HP Stream

A number of stories popped up about the HP Stream, this week, primarily focused on its bargain-basement $199 price point. While a head-turning price, particularly for the 14″ Windows notebook, I’m more interested its execution and how it may make or break the perception of whether Windows PCs can compete successfully against  Chromebooks in the ultra-value segment.

I spent an inordinate amount of time, during my last days in the Windows Ecosystem team, working with the marketing teams to define and pitch great-for-the-money, highly mobile, value notebooks. All the OEMs had something “Value” in the pipeline. You see these popping up at Best Buy, Amazon, and even the Microsoft Store. Intel’s Bay Trail-M chipset increased the level of system integration on-die, and various marketing and business programs from Microsoft provided more attractive Windows license pricing. Hitting a permanent 249USD transfer price became achievable with Windows notebooks.

But, as you see with these devices, they are, for the majority, 15.6″ notebooks, 5lbs in weight,  have <=5hr of real world battery life, 1-1.2″ thick and have spinning platter drives. They’re all existing entry notebook designs, ones that were conceived with an optical drive and thermal capacity to support anything from 15-35W TDP processors. Removing the optical drive and reducing the cooling capacity help shed up to 10% weight, but the chassis and materials all remain otherwise the same. They weren’t designed from the ground up to be mobile; they were designed to be value desktop replacements, for the upgrade cycle, when the thought of some mobility pushed you over the edge to buy a laptop instead of a desktop.

So, you see, the HP Stream will be more important than yet another cheap Windows notebook. It was designed from the get-go with the purpose of producing a value, yet highly mobile notebook. As far as I can tell, it’s the first one of its kind, in the Windows notebook ecosystem. A quick peek at the specs proves this: a 4.5W TDP processor, memory-on-board, eMMC storage, no provisions to add an optical drive, 0.7″ thin, a 14″ display at less than 4lbs. The HP Chromebook 14, an extremely similar design, starts at $279.

Comments on the HP Stream rumors, thus far, appear to run primarily in two camps: 1. Wow, a Chromebook-killer! or 2. My nightmares, about netbooks, have returned! Let’s look at the hardware and software components that’ll make or break the experience.

The first thing to do is to select a hardware configuration that has a hope in hell of actually running Windows, well, in a light-medium multi-tasking environment. While it’s not explicitly called out,  the fact that there’s a 4GB memory configuration indicates this device will ship with 64 bit Windows, which impacts both memory and storage requirements. With the improvements in memory utilization in Windows 8 and 8.1, with the 2GB configuration, users should be able to run Office and similar weight desktop applications, well, or maintain 5+ average-sized Store apps in the backstack, without incessant app reloads. Furthermore, 32GB and 64GB eMMC parts are used, very different from the more typical 500GB platter disks in other value Windows notebooks. These parts should have an order of magnitude better random read/write performance, vastly improving the perceived responsiveness of the system.

The Stream’s CPU performance is a more interesting exercise in estimation. The AMD A4 Micro-6400T is from the new Mullins SoC family, designed to support fanless form factors, including tablets and ultraportables.  Starting from a known comparison point, the new Puma CPU cores are very similar to the Jaguar ones, found in the A4-1450 (Temash), except, power has been reduced and peak clock speeds increased. The A4-1450 had 1.0GHz base and 1.4GHz boost clocks, the 6400T maintains the base, but increases the boost, to 1.6GHz, while fitting into a 4.5W TDP (compared to the 8W TDP of the A4-1450). All in all, the 6400T should perform a bit better than the A4-1450, but last longer on battery.

A4-1450 performance data indicates the CPUs perform slightly worse than a Bay Trail (-T Z3770, Silvermont cores). Given the 6400T should be marginally faster, its performance should be similar to a Z3770, or to that of a Celeron N2920 (quad core Bay Trail-M). The Celeron N2920 is in turn essentially a quad core variant of the Celeron N2815, found in many of the new value Windows notebooks, listed earlier. In short, the CPU shouldn’t be a major bottleneck in the workloads expected of general users. The GPU should be significantly (50%) faster than a Bay Trail-T.

