The world's first detachable workstation?
The Pro x2 is a 2-in-1 detachable, with Wacom AES pen included.
The unique HP Sprout Pro gets a hardware refresh at CES 2017.
As is often the case when it comes to the intriguing world of ActiveES pens, the HP website's compatibility information isn't entirely accurate.
Pen interoperability should improve by 2017 when Wacom releases its dual protocol pen and the USI (Universal Stylus Initiative) consortium brings its products to market. But in the meantime, if you're in the market for a pen-abled Active ES device or are looking for a replacement pen for one you already own, I offer this chart of my test results.
When Wacom announced its Bamboo Smart stylus "for select tablets and 2-in-1 convertible devices" at CES back in January, it was big news. Until that point, only a handful of OEMs' Active ES pens had hit the market and they seemed to be incompatible with one another.
As you read this review, you should know something up front: the deal I got on the HP Spectre x2 12-inch tablet may not be available to you. I scored a $200 discount on the $799 tablet at Best Buy, which makes it feel like a great bargain, standing head and shoulders over the similarly priced Surface 3 and Toshiba dynaPad.
If I paid full price and then had to fork over another $60 for the pen, I'd have to compare the Spectre to the Surface Pro 4 and I'm not so sure that the tablet comes out ahead in that competition.
The Best Buy sale is over as I write this and the Spectre x2 is once again selling for $799 (a Core m7 version, with 8 GB RAM/256 GB SSD lists for $1150). HP is also marketing the nearly identical Elite x2 1012 tablet starting at $899, so it's entirely possible that the Spectre x2 may soon disappear from store shelves altogether.
Upon first inspection, the Spectre x2 is a silvery Surface Pro 4 clone. And the specs are virtually identical to the entry level SP4: Intel Core M3-6Y30 with Intel HD Graphics 515, 4 GB RAM, 128 GB SSD, 3:2 aspect ratio display, adjustable kickstand, detachable keyboard cover. The Sx2's display resolution is lower than the SP4: only 1920 x 1280. But the solid keyboard cover is included in the base price, as is Verizon LTE antenna. A Wacom Active ES pen is optional (it's standard in the Elite x2).
The bundled keyboard cover is excellent. It's much more rigid than the Microsoft type cover and its island keys provide a great typing experience. The trackpad is also roomy and responsive, though not quite glasslike. The specs say that the keyboard is backlit, but I couldn't get my keys to light. (UPDATE: You just need to press F5 on the keyboard to toggle the backlight on and off. Duh.) The keyboard is cloth backed, similar to a Surface Pro type cover.
The gaudiest design cue of the Spectre x2 is the speaker grill that runs along the top of the keyboard. Quad Bang & Olufsen speakers provide a surprisingly nice audio experience for a tablet, with two on the keyboard and two on the tablet's sides. This isn't something I normally mention, but after the dreadful speakers on the Toshiba dynaPad, audio is suddenly top of mind.
The back of the tablet (above) is also distinctive (or over-done depending on your point of view). I don't care for the black accent at the top of the tablet. In these images, the "natural silver" finish looks more sedate than it truly is. The highly reflective chrome-plated kickstand is recessed in the tablet back and released via a latch on the lower left side of the display (see below left). Unlatching and then extending the kickstand takes some getting accustomed to, but the support is very good at a variety of angles.
This side of the Spectre x2 also contains a headphone jack, volume buttons, and one of two USB Type-C connectors. The right side of the tablet (below) contains a second USB Type-C connector, SIM slot and a microSD media card reader.
The Spectre x2 is very thin (.31 inches) and weighs 1.84 lbs. With the keyboard, the combination is .52 inches thick and weighs 2.68 lbs.
The combination of rigid keyboard and freely adjustable kickstand make the Spectre x2 the most lap friendly two-in-one tablet I've tested.
Performance is very good, performing neck and neck with the m3 Surface Pro 4. Looking again at these results, it's clear why I was so disappointed by the performance of the Toshiba dynaPad! The TabletMark performance of the SP4 is interesting but I have been unable to re-run those tests. The benchmark keeps hanging inexplicably on that tablet It's the only software I'm having trouble running on the device.
Unlike the dynaPad and Surface Pro 4, the Active Pen is sold separately for the Spectre x2, retailing for $60. You can order it on the Best Buy site or direct from HP.
Although the Spectre x2 is compatible with other Wacom Active ES pens, I thought it was important to test the native pen as well. Unfortunately, the results are very disappointing, mostly due to its poor form factor.
