I found my ideal Windows laptop last year. Dell’s XPS 13 convinced me to switch away from Apple’s aging MacBook Air for its edge-to-edge display and smaller form factor, and I’ve been happily using it ever since. For most people, a laptop lasts a few years, but I’m always looking for the latest and greatest to try something new. After half a decade, Windows laptop makers have finally rendered the MacBook Air truly obsolete, in both design and specifications. Spurred on by Windows 10 and Microsoft’s aggressive Surface work, there are now some impressive hardware options if you’re looking for a new Windows-powered laptop.
Now that the MacBook Air has been surpassed, Windows laptop makers are setting their sights on the newer 12-inch MacBook. Both Asus and HP have created their own Windows-powered versions of the 12-inch MacBook, and I’ve been wondering if I could truly switch to something small and light for my daily work.
HP’s business-focused EliteBook Folio is one of those computers looking to compete with the MacBook. It’s small and light, and has a solid aluminum build that doesn’t make it feel flimsy. Starting at $999 and going all the way up to $1,799, it’s every bit a 12-inch MacBook running Windows 10, but HP has actually improved a few things compared to Apple’s take. I’ve been using one as my only machine for a few weeks now and while it has been a fun experiment, I’ve learned that this type of laptop isn’t for me, at least not just yet. It looks great, but like most things in life, it’s what’s inside that counts.
HP’s EliteBook Folio is designed for and sold to businesses, but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not your typical boring, Lenovo or Dell, corporate-issued laptop at all. Actually, it’s the complete opposite. I think this is the best-looking laptop that HP has created in years (even better than the stunning Spectre 13 released earlier this year), and the brushed aluminum finish pairs well with the glossy silver HP logo and hinge to create a really modern design. I can’t help running my fingers over the finish every time I pick it up. The sharp edges look like they’d slice your fingers off, but everything feels soft and comfortable to use.
Even though you’ll never see them, the speakers underneath have a fancy design that blends with the modern look. The Folio is under 0.5 inches thick and weighs less than 2.2 pounds, but it doesn’t feel too light for its own good. It feels sturdy and well-built, and it’s stable on my lap or on a table.
A beautifully designed laptop
At the entry level, HP has equipped the EliteBook Folio with a 12.5-inch 1080p display, 8GB of RAM, and 128GB of SSD storage. Storage options vary up to 512GB of SSD, but the bigger choice is between a 4K display and the regular 1080p one. It’s a choice that affects the entire experience of using this laptop. Both have good color reproduction and viewing angles as you’d expect, but after comparing them side by side, I found it hard to notice the benefits of 4K in a 12.5-inch display next to the 1080p equivalent. It seems totally unnecessary in a display of this size right now.
Unfortunately, HP hasn’t included a true edge-to-edge display like Dell did with the XPS 13 or Lenovo with the new Yoga 910. There’s a big border at the bottom and top of the Folio display, and it spoils the otherwise sleek design. Thankfully, the top bezel can be explained away with the addition of a Windows Hello-compatible camera. It means you can log into Windows 10 with just your face, and it worked well for me on the Folio.
Unlike Apple, the Folio’s keyboard has the kind of key travel you’d get on a larger laptop. It also has a reasonably sized trackpad that isn’t frustrating to use. We’re finally starting to really see an investment in quality trackpads for Windows, and the Folio is no exception. It’s responsive, easy to use, and feels as smooth to scroll and navigate around as a MacBook. My only complaint is that it has a weird dot in the top left of the trackpad that looks like dust. I kept trying to swat it away initially, and then realized it’s actually a permanent mark. (You might think that it behaves as a button to turn the trackpad on and off, but that’s not the case.)
The keyboard is solid, but it’s a little small and cramped to use if you’re used to larger laptops. The customized function keys speak to the Folio’s target audience: in place of standard media controls, there are direct shortcuts for a dialer, calendar, and microphone muting options designed for conference calls.
I’ve always found that a good way to test a laptop is to see if you can open the lid with one hand. If it’s effortless and the laptop doesn’t make a sound or wobble, then it’s probably built well. HP’s EliteBook Folio passes this test well, and the hinge even allows the display to lay perfectly flat with the keyboard. I can’t think of many situations in which I’d ever need to use it like that, but it’s a neat party trick.
The Folio might dazzle in terms of design, but the thin profile and light weight have compromised what’s inside. Like Apple’s similarly sized MacBook, the Folio has Core M5 or Core M7 processors, and they don’t really do the job. On the 4K model I regularly experienced problems with performance, and a video call would literally bring the laptop to its knees. I tried to adjust the volume on a call once and noticed that the function keys were warm to touch. The only good experience about the weird performance issues was that I couldn’t hear a fan whirring away because this is Intel’s fanless chip design.
4K on a 12.5-inch display is totally unnecessary right now
HP’s 1080p version of the Folio feels a lot less laggy. I still had the occasional hiccup during daily use even with the M7, but it was able to handle multiple apps a lot better. It’s clear the 4K panel is just too much for the Core M processors to handle, and it’s left me scratching my head wondering why HP felt it was a necessary addition.
As always, battery life is a concern for laptops that are lightweight and thin. HP’s EliteBook Folio is no exception to this rule. The 4K version taxes the battery as much as the processor — stamina was nothing short of terrible. I managed around three hours on average, and it meant I was charging up the laptop a lot more than I was expecting to. The 1080p version, on the other hand, managed to survive for nearly five hours on average. That’s still far short of what I’d expect from a premium laptop in 2016, and that’s without solid performance, too.
HP, like Apple, has opted for USB Type-C on the Folio, but thankfully HP has provided two ports instead of a single one. It makes it easy to charge and use accessories at the same time, but you’ll still need adapters for even the most basic tasks like charging your phone from the Folio. I was reminded of this when I traveled with the Folio and needed to charge my iPhone, or when a colleague handed me a USB key and I couldn’t do anything with it. You’ll need to carry adapters with you for existing USB peripherals, and it’s a necessary pain until the world switches over the USB Type-C. The only other port is the headphone jack, and thankfully HP hasn’t pushed to eradicate that just yet.
Software issues hold the Folio back
Windows 10 itself runs well on the EliteBook Folio, but I’ve experienced a variety of software issues related to HP’s own doing. HP has loaded up the Folio with a bunch of irritating built-in apps that generate notifications. You’ll get prompts for the trackpad and security apps, and if you alt-tab there’s a persistent blank keyboard app just sitting there ruining your ability to switch apps quickly. HP is ruining the Windows experience with this junk, and they’d do well to follow Dell’s example of keeping built-in apps and notifications to a bare minimum. I’ve also had a number of audio issues on the Folio where Windows 10 stops detecting that there’s speakers and refuses to play music. Sometimes a reboot solves this, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s a frustrating experience on a premium laptop that’s coupled with Bang & Olufsen speakers. Even as I type this review right now, Windows refuses to play audio.
I love the idea of a thin and lightweight laptop, and HP has really nailed the design with the EliteBook Folio. But right now, it’s a compromised machine for what feels like pure design and looks. USB Type-C isn’t mature, and the performance and battery life with the Intel Core M processor inside the Folio just doesn’t keep up with other laptops in this class. It’s a good start to creating a 12-inch MacBook running Windows, but the Folio needs some work behind the scenes before I’d be happy to label it a true MacBook competitor.