Back in the '90s, you could buy a bargain-brand Gateway or eMachines PC for about $400. They were everywhere. Everybody's grandma got in on the action. They were also, objectively, pretty crappy computers. That's more true now than ever. Why? Because now we have the $180 HP Stream Mini. That's why.

What Is It?

Remember that cheap notebook HP put out a few months back that punched way above its $200 pricetag? The similarly named HP Stream 11? It's like that, but in the form of a tiny, 2.9-pound desktop. Its processor is a little newer (a more efficient Haswell chip) and it lacks the portability of a laptop, but the same rule applies: more bang for your buck than you were probably expecting. At $180, there's a lot to love. Let's talk about what and why.

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Design

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In a word, the HP Stream Mini is "cute." Not condescendingly cute, but tiny, compact and coated in just the right shade of blue to irradiate a quiet, adorable charm. At a glance, it's a simple looking box, but it has plenty of ports: two USB 3.0 inputs in the front, another two on the rear—right next to full-size HDMI, DisplayPort, audio and ethernet jacks. The Mini's sides are blank, save for a simple SD card adapter.

All nice, but it gets better: the case is designed to be opened. All you have to do to muck around with the Mini's internals is flip it over, peel back a bit of rubber and remove three screws. It's super easy, and gives you access to twin RAM slots (1.35v DDR3 laptop memory) and a Micro SATA (read: extra tiny) SSD. You don't need to upgrade either one, but it's fantastic that you can I'll explain why in a minute.

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If the inside of the case seems a little too large, that's because it is: the Stream Mini shares its chassis with HP's identical but more powerful Pavilion Mini desktop, and there are some vestigial design elements left over. See that metal cage up there? It's designed to hold a larger SATA drive, a storage format that the Stream Mini doesn't even support. It feels like wasted space, but I suppose a dedicated upgrader could always use an mSATA adapter cable.

I was surprised to find a full-sized wired USB keyboard and mouse in the Stream Mini's box. Both are mediocre at best, but having them bundled is a nice perk.

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Using It

With a name like the HP Stream, you might mistakenly think the Mini is a TV device. It's not. The Stream Mini may have the footprint of a media streaming box, but it's also a Windows machine—and Windows is still a weird experience in the living room. HP's little machine fits perfectly in my entertainment center, but it doesn't do anything to change the awkwardness: there's no IR port, no Windows remote and its wired keyboard and mouse are ill-suited to life on the couch. Unless you have a good couch keyboard (I favor the Logitech K400R myself), keep the Stream Mini on a desk.

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Couch grumbling aside, I'm pleased with how the Stream Mini performs. It's everything I could possibly want from a sub-$200 Windows machine: perfectly capable of handling my day to day workload, within limits. Between its 1.4GHz Intel Celeron processor and a paltry 2GB of RAM, the Stream is no powerhouse, but it easily juggled my favorite chat clients, email windows and dozen-or-so Chrome tabs I keep open throughout the work day. Microsoft Office runs without a hitch, natch, as do most of my desktop apps and widgets. Even Photoshop was pretty usable on the rig if I was mindful of my use: no more than two images open at a time and no multitasking. Seriously, don't touch the web browser with your image editor open. It won't end well.

I expected these caveats, but I didn't expect them to be so easy to overcome. I've been using powerful, well-specced gaming machines for so long I completely forgot what a difference a little RAM could make, and boy, did it make a difference. Cracking open the case and slotting in an additional 4GB of DDR3 RAM (for a total of 6GB in the machine) changed everything. Multitasking became a fluid snap. Photoshop no longer slowed down the web browser or lagged when it had more than a couple files open. The Stream went from being merely capable of handling my workload to comfortably handling my workload. It's a subtle, but major change.

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Eventually I unloaded the extra RAM to put the rig through its final, most irrelevant test: gaming. I couldn't resist: the Stream Mini's Intel HD graphics aren't much, but they're capable of more than you might think. Indie games and older titles run great, naturally, but I was surprised to find I could play Fallout: New Vegas at a respectable clip at 1080p if I kept the graphics settings dialed all the way down. Newer games work too, but it's probably not worth it: Tomb Raider 2013 is perfectly playable with muddy, ugly textures and a horrifically low 800 x 600 resolution. At least there's always Steam In-Home Streaming if you've got a gaming PC in the other room.

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Like

Full Windows 8.1 in a box cheap enough that I can't build my own for less. If I wanted to build a XBMC / Kodi media center PC, I would pay more. If I wanted to put together a lightweight MAME box to build a custom arcade cabinet, I would pay more. Now I don't have to.

It's small enough to shove behind a computer monitor or wedge between my collection of game consoles. I could throw it in a bag with a couple of gamepads and take my favorite indie games to a friend's house. Anyone fancy a Nidhogg tournament?

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Four USB ports, plus HDMI and DisplayPort—both full sized. That's more connectivity options than my laptop and way more than I need. Perfect.

Very little garbage software—just an HP recovery tool and McAfee antivirus. Not bad.

Nice that Windows 8 automatically scales up the interface when you plug it into a TV. It's still hard to use, but at least you don't have to switch that manually.

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No Like

The Stream Mini's 32GB SSD is pitifully small—a good chunk of it is set aside just for the Windows installation, leaving you with only 22 gigs of storage to play with. That's almost nothing these days.

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The peripherals feel kind of cheap. I wish there was an option to pay a little more for better, wireless accessories or forgo them completely for a discount.

It's the perfect device for a media center, but comes with no wireless control solution for dealing with Windows 8.1 from the couch.

Should You Buy It?

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Do you need a PC, but don't want a laptop? Are you on a budget? Is the phrase "general computing" tame enough to describe your digital life? Do you, maybe, just want a small, compact machine to convert into a media center box? If you answered yes to any of those questions, then yes. The HP Stream Mini is probably exactly what you're looking for. If it isn't, a cheap RAM or SSD upgrade will probably fix that.

The HP Stream Mini isn't a powerhouse, but you get a lot for what you pay for. Again, it kind of reminds me of the "cheap" Gateway and eMachines desktops that were all the rage in the '90s, except it's legitimately cheap, absolutely tiny and mostly unencumbered by awful pack-in crapware (I mean, everything comes with McAfee these days). If this is the next generation of bottom-dollar computing, sign me up.

HP Stream Mini Specs (as tested)

Processor: Intel® Celeron® 2957U with Intel HD Graphics (1.4 GHz, 2 MB cache, 2 cores)

Storage: 32GB SSD

Memory: 2GB

Wireless: 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth® 4.0

Dimensions: 5.71 x 5.71 x 2.13 in

Weight: 2.9 lb

Price: $180

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