When it comes to Android tablets with detachable keyboards, one name comes to mind: Transformer. There's no denying that ASUS has carved out a pretty specific niche in the Android tablet/laptop convertible category. HP is looking to change that with the SlateBook x2, a 10.2-inch Android tablet with a keyboard dock that essentially converts it to an Android-powered laptop. It's small enough to fall into the "netbook" category, but that's a dirty word I try to stay away from.
Here's the thing though - this feels nothing like ASUS' offerings. When I heard about the SlateBook x2, I just assumed it would be an ASUS knockoff - a copycat of an already-successful product. But it's not. It's actually kind of strange; the Transformer series has always felt like a tablet with an attachable keyboard dock, whereas the SlateBook x2 feels like a small Android laptop with a detachable tablet. I guess what I'm saying here is that where the Transformers have always felt like tablets first and foremost, the SlateBook feels more like a laptop from the ground up. Maybe this is because traditional PCs are what HP is most familiar with. Whatever the reason, it's actually much better at being an Android laptop than the Transformers have ever been.
But let's not get too complimentary right out of the gate – it's far from perfect.
- Display: 10.2-inch 1920x1200
- Processor: 1.8GHz NVIDIA Tegra 4
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 16GB
- Cameras: 2MP Rear shooter, 1MP front-facing camera
- Ports: Tablet - MicroSD, headphone jack; Dock - full-size USB, HDMI, and SD card slot
- Wireless: 802.11 b/g/n
- OS: Android 4.2.2
- Dimensions/Weight: Tablet - 10.16 x 7.17 x 0.38 in., 1.34 lbs.; Tablet with dock - 10.16 x 7.63 x 0.81 in. 2.8 lbs.
- Price: Retail – $480
- Buy: HP, Amazon
- Blazing fast. The Tegra 4 processor is crazy-fast and the SlateBook makes good use of it. While using this tablet, there was nary a hint of lag – even when installing apps while playing a game. It's just fast. All the time.
- Excellent keyboard dock. I'm going to do my best to avoid saying "compared to the Transformer series" in every other sentence of this review, but the keyboard dock is one area where it's unavoidable. The SlateBook's dock is actually really comfortable (especially considering it's an undersized keyboard), and the oversized touchpad is a very nice touch. Of course, it does have its flaws, but we'll get to those in a bit.
- Rear-mounted volume and power controls. I've seen this device get some static for this feature, but I personally think it's great. The buttons are too conveniently located for me to dislike it.
- The display. This is easily the worst part of the SlateBook, which is really unfortunate. The display has a sort-of yellowish tint to it, which is particularly noticeable on light colored backgrounds. At times it can make for an incredibly unpleasant experience.
- Battery life. Despite having two batteries (one in the tablet, one in the dock), the SlateBook doesn't have the battery life one would expect. The idle time is particularly terrible – sometimes the entire unit can drain completely overnight, with absolutely zero use.
- Buggy software. I get that this tablet just came out and it's only HP's second Android tablet (the first with a dock), but there are a fairly substantial amount of bugs present here. We'll get into the details in the software section below.
- Proprietary charger with power brick. Yeah, you read that right – the charger has its own power brick. I cannot even begin to fathom why HP not only chose to use a proprietary charger, but also to include a brick. It dramatically cuts down on the portability of this device. My laptop already has a brick, I don't need to carry one for my tablet, too.
Build Quality, Design, and Keyboard
On the outside, the Slatebook x2 is an uninspired gray slab with a shiny silver HP logo. The plastic casing doesn't do a very good job of hiding fingerprints; in fact, it sort of highlights them. If your hands are even the slightest bit oily, expect to see every touch on the back of the unit. It may not be as bad as a glossy exterior, but it's worse than many other devices.
While we're talking about the back of the unit, let's take a looksee at those conveniently-placed volume and power buttons. Like I've already said, I read other reviews that slammed HP for putting the controls on the back, but I've grown quite fond of them. It's incredibly natural and intuitive to hit the power button while holding the tablet, and the volume controls are equally as nice. Both buttons are very easy to find by touch. I really can't find anything to dislike about the arrangement. Naturally, the 2MP rear-facing camera is also located on the back.