Atom Z3770 Celeron N2815 A4-1450 A4 Micro-6400T
Silvermont – 4C Silvermont – 2C Jaguar – 4C Puma – 4C
1.46-2.4GHz 1.86-2.0GHz 1.0-1.4GHz 1.0-1.6GHz
1.5X 1X CPU perf 1.3X 1.4X

A bunch of work was done in the Windows 8.1 Update to support wimboot, booting from a compressed Windows image file. The runtime image and the recovery image are the same, with only deltas, as the systems was used and updated, stored in the traditional “data” partition. This saves many gigabytes of user storage, particularly significant with small eMMC/SSD devices. In the case of a 64 bit client configuration, the totality of the install and winre wims runs on the order of 7-8GB. Combine that with the 1.5GB hiberfile (for a 2GB RAM system, which could be removed) and several hundred megabytes of the EFI System Partition and Microsoft Reserved partition, and total system used space is ~10GB. With the smallest storage configuration for the Stream, 32GB (represented in Windows as ~29.8GB – binary), the user should be left with just under 20GB of free space. Now, that estimate may be a bit optimistic, given there’s bound to be some number of preloaded applications and utilities.

Traditional Layout:

Partitions: System, MSR, WinRE, Windows, Recovery

WIMBoot Layout:

Partitions map: System, MSR, Windows, Images

Which brings us to potentially the make-or-break portion of the system configuration, software. It will depend so much on how HP loads the system with preloaded utilities, anti-virus/malware tools, and other value adds. I’ve seen so many hardware configuration that should be so capable, get brought to their knees by brutal anti-malware software (a Windows Explorer window taking more than a second to launch, with this particular anti-malware utility scanning the exe, taxing the CPU 35%). With very compressed margins, it’ll be more tempting than ever to try and make some money via software monetization and subscription conversions.

I’m very excited about the HP Stream. The combination of price, portability, and flexibility of Windows should make it popular, and if my predictions turn out to be true, a pretty well-performing option, as well. I see it as a good general purpose college laptop or a tossable machine around the home. I have to believe that with the stand-out price point and hence the amount of attention and marketing that will be placed on it, the combination of HP and Microsoft have worked hard to ensure that the experience is a good one. Otherwise, we’ll only restart the netbook flames, hotter than ever.

Acer Timeline – Pricing Disappointment

I’ve written about the Acer Timeline a couple times in the recent past, mainly because I was terribly excited about the thought of a cheap (relatively), lightweight laptop with extremely good battery life. However, with availability becoming better, it looks like one of those pillars is starting to crumble.

Acer Canada has updated its price list, which now includes all three Timeline series models, and the MSRPs aren’t encouraging. The model I’m most interested in, the 13.3″ version, is priced at $999CAD for a Core 2 Solo SU3500 (1.4GHz), 3GB RAM, and a 250GB hard drive. A similarly configured Lenovo X200, but with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo can be had for around $1200CAD. The Timeline is simply not a good value proposition with the current pricing situation. Given that Acer announced these Timelines with a $699 to $899 range (USD), I’m not sure how they’re going to fit in the Core 2 Duo versions, with the Core 2 Solo already bumping up at $999CAD. If the Core 2 Duo version were somehow introduced at $999CAD, I’d be willing to consider it.

Sounds like the Eee PC (initial) pricing disappointment. That $199 price point was too good to be true back then.

Acer Timeline Finally Puts Battery Life First!

Finally, a consumer laptop is pushing all my requirements buttons – battery life, weight, aesthetics. It may come as a surprise to hear that the company behind it is Acer. Yesterday, Acer announced the Timeline series laptops, coming in 13.3″, 14″, and 15.6″ sizes. The one I’m most interested in is the 13.3″ version, the 3810T.

