NOTE: As of October 2015, HP has “upgraded” the HP Stream 11 to the newer, Intel N3050 Celeron processor. Please see my review, here, for details.
Last week, I bought an HP Stream 11 and wrote a first impressions and review of the device. I did it partially because I had a sudden and temporary need for a cheap, light, long-lasting Windows laptop, and partially because I was just very curious how it would compare to similarly equipped Chromebooks, especially the Acer C720.
As it turns out, the review I posted has been one of my more popular blog entries, probably because there hasn’t been much coverage of this laptop among the mainstream press. That isn’t surprising to me: a $200, oddly colored low-end device isn’t exactly sexy writing material. Yet, there’s clearly a lot of interest in this computer (and similar releases by Asus and Acer). I figured I’d give some additional follow-up for people thinking about buying the computer this holiday season, whether for personal use or as a gift.
In brief, I’m shocked with how much I like this computer. The keyboard is very comfortable and after a week of use, I feel like the screen is just a tiny bit better than the Acer C720 due to slightly better viewing angles. The screen is still pretty low-end though, to be clear. I’ve worked out how to use the trackpad better, but find myself using a mouse whenever possible. And while my three year old son loves the color, I’d be a bit embarrassed pulling out this laptop on a business flight surrounded by Macbook Air owners.
And yet… I love how light this computer use and how long the battery lasts, even in performance mode. Web browsing in Chrome has some slowdown but is perfectly serviceable. Compared to Chromebooks, which I’ve been using for most of my non-tablet web consumption and interaction for the past twelve months, it is nice to be able to use the Windows 8 Snipping Tool again, and be back to just opening up Steam instead of having to sideload Ubuntu every time, or to have printer functionality that works like it should.
For the average consumer looking for a second computer, I still think an Acer C720 is a terrific purchase, but if your second computer needs to have full Windows functionality, this is actually a very easy recommendation: Buy an HP Stream 11. With Office 365 for a year and 1 TB of Cloud Storage plus a $25 Windows Store giftcard, you get a ton of goodies with your laptop. Just do yourself a favor and pick up a decent-speed SD card for additional storage space because the 20GB usable space on this thing disappears in a hurry. I suggest an SD card over a USB Flash Drive because, and kudos to HP for this, it uses a full-size SD card slot and it fully loads into the computer.
If you’re like me, you have other questions: what else can I do with this computer as far as entertainment?
Let’s start with one of the big questions: Minecraft.
“But Can it Run Minecraft?”
The question of whether a computer can run Minecraft is still one of the most common things anyone reviewing a laptop will be asked. As I’ve mostly written about Chromebooks and using Ubuntu on them, I’ve tested Minecraft on a few of them and was surprised at how well they could run Minecraft. The process of setting up a Chromebook to run Minecraft will take about 90 minutes for a novice; you can read about how to do that here if you’re curious – but for your average computer user, this is way too much work.
The HP Stream 11 uses a less powerful processor than Chromebooks like the Acer C720, Dell 11, and HP14. Windows 8.1 is also a more demanding operating system than Chrome OS. So: can the HP Stream 11 run Minecraft?
Yes, it can. Well… kind of. The question is, are you ok with these settings?
Smooth Lighting: Off
Render Distance: 4 chunks
Max Framerate: 30 FPS
View Bobbing: Off
That’s basically as low as you can reasonably take this game. Every single graphical setting is cranked down. You have no clouds, you’re drawing out at 4 chunks distance instead of 6 by default, and the framerate is capped very low to avoid the game feeling even worse due to framerate spikes when you’re in enclosed areas.
With these settings, the game is playable. Not extremely enjoyable, but, it is playable. In open areas the engine still chugs a little bit and that reduced rendering distance means that pop-in is a constant distraction, but with these settings you get some degree of smoothness and it appears to run at or close to 30 FPS most of the time.
Would I recommend that you buy this computer for someone looking to play a lot of Minecraft? Not in good conscience, no. You’ll need to go up to at least the 2955 Celeron processor and 4 GB of RAM or, preferably a core i3 with 4 GB of RAM. That said, could someone use it in a pinch? Yes, definitely.
EDIT: Subsequent to my initial testing, someone let me know about the Optifine plug-in. This is a free optimization program for Minecraft that you can download and install which improves performance significantly. If you’re comfortable installing Optifine, which sometimes means you’ll be running one update behind the latest build of Minecraft, then the performance jump is nothing short of dramatic. Simply installing Optifine and changing to “Fast” graphics will give you a completely playable Minecraft experience.
As I noted in my review, I had no issues installing Steam on the HP Stream 11. In addition to installing some games to play off the device itself, I also tested Steam Streaming, and this also worked. It is worth noting, however, that the wireless in the HP Stream 11 is a mixed bag. In terms of holding a signal, it is excellent at that. Once connected, I’ve yet to have it drop the wireless connection to my home network. In terms of strength and speed though, it lags behind all my other wireless devices.
The signal strength decreases more with distance than on similar devices and it seems to have a 10-20% reduction in maximum speed as well, again compared to other devices (Acer C720 or Nexus 7) on the same network.
I mention this because obviously wireless speed is a key component of successful Steam streaming. So, while my Surface Pro can stream games from my upstairs bedroom, the HP Stream 11 cannot.
What about local gaming? I came in with very low hopes for this device to actually run games, but to my surprise, it actually handles non-3D gaming pretty well! If you’re a fan of indie PC gaming, especially the type you get tons of if you buy Humble Bundles, you may have quite a few games that work on the HP Stream 11. Just remember: you need to set your processor to performance mode in order for gaming to work.
