HP's Elite X3 gets closer to the dream of a Windows Phone as a PC

It builds on Windows 10's Continuum feature, but it still has plenty of problems.

Everything about HP's Elite X3 seems like a gamble. It's the company's first phone in two years, and it's the first major Windows Phone device since Microsoft's Lumia 950 debuted last year. HP is betting big that premium hardware and the ability to use the phone as both a pseudo desktop and laptop will actually be a boon for enterprise customers. Naturally, too, HP is hoping to tempt businesses away from BlackBerry. But while it's nice to see the company swing for the fences (as it did with its gorgeous Spectre 13 ultraportable), it's not enough in this case to make the $699 Elite X3 a useful device.

Let's make this clear up front: The Elite X3 isn't a phone meant for consumers. It's the sort of thing HP wants businesses to buy in bulk. The company is pushing it as three devices in one: an enterprise-grade smartphone, a desktop replacement (with the $799 Desk Dock bundle) and an ultraportable laptop (with the $1,299 Lap Dock bundle, which also includes the Deck Dock). Those two accessories are powered by Microsoft's Continuum feature, which transforms the mobile OS into something closer to desktop Windows.

On paper, it all sounds like an IT manager's dream, since it would mean they'd only have to manage a single device for every employee. But speaking as a former IT worker, it's clear that HP still has a long way to go before a phone can truly replace dedicated laptops and desktops.

At the very least, the Elite X3 is a sign that HP can build a decent-looking phone. It's a large device, with a 5.96-inch WQHD (2,560 x 1,400) AMOLED display. But it actually feels good to hold, with curved rear edges wrapped in smooth plastic. Aside from the gaudy chrome strip along the bottom of its case (which houses stereo Bang & Olufsen speakers), the Elite X3 seems like a natural evolution of HP's designs from the Pre 3 era. Along the back, there's a fingerprint sensor below the 16-megapixel camera. Up front, an 8MP shooter sits beside an iris camera that serves as a second biometric authentication method.

HP didn't skimp when it came to internal hardware either. The Elite X3 is powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon 820 chip, just like most of this year's flagship phones. The device also packs in 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, which is expandable with microSD cards as large as 2TB. The phone is also available in single- and dual-SIM models, making it especially useful for international travel. At 192 grams (6.7 ounces), the X3 definitely makes its presence known in your pocket. But at least the weight distribution is such that it doesn't feel heavy while you're holding it.

As a mobile device, the Elite X3 is, well ... a Windows phone. The platform feels pretty much unchanged from last year, even with the few tweaks from August's Anniversary Update. That's not a huge surprise: Microsoft's Lumia 950 and 950 XL were failures, and the company has been silent about its mobile plans this year. The Windows app store is slowly getting better, but Windows 10 Mobile still has all the same limitations it did last year. The X3's camera is also surprisingly slow. It stutters before autofocusing (HP says a software fix is coming), and there's a noticeable delay when you're shooting photos.

So, you might ask, why even build a Windows phone today? It turns out HP has a secret trick up its sleeve called Workspace. It's a virtualized environment that lets you run full Windows apps when using the X3 in Continuum mode with its docks. That's useful, because Microsoft's much-touted Continuum feature is still as limited as ever, in that it works only with Universal Windows apps, and there still aren't nearly enough of those around.

You'll have to pay dearly for the privilege of using Workspace, though. Pricing starts at $49 a month per user, and you'll be limited to 4GB of RAM, 10 apps at most and 40 hours of usage. Bumping up to the Premium tier, which starts at $79 a month per user, gets you 8GB of RAM, unlimited apps and 80 hours of usage. While HP is pushing the X3 as a truly no-compromise, do-everything device, I can't imagine many people (or their IT departments) will be keen on having their software usage clocked.

I was able to test the Elite X3 only with its Desk Dock, not the sleek Lap Dock (that's coming later this week, on October 21st). The beefy Desk Dock includes two USB 3.0 ports, one USB-C connection, a full-size DisplayPort slot and, surprisingly enough, an Ethernet jack. It has a metallic chrome finish, as well as a rubbery material along its base to keep it in place on your desk. One strange thing: Though this is a device that's solely meant to connect to an external monitor, HP didn't include any DisplayPort cables or adapters in the box.

With all the necessary cables connected, I simply placed the X3 on the Desk Dock and it woke up my monitor and displayed a Windows login screen. At first, I was astounded at how closely the interface resembled full-fledged Windows, but it wasn't long before I noticed the limitations. The Start menu simply shows you the list of Universal Windows apps you have installed. You also can't resize and tile apps as you would on the desktop, which makes it merely a nicer way to use one mobile app at a time.

After a few minutes of testing, the Desk Dock stopped recognizing my Microsoft Sculpt wireless keyboard, even though the accompanying mouse continued to work fine. Eventually, I just plugged in an old Logitech keyboard I had lying around (which severely hampered my typing speed). You'd think even Microsoft's own hardware would work properly in Continuum mode.

While testing Microsoft-built apps like Edge and Outlook, I also noticed some slowdown, which was surprising, given the X3's Snapdragon 820 CPU. Opening and closing tabs in Edge often took several seconds, and that's not counting the surprisingly long time pages actually took to load. On its own, it's clear that Continuum is far from what Microsoft originally promised, so it's no wonder HP decided to add its own productivity solution on top of it.

HP's Workspace environment is pretty barebones at this point. Once you sign in, you can launch apps like Notepad (yay?), Google Chrome, the Office 2013 suite, Slack and Acrobat Reader. There's even Internet Explorer 11 support, which could be useful for companies stuck with legacy web apps (this is how you really know HP wants those enterprise dollars).

If you've used any virtualized app before, you'll notice the same sort of slowdown when using Workspace. It's fast enough to actually get work done, but there's a noticeable delay when doing something as simple as typing. I was able to edit Word and PowerPoint documents with ease, and hop into Slack conversations with my colleagues, but I never got used to the slow typing speeds. That may not sound like a huge issue, but it could easily hinder the workflow of fast touch-typists. And take note: These were the speeds I saw when only a few reviewers and HP employees were using Workspace. It could easily get worse once more people hop on.

For all of its faults, Workspace is a decent solution to the endemic compatibility issues with Windows 10's Continuum feature. It did feel a bit weird, though, to see a countdown timer ticking off how much longer I could actually use the virtualized environment. Instead of freeing me from the shackles of juggling many devices, it felt more like being a hopeless corporate drone in Terry Gilliam's Brazil.

I'll admit, my testing of the Elite X3 doesn't cover the multitude of ways businesses could actually integrate it. But based on my own experience choosing, deploying and supporting a wide variety of IT equipment, this device seems to introduce more problems than it solves. An aging desktop computer would be far more useful to most office workers than the X3's Desk Dock. And while the Lap Dock sounds good in theory, it'll likely suffer from similar performance issues (I'll be testing that soon). With ultraportables getting cheaper every year, it'll be even harder for IT departments to swallow the $500 cost for a compromised accessory.

The Elite X3 is basically pure potential. It's the best stab I've seen yet at making Microsoft's Continuum feature genuinely useful. And it could be a compelling mobile option as businesses look beyond BlackBerry. But right now, it's hampered by Microsoft's disinterestedness in mobile and the inherent limitations of virtualized software.