Elite Slice – HP’s cool future for the desktop
* OS: Windows 10 Pro x64
* CPU: 2.8GHz Core i7-6700T (Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz)
* RAM: 8GB 2133MHz DDR4 (single-channel, supports up to 32GB dual-channel)
* GPU: Intel HD 530 (integrated)
* HDD: 256GB SATA III SSD
* Networking: 867Mbps 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, Gigabit Ethernet
* Ports: 2x USB 3.0, DisplayPort 1.2, HDMI 1.4a, 2x USB-C
* Size: 6.5 x 6.5 x 1.38" (165 x 165 x 35mm) with no slices attached
* Other perks: Kensington lock, optional fingerprint reader, "Collaboration Cover"
* Warranty: 3 years
HP Elite Slice
Mini desktop PCs are a well-established market segment at this point, and they follow pretty much the same template. Take laptop or low-power desktop CPUs, slap them on a small motherboard that uses laptop-sized RAM and storage, and pop it all into a little case with lots of ports. It’s not an exciting formula, but it gets the job done. Today’s ultraportable laptops offer enough speed for most common tasks, and there’s no reason to provide a bunch of room for add-on cards and other upgrades that many users will never perform.
But what if there were another option that walked the line between a mini desktop and an old-school mini tower? A little PC with the virtues of a mini desktop, but one that could still be expanded and customized relatively easily? That’s the line the HP Elite Slice tries to walk. It’s a conventional business-focused mini desktop on the surface, but it also has a port on the bottom that allows you to stack it on top of other modules, adding and removing functionality as needed.
On paper, this is a cool idea with a lot of promise. Unfortunately, HP’s first try falls a little short of fulfilling that promise.
Look and feel
A couple of optional features only ship with customized models or with specific configurations; these can’t be added later, so make sure you’re getting what you want when you put in your order. One is a fingerprint reader mounted on the right side of the desktop. The other is called the “collaboration cover,” and it includes five glowing capacitive buttons aligned across the top front of the machine. These are intended to make the Elite Slice more convenient for teleconferencing. There’s one button for picking up calls, one for muting the mic, two buttons to control speaker volume, and one to end calls. The Elite Slice is perhaps a bit expensive for a dedicated teleconferencing box, but the buttons are more convenient than having to keep track of a wireless keyboard if you keep your computer in the middle of your conference table.The Elite Slice sits somewhere between Apple’s neglected Mac Mini and Intel’s NUC in size, a little pizza box with rounded corners. There’s a gap between the body of the computer and its lid—a fan vent runs around the perimeter of the system, and hot air is pushed out of this gap rather than through a vent in back. This approach takes up more space but also makes it harder to block the entire vent when the computer is tucked away. By itself, the Elite Slice measures 6.5 inches squared and is 1.38 inches tall, a little smaller than the Mac Mini (7.7 by 7.7 by 1.4 inches) but larger than the dual-core NUCs (4.53 by 4.37 by 1.26 inches). Unlike the Mac Mini, the Elite Slice uses an external power brick, which bumps up its total volume a bit.
Speaking of the included wireless keyboard and mouse, both are basically fine. The chiclet keyboard isn’t the best I’ve ever used (travel is both a little too shallow and the keys are a little too soft for my taste), but it didn’t introduce a ton of new typing errors, and a three-button mouse is a three-button mouse. The only frustrating thing—and this isn’t the first HP desktop I’ve used that has done this—is that the keyboard and mouse use a little wireless receiver instead of Bluetooth. This frees you from the occasionally frustrating Bluetooth pairing process, but it also blocks one of your USB-A ports right off the bat, and the Elite Slice only has two of them in the first place.
The increased size of the Elite Slice relative to the NUC is because the box uses regular socketed desktop processors rather than soldered-on Ultrabook processors. These 35W desktop processors are from Intel’s T-series rather than the conventional 65W desktop processors, but you can still get both dual-core and quad-core options, and general performance isn’t too much lower than what you get from the regular chjps. Our review unit uses a quad-core Core i7-6700T.
