HP ElitePad 900 review: HP's first Windows 8 tablet for the business world

HP's business PCs have always been surprisingly pretty. Not that good looks are high on our list of criteria, mind you, but at the very least they make a strong impression. Now that companies have gotten more comfortable with tablets (and Windows 8 in particular) HP is selling the ElitePad 900, its first Win 8 tablet built for the enterprise. Like all those EliteBook laptops that came before it, it has a metal chassis that's not only sleek, but meets the military's MIL-Spec standards too. Otherwise, it has everything you'd expect from a business tablet: support for pen input, mobile broadband and security features like TPM. It's also being sold alongside various accessories, including some cases that add further functionality besides just protection from scratches. With a starting price of $699 for the 32GB model, though, it's a little more expensive than its competitors. Does that mean it's a little bit better too?

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HP ElitePad 900 review

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HP

HP ElitePad 900

Pros

  • Gorgeous, durable design
  • Bright IPS display
  • Useful accessories, including a case with a spare battery

Cons

  • Sluggish performance
  • Middling battery life
  • Expensive compared to other business tablets
Summary

The ElitePad 900 is a well-made tablet with a lovely display and lots of business-friendly security features. But sluggish performance and mediocre battery life dampen our enthusiasm.

Hardware

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We say this unequivocally: the ElitePad is the sexiest tablet HP has ever made. And it's for the enterprise, of all things. Stealing the show is that machined-aluminum rear, with its flush volume rocker and smooth, hard finish. It looks so good, in fact, that it was featured in a splashy ad campaign aired during last year's Summer Olympics (not the place for ugly people -- or gadgets, for that matter). In contrast, there's a black, soft-touch panel on the top of the back cover, around where the antennas and NFC chip are. Normally, that might make for a mismatched design but in this case, the contrast between the cold metal and rubbery accent works quite well.

The nice thing about aluminum, too, is that it's lightweight: at 1.38 pounds, the ElitePad is very easy to hold, particularly since the chamfered edges create a natural resting place for the thumbs. (For reference, the tablet weighs 0.06 pound less than the iPad 4, which is already pretty portable.) Like all of HP's previous EliteBook laptops, it was built to withstand drops, water spills and any other accidents that might happen in the workplace. (The IT guys only expect to refresh your stuff every few years, ya know?) In particular, the tablet meets the military's MIL-SPEC-810G standards, covering drops, vibration, sand, heat, cold, rain and humidity. We can't guarantee the aluminum finish will stay spotless -- we picked up a small scratch ourselves -- but at least the thing will remain usable.

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Our tour of the ports will be fairly brief, and that's not necessarily a good thing: a lack of ports on the device itself means you'll perhaps be more reliant on those optional SmartJackets, which add a good deal of bulk. Up top, you'll find the power / lock button over on one side, with the headphone jack and screen-orientation lock switch on the other. To the left is the volume rocker, which isn't actually on that chamfered edge but rather, on the back side. Same deal with the SIM slot and microSD reader, which sit behind a pin-accessible door on the right.

The NFC chip, as we said, is located on the rear cover, toward the top where that black rubber strip is; that's clearly marked by an NFC logo. The bottom edge is home to dual speakers, along with the docking connectors you'll need to make use of all those optional accessories (more on those in just a moment). Rounding things out, there's an 8-megapixel camera in the back, paired with an LED flash, along with a 1080p webcam up front.

Display and sound

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HP chose to match the nice design with an equally nice display.

Happily, HP chose to match the nice design with an equally nice display. What we have here is a 10.1-inch IPS panel made of Gorilla Glass 2. The brightness rating tops out at 400 nits, which is about as good as you'll get on a tablet these days (ASUS' products seem to be the exception). The only thing keeping this from being a truly top-notch screen is that the resolution is capped at 1,280 x 800, and that's not even totally HP's fault: after all, Atom processors don't even support resolutions beyond 1,366 x 768. Besides, the company says that its corporate customers aren't demanding higher resolution anyway. And who are we to argue with HP's marketing department?

All told, it's a lovely display. As you'd expect, colors lose some of their punch when viewed from the side or with the tablet lying face-up. Regardless of the angle, though, the screen is always easy to read, especially once you pump up the brightness. We'd also add that the glossy panel reflects surprisingly little light -- or, at least, the screen glare that is there doesn't get in the way.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, the ElitePad supports pen input, just like other Windows 8 tablets aimed at the corporate world. Because the digitizer is made by Atmel, though, and not Wacom, you can't just sub in any old pen if you lose the one you bought from HP. That pen is sold separately for $49 and indeed, we didn't get a chance to test the ElitePad with it.

