One of the biggest advantages Microsoft’s Windows platform has over Apple’s Mac operating system is its seemingly limitless choices.
Windows laptops come in all different colours, shapes, sizes, and prices, while Apple doesn’t really offer a budget option for its customers.
Spending $US500 or less on a laptop is usually considered cheap, but HP’s new Stream laptop is so inexpensive its price is almost unheard of.
The Windows 8-powered Stream starts at $US199 — which is less than half of what you’d usually pay for a computer of its size.
That’s because Windows computers aren’t just competing against Macs anymore. Over the past several years, laptop manufacturers have been working with Google to release a newer type of computer called the Chromebook.
Unlike Windows or Mac laptops, Chromebooks are primarily designed to work with an Internet connection, and the offline experience is still limited. You can’t run desktop programs like iTunes or Skype since only a select few services work offline.
They’re incredibly cheap (usually in the $US200-$US380 range), and that’s why they have become so appealing — especially in classrooms. Microsoft is now trying to compete against Chromebooks with Windows computers like the Stream, which offer the full benefit of Windows at a similar price point.
But does a $US200 computer work well enough to justify the purchase, or is it worth holding out for a more powerful machine? My general take is that the Stream is more than capable of handling basic tasks like a Chromebook can, but you should seriously consider what you use your laptop for the most.
HP offers a few versions of the Stream — one with an 11-inch screen that starts at $US199, one with a 13.3-inch screen that starts at $US229, and another with a bigger 14-inch display that starts at $US299. On all models, you get a 1366 x 768 resolution screen, 2GB of memory, Windows 8.1, and an Intel Celeron processor. You also get a one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 for free.
If you primarily use the internet and can get by without any desktop programs, go for the Chromebook. It loads web pages extremely fast, which was one of the few drawbacks I noticed with the HP Stream. For a super cheap computer, the Stream ran pretty smoothly any booted up quickly (only 9 seconds!). But web pages loaded noticeably slow on both my home and work Wi-Fi networks, which are usually both fairly fast.
The HP Stream isn’t the sexiest-looking gadget, but it’s damn light, which is important if you frequently commute with your laptop or take it to class. I traveled with the HP Stream in my purse on the subway and it never weighed my shoulder down. In fact, I almost forgot I even had a computer in my bag.
The deep blue colour was attractive enough, but the plasticky, two-toned blue keyboard deck made it feel a bit like a toy. Again, this is a laptop that’s about a quarter of the price of something like the MacBook Air, so I wasn’t expecting the most premium design.
The keyboard itself was surprising sturdy. Although the individual keys felt a bit cheap, I didn’t experience that flexy feeling I’ve dealt with previously when using cheap laptops. With some inexpensive notebooks, pushing down on the keyboard repeatedly or too hard will cause it to slightly sink in. This never happened with the Stream, though, which is impressive.
The touchpad wasn’t as fluid as I had hoped, though. It felt a bit sticky as I moved the mouse pointer around the screen.
If you watch a lot of Netflix on your computer or frequently blast music through Spotify or iTunes, expect the experience to be mediocre. The screen on the Stream is bright, but sometimes the colour gets a little washed out. Text also isn’t very sharp on the screen, as I noticed black text fading slightly into the white background when reading news articles and browsing the web.
The audio also sounded shallow, almost as if I was watching a video through a phone rather than a laptop.
But the battery life proved to be pretty remarkable. With mixed usage, the Stream lasted for about a day and half. I left it in standby mode overnight and when it wasn’t in use, and I used it sporadically over the course of two work days to stream Netflix and get some work done. Other outlets that perform quantitative battery tests like PCMag reported that it lasted for 9 hours on a single charge.
All of these minor gripes aside, the experience you get with the HP Stream is completely passable and satisfactory given its price. It’s not the greatest computer, but it’s not trying to be. It’s meant to be a general purpose laptop that anyone can afford, which is exactly what it is. While the screen may not be the best and the touchpad may not be the smoothest, everything works well enough to justify the purchase.
If you don’t want to invest a lot in a new laptop and really need something for getting work done, the Stream is worth it. But just keep in mind that it’s also worth at least eyeballing some Chromebooks.