Continuing down to the bottom of the tablet (in landscape, without the dock attached, that is), you'll find basically everything else: the proprietary charging/dock port, microSD card slot, headphone jack, and dock anchors. The speakers are also on the front-bottom, directly below the screen on either side. The bottom of the tablet is very odd – where the rest of the edges are rounded and tapered, the bottom is flat. It's a very dramatic change from the rest of the device, and it makes it difficult to use the unit in portrait mode (not that most people use a 10-inch tablet in portrait, anyway). To add to the peculiarity of the design, all of the bottom ports are covered when the tablet is placed in the dock. Fortunately, most users who put a microSD card in their device leave it there so that's not a huge deal, and the dock features its own headphone jack. Still, the speakers are sort of covered, which was just poorly thought-out. On the upside, it doesn't affect the audio that much – it's perhaps just a tiny bit more muffled.
That brings us to one of my favorite things about the SlateBook: its dock. As I've already said, the dock is quite good – the keys are tactile and have a good amount of travel, and it's surprisingly easy to type on considering it's an undersized keyboard. It has a dedicated row of navigation keys, featuring back, search, brightness, settings, voice actions, volume, media, and radio toggle keys – the most notable of which is easily the dedicated voice action key. Hit it, and it immediately opens Google Now and starts listening. It's brilliant for anyone who uses voice commands a lot. Unfortunately, the unit is lacking GPS, so "navigate to..." functions will end up falling flat on their face.
Just below the keyboard is the oversized touchpad, which I found to be a pleasure to use for the most part. The only downsides of the touchpad are that I found myself hitting it with my thumbs while typing on occasion, and there's no way to disable it. That's probably the most serious omission on HP's part – anyone who hates the touchpad will be stuck with it on all the time (unless HP decided to push a software update with a fix). Fortunately, it's far less obtrusive than the touchpad used on all of the Transformers up to this point.
On the right side of the dock, you'll find the full-size HDMI and charging ports, as well as an SD card slot; the left side features the full-size USB port and headphone jack. All pretty standard stuff.
The tablet is incredibly easy to put in the dock. It requires no force outside of gravity; simply line it up and it slides into place. Removal is equally as easy – flip the switch and pull it out. It doesn't even require any downward force on the dock, which is nice. Once planted in the dock, the tablet is held firmly in place and won't just fall out, though there is a bit of wiggle room when shifting the angle of the display. I doubt that would cause any future problems, but it may bother the super-anal among you.
As convenient as the dock is, there's one major annoyance: it's impossible to open this thing with one hand. It's so tight, you're left with no choice but to pick the entire thing up and hold it sideways to get enough leverage to open it. It drives me crazy. Past that, though. the dock is pretty great – better than the Transformer series' docks, I'd say.
HP made a vital mistake with the SlateBook's display: it used this as a means to cut costs and went with a cheaper panel. As a result, the display is bad. In fact, it's easily the weakest link in an otherwise good (but not great) tablet. The coloring is off, and everything has a yellow-ish hue to it. It's actually difficult to look at without a substantial amount of mental adjustment (read: it takes a while to get used to). Bright colors like red are far too oversaturated, grays don't look gray at all, and whites are dull and almost "smoky" in appearance. It's pretty bad, and it's noticeable almost immediately. Darker colors look OK for the most part, but considering many of the commonly used apps (Gmail, Play Store, etc.) and many web pages are mostly white, it has a dramatic impact on the experience.
SlateBook x2 vs Nexus 7 (2013)
Another cost-cutting omission on the SlateBook's display is the ambient light sensor – it simply doesn't have one. That means no automatic brightness, which could be a dealbreaker for some. To add insult to injury, the display just doesn't get very bright. Throughout the duration of my time using the SlateBook, I had to keep the brightness set at about 60%, which is pretty much equivalent to 30% on the new Nexus 7. In other words, don't expect to get any real use with this tablet outdoors.
Once you get past the subpar color reproduction, the display is actually pretty sharp. The 1920x1200 panel isn't as crisp as 2560x1600 on the Nexus 10 or even 1920x1200 on the 2013 Nexus 7, but it's still a major step up from the 1280x800 of yesteryear (and the budget tablets of today). I found it to be fine for reading, gaming, and surfing the web – you know, all the things people typically do on tablets.
