I just got finished rounding up the best Chromebooks out there, but there's more to the world of dirt-cheap computing than Google's browser-machines. The HP Stream is a $299 full-Windows laptop, and it's surprisingly good.
What Is It?
- Processor: 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840
- RAM: 2GB
- Screen: 11.6-inch 720p
- Memory: 32GB
- Camera: N/A
- Connectivity: Wi-Fi
A $299 laptop from HP that runs full Windows 8. A pokey little guy with a colourful finish, a 720p screen, a dual-core Intel Bay Trail processor, and 2GB of RAM. A chance for Microsoft to take on the Chromebook. Damn good for a $299 machine.
There have always been cheap Windows laptops, but this Windows laptop is super cheap. At $299, the HP Stream 11 doesn't cost a penny more than the cheapest Chromebooks currently available. But unlike Chromebooks, this dirt-cheap laptop isn't handicapped by a web-browser based OS or the need for a constant internet connection. Windows 8 gives you access to way more programs than a Chromebook ever could. That is, as long as the processor can keep up.
When I first looked at the HP Stream 11, I thought it looked dumb. With its cartoony blue exterior (also available in pink!) it's a little silly-looking from the get-go, and the colour gradient on the frame next to the keyboard only made it worse. But after a while, it really grew on me. Sure, it's still a little Fisher Price-y, but in a charming sort of way. Also, at $299, I'm hard-pressed to complain about aesthetics.
More important than looks is build quality, and the HP Stream 11 is a solid little tyke. It's got a slightly squishy but completely typeable keyboard that's even a little better than the Toshiba Chromebook 2, one of my favourite Chromebooks yet. (The $350 Acer Chromebook 14's keys are nicer, with a little more throw, but not $50 nicer if you get my drift.) There's virtually no flex to the Stream 11's keyboard tray, even if you're pushing on the frame deliberately hard. Most importantly, I don't mind typing on this thing at all. In fact, I typed about half this review on it.
The solid feel holds up elsewhere. The hinge isn't flimsy, as it can be on a lot of laptops down in this price range. The Stream doesn't have a touchscreen, so it's not like that hinge has to stand up to you poking the display, but it could if it had to. The whole thing seems like it could take a moderate beating, the kind you might subject a $299 laptop to because you don't particularly care if it survives.
It's not all sunshine and roses though: the screen is an obvious place where corners were cut. The matte 1366 x 768 display is pretty rough. It has that "bad matte screen" rainbow effect that makes whites look distorted. The screen is totally serviceable, sure, but it's more like what you might expect to find attached to a ageing public terminal somewhere as opposed to attached to your laptop. Web browsing, sure. Movie watching? Not if you can avoid it.
That's just the screen's fault though; the Stream's bottom-facing speakers are surprisingly competent. With the volume turned all the way up they can be almost uncomfortably loud, and while the quality is nothing to write home about, they aren't tinny or distorted. I could actually hear the basslines in the music I tried listening to. Not bad for $299!
The touchpad, unfortunately, isn't such a pleasant surprise. It's serviceable but far from great, and not quite good. I've had more than my fair share of misclicks, like bringing up the right-click menu and having the cursor select an option seemingly of its own volition, or having the mouse drift just slightly to the right while I'm trying to click something small.
Fortunately you can avoid one or both of those things with a Bluetooth mouse and/or by using the Stream's HDMI port to hook up to a prettier monitor, though resolutions higher than the native 1366 x 768 start putting a lot more stress on the lappy's lacking guts. In addition, the Stream's also got a USB 2.0 port, a USB 3.0 port, and an SD card reader. All the bare essentials, unless you're that guy who's still keeping the optical disc companies in business.
Using the Stream is just like using any other Windows 8.1 machine, but with the caveat that you have to be prepared for plenty of stuff not to work. Chromebooks get around having low-power guts by using an OS that won't touch most of the things they can't handle (with the exception of some more sophisticated Chrome and OpenGL games).
Instead, the Stream's full Windows 8.1 basically begs you to download everything you could ever want to download, and discover on your own what won't work. The limitations are pretty obvious. PC games are pretty much out. Ditto Photoshop or anything else that's even remotely graphics intensive. But what else would you expect from a $300 machine?
