HP’s Strange New SlateBook: A Guided Tour

HP pairs the Android mobile OS with a full-blown notebook computer

HP SlateBook
HP SlateBook

With the SlateBook 14, HP has delivered a notebook computer running the Android mobile OS. The question is, why? To be clear, this isn’t an Android tablet with a detachable keyboard. This is a full-fledged notebook that runs Android—and only Android, a mobile OS meant for smartphones and tablets. The SlateBook isn’t officially sanctioned by Google. (The company focuses on developing its Chrome OS for notebooks.) So why did HP make it, and how well does Android work on a notebook? The company loaned me a SlateBook, which I used for a week in order to figure these questions out.

Software
Credit: Google
Software

The SlateBook runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean. (An HP rep told me that an upgrade to Android 4.4 KitKat would be provided "in the next couple of months.") Besides the usual suite of Google apps (e.g. Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Google Maps, Google Play, YouTube, etc.), several popular third-party apps are also pre-installed, including Box, Evernote, Hulu Plus, and Skype. HP provides its own branded apps: One for printing to HP printers, a file manager, a media player, and cloud services for online printing and file storage. None of this software can be uninstalled.

Form factor
Form factor

When it's closed, the SlateBook is a tightly sealed slab with very rounded corners. Most of its 3.75-pound weight feels set toward its hinge. With a thickness of 0.63 inches, it’s thinner than most Chromebooks, Windows notebooks, and the MacBook Air. The panel framing the keyboard is aluminum, so it feels nicely cool when you rest your palms on it. The lid appears to be made of the same aluminum. The bezel is plastic, and so is the bottom half of the SlateBook's casing, but it's coated with a thinly rubberized yellow paint. The contrast becomes apparent when you hold the notebook with its lid shut -- by touch alone you can sense which side is the lid and which is the bottom.

Display
Display

The 14-inch, 1920-by-1080-pixel display makes this notebook perfectly suited for viewing high-definition video in 1080p resolution, although its brightness range seems to be narrow. While I used the SlateBook indoors under normal lighting, I usually found that the display was most comfortable to look at when its brightness was set at its maximum, or close to it. At the opposite end, when you turn the brightness all the way down, you can still see most elements on the screen clearly. The display's surface is highly reflective. This made looking at the screen difficult while outdoors in daylight, but even indoors in a well-lit setting when the brightness was lowered.

Keyboard and touchpad
Keyboard and touchpad

Since its screen is 14 inches, the keyboard half of this notebook takes up a considerable area. Initially, the individual keys of the keyboard felt a little too spread out to me, though my fingers did adjust over time. Whether you'll like typing on the SlateBook may depend on your personal preference. The wide touchpad was ably responsive. The experience of moving an on-screen arrow pointer with it made interacting with the SlateBook, over using the display’s touchscreen, feel nearly no different than doing so on a typical notebook that uses a desktop OS.

Audio
Audio

The SlateBook has four speakers that feature BeatsAudio technology: Two are set in the keyboard panel near the hinge, and the other two emanate sound through the bottom of the notebook's casing. There is no BeatsAudio branded app to adjust the speakers. So presumably this ballyhooed sound enhancement is already activated by default through the speakers. Music and other sounds, like from a video, playing from the SlateBook do give off a perceivable although slight fullness, which you can feel in particular coming from the bottom speakers. This effect is best if you are seated right in front of the notebook, and doesn't seem to work omni-directionally.

Camera
Camera

The Slatebook's only, front-facing camera can capture still images in three resolutions (QVGA, VGA, HD) and video in two (480p, 720p). It can focus automatically up to 6 inches. Stills and video I captured with it tended to be grainy, and colors and contrast would become quickly washed out under brighter lighting. It was tough to find the right balance between too little and too much lighting for this camera to work best.

Performance
Performance

The SlateBook ran most apps I tested on it speedily and with little hitch in performance, doing so quietly (it has no fan, after all). Since it uses an NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor (quad-core, 1.8 GHz), which has powerful graphics capabilities, the SlateVook can serve as an Android gaming notebook. I didn’t test this in depth -- I installed a few games that feature heavy use of computer graphics, such as Batman: Arkham Origins and Crazy Taxi -- and tinkered around with them just a little.

Using Android
Using Android

Where the SlateBook stumbles is relying on it for heavy work use -- this, of course, depends on the app in question. (I wrote this review on the SlateBook using Google Docs.) But expect quirks with an app that was designed for smaller screens. Text may be small. When using the Chrome browser, I often needed to enlarge web pages. Even the default font size used throughout the Android OS itself appeared too small. Also, certain keyboard functions may not work quite the way you would expect. For example, you can’t always scroll through the cells in Google Sheets by pressing the arrow keys. Overall, I was able to more effectively interact with the SlateBook by accepting and working around the limitations inherent in trying to use a tablet as a notebook.

Battery
Battery

HP lists the SlateBook having a runtime of about 9 hours on a full battery charge. When I used it to browse the web, while listening to music and watching a few videos, the notebook ran for nearly 9 hours and 30 minutes. It took less than 2 hours and 30 minutes to fully recharge its battery.

Conclusion
Conclusion

At $429, this notebook may be a questionable value proposition, placing it in a price range between a Chromebook and mid-tier power Windows 8.1 notebook. So who is this notebook for? The HP rep pitched that it’s ideal for students or teens who are already accustomed to using Android. That sounds like an oddly specific demographic. I do have to commend HP for spending their resources to see if the concept of an Android notebook will sell. At the very least, this is a good-looking and nice-to-touch notebook. In fact, I would say it’s one of the best-designed notebooks of the year. The SlateBook may be an odd duck of a device, but it’s no ugly duckling.

Specifications
Specifications

Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
14”, 1920 x 1080 pixel display
Multi-touch touchscreen
Nvidia Tegra 4
2 GB RAM
16, 32 or 64 GB onboard memory storage
HD front camera
BeatsAudio speakers
HDMI
microphone/headphone
microSD
USB 3.0
2 USB 2.0 ports
Bluetooth
802.11b/g/n WLAN
Battery: Up to 9 hours
Weight: 3.75 lbs
Dimensions: 0.63“ x 13.54” x 9.45”
Price: (starting at) $429.99
HP Slate overview