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.


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