Review: HP Stream 7

How much would you pay for a 7-inch tablet? An iPad mini, with a slightly larger screen starts at $250, and most Android tablets cost at least $100–$200 or more for a decent one. What if you could get a 7-inch tablet that could also double as a full-fledged PC for only $79? It would be hard to pass up, which is exactly why I didn’t.

Microsoft is currently selling the HP Stream 7 Signature Edition Tablet for $79, which is $20 off its normal price. Considering it comes with a 1-year subscription to Office 365 Personal (worth $70 itself), a $25 Microsoft Store gift card, and credit for 100 Skype-minutes, which combined are worth $95, you’re essentially getting a free tablet. Wanting to test the Windows 10 Technical Preview on a tablet device, this seemed a perfect opportunity to do so with minimal investment.

Because I immediately installed Windows 10 on this tablet, I had very little time to confirm performance of the included Windows 8.1 Bing version of Windows. Since this is mostly a hardware review, I’ll try to avoid criticizing performance where possible, considering that the version of Windows I’m running on it is still in development, and far from optimized.

To see my impressions of Windows 10, and how Windows stacks up as a tablet OS, see “Another 24 Hours with a Windows Tablet“.

Packaging:

For $79, you wouldn’t expect top-of-the-line packaging, and the Stream 7 meets that expectation. The tablet comes in a thin, cardboard box, with decent printing on the outside, but nothing special happening inside at all. A cardboard insert holds the tablet in a plastic sleeve, a Quick Start guide, USB charger, and USB cable, and that’s it. Ironically, it comes with a small printed insert containing a number of windows keyboard commands (which are virtually useless on a touchscreen device.)

Hardware:

Again, for $79, you wouldn’t expect this to be of the highest quality, and it’s not. It’s much better quality than I would have expected for the price, though. It’s a bit hefty, and probably just a little too heavy for extended one-handed use, but certainly reasonable for propping up. It’s quite a bit thicker than an iPad mini, but not so much that it’s unwieldy.

What you get for this price though is pretty nice:

  • 7-inch HD IPS touchscreen 800 x 1280
  • Intel Atom processor Z3735G (quad-core)
  • 1GB memory
  • 32GB SSD (with a micro-SD slot for expansion)

Display

Though the screen is not the best I’ve seen on a device, it’s actually quite nice for the price. It’s reasonably sharp, and though not Retina-class quality, it’s certainly more than functional. Websites render crisply, and text is easy to read. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of bleed-through from the backlight, especially in the lower-third of the screen. Again, considering the price, it’s a nice-looking screen.

I will say that I was very happy that F.lux installed and worked perfectly on this tiny tablet. I’ve had no luck getting the utility to work on other Windows computers, so I was pleasantly surprised. F.lux is a nice utility that removes the “blue” and dims the display automatically for nighttime use. This is one feature that I wish I could emulate on my iPad, but simply can’t. This immediately makes the Stream 7 a useful tool when reading or browsing in bed at night.

Casing

The plastic case surrounding the Stream 7 is adequate. The entire case is a fingerprint magnet–the screen especially so. There’s no nice oleophobic coating for the screen like on higher-end tablets, but it doesn’t make the device unusable. Because the screen has no special coating, fingers sometimes don’t slide as well as you’d like, but then again, Windows tablets don’t have a lot of gestures that rely on smooth finger slides.

Touchscreen

The Start button is touch-sensitive, and works pretty well. Touchscreen sensitivity is rather poor, I would say. Though not as bad as the resistive touch screens of olden days, it’s certainly not up to par with most touchscreens I’ve used. I didn’t exhaustively test this with the included Windows 8.1 before upgrading to Windows 10, so I’m not sure how much of this is related to that OS, but I get the impression that it’s just not a great touchscreen.

Touches routinely don’t register, or don’t register in the correct position. It seems necessary to tap “above” what you’re trying to reach. It could be that the inexpensive touch panel has particularly thick glass, or could just be a poor touch panel. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it’s annoying enough to impact the experience.

Cameras

To call the cameras on the Stream 7 poor would be an understatement. Put simply, they’re so bad they should have been omitted entirely. A 2 megapixel rear camera, and just a 0.3 megapixel front-facing camera means it would be embarrassing to try to Skype or Google Hangout with someone, and taking photos with it is pretty much not even worth the trouble.

Performance

At first glance, the tablet seems to perform fairly well. Again, I’m running the Windows 10 Technical Preview on it, which is still in development. This means that not only is it buggy, but they likely haven’t done much work to actually optimize performance on low-end tablets like this.

Still, it’s clear that the Stream 7 is underpowered for most functions. Just getting the keyboard to pop up for things like searching, whether the Microsoft Store for apps, the computer itself, or the Start search felt incredibly laggy.

