Updated: June 6, 2015
After iPhone, this is another device that I got only because there was little to no monetary penalty involved. While the phone was free, the HP Steam 7 tablet came at a very discounted price of just USD75, which makes it an insta-buy.
And so, here we are, testing another product that I'd never thought of using, this time a tablet with Windows 8.1, which means plenty o' touch. Curiously, and let's be picky, it's Stream 7 running Windows 8, but never mind that. The important thing is, I really love Windows Phone, but I'm not certain if and how this thing compares. Nothing compares, to you. Let's check.
HP Stream 7 Signature Edition Tablet is one of those products that Microsoft most likely peddles at a loss, just to get you hooked into its sphere of influence, and convince you that Windows on a touch device isn't that bad. And the truth it, for phones, Windows makes a lot of sense. The moronity only comes to bear on desktops. Which makes a tablet, something in between the two, a big gamble.
Normally, HP Stream 7 costs at least USD99.99, and it comes with an Office 365 subscription for one year, which is claimed to cost another USD69.99. This means that if you can buy this little tablet with a 25-33% discount, then you're probably going to do it, even if you feel no real need for it. Everyone wins one.
The technical specifications are interesting. You get a 800x1200px HD IPS touchscreen, a four-core Intel Atom processor (Z3735G), 1GB RAM, and 32GB internal storage. There's also a 2MP back camera, which is sort of there to add volume to the already nice bargain. Wireless only works in the 2.4GHz range, and the screen measures some 7 inches, which is quite small by tablet standards.
However, the tablet is rather big, chunky, all plastic and very heavy. It feels massive. It's also relatively elegant, and does not smell like an el-cheapo device. In fact, it looks like an enlarged smartphone, but it's not one, which becomes apparent the moment you power it on.
Getting things ready
This being a pure Microsoft device, it comes with zero crap, which is also true on its smartphones. For instance, my recently acquired Lumia 535 is a lovely piece of gadgetry, and it works great. This tablet asks the same questions you get on the desktop, you can but you don't have to setup an online account, then you tweak some privacy settings, and soon enough you're logged into a Metro interface. Not exactly Windows Phone, more like the desktop version, only you have no keyboard by default, and you'll need one with a micro-USB connector.
Now, what does one do with this thing? Well, if you want to use it like a phone, you will be somewhat disappointed. There's a difference in the quality of Metro apps available for the phone versus their pseudo-desktop counterparts, to say nothing of real, proper desktop programs, which are one step above the Metro thingie. Then, on the phone, you get sort of instant consumerism, which is fine. Not so on the desktop, where you expect to do long, continuous tasks, and then, on the tablet, it's smartphone comfort with desktop durations. You get tired holding the device as well as using its tiny screen. Moreover, there are no buttons except the Start logo, so your navigation is iPhone like.
Desktop wise, it's a nightmare. Windows 8 was never designed well for proper desktop use, and on the tablet, it's actually even worse. Imagine using your Windows without a keyboard and mouse. Clunky, cumbersome, and the interface has definitely not been designed, scaled or tweaked in any way to fit onto a tiny 7-inch screen. You will need needle-like precision, plus lots of stuff requires double-clicking. This goes against the basic principle of touch. Horizontally, it's much better, but still. Sucking it softly, with its tiles, sucking it softly. Or something.
The tile design is awesome on the phone. Simple, minimalistic, direct. On the tablet, it's just not quite what it should be, because essentially, you have a real desktop behind the scenes, and it requires a large screen, a real keyboard and an external mouse pointer to bring goodies to bear.
Last but not the least, content. It remains sucky. The first thing you see is an offer for some payware app or game, politics and random sports news. Thank you, once again, for offering me the most useless of news and software that could possibly exist on this planet. I'd be happier reading about maritime legislation in Hungary.
