The HP Elite x3 is an ambitious attempt to turn a smartphone into a desktop PC. Does it work?

I’ve been using the HP Elite x3 smartphone on and off for the last month or so. Here’s the short version of the review: the phone is a rock-solid, gorgeous design that’s fast and topped with a giant 6-inch display. The desktop part of the package isn’t an outright replacement for your laptop or desktop PC but, then again, it’s not meant to be a full-out PC.

Who and what is it meant for?

My take is it’s for hyper-mobile business types who prefer to – or must – spend most of their time on a handheld mobile device but want the latitude to have access to full-blown Windows or company applications. Of course, a typical consumer isn’t prohibited from getting the x3, but HP says that’s not who it’s designed for. (Though it is sold through the Microsoft Store, both online and physical stores.)

The phone

HP has designed a gorgeous phone with a 5.96-inch OLED display sporting an attractive matte black backside (not unlike the iPhone 7 Plus standard black model), Qualcomm’s latest 820 processor, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, and a dual SIM tray.

Other notable features are a rear 16 megapixel camera and 8 megapixel front camera. And you can unlock the x3 with an integrated iris scanner and fingerprint reader.

While I haven’t used it as standalone phone extensively, I was able to activate it at an AT&T store and it provides a strong LTE signal with performance no worse or better than my Verizon iPhone 7 Plus.

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The 16MP camera is okay, but it falls short of the iPhone 7’s camera. Battery life, however, is nothing short of amazing. HP rates web-based battery life at 14 hours. I’ve gotten through two days of fairly constant use without recharging.

But the most remarkable thing about the x3 isn’t the phone itself but what it can do when plugged into the dock.

Wait, it’s a handheld laptop, er, desktop PC?

I’ve spent almost all of my time with x3 plugged into the dock and hooked up to my external Dell display and an HP wireless keyboard and mouse. I’ve never used a smartphone as desktop PC but, yes, it does work. The x3’s Qualcomm 820 processor running Windows 10 Mobile is fast but, needless to say, not as fast as a conventional 2016 Windows laptop running desktop Windows 10. And the x3 doesn’t multitask like a PC running Windows 10.

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You can run a stripped-down version of Microsoft Office that comes with Windows 10 Mobile. But it's important to note that Microsoft has, in effect, stopped promoting Windows 10 Mobile as a consumer platform. So, there are relatively few popular third-party apps (and there were never many to begin with).

But beyond the Windows 10 Mobile desktop, HP provides a second option called HP Workspace. HP says it gives “employees immediate access to your company's curated application catalog,”-- in other words, you can access your company’s apps as you would on a standard Windows laptop. For me, it provides access to full-blown Office 365 (Word, Excel et al) and popular applications like the Google Chrome browser, which is not available on Windows 10 Mobile.

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HP Workspace is a powerful addition and, I’m guessing, would be a key reason for a business – large or small – to consider the x3. The downside is that HP Workspace is occasionally unresponsive. That said, it’s not really designed, in my opinion, as a full-time environment but as a quick way to access full desktop and/or company apps for, let’s say an hour or two, then log off. In that respect, it succeeds.

The x3 with dock (which has both a traditional USB and new USB-C port and a DisplayPort connector) sells for $999 at the Microsoft Store, while HP lists the phone itself as $799 on its website as of mid-November. HP is also slated to bring out an Ultrabook laptop shell that works with the x3 as a dock (it looks like a thin-and-light laptop with a keyboard and display but only houses a battery). When I spoke to HP several weeks ago, they told me that they were still trying to fix some bugs with the laptop dock. HP Workspace starts at $49 per month for 40 hours of access.