HP Stream 13 Review: Low Cost, High Value

The last couple of years have seen an underground revolution in ultraportable, budget computing take place. At first, it was only waged by the tech geek community and as word got out how efficient and functional these computers were, people began to take notice. Where netbooks failed, Google stepped in and saw some success with their Chromebook line once people began to understand what exactly it was they were buying. That market has become seductive enough that Microsoft and their partners have jumped into the fray, so today we're taking a look at HP's Stream 13. And it is quite the looker!

First off, let's take a look at specs. The HP Stream 13 comes in three flavors, one with and two without a touch screen. Two sport 13.3" diagonal HD LED-backlit screens (1366x768), one features a WLED (this is also the same model that comes with T-Mobile service), all three come with 32 GB eMMC solid state storage. Remember that the operating system needs space so you'll only see around 17 GB free for your use. Not to worry though, you can expand memory by using a USB drive, or taking advantage of the built-in microSD media card reader. In addition, you'll also get an: HDMI port, headset jack, USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports and three-cell, 36-watt non-removable battery. Though not hardware specs, you'll also get 1 terabyte of Microsoft OneDrive cloud storage and Office365 Personal for one year. Office Personal includes: Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, Outlook, Publisher and Access.

The version of the laptop that we received for review was the non-touch, wi-fi only model 13-c010nr. Out of the box, there were a couple things I needed to take care of to get the optimum use out of the Stream 13. First up, the poor contrast was just killing me! Spending decades as a video editor, you tend to notice little things with picture quality pretty quickly. Fixing the contrast setting is simple, here's how:

After that, the LED panel produced much better images and I was set. Also, that touchpad is seriously sensitive! As I was using the laptop, my palms were putting that cursor all over the place so I'd advise you go into Synaptics' app, which you can find in the control panel, and turning off "Tap and drag." Trust me, you'll be much happier with it off. The only thing you can't fix is key travel and that would be my only real complaint with this laptop's hardware. Thought the keys didn't feel cramped and were large enough, they really didn't have all that much travel when typing and I write a lot. It's a hard thing to quantify because it's so subjective but for me and the keyboards I'm used to, as I was typing it was like my fingers were expecting to move the keys a further distance before they hit the contacts and they stopped short. At first, it was kind of like a "hard brake" in traffic. A bit jarring. But I did get used to it and adapted. You should also keep in mind that I'm a writer, I do a lot of typing, so your mileage may vary.

After the adjustments I was off and computing! I made this my main computer for the better part of a month and I have to say that I was pretty happy with it overall. I've seen some people ask how anyone can use a Windows computer that is only running on 2 GB of RAM and I have to tell you that memory use on Windows 8.1 has become so efficient that the Stream 13 ran like a well-oiled machine, which is a testament to the advancements made in the code the folks in Redmond, Washington have written in recent years. The only issues I ran into were the same ones I've experienced on Chromebooks with 2 GB of RAM. Once you get dozens of browser tabs open, you will experience some slowing but that's easy to fix, just close some tabs. For the time that I used the laptop, I performed the basic things I do each day: manage social media accounts, light graphic work, email triage, writing, streaming videos and reading. Everything worked as it should with the only complaints being in the area of streaming. 720P, 1080P content on YouTube experienced jittery playback, as did the stream when I watched The Walking Dead directly from AMC's website. These streams weren't playing at their full frame rates but they were watchable and my son was actually fine with them when he was watching, but again, when it comes to picture and sound I tend to be very finicky.

Therein lies the dilemma. Microsoft must be very clear about what these laptops can and cannot do. The Stream series are for very particular needs. These aren't powerhouse laptops. They're not Photoshop or Adobe Premiere workstations. Think of them this way: they power up lightning quick, have long battery life and are very budget friendly… it's like a tablet but with a full desktop operating system that will allow you to be much more productive than you would be on a tablet or mobile device. If you go into the purchase of one of the Stream 13 models with that in mind, you'll get a world of enjoyment out of the product. If you think you're going to be playing World of Warcraft, full frame rate or you'll be cutting together the next great fan film of some sort, your expectations won't be met. If you need a second or third computer to meet your everyday computing needs, something inexpensive because your children have to get web-based homework done and they can no longer share a computer or a travel computer that you won't beat yourself up over if something happens to it then go ahead and pick one up!

When you purchase the Stream 13, you'll get a one year warranty and if you pick up the 4G enabled model (13-c030nr) you'll get a monthly allotment of 200mb of free 4G T-Mobile data for the life of the device with no annual contract. That isn't a lot of data at all, but it'll get you through some email and social status updating.

Ultimately, I was quite happy with the HP Stream 13 as an everyday carry computer. I did stream music through it to some high-end headphones and it kept up. I watched some video streams and even performed some light photo editing and it kept up. The laptop powers up from a cold start very fast, comes back to life from a sleep state very fast and the fanless design never got uncomfortably hot. It looks great and once you make some of the adjustments I outlined up top, it really is a great machine for the price. Especially if you're looking to pick up productivity machines for the kids, without breaking the bank!