My HP Envy x2 Review

This holiday season I had the chance to try the HP Envy x2 Always-Connected PC (ACPC) running Windows on ARM. My main goal was to get Chronotron running smoothly on it; however, I thought I may as well share in this blog what I learned about the device.

You will find on the Internet some reviews of the HP Envy x2. The general consensus from a user’s perspective is that it’s a well-built device, albeit somewhat underpowered for the price. Read on if you want to know my opinion from an app developer’s standpoint.

Hardware

The version I got has 8Gb of RAM and 256GB of storage. The CPU is a Snapdragon 835 – yes, the same found in many smartphones – featuring 8 cores and a base clock frequency of 2.21GHz.

The screen is gorgeous, sporting a resolution of 1920 x 1280 and support for pen input (which, by the way, is included in the box) and up to 10 touch points. At its maximum brightness, it gets brighter than a Samsung Galaxy Tab, but with a less blueish tone. Contrast is also pretty good, judging by a couple of dark videos I played on it.

The detachable keyboard (also included in the box) makes typing comfortable and provides access to all the symbols developers need without having to resort to obscure key combinations, if you see what I mean. And talking about obscurity, the keyboard is backlit.

There’s also a decently-sized trackpad at the bottom of the keyboard. It has the two buttons embedded in the trackpad itself for the sake of saving space, but they do the trick.

When it comes to sound, the integrated speakers do emit a bit of distortion when pumped up above moderate levels, but that’s not unexpected from the device form factor. Plug in a pair of good headphones into the 3.5mm jack, though, and you’ll get great sound.

All in all, build quality is excellent. The Envy x2 does feel like a premium device, not having anything to envy – pun intended – to the Microsoft’s Surface line.

Software

The Envy x2 ships with Windows 10 S, which is a flavor of Windows 10 limited to Microsoft Store apps, so you can’t download and install software from anywhere else. However, you can convert Windows S to Windows Pro for free, which I had to do anyway in order to run the debugger on it.

Windows 10 on ARM is just Windows 10. This by itself is a technical prowess, but the Microsoft engineers didn’t stop there: they also developed an emulator that allows you to run x86 applications.

Emulation of x86 programs, though usable, is clunky. We should think of it as a workaround while waiting for ARM or ARM64 versions of popular apps to become available. And this is where the trouble begins: a lot of things on the Envy x2 run emulated.

Some OS components, like PowerShell and other bits that rely on the .Net framework, run emulated. I mentioned that a pen is included in the box, so one of the first things I tried was to get a decent inking application. To my surprise, Fresh Paint, Whiteboard and Plumbago – all from Microsoft – ran emulated. Don’t get me wrong: performance is OK, but it could be much, much better.

The situation described above is probably why other reviewers qualify the current Windows on ARM devices as “sluggish” and “netbook-class”, even though the Envy x2 hardware is actually pretty fast.

For example, I can play HD video in Chronotron at the highest quality setting, alter tempo, equalize, do note detection and video adjustments, and playback is still butter smooth, just like you would expect on any recent laptop. By comparison, an Atom-based netbook won’t get anywhere close to this performance level – even though the x86 build of Chronotron relies on Intel-tuned libraries, which gives x86 an inherent advantage.

It is therefore clear to me that, when it comes to number crunching, the Envy x2 is on par with mid-range Intel hardware. However, it is also clear that the chicken and egg problem is at play here: there are few native ARM64 apps because of low market share, and market share is low because performance won’t be there until enough apps are reworked.

So, what about the development tools?

Developer Experience

As great as Microsoft Visual Studio is – and Visual Studio is great –, I have to say that my experience developing for on Windows on ARM so far has been messy.

Many things don’t work smoothly so I find myself looking under the hood more often than not. In just a few hours of use I reported three issues to Microsoft, one of which is severe enough to cripple my app.

To add insult to injury, the UWP package version that supports compiling .Net apps to ARM64 was pulled down recently after a couple of blocking bugs were found. For this reason, as of this writing developers can no longer submit .Net apps targeting ARM64 to the Store.

The good news is that the Windows on ARM team at Microsoft are reachable, responsive and helpful. I can tell you they’re highly committed and are working hard to close all gaps. I presume that – on top of all that effort – they must be facing some challenges with development tools as well, so my kudos to them.

My message to Microsoft as an app developer is that – now that I saw it could work – Windows on ARM won one more supporter. Don’t let me down!

Wrap Up

I concur with other reviewers that the HP Envy x2 is a well-built device. For €799 – the price of a smartphone – I think it’s a good deal taking into account that the keyboard and pen are included.

Windows on ARM has a lot of potential, even though it’s still unquestionably work in progress.

Now, when it comes to value for money, I’d say it all depends on whether or not the software gap gets addressed quickly enough, before the hardware becomes obsolete. If it does, then the Envy x2 is definitely worth its price. Otherwise, I can understand that the value proposition will be harder to justify for some.

And by the way, I confirm that battery life – the main selling point of this device – is excellent unless, like me, you’re doing a lot of remote debugging. But anyway, that’s like driving a Prius on a race track.

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