**Update 20th October 2018** After leaving this in its box for a couple of months I have returned to it, updated Windows and now both Google and Spotify run fine**
Following on from my initial impressions I have spent some more time with the HP Envy X2 allowing me to see if ARM-based laptops are ready for the mainstream yet.
If you missed my initial impressions and don’t fancy going back to read it, then the HP Envy X2 is one of the first devices on the market to use the Snapdragon 835 Mobile PC Platform as its processor and for other functions such as graphics, audio and networking.
The Snapdragon 835 Mobile PC Platform is essentially the same thing you had in a flagship phone last year, a device you can fit in your hand. So, this chip is considerably smaller than anything Intel has to offer, it also has a GPU built in, audio processing and can provide mobile network connectivity, something that is an added luxury with Intel laptops, while at the same time using a fraction of the power of any Intel chip on the market. The result is that you can have a laptop with true multi-day performance in an ultra-slim laptop.
With all these benefits you may wonder why we were not using ARM for laptops in the first place. Intel uses x86 instruction set based chips, ARM-based chips use something called reduced instruction set computing (RISC) the two instruction sets are not natively compatible with each other. Windows was initially built on the x86 platform, so it has not been able to run on ARM until recently.
Qualcomm has worked closely with Microsoft to get Windows working natively on it, along with a certain number of other apps, while the rest of the x86 based apps are contained within an emulator that was developed by Microsoft specifically for this task.
Emulation is not a perfect solution; it is an added layer for things to go wrong and another piece of software that the processor has to run. It is not uncommon for apps not to work well in emulation and this can make them buggy or even unusable.
To mitigate the risks associated with emulation Microsoft ships the devices with Windows 10S, which is the version of Windows that only allows you to install software from the Windows Store. You can optionally upgrade to Windows 10 Pro free of charge, but you do so at your own risk.
One issue currently outstanding with emulation is that no 64-bit apps are compatible with this system and any applications that require kernel mode drivers will need to be re-compiled to ARM64.
Microsoft has launched new tools and SDKs for developers to bring 64-bit apps to Always Connected PCs, and it is possible to recompile apps for Arm compatibility allowing 64-bit apps to run natively. As the market for this niche grows so will the number of Apps compiled to run on it.
The 2-in-1 market is one of the only growth areas in the PC industry for the past few years, and this is forecast to grow by another 12% yearly over the next four years. 81-million units are expected to be shipped this year, with 93 next, and 126 by 2022. With the 2-in-1 market, the main activities people do by a long margin are general web browsing, social media, email, messaging and streaming. Therefore, the need for a high-powered processor is quite low while the demand for higher battery life and portability is much higher.
Qualcomm Snapdragon 850
The 835 is the first ARM processor that has been used for Windows and Qualcomm and its partners have already committed to releasing new devices later in the year using the Snapdragon 850. While the 835 is basically just the same chip you find in your Smartphone, the 850 has been customised from the 845 specifically for the use on Mobile PCs.
The Snapdragon 850 brings many advancements over the 835 platform including:
- 30 percent increase in performance.
- 20 percent increase in battery life and efficiency.
- 20 percent increase in Gigabit LTE speeds.
While the 850 is based on the 845, some of the improvements include faster clocks which are possible thanks to better cooling and larger batteries found on a laptop. For instance, the Kyro 385 CPU is the same as seen in the current Snapdragon 845, but instead of a 2.8GHz clock speed, it now goes up to 2.95GHz (the Snapdragon 835 was even lower at 2.6GHz).
It has also been rumoured that there is a 1000 platform which would be built from the ground up offering Intel levels of performance while keeping all the advantages of the ARM. As it currently stands there is not much evidence backing this rumour so take it with a huge pinch of salt.
HP Envy X2
Moving onto the laptop itself. The HP Envy X2 and the Asus NovaGo are the only two laptops available in the UK running this platform; there is also a Lenovo which may or may not become available in the UK.
Out of the two available options, the HP Envy X2 is the premium choice costing £999 putting it somewhere in the low to middle ground of pricing for 2-in-1s. For example, HP ENVY x360 13 with an AMD Ryzen 7 2700U costs the same whereas the cheapest XPS 13 2-in-1 is £1150.
While the Snapdragon SoC allows HP to make a thin and light laptop, it isn’t quite as light as you might expect, but this is due to the material choices. The laptop comes in 2 parts, the tablet which weighs 0.7KG and the keyboard/cover which adds another 0.5kg giving a total of 1.2kg. In comparison the x360 weighs 1.3kg, and the XPS 13 weighs 1.25kg.
Its 12.3” 1,920 x 1,080, Full HD IPS display gives your a nice portable device of 29.3 x 21 x 0.69 cm, but this is just for the tablet, the keyboard adds some depth. In comparison the x360 is 30.67 x 21.46 x 1.49 cm and the Dell 30.4cm x 19.9cm x 13.7cm. So not a huge difference between them there. I took the Envy X2 on holiday with me, and it was great for carrying around, it slipped into my backpack easily with plenty of space for all my other junk, and it was light enough not to weigh me down ever, this is exactly what you want from a portable laptop.
The keyboard/case is a nice touch, while it adds some size and weight to the laptop it is both attractive and functional. The folio style case feels like it should give plenty of protection to the tablet, it also acts as a stand, and once you get used to it the keyboard stand combo works well.
