As I've noted in these columns, I'm a fan of Windows 8.1 and Windows tablets. That's not to say I don't understand the limitations - the main ones being the unfamiliarity of the operating system, and that that there aren't many apps compared to iOS and Android. But the perception doesn't necessarily match reality. Windows 8.1 is vastly improved from Windows 8, and there are now over 500,000 apps in both the Windows Store and Windows Phone Store. I don't think the overall quality of the apps is quite at the level of the other platforms, but my experience is that most people use half a dozen or so main apps regularly, so Windows is a lot better-covered than most people think.
This is also not to say that I don't recognize the great strengths of iOS and Android. They serve as the foundation for many terrific tablets. And the great strength of the iPad is perhaps separate from the device itself, with the massive add-ons market available. But iOS and Android devices are content-based - best for email, browsing the Internet, playing games and watching movies, and so I personally find myself not using them all that much. Windows devices are productivity-based, and so (running actual Windows) you can actually do heavy work on them, yet they also provide those other features, even if a touch more limited.
In December, Hewlett-Packard changed the landscape for Windows portable devices in a significant way, introducing its Stream line. We look at two of their devices this month.
Two things leap out. You can't miss the first one: both devices are both incredibly inexpensive. The second comes with usage: they are very well-made - and for the price, stunningly well-made. In fact, as inexpensive as they are, the price plummets even more when you factor in the special deals included. (In fact, depending on your needs and heavy use, you could actually make money buying these. Really.) I'll explain more below
- HP Stream 11 Signature Edition
- HP Stream 7 Windows 8.1 Tablet
- Infiland HP Stream 7 Bluetooth Keyboard Cover Case
- Zagg Auto-Fit Folio
The computer industry made the first foray into a new direction right before Christmas when several companies released incredibly low-priced Windows systems (both laptops and tablets). Some of the most notable come from Hewlett-Packard. And it was a seriously impressive debut.
The HP Stream 11 laptop has something fairly remarkable about it. This is a full, actual, Window 8 laptop that costs only $199. And bizarrely...it's pretty good.
Yet that isn't what's remarkable. I'll get to it in a moment. But first, a look at the device-
The laptop isn't "great" to the point of being a desktop replacement, but that isn't the point of it. It only has 32 GB flash storage (though the system can be expanded with a Flash storage card), no touch screen, and doesn't have the power for significant multi-tasking, nor a great deal of RAM memory, just 2 MB. The keyboard is also a little light and slick to the touch. And it only comes in blue (which isn't bad) and magenta (that...well, it's not remotely to my taste. Though tastes vary).
BUT - (and it's a big "but") --
It's a pretty good computer. It's extremely solidly made (far more so than you'd ever expect for the price), loads programs quickly, and runs fast (provided you don't overload it, like with resource-hungry programs or want to open too many programs at the same time, though a few would be fine), has two USB ports (one of them even for USB 3.0), an HDMI port, a respectably-crisp 1280x720 monitor, clean-enough sounding speakers, and (let me repeat) is a real, full computer that runs Windows 8.1 (with Bing). And runs it well. Also, though the keyboard touch is a bit more light and slick than I prefer, it's very responsive and was easy to type with. Plus, it has no fan, so it's near-silent yet doesn't get hot. It's very thin, pretty light at 2.75 pounds, has an 11.6-inch screen, and is about as portable a good-sized tablet, and a webcam for making voice/Skype calls.
(It also comes with a few HP proprietary apps. Some aren't necessary, and I got rid of those, but I kept a few. The HP Help had some nice touches and also offered good assistance for critical system updates, and I was also surprised to liking its Connected Photo app - not so much for its storage capabilities, but it includes some very helpful features for manipulating photos.)
There are a few oddities. To "right-click" and bring up context menus, you don't "right-click" at all, but rather tap with two fingers on the touchpad. It works well, though was undocumented and I had to discover this by digging into an HP support app. I also found the right and left-click buttons on the touch pad were a bit sticky, and a few things I thought would be accessed by clicking were, rather, swiped. Also, though the speakers are surprisingly acceptable for something at this price, they're under the computer and more muffled than they'd be if on top.
