Posted on March 20, 2018 by Paul Thurrott
The HP Envy x2 is at the nexus of three major initiatives that will shape the future of Windows and the PC: Windows 10 S, soon to be recast as S mode, Microsoft’s Always Connected PC initiative, and Windows 10 on ARM, which brings the platform to mobile-focused Qualcomm chipsets. As such, the product is inherently interesting.
And boy, do I have questions.
Some of those questions can be answered in the short term, though of course things will evolve over time.
For example, what is the real-world battery life and “uptime,” what I think of as battery life plus standby time? What is the real-world performance of x86 desktop applications? (With the understanding that this will require switching to Windows 10 Pro.) And how seamlessly does Windows 10 handle the transition between Wi-Fi connectivity and cellular data?
Other, broader questions require context in the form of long-time experience. Do Microsoft’s interweaving strategies make sense for the platform and for the customers who will use these devices? Is there really a sizable market of users who will not deal with but will actually prefer Windows 10 in S mode? And how many of these people will further prefer the benefits of this system running on even more mobile ARM-based PCs?
For now, of course, I will focus on what’s in front of me. And over time, I will develop a better understanding. Not just of how this device works on this Snapdragon processor generation. But of how or whether this all makes sense at all. Of whether there is a future here.
There are measurements to be made. And some are fair, some are not.
For example, I routinely perform a streaming HD video test over Wi-Fi on the PCs that I review, and I believe that such a test is fair: The Movies & TV app that I use for this test runs natively on ARM, and will provide an apples-to-apples battery life comparison with other Windows 10 PCs. (That said, the other half of this equation is standby time. And that will require real-world experience over time.)
However, running performance benchmarks on this device is not fair at all: Those benchmarks are x86 desktop applications and will be emulated on the HP Envy x2, so their results are rendered moot. But it’s not just about emulation. Remember: Qualcomm’s ARM processors use a mobile-optimized design that includes both large (performance) and small (efficiency) cores. When you just run the PC continuously, as happens in a benchmark, it cannot take advantage of its own processor design. Benchmarks are always artificial, but this is even more so on ARM-based PCs.
On that note, you should not trust any website that seeks to demonstrate the real-world performance of a Snapdragon-based PC using such benchmarks. Here, I will instead do what I always do. I will actually use the PC, see how well it really works, and then report back to you what I’ve found.
To do that, of course, I will need to switch it over to Windows 10 Pro. That will compromise the experience that Microsoft—and, presumably HP—wishes for their customers. So I will need to test this device with both Windows 10 S and Windows 10 Pro for my final review. My rough plan is to perform the artificial battery life test first—I usually do this last—in Windows 10 S, and then switch it to Pro. Then, I can test Windows desktop application performance and repeat the battery life test to see whether there is any difference. (My biased expectation is that there will be no meaningful difference.) And then I’ll switch it back to Windows 10 S for some weeks-long testing.
Somehow, during all this, I will also need to test how well Windows 10 handles the transition between Wi-Fi and cellular data networks. And yes, I expect this to be identical between Windows 10 S and Pro.
To date, my experience with this type of thing has been mixed: Windows has long featured integrated support for cellular data, and it’s unclear whether the Always Connected PC initiative is just a public brand or whether it manifests in real-world improvements in the product. (My biased expectation: It will work like it always worked, with repeated “metered networking” warnings and lots of manual switching of networks.)
Sometime during the review process, Microsoft will ship the Spring Creators Update, which will upgrade Windows 10 to version 1803. Given the timing of this product’s release schedule, it obviously ships with Windows 10 version 1709. And given its life cycle, I think it’s fair to not conclude the review until it receives the upgrade: Everyone who buys this product will soon or immediately be upgrading anyway. So I will try and let that happen naturally. And I hope to make this upgrade while the device is running Windows 10 S. We’ll see how that bit goes.
Later today, I’ll provide a first impressions article that describes the device itself. Based on my initial hands-on experience with the Envy x2 from December, I can say that it is, by far, the nicest of the first three Qualcomm-based PCs to come to market. Even in the broader field of Always Connected PCs—remember, there will be many more Intel variants as well—the HP Envy x2 stands out from a design perspective. This is a premium PC with an attractive 2-in-1 design.
I’m really looking forward to this one, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Sure, I don’t personally gravitate to 2-in-1 PCs, and I do prefer larger displays. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the future, of Windows, and of the entire PC platform. This is about Microsoft finding a foothold in a world that has gone mad with mobile devices and cloud services. And doing so in a mainstream way, and not just with niche sub-categories of expensive PCs. For the Envy x2 to succeed, in particular in Qualcomm form, it has to address real needs, and it has to do so for a large audience.
It’s all very exciting. And not knowing the outcome, not knowing how this will play out over time, is part of the thrill.