The speakers on the SlateBook are itty-bitty little things, but they get the job done without sounding awful. They're slightly tinny, but not unlistenable-y so. On the upside, they do face the front, so at least you won't have to position your hands in funky ways to "throw" the sound back at your ears.
Like mentioned above, when the tablet is in the dock, the speakers rest just below the top of the keyboard, making them slightly covered. This really doesn't affect the sound quality at all – in fact, I used the SlateBook as a metronome while playing guitar often during my testing. It worked out exceptionally well, as it was plenty loud enough for me to keep tempo with my guitar at low volume.
The SlateBook's 2MP shooter is, well, a 2MP shooter. It's awful, where "awful" means "the worst tablet camera I've ever used." Bright colors are oversaturated, and everything imaginable is grainy and terrible. The image quality is so bad, I just... actually, I'll let the images speak for themselves.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: if you're not going to do it right, don't do it at all. I don't expect great things from tablet cameras, but this is pathetic.
Storage and Wireless
Like so many other recent Android tablets, the SlateBook only comes with 16GB of storage (11.81GB user-accessible), which should be enough for most users since it also supports both micro and full-size SD cards (the latter of which is in the dock only). Of course, the only reason this could pose a problem is if you plan on loading it down with huge game files (which can't be transferred to the SD card), in which case it would fill up rather quickly. Something to watch out for.
In the wireless department, the SlateBook is packing Wi-Fi a/b/g/n and Bluetooth, but that's the extent of it. You won't find NFC or GPS on this puppy, so don't expect to use it as a navigation system or tap to share files with other devices.
Really, HP? Was a power brick really necessary?
Another area where the SlateBook could perform better is in the battery life department. Despite having a battery in both the tablet and the dock, it drains unusually fast – throughout my testing the unit sometimes died overnight due to a glitch that causes the display to turn on by itself and never time out. More details on that in the software section below.
The tablet itself doesn't make great use of its internal battery, either. I got roughly six to seven hours out of the tablet by itself, and ten or eleven with the tablet on the dock (excluding the aforementioned bug). HP claims the tablet-dock combo can keep things going for around 12.5 hours, which must be a best-case scenario, because I simply don't see that happening if you actually use the device.
On the software side of things, the SlateBook basically runs stock Android 4.2 with very few changes overall. The primary tweaks that you'll find are basically in the settings menu: support for Miracast Wireless Display and an option to tweak audio profiles called DTS Sound+.
While those are basically the only modifications to the OS as a whole, HP did throw several bundled apps into the mix – some useful, others not so much. Here's a quick rundown of each of the pre-installed applications:
- Box – The Dropbox competitor has founds itself a home on the SlateBook x2.
- eBay – Because HP wants you to buy things.
- Evernote – For taking notes. This actually makes a lot of sense on a tablet/laptop hybrid device.
- Wild Tangent Games – ಠ_ಠ
- HP Camera – HP's custom camera software, as noted above.
- HP ePrint – Because printing is a big part of what HP wants you to do. Mostly with HP printers, of course.
- HP File Manager – A very decent bundled file manager. Makes it easy to take care of business without a third-party app.
- HP Media Player – For playing local media. Just in case you hate Google Music and all other media players on the Play Store.
- Kingston Office – Another good inclusion for an Android-powered Tabtop. After all, what good is that keyboard if you can't type something useful?
- Printer Control – Far more powerful than ePrint, this app lets you manage your HP Printer, as well as check ink supplies, scan, capture, and print directly from your tablet. Be warned, though: it's pretty ugly.
- Skitch – Evernote's photo markup and annotation app.
- Splashtop – Remote access to your Windows machine.
- TegraZone – Because Tegra 4. And games.
Despite having very few software modifications, however, the SlateBook has its fair share of bugs. For example, the display sometimes turns on by itself, and then never times out. In the intro bullets, I mentioned that the entire unit would sometimes drain 100% overnight – this is the cause for that. The display sometimes runs all night (even when the lid is closed in laptop mode), thus killing the battery double-quick.
