By Michael Fisher | September 3, 2012 6:59 AM
Covering tech is a tricky business. Particularly when you have to repress residual fanboy tendencies in order to do your job.
Allow me to explain. We’ve been in Berlin for a few days covering IFA, the annual consumer-electronics trade show where major brands make announcements and the media gets hands-on time with new products. This year’s show hasn’t been overwhelming, but it’s given us the much-anticipated Samsung Galaxy Note II, a new array of Sony Xperia products, and a bevy of Windows 8 tablets. Among those, Samsung, Acer, and Sony all brought out some Start-screen-packing hardware, but speaking personally, none of it really bolstered my excitement for the platform. There was always something lacking with these products, either on the spec sheet or in the hardware.
To be quite honest, Hewlett Packard -better known as HP- wasn’t even on my radar when I showed up for IFA. The company has stayed largely silent on the mobile front since killing webOS, the platform it purchased along with Palm back in 2010. HP has tried to mitigate the accompanying perception of irrelevance -and perhaps smooth over some roughness in its relationship with Microsoft- by assuring everyone that it will be delivering Windows 8-based products in the future. But the vagaries of the announcements, combined with the company’s fickle nature as demonstrated by the webOS debacle, have made me wary of any declarations by HP of their devotion to any platform.
It’s this “residual-fanboy tendency,” the inclination to ignore or dismiss the company that killed off my favorite OS, which I’ve strived to avoid. So when I saw HP manning a table at an industry-insiders party at IFA one night in Berlin, I overrode the impulse to pass it by. Instead, I stopped by to see what the company was up to.
Boy, am I glad I did.
At first, I wasn’t impressed. HP was showcasing several of its new Ultrabooks and a handful of other devices which didn’t really hold my interest; the table’s offerings seemed very computer-centric, and I’d seen enough Windows 8 notebooks already. I was about to turn away when the above device caught my eye. It looked small for a laptop, closely resembling an 11-inch Macbook Air, but running the distinctive Windows 8 start screen. That wasn’t what stopped me, though; I strongly suspected there was something special about the sharp-looking minibook, and after a short hardware tour by the friendly HP folks behind the table, that suspicion was confirmed. An HP representative named David, soon to become my favorite person of the evening, pressed his thumb down on the Envy x2′s hinge-mounted latch, and the device’s screen magically separated from its keyboard base to become a self-contained tablet.
That in itself is nothing terribly special, of course. The Windows 8 world is already flooded with these hybrid products, these tablet-notebook “convertibles.” What I found unique about the Envy x2 was just how incredibly well-engineered it was.
The Envy x2′s hardware is made almost entirely of aluminum, the wedge-shaped device weighing in at about 3.1 lbs and measuring 19mm thick at its thickest in its docked configuration. When closed, it evidences no creaking or wobble, no indication that it’s anything but a fully-integrated notebook computer. In fact, it feels more robust than most notebooks due to its all-metal body. The array of ports along the sides, which includes two full-size USB connections, reinforces this impression. Opening the unit reveals an 11.6″, 400-nit IPS panel with impressive viewing angles, below which sits a chiclet keyboard that at first glance is nearly indistinguishable from that of the Macbook Air. The accompanying trackpad blends visually well with the rest of the hardware, sporting a very slight moiré pattern, and supports the full range of Windows 8 gestures to combat the “gorilla-arm” effect of touchscreen computers.
When separated from the keyboard dock the Envy x2′s tablet half is even more elegant and streamlined. The 1.5lb casing is tapered toward the edges and measures about 8.5mm thick, its smooth aluminum unmarred by fan vents or any such utilitarian concessions. The only interruptions in the casing are ports for the 8MP primary and 2MP front-facing cameras, and a few peripheral connections. Only a subdued set of recesses on the tablet’s bottom betray its hybrid-convertible nature.
Underneath it all is a processor based on Intel’s new Clover Trail platform backed up by 2GB of RAM, and powered by batteries both in the tablet and in the dock; when unplugged, the system will drain the keyboard’s battery before it touches the tablet’s reserves, so a freshly-undocked tablet should usually start off with 100% charge – a nice touch.
Even though I only had an HTC One X with me for filming, and we had to duck into a side-lobby to escape the party noise, I decided this was too good a product to pass up the chance for a hands-on. That’s when HP’s David came to the rescue, agreeing to give me a quick guided tour of the Envy x2. We posted this video a few days ago, but here it is again for your viewing pleasure:
What you can’t see in the video is how wonderful the product feels in the hand. As I briefly mention during the hands-on, it registers a bit like the Samsung Ativ tablets in terms of shape and general size, but the build quality of the Envy x2 seems an order of magnitude better. A combination of the aluminum casing with a finely-honed, tapered design gives it the best in-hand feel of any Windows 8 tablet I’ve handled … and among the best of any tablet, period. That persists when the unit is docked to the keyboard, a process helped along by magnets and a solid latching mechanism.
Frankly, I wasn’t expecting a product from HP with this level of sophistication. Its last big foray into the tablet space didn’t just fail because the company fumbled the webOS software; the TouchPad’s hardware was at best unremarkable. By contrast, my limited time with the Envy x2 has convinced me of its potential not just to succeed, but to define a category. The world of the hybrid/convertible tablet-notebook is the newest frontier in mobile hardware. Many contenders have already started throwing their weight around in the quest to conquer it early, but nothing I’ve seen at IFA or elsewhere excites me like the Envy x2. There’s always some catch, some downfall, some “if only” qualifier that dooms a nascent device.
No doubt the Envy x2 will feature at least one of those. No product is perfect, after all, and even those which skirt the edges of perceived “perfection” often feature a decidedly imperfect price. (No word on that yet, by the way.) But what I’ve taken away from my brief encounter with the Envy x2 is a sense of hope for HP. If it’s priced right, and if Windows 8 as a whole takes off, the device stands a solid chance of serving as the gateway to the tablet market the company has been so desperate to break into. If the stars really align, it might even propel HP into favored, premium-partner status with Microsoft’s tablet division, territory that other OEMs like Samsung seem to be aggressively pursuing. And if HP manages to avoid bungling those successes, the Envy x2 and its follow-on products might be among the few products to survive the hardware-partner-decimation some expect the Surface to cause.
That’s a lot of “ifs,” but the fact that HP is even among the contenders for such a success, after such an embarrassing failure with the TouchPad, is testament to the company’s determination and its often-overlooked capacity for real brilliance. With the Envy x2, HP has the chance to score a cozier spot in Windows 8′s future. And with hardware like this, packing so much potential for greatness, that’s very good news- not just for HP, but for the platform as a whole.