If Hewlett-Packard Co. had shipped me a $200 Windows laptop a couple of years ago, I’d have torn the box apart trying to get at it. But when the new HP Stream 11 showed up a few weeks ago, I wasn’t in any hurry to try it out.
This compact and colorful budget computer would have been a great idea back in 2013. Today, it has already been outflanked by sleek, quick Chromebook laptops from Samsung, Acer, and even HP itself. The Chromebooks run stripped-down, Internet-centric software developed by Google Inc., instead of Microsoft Corp.’s Windows operating system.
And millions of consumers don’t care. For the most common computing jobs, Chromebooks work fine, just like the Windows-free smartphones and tablets we’ve learned to love. And at $200 to $350, Chromebooks are much cheaper than most Windows laptops.
Enter the Stream 11, a cute little machine with the price tag and looks to compete against the Chromebooks, but not quite enough computing muscle to lug around its Microsoft’s beefy Windows 8 operating system.
While Chromebook designers have mostly opted for sleek gray plastic, the Stream is downright gaudy. Take your pick — hot pink or deep blue. The video screen isn’t nearly as good looking. It’s got decent resolution, but image quality falls off fast when viewed at an angle. Just tilting your head is enough to spoil the effect. On the other hand, the built-in stereo speakers offer plenty of volume and respectable audio fidelity.
The Stream comes with ports aplenty — two USB connections, an HDMI for hooking up your TV, and a slot for SD memory cards. You may need it. It comes with just 32 gigabytes of built-in flash memory storage, and only about 20 of that is available for your files.
Then again, like a Chromebook, the Stream is designed to spend most of its life online. You get a free terabyte of online storage for one year on Microsoft’s OneDrive service, normally priced at $6.99 a month. And while Chromebooks work with Google’s entry level office applications, the Stream gives you a free year’s worth of Office 365, the $99-a-year Internet-connected version of Microsoft’s classic Office software, including Word, PowerPoint, and Excel.
HP claims eight hours of battery life for the Stream 11, which sounds plausible enough. I streamed movies from Netflix through the laptop’s Wi-Fi connection for five hours before the battery died. So it ought to hold out even longer when used for less demanding tasks, such as tweeting and Facebooking.
The Stream is loaded with Windows 8.1, and a good thing too. I find the original Windows 8 barely usable. Windows 8.1 contains just enough tweaks to make it barely tolerable. For instance, the Stream displays an old-school Windows 7-style desktop when you boot up. It hides those big, blocky tiles Microsoft created for use on touchscreen computers, which are almost useless on a nontouchscreen device like the Stream. Windows 8.1 also has a good search feature that simultaneously finds files on the computer and on the Internet, using Microsoft’s Bing search engine.
Windows 10, Microsoft’s major overhaul that’s supposed to come out by midyear, is shaping up as a vast improvement over Windows 8. And on Wednesday, Microsoft said that Windows 10 will be available for one year as a free upgrade to Windows 7 and 8 users. But an HP spokeswoman said she doesn’t know whether the Stream will be Windows 10 compatible.
The Stream is a decent effort at a Chromebook-killer but not quite decent enough. It’s just too slow. The machine’s got a dual-core Intel Celeron processor that often seems to lag a couple of keystrokes behind. Casual users who stick to e-mail, social networking, movies, and music will do all right. But the Chromebooks I’ve tested usually perform these tasks much faster.
I blame Windows. The software is for heavy-duty computing — astrophysics research, commodities trading, first-person video-games — and is designed to run on traditional computers with quad-core processors and lots of memory. Chrome was created for simpler tasks and runs well on simpler hardware. To get the same snappy performance out of Windows 8.1, the Stream needs a faster, more costly processor, and there goes your $200 price tag.
A respectable Windows machine will cost you more like $350. It’s a sound investment if you rely on Office and other Windows programs. But fewer of us do nowadays, thanks to devices like the Chromebook. It’ll take more than the Stream to turn that tide.