Plausible anti-Chromebook fightback or Microsoft throwing oranges at a gorilla?

HP has called it the Stream and it’s the first model of what Microsoft hopes will grow into a low-cost notebook niche to take on the Chromebooks that have, annoyingly for Redmond, started to undermine Windows 8.1 in the symbolically important home and academic markets.

Considering the $199 price (think £179 in the UK) it could have been a lot worse, starting with AMD’s reportedly capable quad-core A4 Micro-6400T and the integrated Radeon R3 to handle graphics, 2GB of non-upgradable RAM and a 32GB or 64GB flash drive for storage. This is a perfectly servicable platform, with a processor consuming only 4.5 watts and a varying 1.0Ghz to 1.6Ghz clock speed.

The 14-inch 1366x768 BrightView screen is fine for a cheap system even if the lack of 802.11ac Wi-Fi and more than one USB 3.0 ports looks like skimping. The similarities with HP’s now rather over-priced Chromebook 14 are striking so presumably HP re-used the guts of that platform to keep down development costs.

The problem is that it is still running Windows 8.1, the 64-GB version of which (unless Microsoft has shrunk it pretty radically) still requires around 20GB of drive space and a minimum of 2GB of RAM. That puts this system on the edge of what is possible with Windows 8.1.


Extra storage can be added via SD Card, which is just as well because there won’t be much space left after Office or Office 365 (both 3GB) have been added to an already crowded 32GB drive. Microsoft’s sop to this objection is to copy Google by offering 100GB of cloud storage for two years as part of the deal.

This is the big reveal, the giveaway to what's going on here. Microsoft wants system makers to shoehorn Windows 8.1 into the appearance of a cloud computer without the OS being engineered to do that job. Superficially, this gives it cloud-like air but it's not earned. This is still Windows. It is not going to be as secure as a Chromebook (even with ARM’s Trusted Execution Environment (TEE) to provide verified boot), it will suffer from the same complexity and unreliability as every other Windows machine and the modest 3-cell battery doesn’t inspire confidence about is longevity. It won’t boot in the Chromebook’s 7-8 seconds because Windows 8.1 can't do that on the best SSDs.

Let's remind ourselves that Chromebooks can fit the simple OS on a 4GB USB stick capable of being reinstalled in a minute. The innovation here is that it is cheap, which has come at the expense of Microsoft doing without license revenue.  Microsoft makes no money unless people sign up to its online services.

The Stream is a punt by HP to see if anyone will buy it and an experiment by Microsoft that wants something, anything, to hold the fort before it loses consumers for good. But to do that, Microsoft needs to offer a real Windows cloud computer and not a bastardised replica of what Google already does but with none of its advantages.

This is Windows 8.1 hobbled for the masses in a form that borrows its compromised notion of computing from a cornflakes packet giveaway. It's Wndows 8.1 but not the Windows 8.1 its users want. This is Microsoft throwing an orange at an angry gorilla. This is Microsoft delaying the inevitable - ‘we’re run out of ideas so have this.’

Doubtless HP will shift the Stream to confused shoppers but this will never rescue Windows 8.1 and its reputation as a no-hope operating system people continue to use on sufferance. If this is the sum of Redmond's internal thinking, CEO Nadella has work to do.