Typing on a detachable keyboard is never as pleasant as a proper keyboard, but I found the Envy X2 was pleasant to work on for a moderate amount of time.
You can expand storage or transfer photos via a microSD slot, and there is a 3.5mm headphone jack on the side.
There is a 13-megapixel rear camera with HDR that takes decent photos and a front-facing, 5-megapixel camera. In reality, I barely used the rear camera, but I found the front-facing camera and Windows Hello a revelation with near instant wake up and unlocking.
Unfortunately, you only get 1 USB-C port on this device, so it may be wise to invest in a hub to allow power and peripherals to be attached at the same time.
Performance and Software Compatibility
My initial impressions highlighted some of the issues you will face with this platform, and these remain true. For better or worse I switched to Pro mode because Google Chrome and several apps I use on a daily basis were not on Windows Store. While Chrome sort of works, for some reason whenever I go to any of Googles services such as Mail or Drive, the tab crashes with the Aw Snap error. I tried reinstalling it and various other things to get it working, but it just won’t work properly.
It is not the end of the world; Firefox works OK but not great. Firefox used to be slow and laggy on Windows but in recent years it has become much faster, using it on Arm goes back a step, while it is usable it isn’t the snappiest of apps around. Edge works as quickly as you would expect.
As someone that streams music a lot, I loaded up Spotify and tried to connect. I have previously highlighted that this had issues and they still exist, I can log in fine, the UI is a bit slow to load, but it gets there eventually and loads up my playlists. As soon as I click on anything the UI resets and it tries to load everything again. This was installed from the Windows Store so there is no reason why it should not work, I assumed it was something I had done, so I eventually tried resetting the entire PC, but after setting my account back up again, I encountered the same issues.
It is very likely Spotify will work fine in Windows 10S mode, but for me, in Pro Mode, it does not work.
** Update ** Following a Windows update the issues I have experienced now appear to be resolved, both Spotify and Chrome work fine, albeit a little slower than an Intel-based laptop. This makes a huge difference for me, it has gone from being something I don’t use to a laptop that I happily took to London for the Huawei launch. I didn’t bother taking a power adaptor with me as I knew I didn’t need one, reducing all the weight and clutter in my bag.
On the bright side, some apps work well. I installed MS Office and set up my Outlook accounts getting everything to sync with no issues. My initial impressions review as typed up on the laptop and I loved the way I could come and go as I pleased to unlock the device immediately and get back to work, never having to worry about the battery life.
Netflix, Windows Media Player and VLC all worked perfectly while I was away. I also got Sublime, SSH, and Filezilla to work without issue.
While I was on holiday I deliberately didn’t take a charger with me, I only used the laptop intermittently, but it comfortably lasted several hours’ worth of work, as well as playing TV and movies on the flight to and from Spain. During the seven days, I don’t think I switched the laptop off properly; it just relied on the sleep mode to conserve power. In comparison, while an Intel laptop doesn’t use much power in sleep mode, it does use some, and it is unlikely you will have any battery after several days, even with minimal use.
As mentioned already, the Envy doesn’t sleep and wake in the same way Intel-based laptops do; it is more like your phone. There is almost no delay at all in waking it up, especially when you have face unlock enabled, by the time you have pulled the keyboard down and gone to press any keys the laptop is awake and unlocked.
The laptop I was supplied with came with an EE pre-paid SIM which allowed me to browse the web and do my work without ever having to rely on WiFi. It connects to the mobile network quickly with no need to manually connect anything, if you are on WiFi and lose connection it will seamlessly switch to the mobile network. I did have issues on trains, but this is just an issue with mobile data access in general rather than the laptop. The 4G connectivity and outstanding battery life combined with instant wake are the three features that make this laptop and Windows 10 on Arm stand out from Intel-based systems.
My final opinion hasn’t changed from my initial impressions, Qualcomm Snapdragon-based PCs running Windows 10 have a tremendous amount of potential and I think if the platform continues to be developed it could really shake up the market.
At the moment all the benefits that ARM brings come with some significant downsides, so you really need to want that always on always connected functionality if you are going to spend £1000 on this.
If you are happy staying within the Windows 10S restrictions, then this will make a decent laptop for general office work, web browsing and streaming, which is what the majority of users do. Going into Pro mode seems to introduce a lot of quirks that will likely frustrate casual users, so should be reserved only for people that know what they are doing and need the additional features.
Once Snapdragon 850 is released and as Windows 10 on ARM matures, I am confident many of these issues will be ironed out. In particular, as more developers compile their apps for ARM there should be a reduction in compatibility issues while also achieving a massive improvement in performance.
Due to the improvement from what I assume is a Windows update, the main problems I had with app compatibility within Windows Pro mode have been eliminated. This has a massive effect on my overall opinion of this laptop – Chrome is still a bit slow, and it is not something I would use as my primary laptop, but for press trips and holidays it is perfect. I can take it away for the weekend get away with leaving the power adaptor at home.
I have improved the performance scores based on this new update. For the price and the performance for day to day use I still think it is a niche laptop.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 is superseding the processor in this laptop and it should offer large improvements to performance so if you are ready to commit to Windows on Arm I would be inclined to wait a few more weeks and pick up Snapdragon 850 based laptop. Both Asus and Samsung have laptops launching very soon, and I am sure HP will follow suit.
HP Envy X2 Review
Product Name: HP Envy X2 Review