The HP Pro Slate 12's huge size is likely to turn heads, but what you should really pay attention to is its pen tech: The tablet can use ultrasonic sound waves to capture notes written on ordinary paper, instantly creating a digital copy.
Other highlights include solid performance; hardware-enabled security; epic battery life; and a huge, 12.3-inch screen that's big enough for serious productivity. On the other hand, the Pro Slate 12 ($569) is heftier than many laptops when you include the bulky folio case that's practically required to use the pen. And while Android is getting better all the time, many business users might prefer a Windows device.
So, can its nifty stylus tech lift the Pro Slate 12 above pen-ready rivals like the Microsoft Surface 3 and the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro?
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Let's cut to the chase: Besides its large size, the Slate Pro 12's Duet Pen accessory is the main draw (no pun intended) of this slate. As the name implies, there are two ways to use it.
First, you can write directly on the tablet's display, as you would with any other tablet pen. But unlike capacitive styluses — the kind you'd buy for your iPad — the Duet Pen offers full pressure sensitivity. That's possible thanks to the Wacom digitizer built into the display that can recognize up to 2,048 levels of pressure — in other words, how hard you're pressing down with the pen.
First, you can write directly on the tablet's display like you would with any other tablet pen. But unlike capacitive styluses – the kind you'd buy for your iPad – the Duet Pen offers full pressure sensitivity. That means you can feather your pen stroke and vary the weight of your line, just like you would with a regular ink pen. The result is an extremely smooth, natural writing experience.
It's not perfect, though. The example above shows that writing on the HP Pro Slate is not quite as smooth as writing on the Surface Pro 3. Notice the slight wobble in the Pro Slate 12's line.
The second way to use the stylus is where things get really interesting, though. You can actually write directly on a sheet of physical notebook paper -- placed directly beside the tablet -- and have your marks mirrored on the tablet screen in real time. The plastic pen tip itself can actually be popped out and flipped around, revealing a regular ink pen tip.
Using the Duet Pen this way looks (and feels) like magic. So, how does it work? The Pro Slate 12 has four microphones that can detect inaudible, ultrasonic sound waves emitted by the pen to determine its exact position. The result: Every mark you make on the notebook is replicated almost exactly inside the HP Notes application on your tablet, simultaneously creating a digital copy that can be backed up to the cloud and shared wirelessly. It's a great solution for business users who prefer the tactile feel and flexibility of taking notes on traditional pen and paper, but don't want to lose the benefits of digital notes.
It works a lot like the Livescribe pen, which uses a tiny pen-mounted camera to digitize your handwritten notes. But while the Livescribe requires special paper, the Duet Pen works with any old notepad. On the other hand, Livescribe's pen can be paired with just about any tablet, and your slate doesn't have to be sitting right next to the notepad for the system to work.
I wish that HP had taken steps to make this functionality more user-friendly, though. To get it to work, you have to first dig through the main Settings menu to wirelessly pair your pen to the tablet. Then, you have to position the tablet beside your notebook in portrait orientation, with the tablet's docking port facing the notepad. I spent a frustrating half-hour with the tablet in the wrong orientation, trying to get the Duet Pen to work. Plus, it only works when you open a special "Capture Book" inside the HP Notes app. These steps weren't spelled out clearly in any documentation that came with the Pro Slate 12, which made for some frustrating first impressions.
When you get it to work, though, it works very well.
The Duet Pen feels a bit cheap compared to the Surface Pro 3's stylus. It's made primarily from plastic, and the design looks utilitarian.
Instead of using a replaceable battery, the pen has a small flap that can be flipped open to reveal a standard micro-USB charging port. HP says the pen can last about a week on a charge, which is decent.
The flap over the pen's charging port feels cheap and flimsy, though, as though it might break off at any second. And while the pen cap does snap onto the back of the pen while you're writing, it snaps off just as easily. I would expect to lose it in a hurry. There's no place to stow the pen on the tablet when it's not in use, either.
On the bright side, the Duet Pen comes included with the Pro Slate 12 out of the box. The Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 also comes with a stylus, but Microsoft's Surface pen must be purchased separately for an additional $50.
The Duet Pen's biggest limitation is that your paper notebook must be perfectly aligned with the side edge of the tablet in order for your notes to be transferred correctly. That's why HP sells a folio case that secures the tablet on one side and a notebook on the other.
It's a nice solution, but it's not perfect. For starters, the folio setup takes up a lot of space at your desk or table. Plus, the folio nearly doubles the tablet's weight, making it less portable.
My other complaint is that the folio itself, while handsome, is made from a tacky polyurethane material that picks up dirt and dust fairly easily. Be prepared to wipe it off with a wet rag once a week or so.
Of course, the folio case isn't required. You can carefully position your notebook next to the tablet, or just take digital notes directly on the tablet's screen instead. In fact, I suspect that many pen-and-paper devotees will do just that when they see how good the Pro Slate 12's digital inking feels.
Now here's something you don't see every day: an Android tablet that's as big as the screen on an average laptop computer. The Pro Slate 12 has a larger footprint than any Android slate I've ever seen, with a whopping 12.3-inch display.
The Pro Slate 12 is a nice-looking tablet, with a metal back, beveled metal edging, and big speaker grilles along the top and bottom of the display. It actually looks a lot like an oversize version of HTC's One M9 smartphone, and that's a compliment. The whole thing feels extremely solid and durable.