Browsers like Chrome and Internet Explorer seem to work well, but actually loading and rendering websites felt dramatically slow, considering their Android and iOS counterparts. Trying to use split-screen to watch Netflix and browse the web became unbearably slow, to the point that I gave up trying. It’s a shame, too, because this could be a killer feature of Windows on a tablet. Considering that a lot of buyers would be considering this for kids to play basic games on, I’m not sure they would perform very well at all. Even trying to play Facebook games felt excruciatingly slow.

Battery Life

Battery life was a bit hit-or-miss. Out of the box, the tablet came with about 70% of charge, but by the end of the afternoon, I was down to 5%. The good news is that the hit to battery life didn’t seem to dramatically impact performance. Even at 5%, the tablet was chugging along pretty well, and not reminding me every 5 seconds to charge it. There is a configurable automatic battery-saver mode that’s supposed to reduce background services to save battery. Over the past couple days, the device’s battery has drained down without a lot of use, and I could see this needing charging every other day, at least.

Sound

The Stream 7 is limited to a single mono speaker at the bottom of the device, which puts out adequate sound, but is far from what I would call good. Even the iPad’s universally-panned mono speaker puts the Stream 7 to shame. Headphone audio seems to be tinny and has background noise, so this isn’t going to win any awards for audio quality.

Summary

In all, the HP Stream 7 isn’t going to win any awards for tablet-of-the-year. The Verge only scored it at 6.3, which is fairly low for a tablet, but not so low that it falls short of most other tablets in its class. For $79 it’s a steal, and hard not to recommend for budget-conscious shoppers. The Office 365 subscription alone makes it worth picking up at this price. But for those with specific needs, such as myself, the Stream 7 falls woefully short from being a daily-use tool. I’ll continue playing around with it, but there’s no danger of me getting rid of my primary–or even secondary–tablet any time soon.

Review: Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast

Google Chromecast

Chromecast is Google’s latest foray into the world of smart televisions. A $35 stick that plugs into any HDMI-equipped television, this piece of hardware is essentially Google’s answer to Apple’s AirPlay standard. With this tiny piece of hardware, owners of Windows- and Mac-based computers, Android phones and tablets, and iOS devices–such as the iPhone and iPad–can immediately “cast” their videos, music, or web browsers to their television screen, much like AirPlay. So does Chromecast succeed where Google’s previous attempts have failed? What makes Chromecast different than AirPlay? And most important of all, should you buy one?

What Chromecast Is

Simply put, the Chromecast is a device that lets you get video and music from “this screen” to “that screen” wirelessly, with one tap. Rather than run down all the specific technical details, I’ll leave that to the experts at The Verge who have already written on such topics.

Apple already has a similar solution for this type of use: AirPlay. Unfortunately, AirPlay is limited specifically to Apple devices, like the iPad, iPhone, and Mac computer products. It also requires the AppleTV–a set-top box costing $99.

Chromecast not only comes in at a far less-expensive $35, it works with far more devices: Android devices (naturally), iOS-based devices like the iPad, iPhone, etc. but also any Google Chrome browser with the associated extension installed running on Windows or OS X. This means nearly anybody can take advantage of the device.

Perhaps more importantly, it allows the user to continue doing other things with their phone/tablet or computer while casting content to Chromecast. So, for example, you could start watching a show on Netflix on your cellphone, cast it over to Chromecast where it starts playing on the television, then go to responding to emails, or looking up what movies that actor’s been in on IMDB.

Chromecast also obviates the need for yet another remote control, since you control playback, volume, etc. directly from the device casting the content. This works seamlessly with Android devices, and surprisingly well from iOS devices.

Those using Google Chrome on their computer will also find impressive the fact that they can cast ANY browser tab (or your entire screen) from Chrome to their television, while still working in other tabs. In essence, you could watch YouTube videos on your big TV, while still browsing the web on your computer–without the need for additional hardware; it’s really rather remarkable.

What Chromecast Isn’t

Though Chromecast has a lot of potential, it’s not particularly robust, at least not yet. Currently limited to  YouTube, Netflix, and Google’s own Play Music, and Play Movies & TV apps, it’s not quite a true AirPlay competitor, though it soon should be. Google has only just released their programming API’s for others to start building support into their apps, much the way Apple opened the AirPlay standard to developers. While it’s not yet possible to mirror your entire iPad or Android phone’s display to a Chromecast device yet, it’s surely on the horizon. These limitations might drive away some early adopters, but there’s a very strong set of building blocks here–ones that could easily eclipse AirPlay.

The Chromecast is also not a set-top box. This is an important distinction. Devices like the AppleTV, Roku players, and other similar boxes have their own interface, and distinct ways of operating, often requiring yet another remote control for your collection. AirPlay specifically becomes just another feature of the AppleTV, whereas the Chromecast is 100% about casting content. The interface is sparse, essentially telling you that it’s on, working, and ready for content. Yet it does so in a beautiful, minimalistic design–besting Apple’s interface significantly. The idea of being able to eliminate additional devices from the living room is also nice to contemplate.

