About six or seven years ago, netbooks were the must-have piece of tech (ugh! I hate that word! Why have I just used it?). These dinky little lappies seemed to be the ideal solution for people who wanted to be able to do basic computer-based activities while on the move - things like browsing the world wide web, reading and writing emails, editing documents, playing simple games – but didn’t want to have to carry a heavy and expensive full-sized laptop around with them.
However, the decline of the netbook was as rapid as its rise. Arguably, this was largely to do with the arrival of the iPad and countless similar devices running Android and other operating systems. These shiny touchy-feely tablets attracted people who wanted something for casual usage, things like browsing the web, reading and writing emails, editing documents, playing games. You know, the target audience of the netbook. But, in my opinion, which is of course important because this is my blog, I don’t believe the fall of the netbook was just because of the invasion of tablets. And I believe that, even today, netbooks still have a place in the market. Not quite as big a place as they once had, but there’s still a place for them.
For me, netbooks never quite got it exactly right. And tablets don’t really tick all of the boxes that a potential netbook user might have on their checklist of things they want in a portable device. When they first made their bid for stardom, netbooks marketed themselves on their value. Not value for money, just value. In other words, they were cheap. But cheap doesn’t always mean good. In the case of early netbooks, cheap meant nasty. Manufacturers did whatever they could to keep costs low, cutting back in many of the areas that made normal laptops expensive. They had low-spec processors, a small amount of memory, poor graphics and hardly any storage space. Of course, storage could be expanded through the use of memory cards, memory sticks and external hard drives. And there was also the idea that things could be stored online, although the scary world of easily storing things in clouds was still a few years away from becoming a proper reality. And despite the fact that they sold themselves as being little laptops, they were often surprisingly heavy and bulky. It was only really the screen and keyboard that was small. The actual casing of the device was often quite thick. Then there was also the issue that several of them didn’t come with Windows. Instead, they had some variant of Linux. And although Linux is a perfectly adequate operating system and can be well-suited to the specs of these kinds of devices, it really isn’t something that the general public want to have to use. My mum had an Acer Aspire One during the first netbook boom. Her first complaint about it was that she didn’t know how to work it. It ran Limpus Lite, a Linux OS specifically tailored for low-powered netbooks. She was used to Windows, and because things were different, she didn’t like it. But even when she began getting used to it, Linux just isn’t as user-friendly as it should be. And the version included on her Aspire One was quite locked down. A bit of faffing with it, admittedly fun for somebody like me with a bit of interest in computers, freed up some of the functionality of it, but it didn’t still make her jump for joy. And why in the 21st Century, do you need to type in nonsensical commands into terminal window to do basic tasks? Stuff like unlocking certain features or even downloading other applications. And if things went wrong, you were stuffed. Getting an error message saying that a program you are attempting to install is unable to resolve its dependencies means nothing to no-one – apart from Linux geeks. Leave that language in the background, not in the main user interface. I suppose it was my own fault for unlocking the locked-down parts of Linux. The screen resolution was also pants, with you having to scroll left and right on websites to fully view them. Making users scroll horizontally is a big no-no when designing websites, so having to do it because the computer you’re using just isn’t able to display web pages properly is going to dampen the experience. I recently borrowed my mum’s old Aspire One just to find out if it really was as bad as I remember it – it’s been in a box since 2009 after about two weeks of usage. After I spent half an hour of getting frustrated with it, it went back in its box. I just couldn’t get any pleasure out of using it.
|An Acer Aspire One running Limpus Lite. Yuck!|
Over time, netbook manufacturers seemed to address some of the complaints above. They began sticking extra RAM and storage space in them, made them look sleek, sexy and shiny, and through a special deal with Microsoft to grab back some of the OS market share that they were losing to freebie Linux, they installed Windows on them. But, these improvements didn’t come cheap. Nope, netbooks suddenly got quite expensive, and appeared to retail for a price similar to that of a standard laptop. One of the key unique selling points of the netbook – its low price – seemed to vanish. At least this was the case when I came to look at netbooks for myself, probably around 2010, 2011, I couldn’t find one for less than £200, apart from second-hand ones, and there were very few models still available.
