It seems like HP almost single-handedly revived the PC market in the second half of 2014 by releasing not one but two fantastic low-end Stream laptops. But the HP Stream 11 and Stream 13 aren’t just inexpensive: They’re a tremendous value for the money and just the latest sign that the PC market has plenty of life left.
Why are the HP Stream laptops so special?
First, let’s start with the pricing. They’re cheap. Really cheap. The HP Stream 11 costs just $200, putting it within the reach of almost any consumer. But its larger sibling, the HP Stream 13, costs an equally reasonable $230, and it’s certainly worth the 15 percent price bump to get the bigger screen if you prefer that, as do I. (You can also get a 4G version of the HP Stream 13 for $300, which provides 200 MB of free 4G data each month, with no annual contract, for the life of the device.)
Now, cheap doesn’t always equate to value. But the HP Stream laptops aren’t just cheap. They’re also a great value. Part of the reason is the extras—you get a free year of Office 365 Personal, which includes access to the full Office 2013 suite and is worth $70, plus a $25 Microsoft e-gift card, which can be used to purchase apps, games, music or videos. This means the effective price of an HP Stream 11 is just $105, and the HP Stream 13 comes to $135. That’s pays-for-itself territory.
But the real value of these laptops is more enduring than the freebies. The really special thing about each of the Streams that HP didn’t just cheap out on the parts, which would have been understandable for such low-end machines. Instead, they feature high-end gradient paint jobs and different and distinct colors—horizon blue and orchid magenta—that are both fun and desirable. They’re thin and light—not clunky and chunky—but are also well-made and appear to be solid and durable. These are not embarrassing devices in the slightest, and they’re the perfect fit for home use and homework.
The core specs are identical on both the HP Stream 11 and 13: A 2.16 GHz Intel Celeron N2840 processor, 2 GB of RAM, 32 GB of eMMC storage (of which about 17 GB is free on first use), and 802.11bgn wireless, and both feature the same screen resolution of 1366 x 768, though the Stream 11 of course has an 11.6-inch screen while the Stream 13 features a bigger 13.3-inch panel. I find both to be of high quality, and while the larger HP Stream 13 has a slightly lower pixel density, I appreciate the extra space.
These are not high-end components, but the baseline of computing here is much improved over the days of the netbook. Both because the hardware is better and because Windows 8.1 has been optimized to run well on such low-end hardware. You won’t be able to heavily multitask on a Stream, or any other low-end Windows device, but even Office applications run acceptably fast. And for average users running a web browser and a few other apps, the Streams will prove perfectly acceptable.
The two Streams differ a bit in the ports department: The Stream 11 has 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 USB 2.0 port, a full-sized HDMI-out port, and a full-sized SD card slot. But the Stream 13 improves matters with 1 USB 3.0 port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, a full-sized HDMI-out port, and a microSD card slot, which I prefer over the full-sized SD.
What you don’t get are a few modern niceties: The HP Stream 11 and 13 do not offer any multi-touch capabilities, and neither is a detachable or transforming PC. These are traditional PC laptops only.
And on that note, they perform their primary function without drama. The keyboard—identical on both—is surprisingly roomy despite allegedly being on 97 percent full-sized, and even the trackpad—often the weak link on PC laptops—works well.
Weight is reasonable for devices that will be used mostly at home—2.8 pounds for the Stream 11 and 3.4 pounds for the Stream 13—and while they’re no Ultrabooks at about .77 inches thick each, neither is particularly thick or bulky. And the rated battery life—8.25 hours and 7.75 hours, respectively—is solid. That said, I ultimately decided not to even test battery life for the reason mentioned above: The Streams are home devices, will be used at home, and will always be close to a power jack.
Frankly, there’s only one area where I need to ding HP, and this can be avoided if you get a Signature edition of the HP Stream 11 or 13 from a Microsoft Store instead of the Amazon links above: Both are loaded down with an egregious collection of crapware, including some spectacularly unnecessary HP media apps. You’re going to want to spend some time removing the junk. But at least you’ll save some disk space.
Beyond that, it’s important to know that none of the Streams’ components—RAM, internal storage—can be upgraded. And if you do install Office 2013, you’re going to run out of space quick, so before to invest in some microSD (or, for the Stream 11, SD) storage.
Quibbles aside, the HP Stream 11 and HP Stream 13 are both fantastic values: durable, attractive and easily recommended. They’re laughably cheap, well-made, and unlike comparably-priced Chromebooks, they run real Windows desktop applications, Windows 8.1 mobile apps, and web apps. Personally, I’d choose the HP Stream 13 for the extra space, but the Stream 11 is as great a choice for children. Frankly, you can’t go wrong with either one.
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