It’s also an intriguing piece of technology, because it doesn’t really do anything. Here’s an example of how Chromecast actually works:

  1. You start watching Netflix on your iPad.
  2. You click the Cast button and choose your selected Chromecast device (you get the option to name it during setup).
  3. The iPad passes the video information to Chromecast, which then uses your wireless network to pull that same video content directly to the television, actually bypassing your iPad altogether.
  4. You now use your iPad for virtually anything else you want, and can return to the Netflix app to pause, change the volume, or select a different show.

In this example, the Chromecast is doing the work of retrieving the content to display, while your iPad only handles telling it what to play, and when to play it. Again, it’s an important distinction, but one that allows such a low price point for the device.

Unfortunately, the Chromecast’s limitations do mean that you won’t be watching video content that exists on a home media server, or NAS device–though it’s not really intended for that type of usage anyway. As more developers begin including Chromecast support in their apps, however, this is likely to change. There is already substantial interest by app developers.

Where Chromecast Excels

Price is obviously one of the most impressive aspects of Chromecast. At $35, it’s practically an impulse-purchase, and affordable enough to easily equip every television in the house with one. Even the relatively inexpensive Roku boxes, or AppleTV’s don’t hold the same value proposition.

Perhaps more impressive is the ease of setup and use that Chromecast provides. My initial setup took only about five minutes, which consisted of downloading the Chromecast app (on Android. iOS requires no additional application). The app scans your network for your Chromecast device, allows you to name it, and starts working–just like that; it honestly makes setting up an Apple product seem laborious in comparison. Chromecast is exactly as simple to use as it should be–and that should worry Apple. The fact that nearly any device on the market today can use the Chromecast is also incredibly convenient.

Chromecast Home Screen

Chromecast Home Screen

Apple’s draconian control over what they allow their devices to do, and how to allow it to happen is helping Google move Android further along, and at a more rapid pace than ever before. Already, Chromecast is getting significant interest by developers; Hulu, HBO, Vimeo, and others are already either in development, or seriously considering support for Chromecast–a product that was announced merely a week ago. Google is also serious about improving the device and the standard, as evidenced by an already-released update and I have already noticed improved performance in just a couple of days of use. Google’s loose policies with the use of Android and their services means that Chromecast will likely succeed, perhaps staggeringly so.

Wrap-Up

I’m a cord-cutter. I cancelled my cable-TV subscription, and chose to consume my content via the Internet. That currently involves methods such as Netflix, Hulu, television network websites’, etc. One of the biggest complaints I had regarding pay-for television was that I was so limited. The DVR once changed my life–I no longer had to schedule my free time around airings of my favorite shows. But my DVR was connected to a single television, at a single location, which became inconvenient.

Video-on-demand, and the rise of services like Hulu, have similarly changed my life once more. It allows for the freedom to watch shows anywhere I want–on my cellphone, at work during lunch, or riding in the car on a road trip, any time I want. I’m no longer limited by one screen. But still, it’s nice to be able to use that large television and awesome speakers to watch this great content. If only there were a way to get video from “here” to “there” without dealing with cables, and adapters, and upscalers, and everything else needed in the past.

Chromecast answers that problem. It’s almost like magic. Most importantly, it does it easily, cheaply, and in a way that allows us to go on living our lives. It’s the promise of technology come true.

Google gets us. They understand that Americans watch television while they browse the web. That we listen to music while we play games on our cellphones. They have developed the Chromecast to allow us to continue doing these things the way we have, but without needing to overly complicate matters. Tap a button, and the video you’re watching on your phone is now on your TV, and you can go back to playing Angry Birds on your cellphone–without ever picking up a TV remote. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

So should you buy the Chromecast? Perhaps you should ask yourself why you shouldn’t buy one. After all, they’re $35–less than you’ll spend on dinner for two at Chili’s. Who knows? It just might change your life.

Chromecast is available now through retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, and the Google Play store.

Reviewed by Bradley K. Brown

Review: CloudBerry Backup

Everyone should have some kind of a backup solution for their computer. No excuses. I once was guilty of not having a regular backup plan, and ended up losing a considerable amount of data because of it. Don’t let this happen to you–backup, and keep backing up.

Until recently, I had a two-pronged approach for backing up my data: I backup all my important data to a Windows Home Server. That data is mirrored on two different drives (for redundancy) and then the server itself is backed up to an external hard drive (for dual redundancy). However, what if something catastrophic happened to my home? All those hard drives are in the same physical location, which still means I could lose everything, should all those drives become damaged.

