The Competition: HP Stream 7, Budget Windows Tablet
Introduction and Specifications
I've recently covered the HP Stream 7 as an interesting product from HP and now it's time to take a deeper look at the underlying product. Throughout this article, I'm going to be comparing the Stream 7 with the 2013 Nexus 7. From some perspectives, this isn't a fair comparison because the Stream 7 was introduced to the market at a cheaper price than the Nexus 7. It's also much newer. However, I'm comparing the two devices on the grounds that both are the respective software manufacturers' entry point into the tablet market. I would expect the Nexus 7 to be the “better” device on the grounds of it has more RAM, a higher resolution screen and a bigger battery. It's getting on for two years old. Will the Nexus 7 be a better compromise between form, function and price? Or will the newer Stream 7 win me over? Let's have a look.
The Stream 7 is based around the quad core Intel Atom Z3735G processor, rated at 1.33 GHz with a burst speed of 1.83 GHz. This is paired up with 1 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage, plus a MicroSD card for an additional 32 GB. There's a 7.0-inch screen of 1,280 by 800 pixel resolution, slightly better than 720p (which the original Nexus 7 came with) but behind the 2013 model's 1080p resolution screen. It's slightly smaller but noticeably thicker than the later Nexus 7, and it's also heavier too despite having a smaller battery (3,000 mAh rather than 3,950 mAh for the later Nexus 7). There are cameras front and rear, which I'm going to gloss over because nobody expects tablet cameras to amount to much. You also get 802.11n-grade WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
In the United Kingdom, I paid just £90 for the tablet (the equivalent of $135) although they're they're around $120 in North America. This includes an annual licence for Office 365, worth £60 in the UK. Office 365 brings me the full versions of PowerPoint, Word and Excel 2013. If you measure productivity in terms of editing documents, the Stream 7 already sounds like a compelling product providing the device is up to the task of running these applications.
On paper, the Stream 7's specification looks limiting. Windows has traditionally liked more and more hardware and the idea of running it on a 1.33 GHz Intel processor with just 1 GB of RAM isn't encouraging. However, Windows 8.1 is different to older versions of Windows; it's designed to be lighter and kinder to hardware. And that Intel Atom processor is a new processor that's benefited from Intel's experience in the mobile device market.
To my surprise, most of the time the Stream 7 is not disadvantaged despite the entry level Windows hardware. It sometimes pauses when I switch to a running application that I've not accessed for some time but it's no worse than Android 5.0.2 Lollipop on the Nexus 7. It's possible to have many different applications running on the Stream 7 as icons on the desktop mode with no obvious impact on performance of battery life, but open multiple tabs in Internet Explorer and a couple of heavyweight documents and things start to slow down. Android, however, closes out unused applications and documents to keep running speed up, but this causes delays when I switch back to my document. I have more applications installed and running on my Nexus 7 and this will make an impact on performance, but day to day the Stream is marginally quicker than the Nexus 7.
This difference in performance is the same when working with Word and Excel files. I opened the same documents back to back. First, I opened a large Microsoft Word document on the two devices and it loaded significantly quicker on the Stream 7. Next, I opened a document in Google Docs format in the native application on the Nexus 7 and via the Chrome browser on the Stream 7. Here, the Nexus was slightly quicker to open and prepare the document.
To my surprise, most of the time the Stream is a quicker device to use compared with the Nexus 7.
Let me go into further detail about the Stream 7's software, which as I have labored is the full version of Windows 8.1, but marked as “With Bing.” This means that Microsoft's search engine, Bing, is the default. Bing isn't my first choice of search engine but it does make Windows free to licence for HP, which of course makes the device cheaper to buy. With the Stream 7, you get a near-stock version of Windows 8.1. Windows 8 has been out for a couple of years now and feels like a curious blend of the Windows Phone (Metro) interface combined with the Windows 7 desktop. The Stream continues this pattern; the Start Page is customizable for those applications that you want to use frequently. Applications may either run in full screen mode or in desktop mode. Full screen mode is analogous to the Android tablet way, whereby your application takes up the whole screen. Desktop mode leaves part of Windows still showing on the screen.
The desktop mode is not as optimized as Android and iOS devices for touch control, but Microsoft have adjusted the interface to keep it usable. Many applications can run in full screen mode, or a mix of full screen mode with dropping to the desktop as an option. This can be a little confusing: Internet Explorer is better suited to the tablet in full screen mode, but it's easier to multitask with it in Desktop mode.
In desktop mode, It initially feels strange to be using traditional dialogue boxes and the Windows Control Panel when working with a small touchscreen tablet, but I was soon used to it. It can feel awkward because of the small screen size.