Fast forward to today. Here we are in a world where everyone who wanted an iPad or similar has got one. Companies are falling over themselves to offer free storage of your documents online, or obscene amounts of storage if you pay them for it. But it seems that there is still a market for cheap, low-spec PCs. I have an iPad and a Google Nexus 7 tablet. And although I find them brilliant for casual usage (well, the Nexus 7 was brilliant until Lollipop came along and buggered it up), I have an issue with them for usage that isn’t quite as casual, but doesn’t require the use of a high-end jumbo computer. For instance, I get the train quite often to work and back and an ideal time to write entries for this blog is when I’m on that train. Or even at work when I’m on lunch. Unfortunately, doing so on a tablet just isn’t really that great an experience. Okay, so I can make notes on them and expand on them when I’m at home at a computer, but I’d still like to be able to power up an ultra-portable laptop, tap tap tap away on a proper keyboard, and be productive when I’m out and about. Not to pass time by playing Candy Crush Saga. What I need is a small no-frills laptop. A netbook in other words.
Imagine my joy then when I noticed an advert on TV before Christmas for a laptop with an 11 inch screen, for less than £200. Yes, imagine. I don’t need to imagine as I managed to get one, and I’ll be talking about it in a bit. It seems that netbook-type devices have slowly been edging their way back into the market. And until now, nobody’s really noticed. Not too long ago, Google developed Chrome OS and manufacturers began producing computers that ran it. These Chromebooks, as they like to be known, come in different shapes and sizes, but it seems that the little ones are quite popular. Running what is basically a web browser doesn’t require much computing power. They also don’t need a great deal of physical storage space as just about everything is done online. Applications are accessed online and documents are also saved online. So Chromebooks can be produced quite cheaply. It’s well-known that Google and Microsoft aren’t the best of buddies, and neither likes the other encroaching on their territory. Through their Chromebooks, Google are taking small bites out of Microsoft’s large share of the operating system market. So Microsoft have retaliated.
Part of the cost of a new PC is the OEM licence for Microsoft Windows. This is usually paid by the manufacturer and passed onto the consumer. To encourage manufacturers to produce laptops with Windows on them, Microsoft have released a special version of it: Windows 8.1 with Bing. The operating system, which is almost identical to Windows 8.1 without Bing, can be installed for nothing (or next-to-nothing) by a manufacturer if the device uses certain low-end processors, and as of February 2015, has a screen smaller than 14 inches. As this makes the PCs cheaper to produce, it means that these savings can be passed on to the consumer.
Enter the HP Stream series. This is a family of laptops from HP with the Windows 8.1 with Bing operating system. The laptops come in 11 inch, 13 inch and 14 inch variants, and their cheapo operating system and associated low specs, enables them to retail in the UK for £179, £199 and £229 respectively*. Ooooh, cheap, low-spec little computers? Sounds like we’re back where we were about seven years ago!
* prices were correct as of February 2015
So, is the netbook back? Have HP got it right this time round? Well, they’re definitely a lot closer to hitting the mark. After seeing the TV commercial for the HP Stream, I decided to plump for the 11 inch version. I already have a 17 inch laptop with pretty decent specs, so if I need screen space and a bit more oomph to power whatever it is I’m doing, I’ve always got that. In my eyes, the HP Stream would be the little alternative I could pick up and use for anything else, and take on days out with me, and not be hampered by the limitations of tablets. I ordered directly from HP just before New Year as I’m eligible to get a little discount from them (I should note that I don't work for them though!), and was given a delivery date of a two weeks later. A couple of days before it was due to arrive, I received an email from HP telling me it had been delayed by a week, and was given a voucher code for 20% off accessories. As it happened, the laptop turned up only one day late, so the voucher code was a bit of a bonus. In fact, the HP Stream 11 is just a whole streamload of bonuses, as we shall discover when I decide to mention them.
HP have decided to release their Stream-branded laptops in two colours: blue and pink. One for the boys, one for the girls. Perhaps. Being a boy, I went for the blue option, but was a bit wary of what it would actually look like. Turns out I needn’t have worried. The colour of the laptop itself is striking, but it doesn’t look tacky. It’s quite a deep blue, and I feel it suits the device quite well. The HP Stream isn’t going to appeal to your serious corporate type, but it’s not designed to do so anyway. That’s not to say it can’t be used for serious business. It’s just that you might look a bit odd whipping one out in front of the board of directors, unless you’re one of those wacky types who likes doing crazy things to be ironic. But, the blue does suit the device, and doesn’t cheapen it like I feared it might. The casing is plastic, but is like a matt plastic, which again prevents it from looking and feeling cheap. Also making the laptop look deceivingly more expensive than it actually is, is the shiny silver HP logo on the back of the lid, and the words Hewlett Packard printed at the back of its base. Oh yes, it’s a nice looking thing.
