In 2014, Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) pushed laptops running Microsoft's Windows into sub-$200 territory. This, in theory, gave Windows users an alternative to Alphabet's Google Chromebooks. And in many ways, the $199, 11-inch HP Stream was a direct answer to its low-cost rival, which had gained traction in the education market. The blue, plastic laptop had only 32GB of on-board hard-drive space, pushing most functionality and storage to the cloud.
Microsoft clearly supported these machines -- likely to help hold onto market share that might be lost to Google -- by offering free cloud storage and included a year of Office 365. Basically, Stream was a good-enough, cheap option designed to serve the most cost conscious part of the market. It wasn't an impressive laptop at all, but it worked decently if you confined your activities to using Office and web browsing.
What is Lenovo doing?
Now, for the 2015 holiday shopping rush, HP has some competition for its cheap laptop line. Lenovo (NASDAQOTH:LNVGY) has upped the ante in both price and quality with its exclusive-to-Best Buy (NYSE:BBY) IdeaPad 100s.
The laptop maker, which is generally known for its mid-priced and high-end devices, has released a laptop which sets a new standard for sub-$200 machines. The actual price of the IdeaPad 100s varies. It was introduced at Best Buy at $149.99 (prompting this review from Walt Mossberg of The Verge based on that price) but as of Nov. 24 the retailer has been selling it for $199.99. Lenovo itself sells it for $179 and other retailers have it for around $200.
Neither Best Buy nor Lenovo responded to an email request from Fool as to whether the laptop would be sold again at its initial price of $149.99.
Wherever the exact price comes in Lenovo has packed quite a bit into its sub-$200 laptop. It's still in no way an equal to more expensive machines, but it's an improvement over the Stream -- and I generally like HP's cheap laptop, which I bought last Christmas for my wife and son.
With an Intel Atom processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of Flash Storage, the 100s won't impress anyone with its specs. The machine has an 11.6" screen, and it also comes with a free year of Office 365.
How does it compare?
While the Stream feels a bit like a toy, something which is not helped by its rounded edges and bright blue (purple for the 2015 Win10 version) color, the IdeaPad 100s feels a lot more substantial. It's made of plastic, too, but its rectangular shape just feels more solid in your hands.
It also has a better feel with its keyboard. Stream can be a little tough to type on at first, though it improves with practice. The 100S has keys that are a bit more solid, with stronger action. It's not a major difference, but the improved keyboard and overall better design make Lenovo's entree into making really cheap laptops look and feel more like a real computer.
Both machines have fairly lousy touch pads. Stream's is more or less useless -- we always use ours with an external mouse. The Lenovo one is a little better, but not much, and you'll almost certainly opt to use an add-on mouse.
In both cases, the keyboards are good enough, and the IdeaPad probably crosses the line into perfectly acceptable, whereas you might consider using it as a main computer. That's only viable if you're generally operating out of locations that have good Wi-Fi; but if you do, then the 100s is good enough to get by. And realistically, at $149, it's a better machine then it has any right to be, and it's a big leap forward in Microsoft's effort to beat back Google.
The real loser here is Google
Both HP and Lenovo have delivered Windows-powered laptops that have to rely on cloud storage and apps. My wife and son's Stream ran out of hard-drive space with little more than its OS and Office installed. Of course, there was no real reason to install the productivity suite when it can be accessed online, and that's how these devices were conceived.
The difference between these sub-$200 laptops and Chromebooks at the same price point is that the world of software Windows opens up is cast. It's not ideal to install Office, but you can, as you could most other programs -- though I would not recommend high-end games or video-editing software -- for use when the cloud is not accessible.
Cheap Windows 10 laptops are simply more usable than cheap machines running Google Chrome. They offer more flexibility, along with countless more software options. These aren't just tablets with keyboards, though their processors are roughly that; they're actually decent, cheap laptops.
With IdeaPad 100s, Lenovo has advanced the form. It's a serviceable machine that doesn't scream "cheap" when you look at it. It's an improvement over Stream, which was pretty decent in the first place.
Daniel Kline has no position in any stocks mentioned. He has no need for more laptops but may well buy a 100s. The Motley Fool recommends Intel. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.