Gadgets

The HP Stream as a cheap open-source Chromebook

I really like Chromebooks but I must admit there are times when I’m travelling and I’d like a more conventional offline setup.

Also one of the attractions of the original wave of Chromebooks were their price and I feel that the more recent editions have been price comparable to mid-range laptops.

Finally I read a few pieces warning against slipping into a monopoly of convenience around the Chrome browser so I thought it would be great to have a Chromebook that essentially ran Firefox.

I chose the HP Stream as the cheapest laptop that people mentioned that had Linux running on. It’s plastic and it’s proud of it, I bought one in an aquamarine blue. Trying one out in a store it has a good sized keyboard with only one quirk around the enter key which a bit smaller than the typical UK keyboard and has a hash key right above it.

That plastic shell means it is light but it is durable to have been shoved in a few travel bags and transported round. It has a custom power adaptor which is a pain when you’re travelling. USB-based charging would have been much better.

Installing Linux

I chose Elementary as my distribution, partly out of curiosity but also because people mentioned that it was an opinionated take on what a user-friendly operating system might be.

I had to read how to enter the Stream’s BIOS on the internet and set it to boot from a USB but after that it was pretty plain sailing to get the Elementary ISO onto the USB and for the Stream to load it.

Everything worked first time and I had the new OS completely replace pre-installed Windows and also encrypt the drive, which seems important if you are going to be travelling with the laptop and thus more likely to lose it or have it stolen.

Connecting to Wifi was painless as was the upgrade process.

Elementary

Elementary takes a very different approach to all the other Linux distributions with the UI essentially hiding all the normal Linux details. It has its own app store and upgrades of managed packages are seamless and mostly seem to complete without the need for restarts.

You can get to the terminal and install packages via Debian-style packages if you want to but Elementary mostly shines when you stick to the GUI and the apps.

For the kind of consumer electronic experience I wanted Elementary was an excellent choice. The only real problem I encountered was the classic issue of the OS not suspending when the laptop lid was closed, instead I had to manual suspend and then close the lid. This has subsequently been fixed in a subsequent update and currently the whole OS feels like what you’d expect from a modern system.

Performance

I am an absolute tab monster when it comes to browsers. I rarely have less than 40 tabs open in each browser and I have been known to use multiple windows on top of this.

My Chromebooks have struggled in the past and I’ve had to use the Task Manager to figure out where the CPU and memory are going in terms of the sites I use.

The situation was similar with the Stream. When I run Chrome and Firefox the system struggled and the battery ran flat quickly. I’ve since stuck to just Firefox and tried to limit myself to a set of about 15 to 20 tabs. This has been stable and has given me a few days worth of web browsing per charge.

Conclusions

When I started experimenting it would have been hard to say that I really had a better experience using my setup compared to a Chromebook. As we head towards Christmas, almost a year into the experiment, I’m now starting to think that I’d prefer to take the machine that would allow me to use git and my choice of text editor if I wanted. Firefox is a great choice for most of my daily websites and both of the machines have encrypted drives.

Elementary isn’t quite consumer electronics and the Stream is probably the wrong side of the price/quality divide but its actually the flexible machine I want to talk as I visit family and friends over the holidays.

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