You may have noticed by now that most of HP's consumer PCs have Beats Audio on board, but since the ElitePad is a business product, it makes do with SRS tech instead. Indeed, without Beats' EQ settings to emphasize the low notes, the sound here is fairly constrained. It's at its worst at top volume settings, but fortunately the speaker setup is loud enough that you can easily keep the volume around 40 / 100 if it's just you listening by yourself. And if you're on a conference call and need to make the sound louder, well, no one cares if your coworkers sound a bit tinny.

Accessories

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Even more than its beautiful hardware, what makes the ElitePad unique are all the accessories designed to go with it. Most of these take the form of so-called SmartJackets -- essentially, protective cases that also bring additional functionality. First up is the Expansion jacket ($79), which adds two full-sized USB ports, an HDMI socket and a full-size SD / MMC slot. There's also room for an optional second battery ($99), which is said to extend the runtime by up to eight hours.

Moving on, the Productivity jacket ($199) is sort of what it sounds like: a case with a keyboard built in. When the case is closed, as you probably imagine, the tablet lies face down against the keyboard. When it's open, though, it sits propped up in one of three notches cut into the area above the keyboard. The keys themselves are small and fairly flat -- not much better than a netbook, really -- but the underlying panel is at least sturdy. The problem is, there's no pointing stick or trackpad, so you'll need to BYOM (bring your own mouse) if you want to click small objects on the desktop. Anyway, you can probably forgive the ergonomics somewhat, since the jacket also includes two USB ports and a full-size SD slot -- features you won't find on all keyboard docks.

Finally, moving away from SmartJackets, HP is also selling a $119 docking station, meant to stay in the office, parked on employees' desks. In addition to four USB ports, you'll get an Ethernet jack, VGA and HDMI sockets, a Kensington lock slot and a single audio port. It's heavy, like a paperweight, with a soft-touch finish that keeps it from sliding around on your desk. You might be disappointed to find the screen angle isn't adjustable as it is on the Productivity jacket, but that's where those wide viewing angles come in handy.

Performance and battery life

PCMark7 3DMark06 ATTO (top disk speeds)
HP ElitePad 900 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,297 454 82 MB/s (reads); 28 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo IdeaTab Lynx (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,444 457 81 MB/s (reads); 35 MB/s (writes)
Dell Latitude 10 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,437 458 82 MB/s (reads); 35 MB/s (writes)
ASUS VivoTab Smart (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,400 372 83 MB/s (reads); 35 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,423 460 83 MB/s (reads); 35 MB/s (writes)
HP Envy x2 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,425 N/A 83 MB/s (reads); 34 MB/s (writes)
Samsung ATIV Smart PC (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) N/A 374 82 MB/s (reads); 36 MB/s (writes)
Acer Iconia W510 (1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760, Intel HD) 1,297 N/A 81 MB/s (reads); 28 MB/s (writes)

Though the ElitePad packs the same specs as every other Atom tablet (a 1.8GHz Z2760 processor with 2GB of RAM and a 32 or 64GB SSD), its benchmark scores trail what you'll get from competing devices. Which is strange because Atom tablets otherwise tend to yield very similar performance numbers. It falls about 100 points behind in PCMark 7, for instance, with a score of 1,297 (most Atom devices notch somewhere in the 1,400s). Its write speeds, as measured by ATTO, are slightly slower too, though its read performance is right on target (e.g., you're looking at rates of about 82 MB/s).

Perhaps the biggest gap, though, is in real-world performance. Just booting up the device takes about 30 seconds, whereas the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 takes 15. Sometimes, too, the accelerometer can be slow to recognize a change in screen orientation. In the Kindle app, we also had to wait not just for the screen flip, but also for the pages to resize themselves after we switched from landscape to portrait. In general, though, the tablet is quick to launch apps and respond to taps and swipes. We also had an easy time in apps like IE10 -- pages scale quickly and we didn't encounter any delays when we moved to scroll or zoom in. If the ElitePad is at its best in the web browser, though, we wonder how it'll support the sorts of x86 apps businesses use.

Windows 8 systems Battery life
HP ElitePad 900 7:15
ThinkPad Tablet 2 10:27
Dell Latitude 10 9:03 / 16:01 (with the dock)
Acer Iconia W510 8:19 (tablet only) / 14:17 (with the dock)
HP Envy x2 7:53 (tablet only) / 12:30 (with the dock)
ASUS VivoTab Smart 7:30
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Samsung ATIV Smart PC (AT&T) 7:04 (WiFi only) / 6:43 (LTE)
Lenovo IdeaTab Lynx 6:10/ 9:24 (with the dock)

Without the aid of that secondary battery, the ElitePad offers middling runtime. In our usual rundown test (video looping, WiFi on, fixed screen brightness), it managed seven hours and 15 minutes, on average, before crapping out. Now it's true, seven hours for a product like this isn't unheard of, but when you compare the ElitePad to the ThinkPad Tablet 2, which lasts 10 and a half hours, that showing seems a little piddly. Also, it's worth noting that Acer's business-focused Iconia W700 tablet lasts about seven hours, and that's with a heavier-duty Core i5 processor inside. If seven hours is enough, then, why not consider Acer's product, which is more powerful and rocks a 1080p screen?