Acer Timeline Laptop

Acer has put battery life as the number one priority in the new Timeline series, opting for ultra-low power Intel CPUs across the board. Coupled with some power saving features including an LED display and SSDs, the lineup should get 8 hours+ of battery life on the standard 6-cell battery. With the 6-cell battery, the 3810T weighs around 3.5lbs and will be just about an inch thick, 23.4mm to 28.9mm. To add some flare, the LCD lid is constructed with brushed metal (aluminum, presumably). What’s even better is that the whole package is slated to come in between $699 and $899. In all honesty, anything even around the $1000 mark, given decent build quality will put it directly in my sights for my next laptop.

The Dell XPS M1330 I’m writing this on has served me decently for the better part of two years, and it probably won’t be replaced before its 2 year anniversary. Unfortunately, what started off as a great laptop experience took a turn for the worse around the time BIOS A12 was released and the 8400M GS died. Now, to prevent the GPUs from dropping like flies over and over again, Dell’s recent BIOS updates for the M1330 have ramped the fans up to a dull roar, even when it’s sitting idling. That coupled with increased power consumption and the battery wear on both the 6 and 9 cell batteries have chopped battery life down to 2:15 and 4:00 respectively for typical productivity tasks (web browsing, email, word processing).

I’m on the market again, but very few laptops have put battery life first and foremost, at a reasonable price and portability. Hopefully production samples of the Acer Timeline don’t disappoint. Acer’s been on a roll with the Aspire Ones, so I’m holding out hope they’ll deliver.

Dell Acknowledges NVIDIA GPU Defect with ‘Fix’

Having a laptop (Dell XPS M1330) equipped with an NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS, I was understandably curious about the reports of widespread defects in the die packaging of the G84 and G86 discrete video chips. That means all 8400M, 8600M and 8700M video cards are included in this issue. NVIDIA reported they would be taking a $150 to $200 million charge related to the repair and compensation to hardware manufacturers for the defects. It was that number along with some more recent reports that really put the extent of the problem into perspective.

A couple days ago, Dell officially acknowledged the problem with a post to the Direct2Dell blog. Along with the acknowledgment were ‘fixes’ for the problem for various affected laptops, in the form of BIOS updates. Now I say ‘fixes’ in quotes because these aren’t fixes. The defect centers around weakness in the die packaging. Packaging material is failing at a higher than expected rate due to both temperature variations and high temperatures. For laptops, poor thermal conditions and temperature fluctuations are a sure thing and Dell’s solution is to run the fan longer and harder, in an attempt to maintain a more constant, lower temperature. However, this has the side effect of degrading battery life and increasing noise. These are hardly things we, as customers, should have to bear due to a known manufacturing defect. Why should we be the ones to pay for their faults? The BIOS updates are mere bandages designed to control the amount of problems encountered.

We’re not talking about early adopter issues like with the Phenom’s TLB bug. These NVIDIA mobile chips have been selling for more than a year and it has only recently become apparent that the problem is quite extensive. Whether NVIDIA and/or the manufacturers were aware of the problem earlier is a whole other can of worms I’m not quite ready to open yet.

Dell says they’re going to work with each issue on a case by case basis. From my point of view, that means if you’re out of warranty, you’re screwed unless you complain a lot. But I don’t want to have to jump through hoops to get service on an acknowledged issue. After learning of the problem, I preemptively called into Dell, with the goal of extending my warranty. My standard 1 year warranty is up in a couple weeks’ time and to save myself the hassle of a possible issue down the road, I wanted to cover my bases. However, after being quoted $300 for a single year’s extension or the ‘promotional price‘ of $550 for 2 years, I decided to take the chance and go warranty-less from here on out. If I have to fight tooth and nail for the issue I hope I never have, you can be certain I’ll do so.

I applaud Dell for acknowledging the issue that NVIDIA’s been somewhat cryptic about, but at the same time, I cannot condone the ‘solution’ that’s beeing offered to customers. Running the fans more is not a solution to a hardware problem. How about offering warranty service for customers who run into the problem down the road, even if it’s outside of the standard warranty period? It seems to me the level of defects are outside of normal levels and that would be a fair tradeoff. Read: Xbox 360.

Lionel over at Direct2Dell has made it clear that there will be more updates as they become available; I’m certainly interested in seeing what more Dell is willing to do to address the issue.