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.