Software, security features and warranty

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It'd be incorrect to say the ElitePad is a bloatware-free system, but it's close. The only non-standard apps included here are: Kindle, Box.com, Skitch, Netflix, YouCam (camera software) and HP Pagelift (for cleaning up scanned images). Barring that, most of the on-board software features (HP Client Security, HP BIOS Protection, Credential Manager, drive encryption, SpareKey password recovery) are meant for the IT guys, not the end user. On a hardware level, the tablet also has a hard drive accelerometer and TPM -- a standard feature for business tablets (the Dell Latitude 10 has this too).

The ElitePad comes with a one-year warranty for both the tablet and primary battery, though you can upgrade to a three-year plan if you want. That matches what's offered with most consumer tablets, but business products often command a longer coverage period -- say, two or three years instead of one. HP also has a history of offering longer warranties on its high-end EliteBook laptops as well as its premium consumer notebooks, so we were a little surprised to learn that wasn't the case here.

Configuration options and the competition

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The ElitePad starts at $699 with 32GB of internal storage and two free years of T-Mobile service (200MB per month, that is, with bigger data packages sold separately). There's also a 64GB version that retails for $749; that, too, comes with two years of free broadband. Similarly, you can buy the tablet with a cellular radio, but there you have to go out of your way to set up service on your own. If that sounds like less of a good deal, consider this: these tablets are compatible with both T-Mobile and AT&T in the US, as opposed to just T-Mo.

In any case, as you'll see, $699 for a 32GB tablet isn't such a hot deal once you take a look at what other companies are offering. Take Dell, for instance. The Latitude 10 is an Atom-powered slate that starts at $499 with 32GB of storage (the 64GB model costs $579). For a real apples-to-apples comparison with the ElitePad, though, you'd need to step up to the souped-up version of the Latitude 10 ($649), which adds pen input, a swappable battery, TPM and HDMI output. Finally, for an extra 100 bucks ($749), you can get all that and an AT&T mobile broadband module, too.

The ElitePad is only at its best when you splurge on the extras.

Basically, then, for the price of the entry-level ElitePad, you're getting more storage, and some of the same key features (namely, TPM and pen support). Having reviewed it, we can also assure you it yields better battery life (about two more hours on a charge, we'd say). The IPS display is nice there, too. As a tradeoff, though, the hardware isn't nearly as polished, and at 1.44 pounds, it's the heaviest of the three tablets we'll be mentioning here in this cross-shopping section.

And what kind of reviewer would I be if I left out Engadget's reigning favorite, the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2? Like the others, the TP Tablet 2 is a 10-inch device, with an IPS display and an Atom processor on the inside. TPM comes standard; pen input is an option. You can also buy it with an HSPA+ / LTE radio. It also weighs less than the ElitePad, at 1.25 pounds. (Footnote time: the pen-enabled configurations can weigh up to 1.3 pounds, depending on whether it has a 3G radio).

Now for the things you won't find on a spec sheet: the battery life is best in class. As we said, it lasts about 10.5 hours unplugged -- around three hours longer than other Atom devices we've tested. Also, the optional Bluetooth keyboard is easily the best typing experience you can expect to get on a Windows tablet. Indeed, we'd recommend the TP Tablet 2 just for that alone. The biggest drawback? Price: it costs $749 for a 64GB model with pen input. That's the same as what HP is charging, but it's $100 more than what Dell is offering.

Wrap-up

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On paper, the ElitePad 900 has almost everything we'd expect from a business tablet: pen support, security features like TPM and a dock with Ethernet and extra ports. It's offered with a wider-than-usual range of accessories, including useful goodies like a second battery and keyboard case. Not to mention, it's one of the best-looking tablets we've ever seen, and that's definitely not something we demand from enterprise tech.

In fact, our review was going swimmingly -- that is, until it came time to test the performance. Even compared to other Atom tablets, which aren't exactly powerhouses either, the ElitePad feels sluggish. Its runtime is lacking too; you could spring for that $99 spare battery, of course, but it's going to make the tablet much, much heavier than 1.38 pounds. Ditto for ports: unless you snap on one of those SmartJackets or plug the tablet into the docking station, you'll have to make do with very few I/O options. Meanwhile, there are other business tablets that either cost less (the Dell Latitude 10 comes to mind) or that deliver longer battery life (that'd be the ThinkPad Tablet 2). All that said, the ElitePad is still a solid tablet in many ways, but it's only at its best when you splurge on the extras.