Without a doubt, HP’s new Envy x2 is one of the most interesting computers you’re going to come across in 2018.
It’s interesting in that it’s at the vanguard of a whole new generation of Windows 10 notebooks that promise extremely long battery life, getting up towards a full 24 hours of solid usage, in a small, lightweight and affordable format that includes a 4G data connection.
And it’s interesting in the way that some dish you accidentally ordered off some menu you didn’t understand, some hotpot filled with sandwich meats and chicken gizzards might be . . . oh wow! . . . that looks . . . interesting?
It almost goes without saying that the HP Envy x2 doesn’t actually contain chicken gizzards. No, it contains something far more exotic in the world of Windows PCs: a Snapdragon 835 system-on-a-chip (SoC) made by Qualcomm, the very same SoC that may well be powering your mobile phone. (If it’s a slightly older model, that is.)
That’s right. Windows 10 has come to mobile-phone-class systems in a way that promises to be far more significant than the Windows 10 mobile phones that Microsoft tinkered around with a couple of years ago.
You may recall that Windows 10 was always designed to work with processors that have an instruction set other than the 32-bit “x86” and 64-bit “x64” instruction sets on Intel- and AMD-powered PCs. The Windows 10 that ran on the Nokia Lumia phones, for instance, really was Windows 10, even though the Lumia was powered by a Snapdragon SoC which has an “ARM” instruction set.
The trouble was, Windows 10 on the Lumia (and on other ARM devices) could only run so-called “Modern” apps – now known as Universal Windows Platform (UWP) apps – and not the traditional x86 and x64 apps that account for, oh I don’t know, 95 per cent of all Windows apps.
Had Microsoft ever tried to put that version of Windows 10 on to a notebook PC, it would have been the Windows RT debacle all over again. Mercifully, it never tried.
But last year, Microsoft announced it was working with Qualcomm to bring out a native ARM version of Windows 10 that could also run x86 apps (though not x64 apps) via an emulation layer that converts the x86 instructions to ARM instructions.
And now we have the HP Envy x2, a 12.3-inch Windows 10 Pro tablet-cum-notebook based around a Snapdragon SoC, with all the battery-life and instant-on advantages that ARM brings, that natively runs all the important UWP apps such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Edge, and that just happens to run almost every other Windows app you care to throw at it.
Sure, it only runs 32-bit versions of non-UWP Windows apps, and not the 64-bit versions, but most apps seem to come in the 32-bit variety, even the power-hungry ones like Adobe’s Creative Suite (which we’ve been using a lot on the Envy x2) and Google’s Chrome.
The way we see it, the lack of x64 support is the least of the Envy x2’s problems.
Normally when we review some exotic notebook replacement like this, part of the review process includes me trying to do my entire job for a week, using nothing but the exotic computer.
I’m pleased to tell you that, with the Envy x2, I was able to do everything I needed to do, including writing this review. For most intents and purposes, it’s utterly indistinguishable from a regular Intel-based Windows 10 convertible.
As you might expect from something running on mobile-phone-class chips, the battery life is significantly better than most notebooks. We don’t know where HP gets its 22-hour battery life claim from, but we were easily able to get two full working days from a single charge (allowing it to sleep when it wasn’t in use), and in our automated test, surfing the internet via a WiFi connection every minute until the battery gives out, we got 13 hours 28 minutes, which is a lot for that test.
A little sluggish
And, as you might also expect from such a device, it does boot very quickly. When you open a sleeping Envy x2, it’s back to where it left off before you even have time to readjust your glasses. Even the Windows Hello process, which uses facial recognition to unlock Windows for you, is lightning fast, faster than you experience on most PCs.
But unfortunately that’s where the word “fast” ceases to be useful when describing the Envy x2.
As you might expect from a device that’s using emulation to run software, x86 apps running on the HP are a little sluggish. For apps you might use only from time to time, such as (in my case) Photoshop, it’s not a big problem. The app might be a trifle frustrating to use, to the point where you sometimes wonder whether it has crashed, but it works properly and you can get the job done.
For the app you live in, though, such as (in my case again) Chrome, the sluggishness caused by that x86 emulation can get a little too frustrating, to the point where you might be better off looking for a UWP version. It’s saying a lot that, after an hour or two trying to do my job in Chrome on the Envy x2, I switched to Microsoft’s Edge browser, a UWP app I would not normally dream of using. (Though, having used it for a week now, I must say it’s not that bad, and has much better plug-in support than it used to have.)
But here’s the disappointing thing about the Envy x2: even the UWP apps feel a little sluggish. They’re not terrible, but they lack the crispness you get on a similar convertible such as, say, a Microsoft Surface Pro, which runs an Intel Core processor and which, incidentally, is not a hell of a lot more expensive than an Envy x2.
One of the promises of running Windows on ARM surely must be that it lets PC makers build low-cost machines that still run quite well, and that have an incredible battery life.
But in the case of the Envy x2, HP has built a fairly high-end machine with a fairly gorgeous look about it (albeit a machine with a couple of frustrating features, such as having only one USB-C port, and having the kickstand built into the keyboard cover rather than into the tablet itself, so you have to prop it up somehow when you have it in tablet mode), and priced it accordingly.
It’s $1999, which might not be the right price for an ARM machine, especially one using a Snapdragon system that’s 16 months old. When the latest generation of ARM chips becomes available to PC makers such as HP, that’s when things should really start to get interesting.