I remember when I first started to take notice of netbooks. It was early 2008 and a local high street computer retailer had taken delivery of their new netbook stock. The computers were all small, with screens of between 7.0-inch to 10.0-inch, were based around the Intel Atom processor and ran either LINUX or Windows XP. They had near-full size QWERTY keyboards and in the case of those equipped with Windows XP, came to demonstrate everything that was both good and bad about low end Windows hardware. These early Windows XP networks were slow thanks to sluggish processors and memory. Later Windows 7 netbooks ran a hamstrung version of the software and were less capable. Even so, with enough patience the inexpensive netbook could be a useful productivity tool.
Then the iPad made the consumer tablet a mainstream product and in just a couple of years, destroyed the cheap netbook market. The entry level Apple iPad was around twice the price of the entry level netbook, but had an instant-on, easy to use touchscreen interface and the ability to add applications. Google have gotten in on the act too with a tablet-oriented version of Android, 3.0 Honeycomb.
Netbooks were largely abandoned by the manufacturers in 2012 and their closest replacement is arguably the Google Chromebook, as the ultrabook (a very small Windows notebook using expensive high end components) is expensive. And whilst the Chromebook isn’t a perfect computing platform, it’s fast and usable and has gained market share very quickly. It’s also a way of encouraging users to use the Google Android infrastructure; Microsoft’s Windows is facing competition from all sides. And now Microsoft are doing something about it in conjunction with HP.
HP have released two products running Microsoft Windows 8.1, the Stream 7 tablet and the Stream 11 laptop. Both of these are very competitively priced, offering the full version of Windows 8.1 with one or two hardware compromises. For the Stream 7, it’s weaknesses are that it only has 1 GB of memory and a small capacity battery. The Stream 11 has a screen of a very similar quality to that of most Chromebooks, that is, it’s 1,368 by 768 resolution with relatively poor viewing angles.
However, the devices are just $119 and $199 respectively and ultimately, they’re about the software experience rather than the hardware. Both use Microsoft Windows 8.1 With Bing, which because of a licensing deal, is very inexpensive for HP to bundle. It’s reckoned to be free for some manufacturers. They also come with a twelve month subscription to Microsoft Office 365 Personal, worth $70. The hardware is good enough to run the Microsoft Windows operating system and the flagship product, Office. From a productivity perspective, this is quite the development. Sure; with the Stream 7 you’d probably going to want a Bluetooth wireless keyboard and mouse, but if you already have these accessories, your $120 gets you a compelling piece of hardware.
And let’s look a little further into the future. The Stream 7 doesn’t make it easy to be connected to a monitor and used as a replacement for a desktop, but perhaps a second iteration of the tablet could. We are one little step closer to carrying around our desktop computing environment around in our pockets, using a larger monitor, wireless keyboard and mouse when we need to, or otherwise using it in small tablet mode. And for those reasons, the budget HP Windows tablet is an exciting product.