That doesn't mean that full Windows is not without its huge perks. The HP Stream 11 is the cheapest laptop I've ever actually been able to get any work done on because it can run AIM clients (which are how many of us chat at Gizmodo). Spotify's dedicated streaming music app also works swimmingly. Same with the dedicated TweetDeck app and other little creature-comfort type applications. Being able to use Pidgin for chat instead of loading up some Chrome tab goes a long way towards making you feel like you're using a real computer.
The big work-draw for most people is going to be Office. Not only can the HP Stream 11 run classics like Word and Excel (and run them damn well -- surprisingly silky smooth performance here) it also comes with Office 365 Personal for a year. That includes must-haves Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook among others, and includes 1TB of OneDrive storage. Those full, robust applications beat the hell out of being stuck with Google Docs like you are on a Chromebook. I found that the Stream can run every member of the suite admirably (though not at the same time), which makes it the best out-of-the-box productivity machine you can get for the price.
On the web-browsing side, the HP Stream 11 is a little more competent than your average Chromebook, which is to say it can handle its fair share of tabs. While I was testing it, I found I could noodle around in a window with some 9 or 10 tabs -- even a few really heavy ones like Tweetdeck and Chartbeat -- before the lag started really kicking in. Even then, I could still eke out choppy but usable performance with as many as a dozen tabs going at once. That's far from unlimited, but it's damn good for 300-dollar fare, and better performance that I've seen on any Chromebook packing anything less than a Core i3 processor.
The catch is that you pay for that performance in battery life. The Stream couldn't hit the 6-hour mark in my tests, and charted closer to five hours in my more anecdotal "I'm just gonna work on this thing for a while" sessions. You can probably stretch it some by tuning the power-settings something fierce, but at the end of the day the Stream is a half-day device, a three-quarter day device on the outside. It's good for doing a little work, sure, but if you plan to spend a whole day on the thing, you're going to need an outlet.
Full-on Windows 8.1 means there aren't any up-front roadblocks to what you can try to run. It's nice to have an app-menu that isn't immediately limited like it is on a Chromebook. Spotify, Pidgin, MS Office. The world is yours!
The build quality is solid, the keyboard especially. This is a pain point for a lot of cheaper devices -- I am looking at you, Chromebooks -- but the Stream nails it. I've never been happier typing on such a cheap device. That's a super important quality for something designed in part to be a Microsoft Office machine.
The Stream comes with a year of Office 365 Personal, which in turn comes with 1TB of OneDrive storage. That's a $89 value right there, which takes the entry price of the Stream down to a ludicrous $210 if you were going to pick up Office 365 anyway.
The Stream 11 is a budget machine but it runs well. Performance in Microsoft Word is great, and it can handle its fair share of Chrome tabs too. It's not powerful by any means but it's damn solid for the price point.
Full-on Windows 8.1 means there aren't any up-front roadblocks to what you can try to run. If you don't keep the Stream's lack of processing power in mind -- or give a Stream to grandma who doesn't know any better -- you're bound to run into some bad times. ChromeOS can't do nearly as much as Windows 8.1 can, but the first time you go through the trouble of installing a Windows-compatible program that the Stream just can't handle, it makes ChromeOS's more explicit limitations feel sort of convenient.
Also, the Stream can get malware, and comes complete with some HP bloat.
The screen is pretty bad. A $US200 computer has to cut corners somewhere, but that screen is just barely serviceable.
The Stream's battery life is not great. It's not a disaster, but in our battery test it barely limped up to the six hour line and collapsed before it could cross. That's worse than any Chromebook I've tested so far. And when I was using it for work (what I'd considering pretty intense use) I got closer to five. Again, it's a half-day device.
Should You Buy It?
Are you looking for a $US200 laptop? A cheap-arse device that is good for doing typey things? A budget machine you plan to use exclusively for light web-browsing and MS Office-ing? Then yes, yes, and yes. The HP Stream 11 is not a powerful machine, obviously, but it's worth every penny of its $US200 price. With killer build quality and above average performance for its price-range, the Stream definitely puts the pressure on Chromebooks.
The only big sacrifices you're making are battery life and screen quality. Maybe the touchpad, too. The Stream is not a great option for watching or looking at pretty things, and it will never ever be able to last a whole work day. But if neither of those things are a problem for you, the Stream is a damn good bargain.