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What do you get from a $199 PC? More than you might expect

HP's new dirt-cheap Windows laptop looks like a Chromebook and is practically the same dimensions as a MacBook Air. Just don't call it a netbook.

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When I heard that I was going to receive an HP Stream 11 to review, I was skeptical.

You would be too, if you knew that the Stream 11 sells for $199.99 and comes in your choice of blue or pink plastic cases.

But after spending a couple days with this budget PC I came away impressed at what you get for two C-notes. No, it will not replace my Surface Pro 3 , nor are you likely to exchange your MacBook Air for a Stream 11. But I would certainly recommend it over a Chromebook for anyone who does most day-to-day activity in the cloud but still needs the ability to run Windows desktop programs, especially Microsoft Office.

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And that’s the whole idea. This is not an enterprise-class machine. It’s aimed squarely at cost-conscious consumers who might be tempted by a Chromebook but would probably end up disappointed by its limitations. There’s no reason this machine can’t connect to your corporate network or let you work with Office files. That’s just not its primary role.

That price tag is an even bigger bargain than it appears at first glance. Among the bundled extras are a $25 gift card, good for apps from the Windows Store or digital media from Xbox Music or Movies. There’s also a one-year Office 365 Personal subscription (a $70 value), which allows you to install the full Office desktop suite and includes unlimited storage on Microsoft’s OneDrive service.

Those extras wouldn’t be worth it if they were dragged down by sluggish performance. But this little machine is zippy enough as long as you stay within your lane. Office apps snap open quickly, and casual games perform perfectly well. But don’t even think of installing Photoshop or Visual Studio, and steer clear of any game that puts even modest demands on the GPU.

Specs

The Stream 11 gets to its bargain-basement price tag thanks to a mix of decidedly modest components. Here’s what’s inside:

  • Celeron N2840 CPU clocked at 2.16 GHz

  • 2 GB of RAM (1.89 GB usable)

  • 32 GB of eMMC flash storage (Hynix HBG4e) with a full-size SD card slot for expansion

  • An 11.6-inch (diag.) WLED backlit display, running at 1366x768 resolution

  • HP TrueVision HD webcam

  • 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0

  • 2 USB ports (1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0)

  • A full-sized HDMI port

  • Windows 8.1 with Bing (64-bit)

The Stream 11 is nearly identical in size to an 11-inch MacBook Air (only a tenth of an inch thicker). At 2.74 pounds, it’s about a quarter-pound heavier than a 2.38-pound MacBook Air, at a quarter of the price. (A larger variant, the Stream 13, starts at $230 and includes 4G options.)

The biggest weakness on the Stream 11’s spec list is storage. That 32 GB disappears quickly. Out of the box, roughly one-quarter of the storage is devoted to a Recovery Partition. Windows and its built-in apps gobble up some more space, as do the Office program files if you choose to activate the free subscription on that device.

The account I signed in with has a massive amount of OneDrive storage in use—more than 350 GB in the cloud, which results in nearly 2 GB worth of placeholder files being stored locally (and shows why Microsoft is getting rid of those placeholders in Windows 10).

All in all, I ended up with just under 10 GB of free storage on the system itself. Thankfully, it was easy to expand that storage dramatically with an inexpensive SD card.

Hardware build quality

Given the price tag, I was expecting flimsy construction but was pleasantly surprised. The plastic housing has a solid, not flimsy feel, with a nice matte finish that makes the case easy to grip.

The keyboard was extremely responsive, with no unnecessary travel in the keys. A touch typist should be able to fly through most tasks at full speed.

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Alas, I can’t say the same for the Synaptics touchpad, which frequently misinterpreted my gestures and was every bit as exasperating as you have probably come to expect from touchpads even on premium Windows devices.

The display, while definitely not Retina quality, is sharp enough for casual use and was dim but viewable at even extreme angles. Because the design is fanless, this device is also impressively quiet. (I didn't try to push it to the point where heat became an issue.)

I had no trouble connecting the Stream 11 to a Miracast adapter and playing HD videos with surround sound. Because Windows 8.1 includes Miracast support by default, that took no configuration at all.

Conclusion

Six years ago, HP delivered one of the first netbooks, the HP Mini 1000, which cost $549, took 2-1/2 minutes to boot, and ran out of battery after less than three hours on duty.

Thankfully, this successor offers a much better experience at a fraction of the price.

The Stream 11 boots from a cold start in 20 seconds or so, and resumes from sleep in about 2 seconds. I haven’t been able to do a full battery-life test, but my initial impressions are that it will last through at least 6 hours of moderate use.

It wouldn’t be an HP machine if it didn’t have a collection of mostly unnecessary software, including a 30-day trial of the latest McAfee security software with a $20 upsell offer for a one-year subscription. Other preinstalled programs include 7-Zip, Netflix, Skype, TripAdvisor, and some Microsoft games.

As is too often the case with this sort of shovelware, there are some glaring conflicts in the offers. You get unlimited OneDrive storage with the included Office 365 subscription, plus there’s an offer on the desktop for 25GB of free online storage with Dropbox (six months only) as well as three HP Connected apps (Drive, Music, Photo), which include the option to connect to a Box cloud storage account.

Thankfully, the extra apps are easy enough to remove. And when you’ve done that, you end up with a cheap laptop that doesn’t feel the least bit cheap.