Here’s a list of games I installed locally. I haven’t tested them all yet, but got through most of them and found them to work:
One of my biggest frustrations with Crouton and Ubuntu on a Chromebook is that I cannot get Steam to recognize my Xbox 360 controller, even though the computer itself recognizes it. Obviously this isn’t an issue on the HP Stream 11. There are some great local “couch” multiplayer PC games that have come out recently, and to my surprise, a bunch of them worked perfectly on this computer. As it has an HDMI out for external displays, you can actually hook this up to a TV and play Lethal League, Samurai Gunn, or Towerfall: Ascension with your friends using XBox 360 controllers.
The Intel HD integrated GPU here is pretty weak, though. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what it has for “dedicated” gaming memory but the 2955 has only 128 MB of virtual RAM for gaming purposes, so this likely has the same or less. As I say, stick to 2D gaming. Terraria, SteamWorld Dig, and FTL all worked well. I was surprised Risk of Rain worked, but they did just overhaul the engine for that game to run better on low-end computers. The framerate does still take a beatingl when there are waves of enemies on the screen.
Still, all in all, you can get a pretty decent indie gaming experience out of this laptop, much to my surprise.
If you’re a fan of GOG.com, their downloader works just fine with this computer as you’d expect. I tested out one of my favorite PC classics, Master of Magic, and it ran without issue, and I also tried System Shock 2 and Planescape: Torment. These I moved to an SD card, and they ran fine right off the SD card.
Not everything from GOG is likely to work, but a lot of the older “retro” titles should work well on this laptop, which is obviously great.
Another nice thing about Windows is that you have a ton of emulation options available, and they’re free and easy to install. Standard note applies here about ROMs and their legality, so I will assume you’re only installing ROMs of games you own, etc.
As far as Sega Genesis games, Sega has some great compilations out that run perfectly and are official and on the books, and they go on sale constantly. These ran perfectly on the Stream 11.
Obviously the system ran NES games without issue, as well as SNES. I also tried GBA titles and a few N64 as well and had no problem with those. Framerates were good, sound worked fine in most cases, and controller mapping to the 360 controller worked as expected. If you’re comfortable with emulation, you can have a really nice library of retro games that will work on this computer.
I’m not sure whether PS1 emulation is possible with this device yet, but will update when I’m able to test. Those files do start to get large however, and thus HD space will become an issue. You’ll definitely want additional storage via SD Card, USB Flash Drive, or if you have a good internet provider, use that 1 TB of cloud space, to hold your ROMs/ISOs.
Because of the grainy, somewhat unappealing screen, you probably won’t want to watch a lot of video content on the HP Stream 11, though you certainly can do so. I tested Amazon, Netflix, Vudu (Ultraviolet), and HBO Go and all worked fine with no stuttering or other issues (outside of low speed connection challenges in some parts of my home).
The speakers are actually quite decent for a small, $200 laptop, but of course if really listening to music you’ll want headphones or external speakers, and here again you’ll probably either be playing those songs off external media or streaming them from online. I didn’t even try to install iTunes on this computer as I have no intention of storing music locally and I’ve had issues previously with iTunes and the Apple updater software causing crashes and performance issues on PCs before.
All that being said, you can actually have a lot of fun with this computer. You can play retro PC and console games, and enjoy quite a few newer indie PC games. It is even quite possible to hook this up to an HD TV using HDMI, plug an XB360 wireless adapter into one of the USB ports, and enjoy some multiplayer gaming like Towerfall Ascension or Mercenary Kings. And, it runs 8-bit and 16-bit emulation without issue, and appears to at least run the N64 emulators successfully as well.
If Minecraft ran a bit better, I could see quite a few parents looking to get this for their kids for portable Minecraft gaming or just to reclaim an existing PC, but sadly I have a hard time suggesting this computer for that purpose. I can handle having to turn the graphics down to “Fast” and reducing some things but having to completely take out clouds and drop the render distance that far just to hit 30 FPS – sometimes, at that – is a bit much. Perhaps your tolerance for this is different than mine, but be warned.
EDIT: Again, if you or someone in your family is comfortable researching and installing Optifine then go ahead and pick this up for Minecraft.
So that wraps up another look at the HP Stream 11. On its own at $200, this is actually a very nice second computer, and for the somewhat computer savvy person, it could even function as a primary driver for a student or anyone else on a very tight budget. Throwing in the freebies they have on offer, and I have to admit – despite my love of Chrome OS and Chromebooks – that HP and Microsoft have put together a pretty compelling product offering here.
Appendix: Comparison of HP Stream 11 to Acer C720 Chromebook
I think the Chromebook is angled a bit different, in that Chrome OS is easier to use, set up, and manage, thus for someone that’s really strictly looking to browse the web, the C720 is going to be a way better and easier device to own. For comparison sake you can read my full writeup, or see the summary below.
- Faster booting and shutdown
- “Guest” browsing mode is great for family/friends
- No maintenance
- No risk of malware
- Automatic and nonintrusive OS updates
- Better web browsing experience – faster page loading, smoother scrolling
- Significantly better trackpad
- Better integration with Google software tools like Drive, and some crossover with Android apps
Cons (Note: I am looking at this out of the box, not with installing Ubuntu):
- Chrome OS does not support Windows apps: MS Office, Photoshop, Turbotax, iTunes etc.
- Cannot plug and play with printers
- Does not support some streaming platforms, such as Ultraviolet
- Cannot run Minecraft
- Cannot install Steam
- Does not support Skype
- Web browsing “limited” to Chrome – No IE, Firefox, etc.
Buy the HP Stream 11 at Amazon.com
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