Several years ago, netbooks presented a new era for low-cost computing that ultimately ended up being a huge disaster, as they were underpowered and overpromised. In fact, I had an HP mini 311 that could not run a 720p YouTube video full-screen and battery life was a measly 3 hours.
This time around, with a more powerful processor, better battery life, and a new OS, HP is hoping the Stream 11, which costs $200, will entice consumers into taking a second look at entry-level options.
With Chromebooks slowly gaining popularity for their ease of use and low price, Microsoft and HP both need entry-level Windows machines to take Google head-on, and to make sure that their premium products and services are not overrun by free options from Google. The HP Stream is one of the most interesting such devices to be launched recently - but is it any good? And how does Windows run on these low-end specs?
The Stream 11 is a small machine with an 11-inch screen and - weighing 2.74 pounds - it is nearly identical to the netbooks of yesterday. But with an Intel Celeron processor running at 2.16Ghz, 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, the specs are entry level. The 1366x768 display caps off the low end specs and asserts that this is a casual use machine - and for $200, you should not expect anything more.
As for ports? The device pleasantly surprised us with all of its options, which include two USB ports (1 x 3.0 and 1 x 2.0), a full size HDMI port, full size SD card reader, headphone/mic jack and finally a Kensington lock slot.
The display does not support touch but at this price, besides tablets, nearly every device in this class does not support touch, so we wouldn't consider this a negative for the Stream 11.
Our machine is clad in bright blue plastic which makes it stand out and the contrasting white keys on the keyboard give it a clean look. The keys are textured as well but the travel distance when pressing down on the letters is a bit short.
The keyboard deck is covered in a smooth material that has tiny dots on it that is also a bit shiny as well.
The trackpad is a low point on this device, with engagement for left and right clicking being mushy at best. The travel distance for cursor clicks is very shallow, and what makes it worse, is when the button does engage, the trackpad continues to travel down after the button has been activated which means that the action engages before you finishing pressing down.
The 1366x768 display is marginal for a laptop display, even at $200; you can tell that a lot of corners were cut when it came to choosing a screen. Off-angle viewing is quite poor and even modest adjustments to the angle of the screen result in colors becoming significantly muted and indistinguishable.
The low resolution also makes it quite difficult to work on the device as well. While this post was written entirely on the Stream 11, the low resolution made it hard to fit everything I needed on the screen (specs, images, ect).
Snapping apps - one of Windows 8's primary features - at this low resolution means that the snapped app takes up 1/4 of the screen when at its smallest setting.
The screen is matte as well, and it's a personal choice if you prefer this style or a glossy setup. Matte displays tend to deal with direct light better than glossy but glossy displays typically have more vibrant color reproduction.
But even this screen, in direct light, is quite bad and becomes hard to use with a modest amount of sunlight hitting the display.
The Stream 11 comes with Windows 8.1 with Bing; a fully-featured OS. Bing is the default search engine for Internet Explorer and cannot be changed by the OEM. But the consumer can change it to anything they want; Windows 8.1 with Bing is simply a way for OEMs to lower the cost of Windows for low-end machines.
This machine can, technically, run any application for Windows. While we would not want to put PhotoShop on the Stream 11, it is possible.
The Stream 11 does come with some good software bonuses as well, most notably Office 365 and 1 TB of OneDrive storage for one year. This means that out of the box you have all of the basic Office apps (Word, PowerPoint, and Excel) at your disposal for no extra cost. And seeing that the device only has 32GB of storage (only roughly 15GB of free space when including the OS install), the 1TB of cloud storage is helpful.
There is also bloatware from HP, including McAfee LiveSafe Internet security - which has already crashed on this machine - Trip Advisor and Snapfish icons on the desktop that open their websites, a DropBox pop-up for 25 GB of storage for 6 months for free (which seems odd considering that OneDrive with 1TB free for a year), and a few HP branded apps too.
With a Celeron CPU, you can't expect blazing performance and at $200, your expectations should already be low. But I clearly remember my HP 311, a notebook from the last generation, not being able to run an HD YouTube video full-screen and thankfully, the Stream 11 does not suffer from this issue.
For most tasks, the Stream 11 runs just fine. Web browsing, writing this post, sending email and the like are all done without any issues. When it comes to running more intensive applications, you do feel a bit of a slowdown when compared to a more powerful machine.
When you have a bunch of apps running, like Skype, Tweetium, playing a YouTube video, typing on Skype and running Spotify, you can feel the machine slow down. But with a low resolution display, it is hard to have too many apps open as it begins to feel cluttered too.
We ran a few benchmarks as well with with SunSpider returning 310ms for the desktop version of IE, 408ms for Modern IE. Using 3DMark from the Windows Store, after running it three times, it produced a score on Ice Storm of 16129.
None of the scores were impressive by any means but then again, this is an entry level laptop with entry level specs, so your expectations should be low.
Surprisingly, the audio on this entry level device is quite good for the price. HP did choose to include DTS Studio Sound technology which seems to actually make a difference on this low end machine.
Even when turning up the audio to higher levels, the sound remains relatively good with the highs staying 'tin'-free and the lows... well, they are still there despite the shallow depth of the chassis. Of course, this is a laptop, so don't expect theater-quality sound out of it - but for $200, we were surprisingly pleased with the performance.
The HP Stream 11 is by all means an entry level device which means that you can't expect all-day battery life. With that being said, we were able to get about 5.5 hours of life out of the device which is not too bad for the Stream 11.
Main use of the device included browsing the web, a few videos on YouTube, social media and of course, writing this post.
HP says that this machine can get over 8 hours of use, but we had a lot of trouble getting that much life out of the machine unless we were unrealistically light with our usage. Still, 5.5 hours out of a machine of this class is not bad and that's under moderate use which is acceptable.
A few years ago, when you bought a netbook, you had to make many sacrifices to achieve the low price point of those devices. When we look at what HP is doing today, corners are still being cut, but the cuts are not quite as deep.
While the display and trackpad leave a lot of room for improvement, the battery life is acceptable and performance - while not great - is much better than the netbooks we saw several years ago.
The key to the Stream 11 is that it is a $200 machine and while we would not be able to use it as our daily driver, it certainly has a place in the market. If your kids need a laptop, this machine could be a perfect pairing for them, as it feels quite robust in your hands.
For those who are looking for an entry level machine, the Stream 11 is a capable notebook that costs less than many smartphones. As long as you are aware that it's not a powerhouse laptop and is good only for basic tasks, it's a worthy competitor to a Chromebook.