But working with it went smoothly. It boots up extremely fast, in only about 15 seconds. And switching between programs was smooth. I didn't load as many "memory resident" programs as I would with a desktop-replacement computer, since memory is limited. (When I loaded a favorite memory resident program, ClipMate, I would periodically get an error message to close a program, so I uninstalled the program, and the messages went away. I miss the program, which extends the clipboard for saving text you copy, but it's not essential.) And I didn't load the hard drive with a full array of programs, either, since storage is limited, too. Though after installing Office365 and with all the pre-installed apps, I still had 10 GB left. And then, after loading the most-important programs I wanted, there were still 5 GB. (Keep in mind, as mentioned, one can expand storage with an SD card.)
But limited storage isn't exactly what it seems here. One of the things about this computer as it relates to storage is that, in many ways, it's supposed to compete with Chromebooks, which means the Stream 11 leans heavily on cloud storage. That's why it comes with a stunning 1 terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage. It's expected that most of your storage -- documents, photos, music, video and such -- will be stored on the OneDrive cloud, and one terabyte is more than plenty for most people's lifetime. And reports are that soon Microsoft will up that to unlimited storage.
To reiterate: this is not a workhorse laptop or even close. The system runs on a Celeron processor which isn't the most powerful, but allows for a long battery life, and it's rated for an impressive 8 hours. Even if you don't get that much, since those are ideal conditions, it's a long life. And light and thin and very portable.
But though not a workhorse, I still gave it a heavy workout, taking it to the Consumer Electronics Show, where it performed admirably. There was just one glitch which I'm not sure was entirely on its end. Its WiFi connected fine in the main Press Room, but I had difficulty connecting in two secondary Press Rooms. (I couldn't get any connection in one of them.) Since the WiFi has connected fine everywhere else, I suspect there was an issue on the CES end - but - everyone else in the Press Rooms were connecting on their portables, so I don't let the Stream 11 totally off the hook. I've contacted the company, and they were equally surprised and haven't been able to offer any thoughts. My only guess is that maybe the Network Adapter isn't the most powerful, and when getting a weak signal it has a problem. But that's just a guess. But again, everywhere else it's connected to the WiFi fast.
And again, let me repeat, it's just $199. For a real (and respectably good) Windows 8.1 laptop. Yet most of that has nothing to do with what makes it so remarkable. Here's what's remarkable - depending on your usage, you could probably make money buying it even if you never use the thing!
The Stream 11 Signature Edition includes a year subscription to Office365 which is a $70 value and lets you also install a second copy on a tablet or mobile phone - which makes the Stream 11 in essence just a mere $129. But it also includes a $25 gift card for the Microsoft store.
Let me put that in perspective. Assuming you plan to use Microsoft Office, and also spend $25 at the Microsoft store on apps, music or movies -- you are getting a Windows computer (a real, full-featured, good Windows 8.1 computer) for just $104.
Yet...it's better than that. Because it also comes with 60 minutes a month - every moth - of Skype world minutes, which is another savings if one uses it. (I couldn't find what that would cost, but it seems around a $50 value) So the cost of the computer is now down to a paltry $54. AND, as I mentioned, it includes a terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage. Some services charge several hundred dollars for that much storage.
So, the point here is that if you use Microsoft Word and install a second copy on your tablet, buy accessories at the Microsoft Store, use Skype world minutes and have need of a lot of storage -- you will come out ahead, making money on the deal!!! And basically have a good Windows laptop thrown in for free. In fact, if for some reason you never even use this computer, ever, but just your tablet - you could potentially make money on this.
It's a stunning deal. And as I said, on top of it all, at quick first use, this a pretty respectable computer, even at the "whopping" store-price of $199. But especially at what is, in essence (because you're most-surely going to want to have Office and will use the gift card), $104.
(It's worth mentioning that HP also makes a 13-inch model, the Stream 13, for $230 that's a little heavier and bigger, with a 13-inch screen, but also - if you get the $300 model - includes 200 MB of free 4G data every month from T-Mobile with no contract needed, for the life of the computer).
