In a world where ARM CPUs and Android OS have come to be dominating factors in the tablet and mobile marketspace, and Chromebooks have become a big force in the educational market (at least in the US), it seems that Microsoft and Intel stand to miss out entirely on the “next generation” of computer users.
Not content with being relegated to the scrap-heap, Intel has done much work in revamping their x86 CPUs into something much more power efficient, producing a new line of Atom Z-series CPUs which more closely resemble the low-power SoC designs of ARM CPUs by incorporating peripherals and using package-on-package technology.
This has enabled both Windows and Android based Intel tablets, for Intel to try and attack the market from both sides. The first generation efforts, say the Acer Iconia W3, proved to be promising but missed the mark in some respects. It did show that x86 was capable of being miserly with power, and the ARM based Microsoft Surface RT to be a “needless” device.
Fast forward to mid-2014, and it’s apparent the threat from low-cost Chromebooks are also edging out the Microsoft Windows solutions. The tablet market itself, as I had predicted, is beginning to stagnate and a new philosophy is needed to revive it. Microsoft chips in by making Windows 8.1 with Bing, provided to OEM for “free” for small screen devices to try and bolster the low-end of the market.
The HP Stream 8 (5801 aka Wi-Fi edition) seems to be one of these devices, on which Microsoft and Intel have collectively placed their future hopes on, to try and claw back at the Google-territory. The main allure is a low price-point of AU$199, which is about AU$100 less than a traditional Windows 8 tablet. I got it on sale for effectively AU$185 shipped, which was pretty attractive. The tablet comes with bundled Office 365 (one year subscription), and has full compatibility with desktop applications. It’s a smaller compromise compared to changing to a tablet-only platform.
Unfortunately, that’s where the rosiness ends, with several drawbacks – all of which apply to Windows 8 tablets in general. One of them is the less “mature” Windows Store apps, very few of which make the cut for being of good utility. Some of the more popular apps on the Android and iOS platforms have no true analog in the Windows Store. In fact, on a tablet which is capable of running desktop applications, the transition and “mixing” between full-screen applications and windowed applications often causes some level of annoyance. Using purely desktop mode applications requires patience, due to the lack of adaptability in terms of zoom, the ambiguous input paradigms (does dragging the finger indicate a mouse drag or a scroll) and the smaller targets which require care to “touch” on.
As a result, it’s hard to recommend Windows 8 Tablets to a newcomer, although a more experienced and patient user like myself would appreciate the compatibility benefits despite the drawbacks.
In order to meet the low price-point, a few things had to give way – namely the device only has a measily 1Gb of RAM. Even the Iconia W3 had 2Gb. This could be expected to limit the amount of desktop applications running. The Intel Atom Z3735G is clocked at a leisurely 1.33Ghz, which bursts up to 1.83Ghz with four cores, scoring 915 CPU Marks. This is a bit better than the Z2760 in the W3, which only has two cores, and scores roughly 679 CPU Marks which is 26% less. The device retains 32Gb of flash, but is WIMboot enabled which allows for more free space as it’s now capable of booting compressed Windows Images. This does consume some CPU, but now means that the device actually has enough useful space to install applications on. Another compromise is in its Wi-Fi connectivity, which is strictly 2.4Ghz single-stream Wireless N, which does not suit high throughput needs. The device also retains an 8″ screen with 1280×800 resolution and a regular one year warranty, which is nice.
On the whole, I’d have to say, for AU$185 new, is not particularly bad value although whether you will find a use for such a device will depend on your needs.
The HP Stream 8 comes in a very simplified colour cardboard fold-out box. The box doesn’t have any particularly loud statements, and has a simple visual design which already seems to exude its value nature.
Even the rear is not adorned with a list of specifications, options, accessories or anything else. It’s all quiet, it’s all grey. Which seems rather unusual for a computer product.
The first thing you are gretted with, upon opening the box, is the tablet itself wrapped up in a protective plastic cover. Removing the cover allows you to get to the tablet itself, which has a very simple, almost elegant looking design.