I knew for a while that I wanted some type of off-site backup, but most of the options out there are complicated and expensive. With the advent of Cloud-based storage, this idea became much easier though. So I started looking around online for different options. With Amazon’s announcement of Amazon Glacier, I knew it was the service for me. At $0.01/GB, it’s by far the cheapest Cloud-backup service available. The only drawback is that retrieving files from the server can take several hours, since it’s put into a “cold” storage, assuming you won’t need frequent access to the files. Indeed, I don’t–I only want my data backed up offsite, in case of complete data loss locally. Unfortunately, Amazon’s S3 storage solutions (of which Glacier is part of) isn’t particularly user-friendly. That’s where CloudBerry comes in.

CloudBerry Backup integrates with countless Cloud-based storage solutions, including Amazon S3, Windows Azure, Google Storage, RackSpace, etc. They also provide a Home Server 2011 add-in, which was precisely what I was looking for.

CloudBerry Backup Add-In

CloudBerry Backup Console

CloudBerry Backup Console

I installed the CloudBerry Backup add-in for Home Server 2011, and activated the free 15-day trial, then signed up for an Amazon Glacier storage account, and got to work setting things up. Once installed, it was a simple matter of configuring my backup account. CloudBerry prompted me for all the necessary information, and even provides cost estimates, so you have an idea what your backups will cost. As you can see from the screenshot below, CloudBerry is compatible with a LOT of different services:

CloudBerry Backup Services

CloudBerry Backup Services

There are even convenient links to sign up for the desired storage account in their configuration tab!

Once your storage account is configured, it’s time to create a backup plan. You are taken through a wizard that asks you to name your plan, choose the folder/directories you want to backup (even network shares are supported.) It’s also possible to backup individual drives, rather than specific directories. Once the locations you want backed up are selected, more advanced options are presented, allowing you to exclude or include only specific types of files, or even only backup files that have been modified recently. Next you choose whether you want to compress and/or encrypt your backups, then given options on when (or if) to purge files from the backups, before finally getting to set the schedule for your backups. All of these screens provide detailed, advanced functionality while remaining very user-friendly.

In addition to the various options available, you’re also prompted to be emailed when backup jobs fail, and to even include events in the Windows logs, either every time, or after failure. It’s really a robust application. There are lots of other settings and tweaks to explore for those who want to get the most from their software, but it’s simple enough that anyone can use it–and SHOULD.

A Couple Notes

There are a couple things potential users should know: First, CloudBerry backs up in buckets of 1,000 files at a time. Once finished with the 1,000 files, it moves onto the next 1,000 files. At first, it may appear that it’s not backing up everything (if you told it to), but it will in fact continue this process until the backup is complete.

Currently, CloudBerry Backup is only available for Windows-based computers–though there’s a flavor for all versions of Windows. Though I’m using Windows Home Server 2011, there are versions for standard desktops, standard servers, and even SQL servers. Unfortunately, the Windows-only nature leaves Mac users looking for alternatives. In my particular scenario, I use an application called ChronoSync to backup files from my Mac to my Home Server, which then runs the backups via CloudBerry; it’s not perfect, but it does a perfectly reasonable job.

Conclusion

In the couple of weeks that I’ve been using it, CloudBerry has yet to fail a backup job, and has done an excellent job of getting my data into the cloud. I feel more comfortable that my data is safe, in the event that it needs to be restored. Had it not been for CloudBerry and its convenient, easy-to-use solution, I likely never would have bothered setting up this off-site storage–at least not any time soon.

Review: Nexus 7

As a user of the first-generation iPad, and owner of the 3rd-generation iPad, I found myself using it more and more for consumption of media and news, but ultimately being dissatisfied with the 10-inch display–it’s too large. If only Apple made a 7-inch iPad, I kept thinking. Android tablets in the 7-inch market are available, but sorely lack in most respects.

When rumors of a Google tablet costing just $200 first surfaced, I was intrigued but skeptical. After all, the Kindle Fire had yet to be released, and competing Android-based tablets in the $200-range were preposterously poor devices. Still, with the release of the Kindle Fire, Amazon proved that a $200 tablet could not only be a decent piece of hardware, but commercially successful as well.

Days before the Google I/O 2012 conference started, reports that Google would announce a 7-inch tablet for $200 once again surfaced, this time with varying amounts of evidence to back it up. This time it was clear that rumor was turning into reality, and that Amazon would soon have some real competition in the 7-inch market.

With Google’s announcement of the Nexus 7, I was hooked. Here was a great-looking tablet, with the right size and form-factor, full Google experience, and not-underwhelming specs for only $200. I hopped on the bandwagon and pre-ordered, opting for the 16GB version, and the extra $50. My iPad went to my wife, who’s happily playing Angry Birds at this very moment.

So, once my Nexus 7 arrived, I was excited and anxious to put it through its paces. Did it live up to the expectations? Does it reflect true competition for the iPad? Is it worth plunking down the $200-250 to buy one? Read on for the answers.

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