HP SlateBook x2 review: HP takes on ASUS with a dockable Android tablet

Until now, ASUS hasn't had much competition in dockable Android tablets. Sure, we've seen the odd model from Lenovo and other companies, but for the most part, "Transformer" has become one of those words like "Kleenex" -- you know, the kind that refers just as much to a category as a specific brand. Nonetheless, HP is throwing its hat in the ring. The SlateBook x2, only the company's second Android tablet, is a 10-inch slate that competes on price as much as performance. For $480, the keyboard dock comes included, and the tablet itself boasts some top-notch specs, including a 1,920 x 1,080 screen and a Tegra 4 processor. And, of course, in addition to being a keyboard, that dock has a built-in battery of its own, promising to extend the total runtime to up to 12.5 hours. So is it good enough that you'll remember not to call it a Transformer?

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HP SlateBook x2 review

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HP

SlateBook x2

Pros

  • Fast, stable performance
  • Tablet is lightweight
  • Comfortable typing experience
  • Price includes the keyboard dock

Cons

  • Awkwardly placed buttons
  • Mediocre battery life
  • Finicky touchpad
  • Dim screen
Summary

This dockable Android tablet offers a comfortable keyboard dock and fast performance for a reasonable price. Just beware of the trade-offs before taking the plunge.

Hardware

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With a matte plastic lid, done up in a serious gray color, it would be easy to dismiss the SlateBook x2 as bland. In fact, the SlateBook is memorable, mostly because it's one of the lightest tablets we've ever handled. At 1.34 pounds for the slate alone, it's lighter than both the current iPad (1.44 pounds), as well as the Toshiba Excite Pro, which weighs a similar 1.39. As you'd expect, then, that makes it easy to hold aloft for an extended period of time, not that you'll need to if you make use of that keyboard dock. Even with the base attached, the whole thing weighs in at 2.8 pounds, making it slightly lighter than a similarly sized laptop, even HP's own Pavilion TouchSmart 11. What's nice, too, is that the center of gravity here is in the heavier dock piece, so not only is the tablet light, but it also never tips over backward when you're working with it in your lap.

That one winning quality aside, though, this is a design with problems. For starters, while the plastic finish does a good job resisting scratches, it manages to show a good deal of fingerprints, despite the fact that it doesn't have a glossy surface. Ditto for the shiny metal logo on the rear cover, which is also ripe for grease stains. We're sure it was meant as a premium touch (metal accents usually are), but more than anything it just looks out of place.

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Worse, HP hid the most important buttons! Both the power button and volume rocker are located on the back side of the device, each flush with the lid so that even if you know what general area they're in, they can still be difficult to find by feel. Even after weeks with the tablet, I was more likely to flip the tablet over and press the power / lock button than successfully hit it with my finger. Which gets pretty old after you've accidentally let the tablet go to sleep for the umpteenth time.

Since HP designed the SlateBook so that there are barely any defined edges -- just gently sloping curves -- the company's design team had to put all the ports on the bottom side, the one that fits into the keyboard dock. There, you'll find a headphone jack, a proprietary charging port and an exposed microSD slot to augment the 16GB of built-in storage. Of course, you've also got a pair of cameras, including a 720p front-facing webcam and a fairly wimpy 2-megapixel rear shooter (no LED flash). That about covers the tablet itself, but because this is meant to be used in laptop mode some of the time, you'll also find a handful of ports on the accompanying keyboard dock. These include a USB socket, additional headphone jack, HDMI-out, a full-sized SD card reader and another charging port -- the same kind of proprietary socket featured on the tablet itself.

Keyboard dock

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Maybe it's because we've tested one too many Transformer tablets, but we were sure the SlateBook's keyboard dock was going to be cramped, flimsy and a pain to type on. It seems, though, that our fears were unfounded. After many years of cramming nearly full-sized keyboards into tiny laptops (see: the Pavilion dm1z), HP is bringing that same formula over to its new Android tablet. Though the keys here don't necessarily offer more travel than what you'll get on an ASUS Transformer, the underlying panel is sturdier, allowing it to stand up to more insistent typing. Also, considering this isn't quite a full-sized layout, the buttons are well-spaced and generously sized. In fact, yours truly rarely made typos while responding to emails, browsing Chrome or even writing this review.

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Pairing a trackpad with an Android tablet is a funny thing. On the one hand, Android wasn't designed to be used with a mouse and keyboard. On the other, once you've gotten used to typing on a keyboard dock, it can feel cumbersome to lift your hand away from the keys to scroll through a webpage or hit the little refresh icon. Basically, if you've already settled into a typing groove, it's only natural to want to throw in a two-finger scroll. As it happens, the trackpad here is responsive enough that you could page up and down without having to take your hands far from the keyboard. It's a finicky setup, though, and more than once, we gave up and swiped the touchscreen instead. On the plus side, the touchpad's surface area is larger than we would have asked for, and the Android hotkeys (home, back, search, volume controls, et cetera) should be indispensable to anyone already used to keyboard shortcuts on their regular laptop.