Things are equally as attractive inside. The blue theme continues around the screen and keyboard, although around the keyboard there is a polka dot effect and a gradient from dark to light blue. This sounds like it would be awful, but again, it actually works quite well here. The keys are a nice bright white with clear dark grey lettering printed on them. A trackpad and the power button are also situated near the keyboard. The bezel around the screen, which is quite wide, houses a webcam at the top and another HP logo at the bottom.
The sides of the laptop are home to all of its ports and slots, one for power, one for an SD card, two for USB, one for HDMI and one for headphones. With the lid down, the laptop looks quite sleek and thin. It’s by no means a Macbook Air, but it’s a step up from the bulky netbooks of old.
But of course, looks aren’t everything. What matters is how usable this computer is as a computer. And, fortunately, it’s very usable. As has been mentioned already, installed on the HP Stream is Windows 8.1 with Bing. Although Microsoft have discounted the cost of the OS, they haven’t slimmed it down in any way. All they have done, and the reason that it has “with Bing” in its name, is that Bing has to be set as the default search engine. That’s it. The manufacturer isn’t allowed to change it. But you can, and you more than likely you will. That’s if you can figure out how to. It seems that Microsoft have done a little something in Internet Explorer which throws up an error if you try to go into the “Add Search Providers” option and add another search provider from the list that appears. There are other ways of doing it, a quick Google will reveal how. Well, you'll be stuck with having to a quick Bing first to find out. Or you can just install Chrome and set Google, or whatever other provider of search that you wish to use, in that. But other than that, there is no other difference between Windows 8.1 with Bing and Windows 8.1 without it.
Powering up your computer for the first time takes you through the usual Windows set up, and to me seemed quicker than usual. The only thing to be careful of is a little section about your privacy settings, featuring options about what you do and don’t want to share with Microsoft and/or HP. It’s no different to what you get on any other Windows 8 PC, so there’s no need for me to go into it in any detail. Once you’re up and running, you may notice a few bits of crap cluttering up the already limited space on your hard drive, so it’s best to get removing the junk before you start using your computer for real, just in case you accidentally remove something you shouldn’t and need to start again.
One of the first things you’ll notice, and probably the first thing to disappoint you, is that the screen quality on the HP Stream isn’t amazing. It is high definition, but the matte screen seems to give it a bit of a filmy layer over the display, affecting the clarity and making things appear slightly washed out. The colours are also not particularly vibrant and the display itself can be quite dim. I use mine on its brightest setting, which isn’t too bad, but in certain scenarios it could do with being brighter. Of course, setting brightness to the max affects battery life, so don’t expect the Stream to run all day if you like things nice and light. Issues with clarity are more obvious when doing things like word processing, browsing the web. Watching videos and viewing photographs isn’t too much of an issue, although I could imagine it potentially being more of one on the models with larger screens. The viewing angles are also not too great. Although this isn’t really too much of a problem if you’re using the computer at a desk, it can be if it’s on your lap and you shuffle around a bit. I used my HP Stream on a train (to type some of this as it happens!), and found that the tray table and angle of the seat in front of me prevented me from opening the screen as much as I would have liked, so made it difficult to get a good view of what I was typing. However, the resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels means that documents and websites are displayed at a suitable resolution, so there’s no scrolling left and right to view the entirety of whatever it is you’re looking at. The screen isn’t awful, but it isn’t great. That said, the matte finish means there’s no reflection on it, so it’s not all bad.
The keyboard is almost full-sized, and, unless you happen to have a full-sized keyboard around to compare, you’d be hard-pushed to tell the difference. Something that I like, which my 17.3 inch laptop lacks, is the fact that the HP Stream has its own function keys, rather than having them shared with the numeric row of keys. Typing on the keyboard is a pleasure, and I feel that I can type at my usual rate, approximately two words per minute, just as well on the HP Stream as on other keyboards. A lot of PC reviews mention something about travel when talking about keyboards. I’m not sure what that means, but I’ll say that this laptop’s keyboard has good travel, and hope that that’s a good thing. As with the casing, the keyboard doesn’t feel cheap, and compares well with what you’d find on more expensive computers.
