HP Elite X3 Review: A super phablet that’s stuck with a faltering OS

HP Elite X3 smartphone

The Pros

  • Beautiful screen
  • Continuum compatible
  • Great support from HP

The Cons

  • It's big, even for a phablet
  • Only on Windows 10 Mobile
  • Expensive

These days it’s hard not to feel a sense of doom and gloom surrounding Windows 10 Mobile.

A series of major services have withdrawn their apps from the platform in the last few weeks and even Microsoft appears to have admitted that the operating system is more trouble than it’s worth by dropping support for the Windows Mobile version of Minecraft.

With that in mind, I admit that I felt a pang of regret that Windows isn’t a viable option as my everyday mobile OS when I tested Hewlett Packard’s Elite X3. As a premium phone that deserves to stand alongside the likes of the iPhone 7 and Google Pixel, the Elite X3 is a phablet fan’s delight. Yet, the reality is that very few people are likely to experience it because of the operating system it runs on.

Productivity focus

Bottom of X3 smartphone

Microsoft has been trying to position Windows 10 Mobile as the best choice for productivity-oriented users and the Elite X3 is squarely aimed at that market. With an OS that matches HP’s ambitions, the Elite X3 could be the ideal phone for anyone who frequently flies business class. The 5.96-inch WQHD AMOLED screen is massive and brilliantly sharp, which makes manipulating Excel spreadsheets and writing Word documents on-the-go easier than it is on probably any other phone on the market (and the screen is great for watching HD movies on, too). Then, at the office, there is the option to kick into Continuum if the additional hardware is available.

Under Continuum the phone’s Start screen becomes the Start Menu and UWP apps are scaled appropriately for a computer monitor. The Elite X3, with its Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 2.15 GHz processor and 4GB of SDRAM, handles Continuum without a problem.

Back of Continuum dock

Furthermore, with the specially-designed Desk Dock, which comes in the $999 CAD bundle currently advertised on Microsoft’s Canadian store, you can hard wire the phone to a monitor via HDMI and to the web through Gigabit Ethernet as well attach USB-A (x 2) and USB-C (x 1) devices such as printers and external hard drives.

HP is understandably trying to get across these advantages by promoting the Elite X3 as a phone that gives a PC-like experience. Unfortunately, because of software limitations, the reality doesn’t match up with the marketing. There are still too few UWP apps and too many constraints on multitasking under Continuum to give a phone connected to a monitor the power and versatility of a PC regardless of how convenient the display scaling is.

Windows 10 mobile’s limitations

HP Elite X3 front

Continuum is a nice bonus if you’re travelling between offices and need to write e-mails, run off a report or make edits to a presentation without wanting to lug a laptop around. If you need more than that, though, Continuum isn’t going to cut it.

As a productivity tool, therefore, the Elite X3 is let down by the current capabilities of its OS. Inevitably, that also applies to everyday use. There is a lot I like about Windows 10 Mobile: it’s fast, familiar and visually different from its more successful competitors. Even so, it feels like a neglected platform. The lack of apps is well-publicized and you can’t even stream to a Chromecast without feeling like you’re fudging it. Moreover, too many services can now only be accessed through a web browser, which is never as convenient as using a dedicated app, even on the Elite X3’s large screen.

None of Windows 10 Mobile’s limitations should distract from the merits of the Elite X3’s hardware, though. You certainly get your money’s worth in mass because the Elite X3 is a giant. Hewlett Packard gives the phone’s length and width as 161.35mm x 83.57mm.

X3 Continuum

That’s 3 mm longer and over 5mm wider than the iPhone 7 Plus and bigger still than a Pixel XL. It is also 0.6 mm thicker than both of these phones. With those dimensions, the Elite X3 is a phone that only The Incredible Hulk will be able to operate with one hand. Still, the weight is comfortable and the matt metal back doesn’t feel slippery.

Windows 10 Mobile is at a crossroads

The Elite X3 also has the kind of specs you would expect from a phone at its price point. These include a whopping 4150 mAh Li-ion polymer battery that is wireless charging compatible, USB-C wired charging, a 16-megapixel FHD rear-facing camera, an 8-megapixel FHD front facing camera, great front-facing B&O PLAY speakers, a noise-cancelling microphone, iris and fingerprint scanners, and 64GB of internal storage (expandable to 2TB if you are not using the second SIM card slot). HP has also produced a nice range of accessories such as a variety of cases, a dedicated stylus and the aforementioned Desk Dock.

As outstanding as these features are, however, they feel a bit like overkill on Windows 10 Mobile. This OS stands at a crossroads and the Elite X3’s place in phone history might well depend on which direction Microsoft chooses to go with it. With just a few significant improvements and more apps, Continuum could become a great boon to travelling professionals and allow the Elite X3 to be used to its full potential.

On the other hand, if Microsoft compromises on Continuum or effectively replaces it by focusing on bringing full Windows 10 to phones, the Elite X3 might go down as a top-class device that barely made a ripple because it was too expensive to appeal to the average consumer and too constrained by the limitations of Windows 10 Mobile and Continuum to be widely adopted by the corporate sector. That would be a shame because I’d have no hesitation in recommending HP’s Elite X3 if it ran on a popular OS.

"I felt a pang of regret that Windows isn’t a viable option as my everyday mobile OS when I tested Hewlett Packard’s Elite X3"                                                                                                                                                            8/10