It's also extremely quirky when docking/undocking the tablet with an app in the foreground. On occasion (probably 50 percent of the time), the foreground app will force close when the tablet is either put on or removed from the dock. It's a strange (and frustrating) reaction, but something that HP definitely needs to iron out. Hopefully they're aware of these issues (and I find it hard to imagine that they're not) and a firmware update is in the works. In the meantime, continuous use of your apps through the docking/undocking process is a coin toss.
This is actually where the SlateBook really shines. The Tegra 4 really shows what it's made of here – it's blazing fast. Everything on the SlateBook is so quick and snappy, free from lag, and incredibly fluid. Simply put: if you buy this tablet, you shouldn't have to wait for anything.
Of course, the flagship Tegra 4 device is SHIELD at the moment, so comparisons are going to be drawn. I'll put it bluntly for you: SHIELD is faster. And it will probably be faster than all other Tegra 4-powered devices to hit the market, too. Why? Because it has a fan and heatsink, which allows the chip to run at maximum speed basically all the time. Airflow and cooling just isn't a concern for SHIELD, whereas it is for standard tablets and phones. That said, the SlateBook is nothing to scoff at, and during actual real-world use I noticed very little speed differences when compared to SHIELD.
For those of you who love benchmarks (and we know you're out there), here are a couple for you. I also ran some with the 2013 Nexus 7 and SHIELD for comparison purposes. Now, I shouldn't have to say this, but I will anyway: benchmarks should be taken with a grain of salt. They're just numbers and don't really mean much in real-world usage. It's interesting to see how the SlateBook scored in all of the benchmarks below, because it actually feels much faster than the benches lead on. The most interesting thing to me, however, is the decline in benchmark scores over time; when I first got the SlateBook, it scored around 925 in Geekbench 3's single-core test and 2535 in the multi-core test. Compare that to the scores you see below – they show around half of that. There were no firmware updates or any other drastic changes to the system, nor did Geekbench receive any sort of update that I'm aware of. AnTuTu had similar results, but considering the original benchmarks were run in AnTuTu 3 and the new ones in version 4, I decided to omit that comparison.
With that said, here are the scores in the system's current state.
Update: It turns out that I forgot to disable "balanced power" before running benchmarks, which explains why they're so much lower than before. I'm keeping the original scores and text intact, but have also added the updated scores alongside them down below.
Left to right: Nexus 7 (2013), SHIELD, HP Slatebook x2 (balanced power enabled), SlateBook x2 (balanced power disabled).
Usually people say "numbers don't lie!" and while I agree with the statement, I can't help but feel like the benchmarks here are providing an unfair assessment of the SlateBook. Sure, it's not as fast as SHIELD, but it definitely feels as fast – if not faster – than the 2013 Nexus 7. I use both regularly, and in the real world they are nearly indistinguishable from one another in terms of speed.
Conclusions are always the most difficult part of a review, because oftentimes people jump straight to the bottom to form an opinion of the device (perhaps stopping to look at the benchmarks along the way). As a result, it's incredibly important to form a conclusion that's not only fair and just to the device itself, but also provides all the important details that were just discussed throughout the review. In that respect, this may be one of the most difficult conclusions I've ever had to write, because I'm so torn by this device.
One on hand, it has some really good qualities – a great keyboard for the size, useable trackpad, and fantastic performance, just to name a few. But on the other hand, the shoddy display, buggy software, and poor battery life (which is likely a result of the aforementioned buggy software) make it hard to recommend overall; of course the latter two can be fixed with an over-the-air update, but it's never a good idea to buy a device with the hope of an OTA fixing the known bugs. Wait until that happens, then buy (if you're still interested at this point).
With everything said, I think it's probably best to wait for the new Infinity Pad to hit the scene to see how it compares if you want an Android tablet/laptop hybrid. The keyboard probably won't be as good if it's anything like past Transformers, but the 2560x1600 display will likely make up for that, and ASUS has been in the game long enough that it should be a winner right out of the box. If the company also decided to include some of the software tweaks present on the MeMO Pad 7 HD, then that sweetens the deal even more. If you simply can't wait until it's available (there still isn't a release date) though, then the SlateBook is your best bet – despite its flaws, I'd still take it over the 2013 Infinity Pad or any other device from the Transformer line.