As for the trackpad, this isn’t quite as brilliant. I’ve never been a big fan of trackpads, preferring to use a mouse instead, and used some of my 20% off accessories voucher to purchase a wireless one for this device (thanks HP!). The trackpad on the HP Stream doesn’t change my opinion about them either. Windows 8 is all about swipes and gestures and stuff. If you don’t have a touchscreen device, which is the case with the HP Stream - although I believe that there is a touchscreen version of the Stream 13 - you can do some of the gestures using the trackpad. Swiping from the right brings up the “charms” menu (grrrr!), and I’m sure swiping from other places does other things. But it’s a bit hit and miss when it works, and to be honest, wasn’t one of Windows 8’s best features, so you’re unlikely to want to do it anyway. The problem is, it’s sometimes possible to accidentally bring up a menu by the trackpad misregistering an action as a swipe. Additionally, it doesn’t always register what you have intended to do. Tapping the trackpad itself to open an application sometimes appears to make the computer think you’ve tapped elsewhere. You can however physically push down the bottom of the trackpad – pushing down on the left is a left click, pushing down on the right is a right click. I find it much easier to use this method to open applications and select particular parts of a screen, even though you sometimes need to give it a good push down, although I will always use my mouse where possible.
Just like the netbooks of old, the specs of the HP Stream aren’t the greatest. It has an Intel Celeron N2840 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 32GB eMMC hard disk. The problem with the HP Stream is that, as it runs full Windows, it is theoretically able to attempt to run whatever Windows application you want to throw at it. Attempt is the key word here. Unfortunately, a lot of Windows applications require better specs than the Stream possesses to run well. Expect too much of it, and the Stream will disappoint. For day-to-day productivity and web browsing, the Stream is brilliant. But if you want to start editing the next Hollywood blockbuster or even play about with multi-layered photos in Photoshop, you’ll be sitting twiddling your thumbs while the Stream decides what to do. Opening up multiple tabs in your internet browser, or having several applications running at the same time, will also cause things to slow to a crawl. Saying that though, for the purposes I purchased my Stream for, I’ve never really experienced any speed issues in regular use, and actually find it a nippy little thing. I tested loading up a load of stuff simultaneously just for the sake of this review, but it doesn’t reflect how I would actually use it. Don’t be put off thinking that all you can do with the Stream is type documents. The beauty of Windows is that there are many many applications out there that don’t require much to get them going, which for retro gaming fans like me, includes computer and console emulators. I’ve also found that websites with online video like YouTube and Twitch run surprisingly well, even when plugged into a TV set through a HDMI cable.
While the processor and RAM can’t be upgraded on the HP Stream, it is possible to add to the storage space. The device has a 32GB hard drive, but you’ll find that about half of it is taken up with the Windows operating system itself and a partition which I assume contains files to restore things. You’ll probably begin with 17GB of usable space, but this will quickly deplete as you begin installing other applications. One such application that you’ll be likely to install shortly after taking possession of your HP Stream will be Microsoft Office. Why? Because it’s free! The HP Stream comes with a year’s worth of access to Microsoft Office 365 Personal. Office 365 is basically the full Office suite of applications (Word, Excel, Powerpoint and so on), but sold on a subscription basis instead of as a one-off. A year’s subscription is usually about £60. The applications themselves get installed on your PC, meaning that you can use them offline. You are also able to save any documents onto your PC too. However, doing so eats into your valuable storage space. So, what Office now comes with is the ability to save documents in the cloud (this is standard on all current versions of Office, not just Office 365). When you set up your PC, you are asked to set up a Microsoft account. This gives you a OneDrive account, usually with the default allowance of 25GB of space, which is fairly generous. Any documents you choose to save to the cloud can go into your OneDrive account. However, once you activate your Office 365 voucher, you’ll find that the allowance shoots up to 2TB, and Microsoft have recently announced that they’ll be doing away with the storage cap completely. So, technically you’ll have unlimited space to store whatever you want, and this isn’t just documents you create in Office. It’s a generous offer, and goes some way to solving the problem of a lack of storage space on the PC itself. Of course, this is partly the reason the HP Stream exists and why providing a large capacity hard drive isn’t essential. Microsoft want to encourage people to use their cloudy offerings as standard, to compete with similar offerings from Google who want the same from their Chromebook. However, you’re not limited to online-only with the HP Stream. Apps are stored on the device and documents can be saved to it too. It’s just that you can get a lot more space if you choose to store things in the cloud. Additionally, you can increase the storage available to you on the Stream with an SD card, USB memory stick or external hard drive. Just remember that if you save something to OneDrive, you need to be online to retrieve it!