Yes, that’s a Skylake chip, and since Intel’s quad-core Kaby Lake-based CPUs just came out, that could potentially be an argument against buying this machine. Just bear in mind that Kaby Lake’s improvements over Skylake, especially in computers that are more thermally constrained, are small. The Core i7-7700T has a base clock that is just 100MHz faster than the i7-6700T and a Turbo Boost clock that’s just 300MHz faster. That’s not nothing, but it’s not a difference you’re going to notice most of the time. The performance of the integrated GPU will be about the same, too, though Kaby Lake chips do support HDMI 2.0 and some hardware-accelerated 4K video encoding and decoding options that Skylake doesn’t have.
Keep all of that in mind if you’re in the market for one of these things, and also keep in mind that HP (or even an end user, theoretically) could update the hardware to Kaby Lake with an easy processor swap. That’s the benefit of socketed CPUs.
That said, you will pay a fair amount to get quad-core performance. The $699 base model is outfitted with a dual-core i3-6100T, a chip that performs a lot more like the NUC; that model also comes with 4GB of RAM and a 500GB spinning hard drive, which is pretty skimpy for a desktop computer these days. The $899 model offers probably the best combination of performance and price—it steps up to 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SATA SSD, and it includes a quad-core i5-6500T. The $999 model gives you the Core i7 that we have in our review unit, but all the other specs are the same.
The port selection in the Elite Slice is pretty good, though the lack of an SD card slot is a bummer: There’s a power button, power jack, gigabit Ethernet port, a USB-C port, two USB-A ports, a full-size DisplayPort, a full-size HDMI port, and a lock slot on the back, and there’s a headphone jack and a USB-C port on the left side. The layout is sub-optimal, though—having the power button on the back and no ports on the front makes it more difficult to put the desktop in a confined place—one of the selling points of a mini-desktop. And as glad as I am to see USB-C in the Slice, if you’re going to pick one port to put on the side in 2017, USB-C probably isn’t the best one. Pairing it with a USB-A port would have been a better way to keep users out of dongle hell.
It’s also too bad that the Elite Slice isn’t using Thunderbolt instead of plain-old USB-C—not just because it limits future expandability through third-party accessories, but because it limits the kinds of “slices” HP can make.
Slice and dice
So by itself, this is a competent but not especially exciting mini PC. The inclusion of quad-core CPUs sets it apart from most of the NUC lineup, but its larger size, lack of Thunderbolt, and slower GPU means it’s not an upgrade in every respect.
The big selling point here is the “slice” system of external accessories that HP has created to bring an element of desktop-style upgradeability and extendibility to a more compact, tightly integrated system. Slices connect to the rest of the system via a proprietary connector that uses USB, and they can be attached, combined, and removed at will.
The only slice HP sent for us to play with was a Bang & Olufson-branded speaker module, which adds an inch or so to the desktop’s height in exchange for better sound than you get from the Slice’s tinny, deficient internal speaker. If you buy this thing for video conferencing and don’t have a TV or external speaker to hook it into, you’ll want the speaker attachment, even though it doesn’t exactly turn the Elite Slice into a multimedia workstation.
Other slices include an optical disc drive module and a VESA mount module for attaching the desktop to the back of a monitor or TV.
The most disappointing thing about the slice system is that there are so few of them, and the slices that are there mostly add non-critical functionality. How about a slice that adds a 2.5-inch hard drive bay or two to expand storage or enable NAS usage? Why not a slice with extra ports?
HP’s decision to use USB-C instead of Thunderbolt limits the amount of available bandwidth, which in turn limits the kinds of slices the company can come up with. A decent GPU slice, especially when combined with the quad-core CPU option, could make the Elite Slice a plausible gaming and CAD box or a multi-monitor workstation (the Slice’s built-in HDMI, USB-C, and DisplayPort outputs can drive three screens at once, but an Nvidia slice could drive four and an AMD slice could drive six). Slices with M.2 slots could be used to add more high-speed storage. But USB doesn’t have the bandwidth to handle that sort of thing, so the slice system will never be quite as cool or as useful as it feels like it could be.
If you prefer to take a screwdriver and upgrade your desktops the old-fashioned way, the Elite Slice does allow for a limited amount of upgrading and expansion.
Remove all of the attached slices and you’ll see four small Phillips head screws; loosen these (they’re captive so they won’t come loose and roll everywhere) and the bottom of the computer comes right off, exposing the 2.5-inch SATA drive bay and two laptop-sized DDR4 RAM slots. The spec sheet does list an M.2 slot that should be compatible with faster PCI Express SSDs, but it isn’t accessible yet.
