Hands-on with HP's Pro Slate 8 (and the giant 12-inch one) and its crazy stylus

There was a time not long ago where the only tablet manufacturers worth mentioning were Apple and Samsung. Today that's all changed, with practically every major company that makes Android tablets actually making one that's pretty good. HP's no exception — they've had some major disappointments in Android tablets, for sure — but their new HP Pro Slate 8 and Pro Slate 12 tablets seem really good, if not potentially great, now that we've got our paws on them.

Both tablets sport a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 processor with four cores clocked at 2.3GHz, and they're both impressively thin at 8mm. The Pro Slate 8 has a 7.9-inch 2048x1536 display, the same as you would find in an iPad Mini, while the Pro Slate 12's display is a 12.3-inch 1600x1200 panel.

Yes, those are both 4:3, and yes the much larger 12 has a significantly-less-pixel-ey display than the 8. But that's okay — in the time we played with the two we didn't particularly notice the 12's lesser resolution. Technically-speaking, that display reaches "retina" quality at a mere 21 inches from your eyes, and considering how big this tablet is, you're not going to be holding it super close.

These tablets are running a mostly unadulterated version of Android 4.4 KitKat. There's no custom skin here, and just a handful of additional apps, mostly all business-focused (or at least the kind of apps business types would appreciate or think they need): Avast Mobile, Corel Painter Mobile, Evernote, HP Media Player, HP Notes, HP Support Assistant, HP Touchpoint, JeyVPN, Register, Rescue, Skype, and WPS Office.

But all of this pales in comparison to the stylus support. Both the Pro Slate 8 and 12 come with the HP Duet Pen, an ultrasonic stylus that can also double as a real ink-on-paper pen. What makes it unique is a bit of Qualcomm tech that uses a quartet of microphones on the front of the tablet (those dots in the the corners of each speaker grille) to locate the stylus in three dimensions based on the doppler shift of incredibly-high-pitched wailing emanating from the pen. It's sensitive enough to pick up the stylus when it's over but not touching the display, and can track with enough precision to judge pressure.

This all comes into play with the HP Notes app, which takes your scribbles and converts them into digital notes. The real trick feature here is that the pen tracking also works away from the screen. You can write onto a pad of paper mounted in the optional Folio case and the tech will track the pen and duplicate onto the tablet what you've scrawled onto the paper, and it does so in an incredibly accurate and practically instantaneous manner. It's really quite impressive, especially when you consider that earlier takes at this live-transcribing-from-paper concept depended on slipping a pressure-sensitive pad underneath your paper to pick up your writings.

The HP Pro Slate 8 and 12 are impressive tablets. They're solidly built, have decent quality displays, and a really neat pen technology that we can see making these a valued choice for business types that need the ability to take notes, draw, or otherwise use a pen but in a convenient digital format. That might limit this to a niche product, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Derek Kessler

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm (the old one), and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.