The front of the tablet features a completely “glass” front, adorned with a very discreet Hewlett Packard in the top left. The Windows button is a “touch” capacitive button. One of the compromises seems to be that the front camera is off to the top right corner which makes it a little difficult to keep your eye on during a video-chat. The device itself seems to be laid out for vertical orientation use, which seems to be suboptimal for desktop application users.
The rear camera is centered, and the rear of the tablet is covered by a “rounded” plastic cover, reminiscent of the clip on battery covers on many mobile phones. The HP and Intel branding is prominent on the rear, and a regulatory placard is attached near the bottom.
Similar to smartphones, a power button and volume rocker is provided on the right edge. Two ports, namely audio and USB OTG (which functions as a charge port) are provided along the top edge. There are also two speaker slots on the bottom for stereo audio. No video output jacks are provided.
Access to the microSD card slot is provided by removing the rear plastic cover, which can get tedious if you’re in the habit of changing cards. Despite the removable rear cover, the battery itself is taped in and cannot be removed without damaging it. It is not designed to be user replaceable. It is manufactured by TCL Hyperpower Batteries Inc in China and has a 14.8Wh capacity (3.7v x 4000mAh) which is a little on the small side.
For comparison, the largest phones are coming out with 11.8Wh batteries, the Acer Iconia W3 has a 25Wh battery, the iPad Air 2 has a 27.62Wh battery and the “new” iPad 3 4G has a 42.5Wh behemoth! This can be expected to translate into a slightly less-favourable run-time for the Stream 8.
The tablet itself weighs in at about 407 grams, which is a little lighter than the Acer Iconia W3 which weighed in at 493 grams. It’s not a particularly light tablet by modern standards, even the Asus Nexus 7 2012 (similar size tablet) managed to get to the 340 gram mark.
That being said, it feels more comfortable to hold than the Iconia W3, and this is helped by its body which is slightly thinner than the W3 and feels better balanced. The edges also seem to have a character of their own, rather than nicely curving around the back, they are bevelled so they get just a bit “fatter” around the back cover, which makes for a different feel.
The unit charges through the microUSB connector, which supports USB OTG as well. Supplied is a Chicony Power Technology 2A adapter, with one of the best quality microUSB cables I’ve seen, having a heavy weight 22AWG pair of conductors to carry the current.
Also included is a quick start leaflet, and an iPass Wi-Fi offer code which can be redeemed for a year’s free Wi-Fi access at participating areas.
It might be cheap, but given that it was a new “toy”, I did have some reservations about tearing it apart. At least, I could attempt one stage of tearing it apart, which was to remove the screws holding the black shroud on the rear of the device, to get a peek at the motherboard.
We can see that the board occupies a significant amount of area inside, unlike the board of the Iconia W3 which seemed to offer more space for the battery. The SKhynix flash is visible, which is probably populated on top of the CPU, next to the microSD slot. There is also a Realtek (audio) chip in close proximity. Some circuitry seems to be placed inside the soldered-down metal can, which we can’t really get a peek at, but the device seems to use a licensed version of Insyde H20 BIOS as is common with HP devices.
The large can is somewhat excuseable when you realize that removing the blanking rubber reveals that the PCB has been set-up for configuration with a 4G module (as per the model 5901). As a result, we can see the solder points for the WWAN module, and SIM card slots which are not populated along with other items.
It seems a slot was provided just near the Hewlett Packard text on the front to mount the WWAN antenna. Also interesting is that the PCB seems to have provision for GPS as well, which was not fitted either. The WLAN antenna connector can be seen pulling the signal from the top of the tablet, to the bottom near the speakers, where the WLAN antenna is housed.
At this end of the motherboard, a provision for a vibrator is also visible on the PCB, but not used. Maybe the same platform was used to build an Android tablet where GPS and vibration are considered more ordinary features.
The battery also can be seen to have some blue tabs leading out at the bottom. These tabs may be to release the adhesive and “free” the battery in case of eventual replacement. The battery itself is connected to the mainboard by a connector, and replacing it is not entirely out of the question if you’re patient enough.
