifically, the Core i7-8565U, Core i5-8265U and Core i3-8145U, and the Core i7-8665U and Core i5-8365U with VPro. Our review unit had the Core i7-8565U running at 1.8GHz (up to 4.6GHz with Turbo Boost) and 16GB of RAM. Storage on our system comprised a 512GB PCIe SSD and 32GB of fast Intel Optane memory, which acts as a cache to accelerate boot-up and application launch. All of the Whiskey Lake processors have a TDP of 15W and feature Intel's integrated UHD Graphics 620 GPU.

Wireless connectivity comes courtesy of Intel's Wi-Fi 6 AX200 Module, which supports the latest 802.11ax standard as well as Bluetooth 5. Mobile broadband (4G LTE) is available as an option, but was not present on our review unit.

There's no room for a wired Ethernet port on such a slim laptop, but apart from that the Elite Dragonfly has a good selection of connections. On the right-hand side there's a full-size HDMI port, a 3.5mm audio jack and two USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, either of which can be used to charge the laptop. There's a USB 3.1 port on the left side, along with the power button, a security cable slot and the (Nano) SIM card slot. Still, if you need to use a mouse or an external keyboard, you might be best off using Bluetooth in order to maximise the number of available wired connections.

The audio subsystem, developed in partnership with Bang & Olufsen, delivers good-quality sound with plenty of volume. This is especially impressive in such a slimline design, where there's less space for decent-sized speaker enclosures. There are three microphones -- two located in the top bezel and one in the top of the lid, facing outwards to detect and filter out ambient noise when you're conducting a video call, for example.

Performance & battery life

"This device is really for ultra-mobile individuals who are always on the go but want to bring their office with them...it's not really for the power user who's going to be using CAD or heavy video-editing software," Simon Barlow, business development manager at HP, told ZDNet. 

With that in mind, let's see how the Core i7/16GB Elite Dragonfly shapes up. For comparison, we'll use another 2-in-1 device aimed at knowledge workers that we recently benchmarked -- Microsoft's Surface Pro 7, with a 10th-generation Core i5 processor and 8GB of RAM.

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Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Across the board, the Elite Dragonfly holds its own against the Surface Pro 7 -- which at £1,495 (ex. VAT, £1,795 inc. VAT) for a model with comparable RAM (16GB) and SSD storage (512GB) is similarly priced (the Dragonfly reviewed here costs £1,459 ex. VAT, £1,750.80 inc. VAT). The Surface Pro 7's 10th-generation Core i5 outperforms the Dragonfly's 8th-generation Core i7 on multi-core CPU performance, while the Dragonfly has the edge on the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test. Disk performance is similar, while the Dragonfly outperforms the Surface Pro 7 in the Productivity section of the PCMark 10 suite but lags behind on Essentials and Digital Content Creation.

UL Benchmarks recommends a PCMark 10 Essentials score of 4100 or higher for 'a variety of simple tasks', a Productivity score of 4500 or higher for 'typical office work and light media content', and a Digital Content Creation score of 3450 or higher for 'editing photos or other digital media content'. Both devices comfortably exceed the recommended Essentials and Productivity scores, but the Elite Dragonfly only manages 77% of the recommended Digital Content Creation score, compared to 94% for the Surface Pro 7. So HP's assessment of the Dragonfly's place in the performance firmament (see quote above) looks pretty spot-on.

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HP offers two battery sizes for the Elite Dragonfly, a standard 2-cell 38Wh unit and a high-capacity 4-cell 56.2Wh battery. Our review unit had the standard battery, for which HP claims up to 16.5 hours' life. The high-capacity battery will keep the laptop going for up to 24.5 hours, HP says, but will bump the system's weight to just over the magic 1kg mark. Fast charging will deliver 50% charge in half an hour, according to HP.

To test battery life, we set the screen brightness to 50% and kept the power settings on the default HP Optimized plan, and then ran the PCMark 10 benchmark near-continuously until the system suspended. This corresponds to an exceptionally heavy-duty workload, and drained 90% of battery capacity in 4 hours 17 minutes, according to Windows 10's internal battery report. The Windows 10 battery report also gives a 'Current estimate of battery life based on all observed battery drains since OS install', which for our review unit was 12 hours and 8 minutes. On this basis you can expect all-day battery life, and more, under normal circumstances, but might need a (fast) recharge during the day if you're pushing the system particularly hard.

User experience

Project Athena laptops are all about the user experience, HP and Intel assure us. So how did it go during the test period?

The first thing we noticed on setting up the Elite Dragonfly was the amount of HP software on-board, and the number of permissions and restarts required before the flow of notifications settled down. Our review unit had the following apps (and this isn't an exhaustive list): HP Client Security Manager, HP Connection Optimizer, HP JumpStarts, HP Power Manager, HP Privacy Settings, HP Support Assistant, HP Sure Click, HP Sure Click Secure Browsing, HP Sure Sense and HP WorkWell. That's not to say all this isn't valuable -- HP Sure Sense, for example, employs deep learning to enable real-time malware protection, while HP WorkWell monitors your work habits, offering tips and recommending breaks.

Overall though, we found the Elite Dragonfly a pleasure to test and use. The industrial design is elegant and robust, the screen (albeit 16:9) and keyboard are excellent, there's a good selection of ports, plenty of configuration options, and both performance (for mainstream workloads) and battery life are very good. Of course, there are plenty of other slimline convertible laptops to choose from (we're looking forward to testing Dell's latest XPS 13 2-in-1), but if you're happy with HP's price tag you won't be disappointed by the Elite Dragonfly.

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