HP also appear to throw in a bit of temporary extra storage with Dropbox via one of the shortcuts on the desktop, so that’s even more cloud-based storage for you to do what you want with it. How exciting. Of course, if storing your private and personal documents online isn’t your bag, then perhaps this won’t be the device for you.
The downside to all this temporary subscription stuff? It’s temporary. Of course, you can extend your subscriptions to Office 365 and/or Dropbox, but this costs pennies. If you choose not continue you memberships after their free periods are up, you’ll still have some use of them. The amount of storage in your OneDrive and Dropbox accounts will return to their default amounts. You’ll still be able to access files that are stored prior to the reduction in space, but you won’t be able to add additional ones until you've deleted enough to get you below the maximum space allocation, The Office installation on your computer will be limited to being read only, although you will still be able to access the online version of Office, and you can also now edit Office documents through Dropbox too. So all is not lost. And you may decide that Microsoft’s Office 365 is actually a good enough product to keep paying for, in which case the HP Stream has served its purpose, both for you and for Microsoft too.
It’s already been mentioned that the HP Stream isn’t the most powerful of computers, and if you try to throw too much at it, it’ll just laugh at you. Internally that is. You can’t actually see or hear it laughing. In fact, it’s pretty much a silent computer as it doesn’t have a fan. Hmmm, I quite like how I linked from talking about the computer laughing at you to mentioning its silent fan there. I’d claim it was deliberate but it was just me spotting the opportunity and jumping on it.
Despite its lack of fan meaning that the HP Stream can operate without anybody knowing it’s even on, it does pump out some volume from its speakers. A surprising amount of volume too. The speakers are under the laptop, which does baffle me to an extent. Surely it would muffle the sound if you're using the laptop with a cushion on your lap (can’t recommend this though – might make it overheat! At least you won’t get burnt legs though). But the sound is actually quite clear and crisp and loud. It uses HP’s DTS Studio Sound. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but it seems to work well in this case. There isn’t much depth and bass to the sound it produces though.
Before I distracted myself by talking about its fan and sound, I mentioned that the HP Stream is no super computer. If you’re into your games, as I’d expect you would be if you’re reading this blog, the HP Stream will struggle with many of the more demanding (and not so demanding) current games. It’ll just about cope with Minecraft, although that’s with the most basic of settings. But, as this blog is primarily about old games, you’ll find that the HP Stream is perfectly suited to old stuff. EA recently offered Theme Hospital for free as part of its Origin service, and that runs perfectly on the Stream. Emulators can be hit and miss, but this is more than likely down to problems with settings or the emulator’s lack of Windows 8 support than the computer itself. I’m still yet to get a Mega Drive emulator working properly on my Stream. Kega Fusion refuses to go into full screen, although works fine otherwise. Gens will work in full screen but the diagonals on my control pad won’t work, which hampers many games (although that might be an issue with my controller though). As for other systems, ZXSpin also doesn’t appear to like full screen, whereas emulators like ElectrEM and VirtuaNES work great and MAME is amazing. There are so many emulators out there though that there’s more than likely at least one for each system you wish to emulate that will work fine on the HP Stream. It’s just a case of downloading and trying them.
In a way, the HP Stream lends itself perfectly to retro gaming. Despite the fact that back in their day, computer games could take forever to load, old games do have that element of being easy to jump into for a quick game. As the Stream lacks the space or the power to cope with games that demand it, it sort of forces you to play older games. As it loads up pretty much instantly and is so portable, you can be into a game within seconds. And, unlike tablets, you’re not just limited to playing console games, either with touchscreen controls (urgh!) or with a controller plugged into it if you have the right accessories. Nope, you can also play hundreds and hundreds of computer games with a proper keyboard. And it is actually such a pleasure to play them on the Stream. I’ve been whizzing around Acorn Electron Chuckie Egg more in the last few weeks than I have for years. It’s as if it’s a dedicated retro computer, er, computer.