Significantly smaller than either the TruPen or the Surface Pen (see below), the HP Active Pen, feels more like a crayon in my average sized hand. It also ships without replacement nibs. I recommend using Toshiba's latest generation TruPen if you can find it sold separately. Although it didn't work as well as the TruPen, you can also use Lenovo's Active Stylus, which is more readily available.
Hover distance is not as good as Toshiba's dynaPad, but it is better than previous generation AES devices. (UPDATE: in ascending order from approximately 1 mm to 5 mm, here are the hover distance results: Dell Active Stylus, Toshiba TruPen (Encore 2 Write), Lenovo Thinkpad Active Stylus, Toshiba TruPen (dynaPad) and HP Active Pen).
Pressure response is excellent as I've come to expect from all Wacom Active ES pens. Due to the thinness of the display, if you press down hard with your pen, you will see a purplish ghosting as you draw. I found this pretty distracting and mitigated the effect somewhat by adjusting my pressure curve in Clip Studio Paint.
Unfortunately, if your software doesn't offer pressure adjustment, the Wacom feel driver is not yet compatible with the Spectre x2, so there is no way to increase or decrease the pen tip's sensitivity or map the pen buttons. Worse still, without a driver, there is no way to make the tablet Wintab aware, That means that users of older software that requires Wintab for pen pressure are out of luck.
I tested the Spectre x2 with both its native pen and the Toshiba TruPen in Clip Studio Paint, Sketchbook Pro and Sketchable and didn't have any issues.
One behavior I noticed by juggling between pens is that it appears Wacom Active ES pens interfere with one another when handled in close proximity. Starting work with the TruPen, for example, appeared to cancel out the HP pen. I had similar results with a Dell pen that refused to work once the TruPen was connected. I also saw errant lines and strange wobbles when using one pen while holding another. Has anyone else seen this behavior? (UPDATE: To switch pens, a reboot is required in order for the tablet to sense the new pen with a tap or two on the display).
To sum it up, if you can find the HP Spectre x2 on sale for at or below $600 (and you can live without Wintab compatibility), I recommend it over the similarly priced Surface 3 or Toshiba dynaPad. At its $800 list price, I recommend you look instead at the Surface Pro 4 or HP Elite x2 1012. Isn't it great to have this abundance of choice?
Perhaps it's due to the overwhelming volume of gadgets I've got clattering around the SurfaceProArtist labs or just my advancing old age, but it's getting increasingly difficult to remember all the gear that I've reviewed and exactly when I reviewed it. Fortunately, despite the somewhat awkward design of the Squarespace template behind this site, everything I've ever posted here is only a keyword search away.
So as the year draws to a close, I thought it would be fun to revisit my last twelve months of reviews and see if my conclusions then have withstood the test of time.
In many cases, the time I invested while writing the review was about as much as I ended up spending with the device for the entire year, so I'll try to distinguish between the gear that I've really put through its paces and the stuff I only ever skimmed.
N-Trig DuoSensePen2 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/3/n-trig-now-selling-replacement-pens- The first of a couple of products on this list that disappeared shortly after their release, these replacement pens were N-Trig's first foray into standalone consumer products. It was nice to see an option in case your Surface Pro 3 or Sony VAIO pen went missing, but I didn't care for the short body. When Microsoft bought N-Trig's pen technology later in 2015, the pens vanished.
Monoprice 22" HD SmartTouch Drawing Display http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/10/review-new-monoprice-pen-display-puts-multi-touch-within-reach - This touch capable drawing display was Monoprice's second attempt to entire the Wacom - Huion - Yiynova fray, but it also disappeared unceremoniously shortly after release. I still use it occasionally, as its attached to my second desktop. It's really not a bad value and I hope that Monoprice and its anonymous Chinese suppliers take another stab at it in 2016. UPDATE 12/24/15: In the comments section below, reader Vachel Shannon informed me that the Smarttouch pen display has resurfaced on Monoprice's website. You can find it here: http://www.monoprice.com/product?p_id=12077
Toshiba 8" Encore 2 Write http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/1/31/massive-guest-post-8-toshiba-encore-2-write-impressions - TabletPCReview member Precurve did a great job capturing the virtues of the 8-inch version of what was the best pen computing value of the year.
Lenovo Thinkpad Helix 2 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2014/11/28/keyboard-hinders-helix-2 -
I expected to love the Helix 2, but I didn't, thanks to its high pricetag and crappy keyboard. Had it been discounted a couple hundred bucks, I might feel otherwise. When the Ultrabook Pro keyboard was ultimately released, it cost a ridiculous $400.
