Monday, 13 March 2017

HP Stream 14 Review: A good value entry laptop let-down by a sub-par display

The HP Stream 11 and 14, late 2016 release, brought something different - the first entry-level laptops released with 4GB RAM. In the US, both the HP Stream 11 and 14 are available with with 4GB; in Europe, unfortunately, only the HP Stream 14 model is available with the extra RAM. The extra RAM that comes with the 2016 HP Stream 14 makes a significant difference when multi-tasking. Make no mistake, the N3060 Celeron Braswell is no power-horse and it would have been better to release this generation of Stream laptops with a Celeron Apollo-Lake processor. However, the Braswell processor offers good enough performance but with some stutter and lagging with more intensive tasks. For example, browsing web-pages with rich multimedia content – CNET being a case point – slows down browsing. I would recommend installing an effective ad blocker to deal with with advertisements/click-bait and automated video content. Further, internet performance is affected by the browser used – Firefox and Opera work better, in Microsoft Windows, in comparison to Google Chrome and, ironically, Microsoft Edge. Chrome works better in Linux than Firefox.

The display, in my opinion, is the device’s let-down. For this category, with an emphasis on portability, a matte display would have been a better choice (the HP Stream 14’s glossy screen is very reflective). The biggest problem with the screen, even in comparison to other entry-level laptops, is its poor viewing angles and washed out colours. The problem is accentuated with a relatively low pixel density in a 1366 x 768 resolution spread across a 14 inch display. The problem can be somewhat remedied through increasing both gamma and colour saturation through Intel graphics. The track-pad works well and scrolling is smooth but the track-pad is stiff when pressing. One plus with this laptop, consistent with the HP Stream range, is a very good keyboard. The keyboard, due to the larger laptop size, is near full size.

Another positive with the HP Stream 14 is that it works ‘out of the box’ with Linux Mint, Ubuntu and Elementary OS. I would recommend Linux Mint Cinnamon for its stability, user-friendly interface and resemblance to a Windows desktop environment. I also noticed a performance boost with Linux, in comparison to Windows; further, most Linux distributions run comfortably with 32GB storage. Battery is very good in Windows – closer to a maximum of 8 hours than the advertised up to 10 hours – but is further extended, with the right tweaks, in the Linux distributions I tried.

The HP Stream 14 is a good laptop and offers value in terms of hardware and a bundled Office 365 subscription. I like the larger screen that doesn’t compromise portability (the laptop’s 1.4 KG is relatively light-weight for its size). However, if you don’t need Office 365 and would prefer something more lightweight, compact and with a higher pixel density then the 11.6 inch Acer ES11 might be the better the option. The device similarly comes with the important 4GB of RAM but with a better processor (Intel Celeron Apollo-Lake N3350). The option of purchasing the Acer Aspire ES11 without an Office 365 subscription means it comes at a lower entry price compared to the larger HP Stream 14.

Pros
  • Lightweight for a 14-inch laptop
  • The extra RAM makes a significant difference
  • Very good battery life 
  • One year Office 365 subscription
  • Very good keyboard 
  • Works well with Linux

Cons

  • The screen is sub-par, even for this category.
  • The Braswell processor, despite the slight improvement from last year’s model, is still under-powered 
  • Iffy trackpad

Overall rating: 7/10

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Review of the Fire HD 8: The stand-out Fire tablet

I’ve been using the Fire HD 8 (late 2016 release) for a few months and, overall, it is the best tablet in the Amazon Fire range; I would also recommend the tablet as a stand-out budget choice. Below are some reasons for making this a very good tablet in its category:
  • The 1.5GB RAM makes a significant difference compared to the 1GB version released late 2015. The performance is snappy and doesn’t freeze or slow-down when multi-tasking e.g. downloading an e-book, updating an application and streaming video content. 
  • Despite the same 1280 X 800 resolution, the display quality is slightly downgraded compared to the previous generation. This generation of the Fire HD 8 doesn’t match the colour vibrancy and contrast levels of the previous generation. However, the display is good for its price, compared to similar tablets released by other vendors, and well worth the compromise for an increase in RAM and battery life (both major draw-backs with the previous generation of the Fire HD 8).
  • Fire OS 5 is based on Android 5 Lollipop. This is a good thing, as applications not found in the Amazon app store may be externally side-loaded as an APK. The Amazon app store itself contains most popular applications and is far ahead of the Microsoft Store. This being said, you do miss the Google services and other applications tied into the Google Play store. Amazon released a tablets tightly integrated into its ecosystem and Prime services and for that purpose it works well. 
  • Amazon excels at syncing between devices tied to its ecosystem. The affordable Fire TV Stick, Echo Dot and Kindle all work seamlessly with the Fire HD 8. 
  • Compared to other Android tablets – in this price category – the Fire HD 8 generally offers more for less, with extra RAM and good battery life making the difference. However, Lenovo’s Tab range of tablets, offering a near stock Android experience, are comparable and sometimes better. The Lenovo Tab 4 8 has just been released and is priced similar to the Fire HD 8 but with 2GB RAM. The Tab 3 8, which I will review soon, is well worth considering, as it discounted and so priced slightly lower than Fire HD 8; the Tab 3 8 comes with both a better display, despite the same resolution, and 2 GB RAM. What makes the Fire HD 8 stand-out, compared to Lenovo’s Tab range, is its superior battery life. 
 Overall Rating: 8/10

Monday, 6 March 2017

Microsoft's version of Chrome OS

Microsoft has a tendency to be one step behind and then try to catch up. Not long ago Microsoft ran advertisements that rubbished the idea of Chromebooks. Microsoft’s response to Chromebooks may be seen in, for example, the HP Stream range i.e. to offer Windows 10 on low end hardware. However, while these laptops are functional, with some frustration with the low RAM and storage, the streamlined Chrome OS remains better suited to low-end PC hardware. I previously posted on the need, in this PC connect age, to differentiate operating systems to meet different use-case scenarios. Google understood this early on when they released their first Chromebooks in 2011, despite being ridiculed by some, at the time, for releasing a ‘glorified web browser’.

Microsoft, finally, appear to catch-on with the release of a cloud OS version of Windows. From the information provided this is a version of Windows made specifically for low-end laptops and will come with Office applications, the Microsoft Store and One Drive support built-in. The difference between Windows Mobile and this cloud version of Windows is that it will come with desktop-lite versions of these applications. I think this new operating version of Windows will be an in-between operating system comparable to Chrome OS. However, Chromebooks have developed since their first release, with access to the Google Play now being gradually rolled out. Again, Microsoft will have to catch-up – not only will they need to beef-up the Edge browser to measure-up against the Chrome Store but will also have to increase the catalogue of applications available through the Microsoft Store to at least compare, in some way, with Google Play. At the moment, many of the popular applications are absent from the Microsoft Store.