147 minutes to get the first screenshot
Believe it or not, I had a repetition of the iPhone experience, where I struggled for some three hours to try to copy a single music file onto the device, without using iTunes. Here, all I wanted is to capture a few screenshots of the tablet's various in-OS activities. The only difference is that eventually I succeeded.
But it goes as follows. Home button + Volume does not create screenshots like it does on the phone. You can or must use the Charms menu (right to left swipe), select a most unintuitive Share option, then Screenshot your desktop and open the image in one of the available programs. Tried doing that with several available applications, and none would do the job. Fresh Paint refused to save files. OneNote hiccuped the first time, and I had to launch the program separately, to get it kind of active, and then it sort of worked, except my notes were not saved, and the binary format is useless anyway.
Trying to go back using the left swipe would open the App menu, not what I needed. And so I was stuck in a loop for a while, trying to figure out which program would suit my simple requirement. In the end, I decided to try the Store.
Here, a big big problem is that the search field does not steal focus, and even if you click on the little loupe icon, your text still won't show inside the search box. You will need to click again (with your finger) and then type. This is quite stupid.
On top of that, if you search for something, like 'screenshot' or similar, you will get several instant recommendations showing first, featuring deceptive Windows-like icons, while the apps themselves are pure rubbish. Indeed, this is one of the great shortcomings of the Windows Store. It's useless. There's little to no valuable content, although you can fine-tune your search with greater freedom than App Store.
But freedom aside, the results are few, reviews are fewer, ratings abysmal, and actual functionality as pleasant as rolling a cheese grater over your nipples in freezing cold. There wasn't a single screenshot app that would do what I required. Just think how simple it is to grab screenshots in pretty much every other scenario, including my Galaxy Note tablet.
In the end, I installed IrfanView, which is my favorite image program for Windows, and used its timed screenshot feature to grab the tablet activity. Every five seconds or so, it would generate a new PNG file, and then I saved the lot of them, deleted all the junk and duplicates, and finally had the most basic set available for this review. In 2015, it took a tech junkie roughly 2.5 hours to capture a screenshot on Windows. And just to think how harsh I sometimes am when it comes to Linux. So yes, 2015, no way to copy music onto an Apple smartphone using standard copy & paste, or anything of that sort, and no easy way to grab a screenie on a Windows tablet, unless you have a real keyboard. Bloody hell. Idiocracy has started much sooner than I expected.
Using HP Steam
After I relaxed a little, I started playing with the device. In the desktop mode, it's fairly decent, but not very fast. Nothing like various reviews out there report. I think I'll have to prune the Defender out first and foremost. Then, ignoring the mediocre responsiveness, things aren't bad. A desktop is a desktop, you just need the right form factor to enjoy it. Seven inches might be impressive in other aspects of life, but not for viewing content or interacting with it using grubby little engineer's fingers.
The Modern whatnot mode is truly pointless. Again, I simply love Windows Phone, and I think Microsoft nailed it there. A paradox. And the one thing they usually do well, which is the desktop, they completely borked. Or actually, it makes perfect sense, because you cannot wed alien concepts and expect miracles. Or like they say in my village, when you mate a prancing colt with a tire, you don't get baby Ferraris. They don't say that, I just made that up. No one's ever seen a Ferrari in my village.
Overall, it comes down to Windows 8 just not being good enough in every sense, except the Phone. It's useless as a desktop, it's useless as a tablet. It works when you yank the touch element out of the equation, and blow the screen to a proper size, and use it like you'd any other standard desktop. But then, it does not need a special name and its own unique numbering scheme.
So, I'm still trying to figure out what if any use I'm going to have for HP Stream 7. Apart from buying it cheap, I'm not seeing any value. Now, let's explore some other options and features. The kind that normal people would need, sort of.
Problems, again. Quite a lot of them. And they all come down to the rather crappy Metro implementation. To wit, I was trying to play music and video, an MP3 file and a WEBM file. As it turns out, Windows does not know what to do with the latter. Windows Media Player in all its flavors failed miserably.