Display and sound

HP SlateBook x2 review: HP takes on ASUS with its first dockable Android tablet

We'd be lying if we said full HD resolution was a standard feature for tablets, but at least with the expensive models, you're more or less in the clear. For the money, the SlateBook x2 offers a 10.1-inch 1,920 x 1,080 display. Despite having an IPS panel, the viewing angles are a bit narrow, though we suspect that has more to do with a low brightness rating than a failure of the IPS technology. To be fair, too, we only first noticed the limited viewing angles when we played a movie with the tablet lying face-up on a table. And honestly, that's mainly a scenario for us reviewers (we do have to test the battery life without the dock, after all). Because this thing comes with a keyboard, we can't imagine why you'd want to watch a movie with the tablet lying flat -- not unless you forgot the dock at home, anyway. Once you've put the tablet in the dock, you can adjust the screen angle, so chances are good you'll find a sweet spot where the colors are bright and the contrast is balanced. (Psst: Head-on is a safe bet.)

To its credit, HP put the two speakers on the tablet's front face, so that the sound is always firing toward you. Still, even ideal speaker placement doesn't do much to improve the audio quality. For one thing, the volume here is pretty low. So low, in fact, that we wondered at first if perhaps the quality itself would be decent (oftentimes, devices with weaker sound exhibit less distortion and tinniness). Here, though, the sound is both low and tinny -- basically, the worst of both worlds. What's interesting, too, is that HP went with DTS Sound+ on this one, as opposed to Beats, with which it has a very strong and, uh, colorful partnership. As much as we mock HP's red-and-black Beats-branded PCs, that may have been a welcome feature here.

Software

DNP HP SlateBook x2 review HP takes on ASUS with its first dockable Android tablet

HP only recently re-entered the tablet market, and while it hasn't always gotten the hardware right, it's done the smart thing in sticking with unskinned Android (version 4.2.2, in this case). Even the list of pre-installed apps is fairly light. On board, we have: Box, Evernote, Kingsoft Office, Skitch, Splashtop and TegraZone, for finding Tegra-optimized games.

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HP SlateBook x2 screenshots

Really, most of the non-stock apps here are from HP itself, including Printer Control, ePrint, HP File Manager, HP Media Player and HP Camera, which we'll return to in just a moment. In the meantime, the media player allows for playback of music, photos and videos, with an option to stream content to a Miracast-certified display. You can also capture photos or video from within the Media Player app, in the event watching someone else's work inspires you to make something of your own. (OK, maybe that's a stretch.) At any rate, you'll find shortcuts on the home screen for HP's camera, media player and file manager, but you can remove all of them with a long-press, the same way you'd get rid of any other shortcut.

Like most other consumer electronics, the SlateBook x2 comes with a one-year warranty, including 24/7 phone support.

Performance and battery life

HP SlateBook x2 Toshiba Excite Write Sony Xperia Tablet Z
Quadrant (v2) 13,660 12,272 7,434
Vellamo (v2.0 HTML5) 3,237 2,362

2,242

AnTuTu 26,874 26,696

20,263

SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 654 851

1,382

CF-Bench 32,725 28,330 17,790
SunSpider: lower scores are better

The SlateBook x2 is only the second tablet we've tested with a Tegra 4 processor inside, but we're already well convinced of the chip's immense performance potential. As you can see in the table above, Tegra 4 helps both the x2 and the Toshiba Excite Write sail past the Xperia Tablet Z (and its quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro chipset) in benchmark tests. But the SlateBook beats the Write in every test (sometimes by a big margin), despite the fact that they have the same Tegra 4 chip and 2GB of RAM.

We're still not sure that means the SlateBook is exceptional for a Tegra 4 tablet -- we already had some misgivings about the Write's uneven performance -- but in a way, it doesn't matter: the x2 is fast and reliable. Transitions are smooth and apps are quick to open. We also had no problem juggling between Gmail, several open tabs in Chrome and other miscellaneous apps, including Facebook, Twitter and a third-party media player.

As for gaming, it was smooth sailing in Fractal Combat, where we were able to fly our plane upside down and then flip it over again, all without any stuttering. If there's one downside to the performance, it's that the rear casing on the tablet can get warm (not hot, but warm) without much provocation. That'll be a moot point if you're using it in laptop mode, though you might notice your fingers getting a bit toasty if you're cradling the device in your hands. Again, though, it never gets pants-scorchingly hot, so you shouldn't have to adjust your usage habits much, if at all.