One note: like most low-cost computers, the system comes loaded with garbageware. (That's the polite term.) Whether it was one of those apps directly, or something bundled with them, I got into a mess of junk screwing things up. My suggestion is to uninstall as much of this garbageware right away that you know you don't want.
I did get the problem resolved, though it took three hours. And that has nothing to do with how the laptop actually runs, which was quite good. And it turns out that there was a much faster and far easier way to resolve it. And this is huge bonus points for Windows 8.
Okay, a slight detour. Here's that "faster and easier way", in case you ever face a situation. Windows 8 has two similar features -- Restore and Reinstall. Once upon a time, re-installing Windows was a horrifying process. Not only because it took so long, but you had to reload all of your programs and settings. With "Reinstall," the process only took about 20 minutes (I don't know exactly how long, because I wandered off for a half hour and let it simply run in the background). And because now when you install you sign in with your Microsoft Account - all of the programs and apps you have from the Microsoft Store get automatically reloaded, along with the settings!! I ended up with a clean installation and only had to re-load three programs I had put on myself. It was as easy as could be, worked like a charm, and is a great feature.
The Stream 7 is sort of a companion product to the Stream 11. And it's another remarkable product from HP for many of the same reasons. It's an extremely solidly-made 7-inch Windows tablet that only costs - seriously - $99. No, really. I mean it. And since it also comes with a year's subscription to Office 365, which is a $70 value, in essence it's costing you $29. For a full, Windows 8.1 tablet.
Keep in mind, too, that with the Office 365 subscription, you can install Office 365 on a desktop computer, as well. And you get that same gargantuan 1 terabyte of OneDrive cloud storage. (Other services can charge from $180 to $400 for this much storage.)
I'm almost tempted to stop there. Getting a really well-made Windows 8.1 tablet for just $99 (and a value of only $29) should be enough for most people to know if it's something that interests them. But I'll go on a bit more.
I found the Stream 7 very responsive. It boots up quickly, though I found I had to hold the Power button for a few seconds. Apps load very fast, and swiping and switch between the Start screen and Desktop and near-immediate.
Storage and memory is limited. There's 32 GB of storage and 1 GB of memory, but I haven't found that a problem. Even after installing Office 365 and a few other Windows programs (something possible because, remember, this is a full Windows device) I still had over 10 GB of storage yet. And because of the 1 terabyte of One Drive cloud storage, I've stored all my Word documents, as well as all my photos and music there - so I had full access to them on the Stream 7. Yet if you want more storage, there is a slot for a mini-SD flash card to expand the capacity. (The slot is well hidden - you have to remove the back of the device.)
It also uses the Atom processor, which is very lower power, though allows for a longer battery life. I found that battery life to be pretty good, though not tremendous. It depends on what you're doing, but for basic usage I found the Stream able to get 5-6 hours.
The Stream 7 is light, just 12.3 ounces (compared to the iPad mini which is 12 ounces), but in a sort of twist of illusion, it feels heavier. Perhaps that's because it's thicker - it's not "thick," just 1/3-inch - or because of the solid build. Not a bad thing, of course, and ultimately it is just about the same weight, but that's the perception. It's not the highest resolution, at 1280x800 pixels, so you're not getting a Retina display, but I found the resolution crisp and clear and good. And again, remember, it's $99.
For security, I wanted to have a lock screen block access whenever I hit the Power button. It was easy to configure that through Windows, but the lock screen wouldn't appear. After a bit of research, it turns out that this is because of a feature of Windows (not a fault of the tablet), and incredibly easy to fix - but you have to know it. The short explanation is that because the tablet is configured for FastOpen, allowing it to boot up quickly, the tablet never officially shuts down, even though you think it is. There's a trickle of power still on. But for the lock screen feature to be enabled (and many other like-features) they require an actual re-boot. So, what you do is not use the "Shut down" option for Windows, but a manual shut down by just holding the Power Button for something like 5 seconds. The completely shuts down the tablet. When I booted up after that, the lock screen appeared just as I wanted.
