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HP Stream 7 First Impressions

HP Stream 7 First Impressions

Well, it doesn't suck

I'm not sure if HP is trying to singlehandedly make the case for high-quality, low-cost Windows devices, but between the HP Stream 11 and HP Stream 7, a new 7-inch mini-tablet, the company is off to a great start. I looked at the HP Stream 11 last week (HP Stream 11 First Impressions). Here, I'll take a quick peek at the HP Stream 7.

First, it's just $100. Now, you may recall that this isn't the first mini-tablet in this price range to appear in time for the 2014 holiday season: that dubious distinction belongs to the Toshiba Encore Mini, a tablet whose screen is so unusable I declined to even review it. But the HP Stream 7 is another breed entirely. In fact, despite some obvious similarities, these two machines couldn't be more different.

That said, it's still a $100 tablet. You're not going to get the stunning build quality, thin and light design, Touch ID sensor, or other niceties found on more expensive mini-tablets like Apple's iPad Mini 3. But then you could purchase four HP Stream 7 tablets for the price of a single entry-level iPad Mini 3. Four!

And that's the point, I think. With Microsoft offering zero-dollar Windows licensing on small devices, the software giant's hardware maker partners can come to market with ever-cheaper devices. But these devices can just be cheap, like the Encore Mini. Or they can be good values within the context of what's reasonable for the price.

The HP Stream 7 seems to fall into the latter category. It's not the obvious win-win of the HP Stream 11, but it's ... reasonable. It's small, heavy, and thick, with curiously tapered edges that give it a monolithic look. (The back of the machine is a bit wider than the front, opposite of how the edges of the Surface Pro 3 taper.) It's noticeably less tall and wide than the Encore Mini, but it's also noticeably thicker. But both mini tablets are quite dense, heavy in a negative way.

How heavy is it? According to HP, the Stream 7 weighs .78 pounds. An iPad Mini 3 weighs .73 pounds, but offers a much bigger and gorgeous Retina display and a thinner body. But in the hands, the iPad feels about half the weight of the Stream 7. The HP is so dense.

The specs are as low-end as they come, which makes sense.

The Stream 7 provides a quad-core 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z3735G processor, 1 GB of RAM and 32 GB of internal storage, of which about 18.5 GB were free on initial use. (It does offer micro SD expansion, but the card slot is hidden under the back cover, which is surprisingly difficult to remove.) To quickly test performance, I loaded up two games, "Asphalt 8: Airborne" and "Halo: Spartan Assault," and played through the first levels of each without a single hiccup or stutter.

Of as much interest, of course, is the screen.

The HP Stream 11 has a 7-inch IPS touch screen running at 1280 x 800, better than the 1024 x 600 version on the Encore Mini, which we know to be below the threshold for Modern app compatibility. But the screen offers only "limited" touch support, Windows reports, with 5 touch points. That should be fine for such a small device.

Those games look fantastic, frankly, as do Xbox Video-based movies. But in both cases, holding the tablet normally blocked the speakers, impacting the sound quality. Shuffling around would cause weird variations in the volume, too, of course.

But any real test of the screen involves reading apps like Mail, News and Amazon Kindle, the latter of which I used to continue along in some books I'm reading. (And only books; Kindle for Windows does not support periodicals, graphic novels or most things that are not just plain text, and Windows suffers for this.) The results were OK. But text sometimes has a weird blurry effect, a bit like when you go to the eye doctor and they use a lens that's not quite right.

Curious about this, I fired up the Toshiba Encore Mini—I had forgotten to return it, so it's a nice comparison—and compared the two. And there is no comparison here: The Encore Mini screen is garbage, and the text on Start screen live tiles and elsewhere is blurry, where it's crystal clear on the HP. Colors on the Encore Mini are muted and soft where they're crisp on the HP Stream 7.

Looking past the screen, the rest is as you'd expect: a single micro USB 2.0 port that doubles as a charging port using the included cable and power adapter. Low-quality front and rear cameras. Wi-Fi 802.11bgn with Miracast support. A 32-bit version of Windows 8.1 with Bing. And supposedly a copy of Office 365 Personal, though my Microsoft Signature edition version did not include that for some reason. Suspicious.

So while I can't claim this is the unmitigated success we see with the HP Stream 11 laptop, it's fair to say that HP has at least proven that a $100 Windows mini-tablet doesn't have to be embarrassing. The kids won't get points by showing it off to their iPad-wielding friends, sure. But then this device is a lot more durable than any iPad. And at about a quarter the price, it's a great value.

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