A cheap tablet’s going to have some compromises, right? And indeed, that is the case. Powering the tablet on, you see what appears to be a massive black-level uniformity issue with the LCD, often referred to as backlight bleeding. This issue existed prior to the tear-down of the unit, and seems to be a common issue even with prior HP Stream tablet models.
It looks shockingly bad during the BIOS sequence, especially at the first boot, but is generally less noticeable to almost un-noticeable in most cases in Windows (especially at bright screens, where the white level seems to be more uniform with some excessive brightness toward the bottom edge). The screen itself seems to be IPS, although its gamut isn’t exactly too high. At least it is miles better than the sparkly mess that the Iconia W3 had.
The tablet itself, while in use, seems rather responsive for 1Gb of RAM. It feels roughly similar to the earlier Iconia W3 that I used, however, with reduced graphical tearing during scrolling and slightly better responsiveness. The impact of WIMboot is clear, with a lot of free space even after I’ve installed all the programs I often use. The tablet was also able to keep up with Firefox running with over eight tabs, which often stresses out the free RAM.
The touch digitizer on it also seems to be better than the Iconia W3, with less “dead spots” near the edges and generally better accuracy. I’ve had less issues with aiming at small targets, which makes desktop mode more tolerable.
Running the tablet with an 8Mbit/s video streaming through the wireless, played on loop through Media Player Classic – Home Cinema with DXVA Native decoding resulted in a run time of almost exactly five hours at minimum brightness. The Iconia W3 was able to manage seven and a half hours under the exact same conditions (their minimum brightnesses were comparable), mainly attributable to the bigger battery.
A calculation was made as to the power consumption of the two tablets during the test, averaging just 2.96W for the Stream 8, and 3.33W for the Iconia W3. This represents a power efficiency improvement of about 11%, which is in line with expectations from “generational” improvements.
Charging the tablet resulted in a draw of 1.30A measured from the charger, which allowed it to complete charging in about 5 hours. Unfortunately, due to the lack of other ports, use of USB OTG with charging cannot be accomplished without a special hub (pricey) or some hacks (maybe like this, although whether this particular implementation works is unknown). It is a double-edged sword, as using the USB to charge also makes this tablet amenable to being charged from a USB power bank for extended run-time, but makes it much less suitable than the Iconia W3, which has a dedicated charge port, to dealing with USB devices.
The hardware included in the tablet seems a little interesting:
The audio I/O, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are provided by Realtek solutions. This isn’t particularly noteworthy for quality, however, due to the connectivity constraints, the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi are served over an SDIO bus (as the CPU provides three – one used for the eMMC, one used for the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, and the other for the microSD slot). The Wi-Fi only supports 2.4Ghz, but also supports FM radio, however no such functionality has been opened up.
The cameras are provided by serial modules from Omnivision (OV5648, 5MP, rear) and Himax Imaging (HM2056, 2MP) connected to the Intel Imaging Signal Processor 2400 (an on-board peripheral of the Atom platform). This is a better combination than the two OV2722 2MP/HD sensors used in the Iconia W3. Unfortunately, despite being supplied with better sensors, the quality of the images is flatly poor compared with most modern tablets with poor sensitivity in artificial indoor lighting.
A Trusted Protected Module is installed in the device, likely to enable encryption through Bitlocker and holding licensing credentials. Kionix supplies the sensors within the tablet.
The tablet’s CPU seems to provide for a USB 3.0 bus, of which only USB 2.0 is exposed to the outside (unfortunately). It also seems to have a hardware COM port (COM1) but that doesn’t seem to be connected anywhere either.
The eMMC is from Hynix, and seems to perform very well, with a good balance of small and large block performance which improves the tablet’s responsiveness.
The battery status seems only to provide indications in percentage, and does not offer any estimated run-time. This is probably due to a more crude battery gas-gauge than that used in full-sized laptops. When checked-out with HWMonitor, it seems the battery reports numbers that are an order of magnitude out.