It’s worth also mentioning the Windows Store. Although there are nowhere near as many apps as there are in the equivalent online bazaars for Apple and Android devices, there are still more apps than you’d ever need, and all the main ones are there (Facebook, Netflix, etc). And as Windows 8 was designed with tablets in mind, tablets which run on lower specced processors like that of the Stream, a great many of the apps also work fine on it. Ok, some are probably designed for touchscreen, but this may change as Microsoft appear to be refocusing on Windows as a desktop operating system, with the forthcoming Windows 10 reinstating some of the features that Windows 8 removed. Whether the HP Stream will be able to cope with Windows 10 remains to be seen. It may be able to cope with it, it just might not have the space to install it though! As another incentive to draw you into the Windows Store to find out what it has on offer, HP/Microsoft also throw in a £20 voucher to be spent in the store on apps, games, movies, whatever they have going.
Have I covered everything yet? Keys? Screen? Mousepad? Usability? Camera? Ah! The camera! Yes, the HP Stream has a webcam. It isn’t the greatest, being a bit grainy and not displaying images in the highest of definitions, but if all you need it for is chatting to your mum on Skype, it’s perfectly adequate. And Skype, which is preinstalled, does run well on the device. It might also be worth mentioning that your year long subscription to Office 365 Personal also gives you 60 minutes of Skype talk time. Of course, video calling to other Skype users is free, so i'm not sure what the 60 minutes actually does. I think it lets you phone people's phones from your Skype account.
As for the battery, I've found that it usually lasts for between five to six hours between charges. I doubt that you'll be using the computer for long periods of time so this is pretty good going.
So, all in all, as you’ve probably gathered seeing as this review has gone on longer than some of the essays I wrote at university many decades ago, I like my HP Stream 11. Yes, it has its faults. The screen could be better, and I find that I don’t tend to use the trackpad when I can avoid it (although that’s more down to me not liking trackpads). Apart from that, for the purposes that I wanted the Stream for, it does exactly what I want it to do. It fills that gap that tablets can’t, gives me the ability to be both productive and have fun, and is small and light enough to be taken on journeys with me. I probably wouldn’t use it as my main PC, but that’s because I have other requirements for my main PC which the HP Stream just wouldn’t be able to meet. But similarly, just as that other PC satisfies certain requirements, the HP Stream satisfies other ones better. I can’t lug my main laptop onto a train and carry it around with me all day. It also just doesn’t feel as immediately available as the Stream does. For many people though, it could serve as their main computer, as it can do a lot of everyday tasks, and it is available in larger sizes too.
Is it a Chromebook killer? Personally I think it’s better than the Chromebook, just because of the fact that Windows is more versatile. You have access to a much wider range of applications, and the fact that it doesn’t require you to be online pretty much all of the time gives you much more freedom as to how you can use it. Here in the UK, the Chromebook isn’t as big a deal as it is in places like the USA, so it’ll be hard to see if the Stream has any real effect on Chromebook sales. Over in the USA, the Chromebook appears to be most popular in schools. As there is meant to be an education variant of the HP Stream 11 on its way, it looks like HP are working on behalf of Microsoft to get Chrome out of the classroom.
Does the HP Stream signify the return of the netbook? This is more difficult to answer. The netbook was the right idea at the time of its original appearance, but just didn’t really work. I think a lot of people purchased netbooks with higher expectations of what they were capable of. What they ended up with disappointed them, and they just didn’t enjoy using them. As soon as tablets like the iPad came along, which were undeniably much more of a pleasure to use, people abandoned their netbooks. It’s still true that tablets tick a lot of the boxes for many people, and there isn’t a need for them to return to netbooks. But for others, tablets are just a bit too casual. They need something in between a tablet and a full-on all-singing all-dancing PC. And this gap can be filled by modern netbook-like devices, devices like the HP Stream. The market for them isn’t anywhere near as big as it once was, as it will continue to be dominated by tablets and even large screen mobile phones, but there is definitely a market.
Phew! That took a long time to write! The computer is probably obsolete by now.