To reach it, loosen four more Phillips head screws underneath the bottom cover—they’re at the corners of the desktop and they’re hard to miss. Once you’ve done this, the lid of the desktop pops off—if you have the “collaboration cover,” make sure you detach the cable that runs from the motherboard to the lid so you don’t damage anything. From here, you can freely access the M.2 slot used for the wireless card, but to get at the slot for the SSD, you’ll also need to completely remove the fan and heatsink assembly. It’s not difficult, but just make sure you clean the thermal paste off of the CPU and the heatsink and reapply some more, since just replacing the heatsink without reapplying can introduce air gaps that make it harder to transfer heat from the processor to the heatsink.
The M.2 slot will take standard 80mm cards, it’s present whether you order the PC with an M.2 SSD or not, and it should be compatible with both SATA and PCIe SSDs (SATA is cheaper, PCIe is faster). Keep the slot’s existence in mind if you want to speed up or expand the Elite Slice’s storage later on.
Software and performance
The Elite Slice can run either Windows 10 or Windows 10 Pro, and aside from a handful of preinstalled HP driver and utility apps, it’s a relatively clean install of the operating system (this is usually true of business-class systems). Recovery partitions eat up around 14GB of your available disk space, though this space can be reclaimed if you’re OK with using Windows’ native recovery tools.
We already talked about the range of CPU configurations and the box’s upgradeability, but to recap: we’re looking at dual- or quad-core Skylake processors, basic integrated graphics, DDR4 RAM, and 2.5-inch SATA HDDs or SSDs. 867Mbps 802.11ac wireless and Bluetooth connectivity round out its capabilities.
Based on the configuration you order, note that the Elite Slice may come with just one of its RAM slots populated. This is good for upgraders who want to be able to add memory without throwing out what came with the system. But it’s not great for performance, since it restricts the system to single-channel memory mode. This most affects cryptography performance (according to Geekbench 4) and the integrated GPU, which performs 10 to 25 percent better with a dual-channel memory configuration. We’ve included both single- and dual-channel performance numbers in our charts so you can see the difference for yourself.
A cool idea, if unexciting in practice
I’d like to see the idea behind the HP Elite Slice—taking a miniature desktop and making it almost as expandable and versatile as a full-sized tower—standardized and picked up by other PC makers. If everyone could agree on a standard interface and form factor, we could see a proliferation of expandable mini PCs that could replace an ever-wider array of full-sized desktops. Right now, they’re best as replacements for humdrum office minitowers—a substantial part of the desktop market’s volume, no doubt, but not an especially capable or exciting subsection.
It’s too bad that the HP Elite Slice doesn’t really live up to that promise. It’s still a capable mini desktop, especially if you really want a quad-core CPU and a good amount of internal upgradeability. But the slices that exist for it are either humdrum (an OK-ish speaker, a VESA mount) or anachronistic (a DVD burner). Slices to boost performance or add big pools of storage would be great, but they’re not available, and HP’s choice of interface limits the kinds of slices it could include in future.
That leaves us with a business-focused mini desktop that offers clear advantages over Intel’s mainstream NUCs—quad-core CPU availability chief among them. But those advantages are shared by other business mini desktops like Lenovo’s ThinkCentre Tiny lineup or Dell’s Optiplex Micro PCs. The slices and add-ons like the video conferencing shortcut buttons may make the Elite Slice a better fit for certain situations, but they don’t make it stand out like it could.
* Quad-core CPU options mean the Slice can be pretty speedy, at least if you don't need a powerful GPU
* Small and attractive
* Decent port selection, including display outputs
* Speaker and optical disk drive slices make it easier and cleaner to add this stuff than it is for most mini PCs
* SATA port, two RAM slots, an M.2 slot, and a CPU socket make it about as upgradeable as most mini desktops get
* Standard three-year warranty
* Only one port on the front or either side, and it's USB-C.
* Thunderbolt 3 would be a better fit than USB-C for expandability.
* Wireless keyboard and mouse have a USB receiver that blocks one of your USB ports if you use it.
* Best configuration options get a little pricey
* The slices don't actually do all that much