The first time I set-up the tablet and applied all the updates, and removed some of the bloatware, I managed to end up with a tablet that could not Sleep for some reason. Nothing I tried could get it to sleep – it just didn’t show up, the power button did nothing. I had to resort to restoring it via PC Settings – and suffice it to say, the restore itself works smoothly without the need for any external media unlike in the Acer Iconia W3.
There was one particular issue with the tablet I couldn’t resolve, despite three restores, and I have determined it to be a bug with the original install even prior to all the updates being applied or customizations applied.
When executing desktop apps, many third party apps will start up and somehow have their windows “maximised” to fill the screen. This is the case whether for the installer language dialogues, or opening dialogues where generally the windows open with a fixed size instead open full-screen. The screenshot below shows CPU-Z, just one of many affected applications.
Double clicking on the titlebar restores it to the right size, as seen in the screenshot below.
Unfortunately, closing and re-opening the program doesn’t have the window position memorized, so it continues to open filling the screen and covering the start bar. This occurs whether opened by shortcut or not, and with the shortcut configured to Normal or Maximise.
So far, I have not been able to find a solution to this, so I have been living with it, but it’s very peculiar as my Acer Iconia W3 running the exact same level of Windows, with the same applications, does not exhibit this problem.
Within the tablets’ asking price are a few included offers. One of them, which I elected to take, was a one-year subscription to Microsoft Office 365. This requires an internet connection to activate, and must be activated before mid-year. The process also requires a Microsoft account, and generally sets up an auto-renewal although card details are not immediately requested. It takes a while to install. Unfortunately, they don’t provide a full version of Office Home and Student perpetually, like the Acer Iconia W3 did, and that makes its “low cost” a little disappointing.
Another offer provided is a 25Gb free Dropbox for 6-months (i.e. 23Gb on top of the 2 free gigabytes). I didn’t elect to take this offer as I wasn’t much of a Dropbox user anyway, and 6-months is hardly enough to be worth my hassle of installing and syncing with the eligible device to claim it. This can be especially difficult on a 32Gb tablet, if you do end up filling your space allocation.
Finally, a one-year iPass network pass is provided. A quick gander at iPass’ website shows an abysmally poor coverage of iPass access points in the Sydney area, to the point it’s hardly as ubiquitous as they make it out to be. Again, it’s a pass from me.
The HP Stream 8 is a low cost tablet, intending to help Intel and Microsoft edge their way into the bottom end of the market, including the educational sector. The tablet itself seems to be based on simplicity, and feels good to hold. Its performance is quite acceptable, compared to a previous attempt, but it doesn’t quite reach the performance of the tablet contemporaries when it comes to connectivity, camera, ease of use with applications and potentially battery life.
By running the full Windows 8.1 build, it allows for the use of desktop mode applications, which more experienced users will appreciate. Despite its low specifications, it is capable of doing this with surprising ease, although it is really only good for a limited number of tasks. It can be considered the new “netbook”, or lowest-common-denominator.
There seems to be a bug, however, with how it composes windows in the desktop mode, which is a little annoying. The choice of a single USB microB connector to charge and provide USB connectivity is also a little limiting, as was the choice not to break out any USB 3.0 or display outputs. The use of only 2.4Ghz networking makes it unsuitable for high bandwidth/high density applications, with many schools here mandating 5Ghz Wi-Fi (as 2.4Ghz is not sufficient, and is not being provided).
I suppose it can be considered cheap, at AU$199, but compared to the other efforts at AU$299 to AU$349 (e.g. Toshiba Encore 8), it’s not all rosy. For one, it no longer includes a full perpetual license for Office Home and Student, instead opting to provide a one year subscription to Office 365 (as a revenue generating stream for Microsoft). The difference in licensing cost over a few years (at $100 per year) could easily make up the difference. For the gap in pricing, you also are saddled with (what is likely) a lower specification CPU and just 1Gb of RAM. The “with Bing” portion of Windows 8 isn’t as nasty as it sounds, however, as it can easily be disabled or opted out of.
The choice to go with an HP Stream 8 isn’t so clear-cut once these things are taken into account. It seems cheap, but you are getting less for your dollars. The other “inclusions” and offers are merely fluff which are unlikely to be useful anyway.