In application mode, the device behaves as one might expect a traditional tablet to work but Windows 8.1 has a trick up its sleeve: multitasking mode, whereby I can split the screen between two applications and run both sides by side. The hardware is more than capable of this but the screen feels too small for this feature to be truly usable.
However, as this is a full blown Windows computer, it means you can install anything onto the device that you have the space for. That means the Google Chrome browser, Google Drive, even games – as long as the device meets the minimum specifications for the application (and you have enough space) it'll run. Windows 8.1 also supports USB OTG (On-The-Go), which means with the right adapter you can use the Stream 7 to connect to various USB accessories and peripherals (including connecting to an Android device).
The Google Chrome browser can run in full screen mode, which converts the Stream 7 into something very similar to a Chromebook tablet. From here, it's easy to access all of my usual Google applications and services.
Although Microsoft Office 365 deserves its own article, I'll summarize: you get a years' subscription included with the Stream and it's a very good productivity suite. The Stream comes with the full version of Office 2013, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook and Access. Office 365 runs well enough on the Stream to make this a powerful productivity tool and the main limit is the small screen size.
Writing of the screen, it's small and on paper not as sharp as say the later Android tablets, but it's a bright, crisp and colorful panel with decent viewing angles and sensitivity. It is something of a fingerprint magnet (and this makes it hard to take a decent picture of the Stream!) but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it is. The brightness controls are buried in settings and there's no automatic brightness option to toggle but it appears to include this function anyway. You can independently set the brightness level for when running on mains power compared with battery power (by default, it's set at “runway landing light” brightness on mains power; you have been warned). All up, this is a respectable screen.
When I initially covered the Stream 7, one of my observations was that the tablet packs a relatively small battery. It's three quarters the size of the Nexus 7. In use, the battery life has been mixed. In some respects, the Stream 7 does very well but in others, it's as compromised as you might expect with a large screen and small battery.
I've found in mixed testing that the WiFi radio is a power hog. If I disable the WiFi, I see much longer battery life. This is especially obvious when the device is in standby because even with several applications running, if WiFi if off the device uses minimal power when in standby. Turning WiFi on and it drains the battery in under thirty six hours. Run with both Bluetooth and WiFi on and I don't see twenty four hours. This is very disappointing, especially in the context of the Nexus 7 where I'll see a few days of standby with WiFi and Bluetooth running. This battery drain is probably caused by a device driver playing up and should therefore be fixable via software.
Putting aside the wireless power consumption bug (and it's tough because most of the point of having WiFi on a tablet is so you can use it online), the Stream performs better than I was expecting. Yes, there's still a large screen and a small capacity battery, but the device is closer to the Nexus 7 for usage across a day. Unfortunately, Windows 8.1 doesn't include much in the way of battery life statistics so I cannot quantify this.
Another irritant when it comes to the battery life is how the HP Stream 7 would only charge using the supplied charger adapter and lead. Luckily, everything else I own that uses MicroUSB will charge from the HP provided charger but not the other way around.
The HP Stream 7 has been a difficult device to review, which is one reason why it's taken me several weeks to finish the review. The device attempts to blend a mix of a Windows desktop computer with a portable tablet in a very compact device. As such, it has an identity crisis: it's not a brilliant tablet nor is it a brilliant desktop replacement. However, I don't believe HP intended the device to replace a desktop computer; this is a tablet and as such, pairing it up to a wireless keyboard and running the bundled Microsoft Office 365, the Stream 7 is a powerful productivity tool. The biggest limitations are the small screen and the user interface, which doesn't always suit the tablet. However, it's this small size that's also the greatest strength: all this functionality fits into your back pants pocket.
The battery life bug is a real shame because without careful wireless management, the device struggles to get through a working day. Disabling the WiFi goes some way and it's relatively easy to work offline with the device, but defeats most of the point of the Stream! It's the other reason why it took me a while to write the review as I was hoping HP and Microsoft would release an update to solve the WiFi radio bug. When will this arrive?
There's another question at the back of my mind: the Stream comes with a twelve month Office 365 license. This means after the first year, you're going to need to pay for the software. Even so, the Stream plus two years worth of Office 365 is still less than buying a 32 GB WiFi-only Nexus 7. It is reasonable to be expecting to replace the tablet after three years?
The Stream 7 impressed me for reasons other than what I was expecting; it performs admirably on low end hardware and I don't believe increasing processor power or memory would make so much difference. Perhaps a 10-inch model would be a better compromise, with a keyboard… but then HP have released the Stream 11 laptop for this very purpose.
As to if the HP Stream 7 is better than the Nexus 7, having used the Stream as my small tablet for six weeks now I need to reply that it has different strengths and weaknesses. At the moment it's tough to recommend for a mobile worker, despite the small size, because of the radio battery bug. I'll update the review and my opinion if this is fixed.