Intel's Compute Stick miniature PC reviewed

Commoditization complete
— 10:00 AM on April 22, 2015

I'm all for progress. Moore's Law and I go way back, and I've eagerly chronicled its progress and consequences over the years. But I have to admit that, every so often, I kinda feel like past me has been punked by the passage of time. That's the feeling I experienced when I first laid eyes on Intel's Compute Stick. This candy-bar-sized plastic doodad houses the guts of a complete PC, and if you've been around computers for a while, its existence may send a wave or two of future shock through your chest.

Just look at that thing. Inside of it is a quad-core Atom processor with built-in graphics, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of flash-based storage.  Plug it into a TV or monitor with speakers, attach a mouse and keyboard, and you have a complete computer system capable of most anything you'd want to do short of video editing or hard-core gaming.

The price? About $150, complete with Windows 8.1 with Bing. Intel also plans to release a version running Ubuntu with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage in June, with a street price of around $110.

Understand the basics about this nifty little gumstick, and you pretty much get the concept. Here are the full specs of the Windows version we have for review.

Processor Intel Atom Z3735F (Bay Trail)
4 cores, 1.33GHz base, 1.83GHz Turbo peak
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
311MHz base, 646MHz Turbo peak
Memory 2GB DDR3L
Storage 32GB flash
MicroSD card slot (up to 128GB)
Audio via HDMI
Wireless 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 1 HDMI
1 USB 2.0
Expansion N/A
OS Windows 8.1 with Bing

The Compute Stick's distinctive combination of capability and form factor invites a brainstorm about the possibilities for such a device. If you're familiar with Google's $35 Chromecast dongle, then the prospect of attaching a Compute Stick to the back of a big television and going to town on media streaming probably comes to mind first. A full Windows PC will stream video from just about any source, and unlike a Chromecast, it can also act as a client for Steam's in-home game streaming (although doing so at full speed may require the use of a better networking adapter via USB).

In fact, this devious little gumstick slyly undercuts some other recent entrants into the living room computing space. Nvidia's Shield console is more gaming-focused overall, but a big part of its mission is to act as a game-streaming client. There are still a bunch of Steam boxes teeming on the horizon, too. Assuming they ever make it to market, they'll have to justify themselves against the cheap and simple option of streaming Steam games from your desktop gaming rig to your TV via a Compute Stick—without the complication of SteamOS.

The Compute Stick is also a pretty darned solid basic computer for whoever needs one: grandma, the front-desk receptionist, the kids playing Nick Jr. games, or what have you. If you're familiar with older "basic" systems based on Atom-branded CPUs, you might be surprised by the sheer competence of this Bay Trail chip's quad Silvermont cores. Combined with its flash-only storage, the Compute Stick generally feels downright snappy when navigating the Windows desktop and surfing the web. It's flawless for streaming from Netflix. Installing software, especially the 70-some Windows updates Microsoft pushed out to it when I first fired it up, can feel bit sluggish, though—and you won't be playing Battlefield. But as a basic Windows system, the Stick is good enough to satisfy an awful lot of needs.

Intel cites a handful of other potential uses for the Compute Stick, including powering electronic kiosks and digital signage. Those things make sense, but the possiblities go well beyond that, I think. The boundaries are probably defined by simple considerations. In many scenarios, a cheaper option or something more integrated, like an iPad or an inexpensive Bay Trail-based laptop, might be a better fit. I suspect we'll see some intriguing deployments of these devices once people catch on that a Compute Stick plus an HDTV equals a certain type of nerdvana.

So the Compute Stick concept is simple and clever, and the relatively modest price opens up a ton of possible uses. Unfortunately, from here, the practical conversation about this little PC has to turn toward its limitations. One of the big ones, for those wanting to use this thing for media consumption or digital signage, is a peak display resolution of 1920x1080. I couldn't even get it to drive a 16:10 monitor at 1920x1200, and 4K just ain't gonna happen. That's no big deal for a lot of folks, I know, but the ol' Stick ain't exactly future-proof.

Also, like the Chromecast before it, the Compute Stick loses a bit of its luster once you realize that a mess of cabling is involved. At a minumum, the system requires an HDMI connection and a power input, either from a USB port or from the included USB wall wart. Not many displays will accept something this size sticking directly out of an HDMI port, so you'll probably need to use the included HDMI extender cable, too.

The last port left open is a single USB 2.0 connector, and it must serve several purposes. If your display doesn't have speakers and you want audio output, that will have to happen over some sort of USB audio device. Also, a keyboard and pointing device are pretty much required. I was able to avoid any additional cords by using HDMI audio and snapping the adapter for a wireless USB keyboard and mouse combo into the Stick's lone USB port. For media use in the living room, one of those integrated keyboard-plus-touchpad jobs might be a sensible choice, too. Just be aware that working around the Stick's single USB port requires a little forethought—or maybe an external USB hub.

After pulling the Stick out of its box, I wandered my home looking for places to connect it. I had hoped to really simplify my Compute Stick setup by plugging the device's USB power lead into one of the integrated USB ports on one particular monitor, creating a powered loop of USB virtue and cutting out the wall wart entirely.  Evidently, though, that monitor's integrated USB hub isn't powered. What I created instead was a loop of USB futility. Ah, well.

After I finished futzing around with USB loops, the Compute Stick ultimately wound up attached to a TV in my bedroom, where I've struggled to find a satisfactory media streaming solution that lets me watch Daredevil while the kids are still up. The Stick is very much at home in this role. The Netflix app for Windows 8 makes things easy. I'm not entirely persuaded the Compute Stick is a better streaming option than just using a Chromecast with a phone or tablet, but I guess the answer to that question will depend on your needs.  At 150 bucks, the Compute Stick costs less than a Nexus 7 plus a Chromecast, and it's probably going to be dedicated to a particular TV instead of roaming about with a person like a tablet might.

One thing about the Stick really surprised me (ok, two, 'cause I never thought I'd utter those words): there's a fan inside that becomes audible during heavy use. The blower didn't spin up during video streaming sessions, but when I was trying to surf the web while Windows installed some updates in the background, its faint whine became audible from across the room. The fan isn't especially loud and doesn't run all that often, but the Stick isn't utterly silent, as one might expect from this class of device. Also, as a long-time hardware guy, I can't help but worry a little about the longevity of a tiny blower like this one.

At the end of the day, though, the Compute Stick is a cool concept that's both well-executed and surprisingly affordable. I'm still a little shocked it exists. Clearly, Intel and Microsoft have had a change of mindset prompted by the rise of iOS, Android, and ARM. In years past, this concept would never have made it out of Intel's labs. After all, this is a quite competent little Windows PC turned into a true commodity item. Its very existence would be a risk in the absence of non-Wintel alternatives. But we're in a new era now, and the Compute Stick is one fortunate by-product of that fact.

Intel's other NUC products are also nifty, but honestly, this is probably the one that should sell in the largest numbers. Most people who get a NUC probably don't need any more power than this. The fact that this system ships complete and ready to boot, with Windows installed, makes it a tremendous convenience. Here's hoping Intel decides to keep building Compute Sticks going forward through multiple generations. Heck, bring on the Skylake version.

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Tags: Systems