As Apple did with the iPad, HP chose a 4:3 aspect ratio for the Pro Slate 12 that's wider than the typical 16:9 wide-screen format of most tablets these days. That's a great choice for a productivity device, since the format is about the same dimensions as a typical sheet of paper. In fact, the Pro Slate 12 is wider than the Surface 3, which has a 12.2-inch screen with a 3:2 aspect ratio. Tasks like taking notes and viewing spreadsheets feel more comfortable on the wider format, in my opinion.
The Pro Slate 12 is a big, heavy device, but no more so than most competing slates. At 0.31 inches thick, the device is just as slim as Samsung's Android-powered Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 (0.31 inches) and slightly thinner than the Surface Pro 3 (0.35 inches). Weighing 1.87 lbs., it's a smidge heftier than the Surface Pro 3 (1.76 lbs.) and the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 (1.65 lbs.), though the Pro Slate 12 has a slightly larger screen than those devices.
At 12.3 inches when measured diagonally, the Pro Slate 12's display is a hair larger than the screens on competing tablets like the Surface Pro 3 and the Galaxy Note Pro 12.2. On the other hand, those slates have displays that are sharper and brighter.
For a screen this size, the Pro Slate 12's 1,600 x 900-pixel resolution is a bit on the low end, but it looks nice enough, with good viewing angles and adequate sharpness.
Feel free to leave your charger at home. The HP Pro Slate 12 ran for an epic 12 hours and 28 minutes in our battery life test, which simulates continuous Web browsing via Wi-Fi with the screen set to 100 nits of brightness. That makes it one of the longest-lasting tablets we've ever tested, with longevity well above the 8 hour and 23 minute tablet average. It also lasted way longer than the Surface Pro 3 (7:27), Surface 3 (8:01) and Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 (9:32).
The Pro Slate 12 comes with a fairly clean installation of Android 5.0 Lollipop, the latest version of Google's mobile operating system. Lollipop is a great OS for tablets and smartphones, with a better library of touch-friendly apps than you'll find on a Windows tablet like the Surface 3 or Surface Pro 3.
But Android isn't right for everyone. For starters, the operating system is a deal breaker for users who depend on a particular piece of Windows-exclusive software to do their jobs. You might be surprised at how robust the Android app library has become, though. For example, a full-featured version of the Microsoft Office suite is now available on the platform.
The stock version of Android Lollipop lacks the ability to run apps in a split-screen mode, which seriously hampers multitasking on the Pro Slate 12. That's no big deal when we're talking about smaller, cheaper tablets, but it's disappointing in a tablet that's as expensive as some laptops — especially when some tablet makers, such as LG and Samsung, do add that functionality to their Android slates.
A bunch of useful productivity apps come preinstalled on the Pro Slate 12. They include Evernote and HP Notes for saving notes digitally; Google Docs, Sheets and Slides for creating documents, spreadsheets and presentations; Google Calendar for maintaining your schedule; and Skype for basic videoconferencing.
HP added a few nice security features to help make the Pro Slate 12 enterprise-ready, including built-in hardware encryption and secure boot protocols. You also get HP Touchpoint Manager, which lets your company's IT department remotely locate, lock or wipe the device if it's lost or stolen.
The Pro Slate 12 is a pretty capable Android tablet, even if it's not as fast as the Surface Pro 3, which runs on a desktop-grade processor. Opening and closing apps on the Pro Slate 12 felt zippy, and multitasking was smooth during my test period.
It runs on a 2.3-GHz Snapdragon 800 processor with 2GB of RAM, and showed solid performance in our benchmark tests. On the Geekbench 3 test, which measures overall performance, the slate notched a respectable score of 2,789. That beats the Samsung Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 (2,595), but trails the Intel Core M-powered Surface 3 (3,351) and Core i5-powered Surface Pro 3 (5,665).
Microsoft's Surface 3 has a smaller, 10-inch display but offers faster performance than the Pro Slate 12, and runs on Windows 8.1 instead of Android. Expect a comparable pen experience for writing directly on the display.
Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 is pricier than the Pro Slate 12, and comes with a slightly smaller, 12.2-inch display. On the other hand, you get the versatility of Windows 8.1, desktop-level performance and excellent digital inking capabilities.
Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 is another Android-powered, pen-equipped tablet that has a smaller, 10.1-inch display and slightly slower performance than the Pro Slate 12. It's cheaper and more portable than HP's slate, though.
Samsung's Galaxy Note Pro 12.2 gives you a big, 12.2-inch display and performance comparable to that of the Pro Slate 12. You don't get the Pro Slate 12's pen-and-paper capabilities, but you do get handy software features like the ability to view up to four apps at once in a split-screen view.
HP's Pro Slate 8 offers nearly identical functionality to the Pro Slate 12, but in a smaller, more portable 7.9-inch package. It's also $120 cheaper.
The HP Pro Slate 12 is a really nice tablet for a niche audience. If you're intrigued by the perks of digital note-taking but don't want to give up the tactile feel of pen on paper, then there are some really interesting possibilities here. You also get pretty good performance, long battery life, and a durable metal build. But I'm not sure how many users will want to lug around a tablet this big and heavy when it runs on a mobile operating system.
The Pro Slate 12 has a lot to offer business users, but give the more versatile Surface 3 and the more portable HP Pro Slate 8 a look before you commit to buying it.