Xbox whatnot is the Metro program supposed to give me joys of media, but it did nothing of the sort. It did play an MP3 file, but it's cluttered, it's confusing, and if you remember my Windows 10 reviews, it's buggy and won't let me sign up. So what now?
After a while, I installed VLC (Metro version), and it worked fine, except the Store, which offered so many little payware thingies under a generic Related Apps banner. Please stop it, give me a chance to trust you. Relationships don't normally start with an orgy in the stadium. Anyhow, by default, official software did not work. That's horrible. But VLC isn't perfect either; it stops playing music when you lock the screen. Xbox will continue playing MP3, but its metadata retrieval and such is bad, so if you're looking for an enhanced experience, you're not going to get any.
Now, getting HP Stream and its Windows 8.1 to share data with my other Windows machines on the networks did not work all too well. I was able to connect to and from Windows 7 without any problem, but no so with Windows 8 and 10. That's rather silly. But at least, I was able to copy data using file explorer, which seems almost like magic when you compare to some other vendors' smartphones.
I got an annoying popup - limited time to claim the offer - September 2015. Never mind, I decided to try to activate my free one year copy. This opens an Internet Explorer page, full of little red signs telling me how iFrames cannot be displayed and such. Major fail. If I'm signed into the desktop, why not make it a seamless experience?
Really impressive. I have nothing bad to say. After a whole day of use, and this includes setting up, playing with various settings, using Store, browsing, and whatnot, and without even a single charge yet, the battery had been depleted to only about 63%. This means there's enough juice for probably two or three days easy. I don't know why the official numbers only state 8 hours, because I'm getting far more than that.
It will do. It's nothing too majestic, but it works. You can take pictures or video with reasonable amateur quality. In low-light conditions, the images are quite grainy to the point of being blurry, and the colors bleed away. If you direct the lens directly at a light source, you'll get some interesting artifacts. All in all, you'll be fine using it in good, bright daylight, against static objects. Beyond that, there won't be much happiness in your HP Stream photo and video shooting. Rudimentary but more than good for USD75. In fact, surprisingly good.
Well, some things are cool. If you hold the power button (volume) while booting, it will open the boot menu. Nice. You can actually access the BIOS/UEFI and play with settings. Lovely. Then, there's an SD-like slot, but you will have to power off the device and remove the back cover to insert it. Now, ignoring all the crap, it's a standard Windows 8. Hook in a keyboard and you'll be most likely be happy. Try using it in the touch mode, and you'll suffer.
I did not try any games yet. That remains on my todo list. Likewise, I'll try to hook this thing into a big screen, and use real mouse and keyboard to see how well it really works under the right circumstances. And we also have more sharing exploration and such, plus tweaking the tablet to be as streamlined and fast as possible. There.
All right. Let's start with good things. HP Stream 7 is an elegant device, with good spec, phenomenal price and battery, decent privacy, and you can customize most of the stuff to your needs, because it's Windows. On the other hand, the tablet usage highlights just how bad Windows touch is for anything BUT smartphones, where it truly shines and excels. Indeed, marrying the two concepts was never a good idea. Desktops aside, phones aside.
Tablets therefore suffer twice as much, because they have a small form factor and none of the desktop accessibility, but they are also not as streamlined as smartphones, making the overall work flow quite weird. You do need a keyboard and a mouse, and then you get excellent value for your investment. A proper Windows, and it works just the way you want it. This could be a strong selling point, but it's lost amidst all that grubby finger touching.
As a device, HP Stream 7 is an excellent little gadget, and it comes with lots of useful stuff. The operating system though, suffers from an identity crisis, and you aren't really sure what to do. Use it as a touch device? No, buy a Lumia. Desktop? No, buy a laptop. And so, it never quite works. And yet, for its price, I'm sure you can find some good use for it somewhere. Which is what I'm going to try to do in the coming weeks and months. Bottom line, USD75 won't make you regret this, so you might as well get one and play.