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HP Stream 13 Review: A Low-Cost Windows Alternative to Chromebooks

How much laptop does $230 get you?

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

If you’re looking for a basic, inexpensive laptop, Google’s Chromebooks have become an increasingly popular choice in that category. Their cloud-based focus limits their functionality, but they can handle everyday tasks like email, Web browsing and working on documents with speed and good battery life. It’s arguably the bargain prices, though, (most models go for between $200 and $350) that make Chromebooks so attractive.

Naturally, Microsoft hasn’t taken too kindly to having Google encroach on part of its territory, so the company is fighting back. Together with its hardware partners, Microsoft is trotting out new low-cost devices designed to compete with Chromebooks. For the past week, I’ve been testing one called the HP Stream 13, and I found that it has some nice advantages over Google’s machines. But it has some limitations.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

On the positive side, the Stream 13 is a full Window 8.1 laptop with a starting price of just $230 (there’s also an 11-inch model that starts at $200). It’s one of the most affordable Windows laptops on the market, and to further sweeten the deal, HP throws in a free one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and one terabyte of online storage through Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud service.

But the biggest benefit of the Stream 13 over Chromebooks is a larger selection of apps, and the fact that you can access them without an Internet connection. (If you’re unfamiliar with Chromebooks, the laptops run on Google’s Chrome OS and largely require being connected to the Internet since many of the apps are Web-based. Google has added support for more offline apps over the years, but the number is still small compared to Windows.)

On the downside, running some of those apps on the Stream 13 can be a poky experience. As one might expect, the cheaper price means there are trade-offs, and in this case they come in the form of computing power, onboard storage and screen resolution. I wouldn’t recommend this laptop if you need something with some horsepower. That said, I can see the Stream 13 being a good option for households in need of a second computer, for casual laptop users (my parents come to mind), students and for those on a strict budget.

The Stream 13 may be cheap, but it doesn’t feel cheap. Despite its largely plastic body, the laptop has a sturdy construction that feels like it can withstand accidental knocks and bumps. The laptop’s hinge is also strong, though the one on my review unit made a creaking sound. With its electric-blue color, the Stream 13 is sure to stand out, but it’s not going to be for everybody. But that’s the only color option, unless you decide on the Stream 11, which also comes in magenta. (Yay?)

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

At 13.12 inches wide by 9.02 inches long and 0.77-inch thick, the Stream 13 easily fit into my messenger bag, but it’s about half a pound heavier than my MacBook Air.

The island-style keyboard is roomy and easy to use. I was less enamored with its touchpad. While a decent size, it’s a bit stiff and can be temperamental. There were numerous times that it mistook a left-click for a right-click; the slightest brush of the touchpad would launch an unwanted menu. You might want to invest in a mouse to avoid some frustration.

The laptop is equipped with a good selection of ports, including two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 port, an HDMI connector, a microSD card slot and a headphone jack.

Of course there are going to be some compromises at this price range — the screen being one of them. The 13-inch, 1,366 by 768-pixel display is pretty dim and dull. It’s adequate for reading text and viewing media, but it has limited viewing angles, and doesn’t show the same level of detail or rich colors as higher-resolution screens. It’s also not a touchscreen, so it’s more cumbersome to navigate the menus since Windows 8 was optimized for a touchscreen. HP does offer a touchscreen model for $40 more, though.

In order to offer the Stream 13 at its current price, the laptop also runs a different version of Windows 8.1, but that doesn’t mean you’re getting a lesser operating system. You’re still getting the full OS; the only difference is that Bing is set as the default search engine in Internet Explorer. And even then, you can change it to Google, Yahoo or your search provider of choice, and, of course, you have the option to download other popular browsers like Chrome and Firefox.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

As I mentioned earlier, you also get a free year subscription to Office 365 Personal with the purchase of the laptop. That’s valued at $70, but after a year, you will need to pay to continue using the services. I appreciated having access to the Office suite, since I largely work in Word to write and edit my stories. The ability to work in traditional desktop apps (online and offline) was a boon, but some of that excitement fades when you realize how slowly some of them run on the laptop.

Equipped with an Intel Celeron processor and two gigabytes of RAM, the Stream 13 was fine when I was using Word, checking Web mail and streaming music through the Slacker app. But if I did much more than that, performance was affected. Even launching a new tab in Chrome could make the system hang a bit, and getting Netflix to load required patience. I can’t imagine trying to use a more graphics-intensive program like Photoshop on the Stream 13.

Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Another thing to keep in mind is that the Stream 13 only has a 32GB solid-state drive, with just 21GB of that available to the user. This means that there isn’t a ton of room to store large files and apps on the device itself, so use OneDrive and the microSD card slot when you can.

One other piece of advice: The Stream 13 comes with a lot of extra software that you might not find very useful. For example, I didn’t touch HP’s Connected Music service or Snapfish, so you may want to uninstall unwanted apps to free up some room. Better yet, get the Stream 13 Signature Edition, which gets rid of all the bloatware.

Battery life was surprisingly impressive. For my harsh battery test, I set the screen brightness to high, turned off all power-saving features, and left Wi-Fi on to fetch email while continuously playing a video. The Stream 13 lasted 5.5 hours — enough to watch a couple of movies on a cross-country flight. In real-world usage, the laptop lasted just short of seven hours when I used it for email, Web browsing and working on documents. Not quite enough to get me through a full workday, but almost. It’s also rare that I’m away from my desk (and an outlet) for that long.

The HP Stream 13 is a bargain Windows laptop with some nice surprises, like a solid design and decent battery life. It’s a nice alternative for those who might be turned off by the limitations of a Chromebook. Just realize that the Stream 13’s low cost comes with some compromises

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