Tablet Battery Life
HP SlateBook x2 6:34 (tablet only) / 8:49 (keyboard dock)
Apple iPad mini 12:43 (WiFi)
Apple iPad (late 2012) 11:08 (WiFi)
Apple iPad 2 10:26
ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime 10:17
Apple iPad (2012) 9:52 (HSPA) / 9:37 (LTE)
Nexus 7 (2012) 9:49
Microsoft Surface for Windows RT 9:36
Apple iPad 9:33
ASUS Transformer Prime Infinity TF700 9:25
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 8:56
Sony Xperia Tablet Z 8:40
Hisense Sero 7 Pro 8:28
Toshiba Excite Write 8:13
Lenovo IdeaTab S2110 8:07
Galaxy Tab 2 7.0 7:38
HP Slate 7 7:36
Nexus 10 7:26
Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0 7:18
Nexus 7 (2013) 7:15
RIM BlackBerry PlayBook 7:01
Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1
6:55

HP claims that with the dock attached, the tablet can last up to 12.5 hours. That's a best-case scenario, of course -- one we weren't able to replicate. In our admittedly taxing rundown test, which involves looping a video off local storage with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 50 percent, the tablet itself lasted just six hours and 34 minutes -- that's almost five hours less than the current iPad, and three hours less than ASUS' Transformer Pad Infinity. Even the Nexus 10, which we faulted for so-so battery life, lasted about an hour longer in the same test.

Unfortunately, considering how heavy the dock is (1.46 pounds), it doesn't boost battery life nearly the way we expected it to. With the dock attached, we got an extra two hours and 15 minutes of runtime, bringing the total to eight hours and 49 minutes. All told, that's a respectable showing for a 10-inch tablet, but remember, there are models like the iPad and Transformer Pad Infinity that can deliver equal or better results without the aid of a dock.

On the plus side, we do appreciate the optional battery life widget HP included, which shows you the remaining juice for both the tablet and the base. Not exactly a consolation for such subpar runtime, but at least you get a sense of how quickly you're losing steam.

The competition

Like we said, ASUS doesn't have all that much competition in the dockable Android tablet category. The Lenovo IdeaTab S2110 we reviewed a year ago has been discontinued, and nothing similar has taken its place. Acer has some dockable tablets, but they all run Windows 8; the closest thing we can recommend is the forthcoming Iconia A3, and even that's not a fair match, as it's a lower-price product with inferior specs (1,280 x 800 screen, et cetera).

The most direct competitor, perhaps (aside from anything made by ASUS), is the Toshiba Excite Pro, a 10-inch tablet with a sharper 2,560 x 1,600, 300-ppi screen and the same Tegra 4 chip used in the SlateBook x2. At $500, it's priced similarly, and it comes with 32GB of internal storage, not 16 (either way, you get a microSD slot). The obvious trade-off, so far as we can tell, is that the keyboard is sold separately for $42, and even then, it's not a proper keyboard dock, but a wireless keyboard. At any rate, we haven't tested it, so unfortunately we can't vouch for its performance or battery life. But, we did review the Excite Write (the same tablet, just with a pen digitizer) and we encountered some performance glitches. Hopefully, though, that's the sort of thing Toshiba can address with a firmware update across the entire Excite line.

If you do insist on waiting for ASUS to refresh the current offerings, it's already announced the new Transformer Pad Infinity, which also has a Tegra 4 chip and 2,560 x 1,600 screen. It's also capable of 4K output, according to ASUS, though that's mostly a gimmick at this point, if we're being honest. Excited? So are we, but the company hasn't actually announced US pricing or availability yet, so we can't even say for sure how long you might be waiting for this. (Not longer than the incoming holiday season, we hope.)

Rounding out the list are a couple top-shelf tablets you've probably heard of, though neither was designed to be used with a keyboard dock (not a first-party one, anyway). These include the Sony Xperia Tablet Z, a thin, waterproof tablet that starts at $500. Then, of course, there's the iPad ($499 and up), not that that's a helpful recommendation for anyone already sold on Android.

Wrap-up

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This probably goes without saying, but the HP SlateBook x2 is only a smart buy if you intend to make good use out of the keyboard. It's important to remember that the dock isn't a fun extra here: it comes in the box, and it defines the way you're supposed to use the product. If you do expect to spend lots of time on email and note-taking, this is the most comfortable keyboard dock on any Android tablet, and it helps improve the battery life too.

As a standalone tablet, though, the x2 offers skimpy battery life and awkwardly placed volume and power buttons that can be hard to find by feel -- even if you've been using it for a while. The best thing we can say about the tablet itself is that its Tegra 4 chip yields fast, stable performance. Even then, Tegra 4 will probably power lots of devices released in the coming months, so it's not like HP can really claim credit for that. Basically, then, if the keyboard is just an accessory for you, you'd be better off spending $500 or so on a tablet with longer battery life and a more stunning screen. It's not like you've got any shortage of options.