HP Pro x2 612 G1 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/3/1/hp-pro-x2-612-g1-review - Because I reviewed it so closely to the pricey Helix 2, I probably ended up inflating my rating of this tablet. I admit I grade on a curve for lower cost devices, but there's something about this ugly duckling tablet that reminds me of the Surface Pro 1 that got this blog started. UPDATE 12/24/15 : Vachel Shannon also let me know that refurbished i5/8/256 HP Pro x2 612 G1s are on sale over at Woot! for only $399 until supplies last. This is an exceptional value. http://computers.woot.com/offers/hp-pro-x2-612-12-5-intel-i5-tablet-7?ref=cp_cnt_wp_2_9
Toshiba 10" Encore 2 Write http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/3/1/guest-post-10-toshiba-encore-2-write-review- I never got around to writing my own review of the TE2W, but Eric Merced did the honors here. The TE2W is the first Wacom ActiveES tablet I owned and it's an exceptional value.
Wacom Cintiq Companion 2 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/2/20/wacom-companion-2 - I'll admit I haven't gotten as much use out of the CC2 has I had imagined/hoped when I first purchased it. I'm spoiled by having so many other options at my disposal and I consider the CC2 too large and loud to use outside of the office. But performance is fantastic and it's still the one to buy if art is your foremost concern.
Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/6/26/thinkpad-yoga-14-sneaks-into-best-buy- My credit cards were able to take a break during April and May, and they were taxed a little more lightly by this Best Buy-exclusive offer. The laptop is my daily driver at the office. I've changed out the slow 1TB HDD for a much more responsive 512 GB SSD. You won't need to make that additional expense if you purchase the latest model, which has been updated several times since I purchased it. The TPY14 offers the best price-performance ratio on the market. It's not a style champion, but the Skylake version is essentially an i5 dGPU Surface Book for half the price.
Lenovo Thinkpad Active Capacitive Pen http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/7/7/lenovos-elusive-thinkpad-active-capacitive-pen-arrives - The pen that accompanies Lenovo's Wacom ActiveES devices has since been rebranded as the Lenovo Thinkpad Pen Pro. But it remains a must-have for anyone buying one of the new penabled devices, as the bundled rechargeable pen is too small for serious artists.
VAIO Z Canvas http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/10/26/vaio-z-canvas-is-windows-tablet-performance-champ - I was a reluctant buyer but the performance of the VAIO Z Canvas really won me over. It's been discounted $500 in recent weeks and is really hard to pass up at that price.
Microsoft Surface Pen http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/11/5/man-sets-out-to-review-surface-book-settles-for-pen-instead - A must-have for any Surface Pro 3 or 4 owner. The new pen and softer nibs are a huge improvement over their predecessors.
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/11/7/entry-level-surface-pro-4-is-the-only-ipad-pro-youll-ever-need - I purposely decided to review the low end m3 SP4 because I was looking for a fanless option. I love it and find I'm using my i5 SP3 less and less often. This is the perfect digital sketchbook Sorry Apple.
Miscrosoft Surface Book http://surfaceproartist.com/blog/2015/12/5/surface-book-is-great-but-artists-should-stay-with-the-surface-pro - Early growing pains have almost been resolved. This is a beautiful prestige device, but I think it's a less than ideal form factor for digital artists.
Apple iPad Pro & Apple Pencil - Coming soon. Trying to take my time so I don't come off like an Apple hater or Microsoft fanboy.
So that's it. Funny doesn't seem like so many gadgets when you put them all on one page. I don't know how many I'll get to review in 2016. You guys were great the first couple of days I began my appeal for donations, but that's all died down now and revenue is no where near where it needs to be to pay for this site. So if you haven't yet, please consider a small contribution or click on as many ads as you can. Also, remember to begin your Amazon shopping sessions with a click on one of our Amazon links and we'll receive a small kickback.
So what was your favorite gadget of 2015? What are you most looking forward to in 2016? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
Lisa Gade of MobileTechReview has just published an excellent video walkthrough confirming that the very stylish HP Spectre X360 ships with a Synaptics digitizer and supports the HP Active Pen (sold separately).
The 13.3-inch convertible laptop starts as low as $899 for an Intel Core i5-5200U with 4 GB of RAM and 128 GB storage and tops out at $1370 for a Core i7-5500U with 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB SSD. All the models feature Intel HD Graphics 5500.
From the looks of Lisa's demo, Synaptics has come a long way in the last year. The biggest drawback for most will be the lack of Wintab drivers for older software.