The pitch for laptops running Google's Chrome OS, known as Chromebooks, is pretty straightforward. Why pay extra for a laptop running Microsoft's Windows 8 operating system, when all you really need is access to a Web browser? For some people, nearly everything they use a PC for is online, from webmail to social media to streaming music and video.
That argument seems to have resonated, as Chromebooks are now a huge part of the budget laptop market, and several models, including the recentand , are actually quite good. But, the success of Chromebooks is eating into Microsoft's budget laptop market share, which is a big reversal from several years ago when low-cost netbooks were (briefly) popular.
Microsoft and HP are now actively promoting a new HP line, called Stream. These low-cost laptops and tablets are being sold as essentially Chromebook-style devices, meant for low-power online use, but with the added utility of Windows 8. These systems, including the $200 HP Stream 11 (£179 in the UK, and AU$299 in Australia) are pitched as being cloud-friendly, which is a polite way of saying they're too underpowered to satisfactorily run a lot of standard apps. The Stream includes codes for a one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 (regularly $99, £79, AUS$79), and 1TB of online storage for one year through Microsoft's OneDrive service.
The Stream 11 has a low-resolution non-touch 11.6-inch display, runs an Intel Celeron processor, combined with 2GB of RAM and a minuscule 32GB of solid state storage, more than half of which is consumed by the operating system and related files. In that sense, it really is Chromebook-like, and not idea for local storage of big files or large applications. You can, however, use the included SD card slot to add another 16 or 32GB of space.
The reason you might choose this system over a Chromebook, which is really a more polished (if limited) low-end experience, is that you can install Windows apps such as Photoshop, Office, or iTunes. They won't run great, but they're there if you need them in a pinch.
Other products in the new Stream family include the 7-inch and 8-inch Stream tablets, running Intel Atom CPUs, with the 7-inch model starting at $100 (£99 in the UK; only the 8-incher is currently available in Australia for AU$229), and a 13-inch version of the Stream laptop, running the same specs as the 11-inch, starting at $229, £199, AU$379. Both the 8-inch tablet and 13-inch laptop versions will also be available in configurations with 4G antennas for extra, which includes 200MB of monthly data.
Overall performance was roughly comparable to current-gen Chromebooks or, faster in some tests, slower in others, and our hands-on time with the system clearly indicated that will not be your all-day, every day computer. The Stream 11 did, however, have one killer feature. It ran for about eight hours on our battery drain test, which was very impressive, given our modest expectations.
There are not many cases where you'll find a ton of utility in a $199 laptop, especially one with the learning curve of Windows 8. But this little blue box did more than we expected, making it a rare budget PC that's also a good value.
|Price as reviewed||$199, £179, AU$299|
|Display size/resolution||11.6-inch, 1,366x768 screen|
|PC CPU||2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840|
|PC Memory||2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz|
|Graphics||64MB Intel HD Graphics|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)|
Design and features
The HP Stream 11 looks nice, at least for a $200 laptop. Skipping the cheap glossy grey plastic of so many budget laptops, it's instead covered with a matte blue (or pink) pattern, with a subtle dotted gradient on the keyboard tray.
The outer surface is fingerprint-resistant, and the body is stiff enough to feel safe to travel with, although everyone who looked at our test system saw a little bit of warping on the base, bowing the keyboard tray up to the center-right. It wasn't enough to make the laptop look truly deformed, but it certainly wasn't ruler-straight.
Thanks to its low-power platform, the system can run without fans, which helps with weight, heat, and battery life. The Stream 11 weighs a modest 2.8 pounds (1.3 kg), and has been, in our experience quiet and cool while running.
The large keyboard feels like it was dropped in from a more-expensive laptop. The island-style keys have minimal wobbling under the fingers, and a deep enough click for longer-form typing. Function keys are reversed, as on most HP laptops, which means you can access commands such as volume and brightness controls without having to hold down the Fn key.
The wide touchpad fared less well, offering two-finger vertical scrolling that worked well, but otherwise touchy performance, including edge-of-pad Windows 8 gesture commands that triggered far too easily.
The 11.6-inch screen has a 1,366x768 native resolution, which is about what one would expect from a budget laptop, but still not great for viewing HD video. The Windows 8 tile interface scales well, however. The screen has a matte finish, which is a plus, but also poor off-axis viewing, again adding to the budget feel.