One of the interesting things about the current crop of Windows 8 tablets is the many opportunities it gives PC makers to come up with clever accessories. For a standard laptop, there are, I suppose, bags and sleeves, but once you have that and maybe a mouse, you're pretty much done.
The Windows 8 tablets we've seen are essentially nearly identical black slabs of metal, glass, and plastic, whether from Acer, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, or others. Most of these devices even have identical specs, with Intel Atom processors, 2GB of RAM, and 64GB of solid-state drive (SSD) storage, so coming up with the proper accessories is even more important for differentiating from the pack.
The HP ElitePad 900 could have been just yet another slablike Windows 8 tablet, but this business-oriented system offers the widest range of tablet accessories we've seen to date, making it very flexible for mobile, home, and office use.
The tablet itself starts at $699, but that only includes a 32GB SSD. Trading up to a 64GB SSD to match other Windows 8 tablets takes you to $799. That's more than roughly comparable consumer tablets cost, but mobile broadband capabilities from T-Mobile or AT&T are included. Some configurations also currently include two years of 4G data from T-Mobile.
The set of accessories that came with our review unit is what really makes the ElitePad interesting. Unfortunately, the most interesting accessory -- called the "productivity jacket" -- is not yet available. It's a keyboard case with three adjustable screen angles, a very nice portable keyboard, and expansion ports that are built right into the case. When available sometime this spring it will cost $199, which is steep for a keyboard case, but this is essentially a sleeve, keyboard, and docking station in one.
Currently available are an expansion jacket, with HDMI and USB ports, plus room for an optional extra battery ($79), and a weighted docking station, with multiple video and data ports ($119). Putting all three together adds almost $400 to the already expensive $799 tablet. For $1,200, you could get a 13-inch MacBook Air, Microsoft's Core i5 Surface Pro, or for another $100, get Google's super-high-res Pixel Chromebook. There are dozens of other worthwhile investments in that price range, the key point being that $1,200 is an awful lot to spend on an Intel Atom/2GB RAM/64GB SSD tablet with a 1,366x768-pixel display.
There is, however, a justification for this hefty investment. HP created the ElitePad 900 for business customers, not the casual consumers who might buy one of the many $500-$600 Atom Windows 8 tablets we've previously reviewed. The ElitePad is built with corporate IT department needs in mind, with support for various managed deployment technologies, such as HP BIOS Protection and LANDesk. Also to that end, the tablet itself lacks even a USB port -- for security reasons, all ports are relegated to the docks and case accessories (a SIM card and microSD card slot are under a tiny pin-open panel). That's something to keep in mind if you need on-the-go connectivity. Note that NFC is built in, but has yet to become a mainstream data transfer tool.
Many of HP's business-focused products, such as its early ultrabooks, make great crossover PCs and have a lot of consumer appeal. The ElitePad probably isn't one of those, as its high price and security quirks aren't as consumer-friendly as many of the other Intel Atom windows 8 tablets we've reviewed.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$799 / $699|
|Processor||1.5GHz Intel Atom Z2760|
|Memory||2GB, 800MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||64GB SSD|
|Operating system||Windows 8|
|Dimensions (WD)||10.3x7 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||1.3 pounds / 2.0 pounds|
Design and features
This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the actual slate part of the ElitePad 900 ecosystem looks pretty much like every other Atom-powered Windows 8 tablet we've seen so far. In the hand, however, the build quality stands out, with a one-piece aluminum body and a Gorilla Glass screen.
While the dimensions look similar to those of tablets from Acer, Asus, Dell, and others, a concession to the corporate user is a screen with a 16:10 aspect ratio, rather than the more common 16:9 found in most laptops and tablets; this ratio gives you a little more vertical resolution. The 1,280x800-pixel resolution is the same as what you'd find on a non-Retina Display 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the screen is bright, with decent off-axis viewing, and is very responsive to finger input.
I found myself using the ElitePad most often in its productivity jacket, which includes a full keyboard and USB/SD card connections. Like a heavy-duty iPad keyboard case, the jacket adds weight and size to the system, making it feel more like a chunky ultraportable laptop -- although at only 1.3 pounds by itself, the tablet is very light. The stiff hinge on the keyboard case keeps the screen from slipping, but also makes it nearly impossible to operate with one hand. It slots into three screen angles, but the screen may not tilt back far enough for your tastes.
The flat-topped island-style keyboard built into the case is as good as the best iPad keyboard cases, and reminds me of the excellent keyboard case for Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet, but built into a much thicker base.
So far, so good. But, here's where the ElitePad and its keyboard case run into trouble. The Surface Pro keyboard cover includes a small but functional touch pad. The Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 has a small pointing stick built into its optional keyboard dock. But the ElitePad keyboard is just a keyboard -- there's no cursor control available at all, aside from directly using the touch screen.
Sure, Windows 8 is designed to be operated directly by the finger-on-screen method, and when the ElitePad 900 is used as an in-hand slate, it's fine. But when set up on a desk, in either the keyboard jacket or on the docking station, the system's productivity potential shrinks. You only solution is to connect a separate mouse or other pointing device. I actually paired the keyboard case with Logitech's T650 standalone touch pad and ended up with a very usable combination. But HP doesn't go out of its way to suggest a touch pad or even mouse pairing.
The expansion jacket is more like a protective sleeve, but includes HDMI and SD card ports, plus two USB ports. There's a compartment inside for a not-yet-available extra battery, making it feel like an oversize version of an iPhone battery case. The docking station is the most familiar of the accessories, and includes both HDMI and VGA outputs as well as an Ethernet jack. Dongles that connect directly to the tablet and offer Ethernet, SD card, USB, and video connections are sold separately for $29 to $39 each.
|HP ElitePad 900 (tablet only)||Average for category [ultraportable]|
|Video||None||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Dual-array microphones, stereo speakers||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 microSD, SIM card slot||2 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet (via dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|