hp chromebook in box

The era of the $200 Windows laptop is back, and the HP Stream is just the first of many. These products are definitely better than the much-maligned netbook, but Chromebooks beat them in many ways.

No, we’re not arguing everyone should buy a Chromebook. Chromebooks aren’t right for everyone, just as cheap Windows laptops aren’t right for everyone. They each have their audience.

Why Cheap Windows Laptops Are Back

Cheap Windows laptops are nothing new. They became a mass-market phenomenon with netbooks. Netbooks were once selling like hotcakes, but then sales slowed down to a halt. Those netbooks — with their low price and convenient portability — had too many drawbacks. They were too slow, too tiny, and too hard to type on. Tablets sealed the deal and offered a better “getting on the ‘net” for more people at a low price point than netbooks did.

When Windows 8 came out, Microsoft moved away from those netbooks and ended their cheap “Windows 7 Starter” licenses. The cheap Windows laptops dried up as Microsoft tried to push people toward more expensive machines with touchscreens. In their absence, Chromebooks sprang up and started grabbing more marketshare.

RELATED: What Exactly Is "Windows 8.1 with Bing"? Do I Have to Use Bing?

Microsoft is now serious about competing with those Chromebooks at the low end of the market. Manufacturers can make cheap Windows laptops like the HP Stream and pay Microsoft nothing — that’s $0 — for the Windows license. This is all thanks to “Windows 8.1 With Bing,” a version of Windows that’s indistinguishable to the average user. No, there are no limitations for you here, unlike those obnoxious old Windows 7 Starter systems.

Microsoft wants you to buy an HP Stream — or similar cheap laptop — if you’re looking at Chromebooks. They’re positioned in the same price range for the same sort of user.

hp stream 11 laptop

HP Stream 11 photo from Microsoft

Where Chromebooks Stomp Those Cheap Laptops

The media is currently obsessed with calling the HP Stream a “Chromebook killer.” But they’re different products, and Chromebooks have many advantages:

  • Simplicity: The HP Stream comes with a full Windows desktop, all the usual bloatware, and everything else that entails. It also ships with Windows 8.1, so you also have the new don’t-call-it-Metro interface to deal with. A Chromebook ships with a minimal desktop environment designed just for browsing the web. There’s only one desktop, too — not two dueling interfaces.
  • Little System Maintenance: Chromebooks are also easier to maintain. You won’t have to deal with security software and other tools. Chromebooks update in the background, and will only require one quick reboot to patch — not a reboot, more patches, a reboot, more patches, a reboot, and yet more patches, as you’ve probably experienced on Windows. There’s no bloatware to remove from the system on a fresh install on a Chromebook, either.
  • Security: Chromebooks aren’t immune to malware, as malware could potentially be delivered as browser extensions from the Chrome Web Store. However, they aren’t vulnerable to all that Windows malware out in the wild, and that’s a huge advantage.
  • Easy Management: Chromebooks are much easier to manage, which is why they’re seeing such fast uptake in schools. Schools can manage their Chromebooks from Google’s web-based console without needing to set up their own server to manage all those laptops with a Microsoft server solution like Active Directory. Schools won’t be dropping their Chromebooks for Microsoft’s new cheap laptops soon. Chromebooks have too many advantages.


toshiba chromebook 2 2

Toshiba Chromebook 2 photo from Toshiba

Where Cheap Windows Laptops Beat Chromebooks

Of course, it’s easy to mount a defense of Windows, too. The big advantage of Windows is all about its compatibility and power. Windows gives you access to a much wider universe of software — Windows programs going back decades, professional productivity applications, and thousands of PC games on Steam and elsewhere. if you want to run this stuff, a Windows PC is necessary. You can even run Chrome!

But bear this mind mind: Cheap Windows PCs aren’t the best machines if you want to run Photoshop, use demanding desktop applications, or play recent games. You’ll just be using lightweight software and older games on such a machine. If you want a more powerful Windows PC, you’ll have to pay more.

There’s also just more powerful, capable software available for Windows. Chromebooks give you the web, but you’re in trouble if you can’t do everything on the web.

the good old windows desktop

The Buying Decision

RELATED: Should You Buy a Chromebook?

If you’re in the market for a laptop, the question is which you should buy. If you’re just looking for a simple device that lets you get on the web, a Chromebook has cheap Windows laptops beat for that — for most people. Yes, if you’re a geek and you know what you’re doing, you’ll probably get more out of a Windows laptop. But a Chromebook is simpler and therefore better if you’re not a Windows geek, don’t want to deal with Windows and its complexity, or if you’re buying a device for a less-knowledgable relative who might run into malware and turn to you for support.

If you actually need Windows software and the power and flexibility it allows, a Windows laptop will be better for you. However, you should seriously consider whether a cheap $200 laptop will offer enough performance for the software you’ll be running on a full Windows system. There’s a good chance you’ll want to spend more for faster and more capable hardware. More expensive Windows laptops may feature “good enough” performance for desktop application users, but these cheap laptops aren’t there yet.

chromebook desktop

The HP Stream and its Windows 8.1 with Bing is no Chromebook killer. Windows is still too complex and hard to manage to really compete with Chromebooks if the simplicity is important to you. But, if you’ve been eying Chromebooks and wish they did a little more, an inexpensive Windows laptop like the HP Stream may be just right for you.

Microsoft is competing again, and that’ s awesome. In the end, it should lead to better products for everyone — whichever type of laptop you buy.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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