I think most tablets are impressive devices. The iPad is great, and I have an Android tablet. But they've never interested me all that much, because they're more entertainment devices for email, browsing, playing games and watching movies. Windows systems, tablets included, are productivity devices. They run on actual Windows, after all. And so, this Stream 7, for just $99 is a real Windows computer. You can install Windows programs on it and do actual work. But how effectively?
First, know that because of the limited memory and Atom processor, you won't be able to do a lot of multi-tasking, though some. And you won't be able to run powerful memory hog-programs. I haven't tested Photoshop, for instance, but have read accounts that it would be a problem.
Beyond that, there is an on-screen keyboard that works fine, but it's not something you'd want to do seriously work with, just notes. Part of the reason is its size, and chubby fingers would have a problem, though most people could "hunt-and-peck" acceptably. And even touch-typing is possible, though awkward. As much as reason is that, though, with just a 7-inch screen, the keyboard takes up a great deal of the landscape.
An alternative, of course, is a folio with Bluetooth keyboard. I tried a few, and they turned the Stream 7 into a surprisingly effective Windows computer.
The Infiland folio is made specifically for the HP Stream 7, and therefore has slot holes properly aligned for both the back and front cameras, along with side slots for the Stream 7's button. While not especially thin, it's thin enough so that you can fit the thing a pocket - though it adds significant thickness to the tablet. I was impressed how well the Bluetooth keyboard worked, and it was fairly easy to type with - though it's small and I don't have especially-big fingers. And it's made of a comfortable faux-leather, with a digital pen holder.
There are a few issues. Most notable is that the keyboard only has a very light magnet to keep the keyboard in place. This is fine if you want to leave the tablet on a table and type from your lap, and it stays in place well when everything is sitting together, but it slides around a bit awkwardly when setting it up. Also, it folds oddly which makes it difficult to use in your lap. And the edges slightly cover the outside edges of the tablet face, which means you something have to push the cover a bit to access an occasional icon. Also while the elastic ribbon holds everything together well, I don't feel confident that it won't snap off from too much use. Still, it works very well, and could be found online at the time of writing for $36.
ZAGG AUTO-FIT FOLIO
Zagg is a company that makes very good office-based peripherals. The Auto-Fit Folio is a one-size fits all keyboard cover for 7" tablets. It's extremely easy to install any small tablet, which snaps into place. The case is a hard plastic - not a leather-like folio feel, though with a soft-ish thin layer and very protective.
The Bluetooth keyboard is quite good - not surprising since keyboards are one of the peripherals Zagg makes a lot of. Keys are well-spread out, so typing was respectably comfortable. (To be clear, it's still not remotely a full-sized experience - this is pretty small, after all, so I was still making a few typos in my early tests. But chubby fingers should survive reasonably okay here.) The keyboard is built into the case, which means there's no sliding around - you could stand and type. Open the case, and it's like having a mini-laptop. Importantly, the edges of the case don't block any of the tablet face, so you get full usage of the screen. It also has a strong hinge which keeps the case open when working (and keeps it snapped shut) - plus, a fold-out leg in the back makes it even easier to keep open and set-up for typing or watching a movie. Perhaps most notably of all it was quite thin, something that is very important for me.
There were two negatives. Being an "all models" folio, there is no hole for the rear camera, since that position would change from model to model. However, I find that just a small issue - I don't think tablets are great devices for taking pictures. If you do want to use your tablet's rear camera, though, it's very easy to pop the tablet out of the case. (Using the tablet's front camera is no problem, since the front-face is wide open.) My biggest quibble, however, is that it's wider than I'd prefer, and as such will likely be difficult to fit in most jacket pockets. All the more reason it's good to be so thin and easy to carry around.
Battery life is rated for a long, three months of usage, based on two hours of typing a day. (One note: the Quick Start guide says it takes 2-4 hours to charge, and then the red light goes off when fully charged. There was a flaw with two models I tested, where the light stays on. It's not an issue, though a slight annoyance.) At the time of writing, it could be found online for $71, a bit pricey, but a very well-made product.
"The Writers Workbench" appears monthly on the website for the Writers Guild of America. To see this entire column, with complete product graphics and additional "TWW Notes," please click here
To read more from Robert J. Elisberg about this or many other matters both large and tidbit small, see Elisberg Industries.