Stick PCs -- computers contained in a device no larger than a USB key and which, when mated with a monitor, become full desktop PCs -- have been around for a while. However, they have recently started to gain more visibility, primarily because of their ultra-portability, minimal power/space needs and ease of use. They may not be very useful for things like airline flights, but they open the way for carrying around presentations, creating public kiosks and allowing you to use another's computer without needing to access their data (or allowing them to accidentally access yours).
While there have been other stick PCs on the market, the category has gained more visibility with the imminent introduction of Intel's new Compute Stick.
I checked out a pre-production version of the Compute Stick and was impressed by its ability to turn a display into a light-duty deskbound computer.
Inside the Stick
The $150 Compute Stick is all about miniaturization and packaging. (Note: Because this was a pre-production unit, there may be differences between it and the final product.) Its black plastic and metal case bears the "Intel Inside" logo, weighs just 1.9 oz. and measures 0.4 x 1.5 x 4.5 in., only a little larger than a car's key fob. (The device has two holes in its top for threading a security cable or a lanyard through, in case you're nervous about losing it.)
The Stick plugs into a monitor via its HDMI connector and is powered via a micro-USB port (it comes with an AC adapter, but can also use any USB power source that puts out 10 watts or more). If the Stick blocks any other ports on the monitor, you can use it with the included 7.5-in. HDMI extension cable, which will keep it out of the way.
The Stick also comes with a micro-SD card slot so that it can add up to 128GB of additional storage capacity. There is an on/off button and a blue LED that glows when the Stick is running.
It operates using 802.11n Wi-Fi (note that the Stick operates only in the 2.4GHz band). It also uses Bluetooth 4.0, so you can connect peripherals such as a keyboard and mouse. (Your other option is to connect the Stick to a USB hub; that will also allow you to use an Ethernet connection via a USB-to-LAN converter.)
The system is based on Intel's quad-core Atom Z3735F processor, which has been used mostly for tablets, has 2MB of processor cache and a base speed of 1.3GHz; using Intel's TurboBoost, it can go as fast as 1.8GHz.
While it's running, the processor uses 2.2 watts, making it one of the most power-efficient Atom CPUs available. Despite that, the Stick needs a small fan (which puts out an annoying high-pitched whine) to prevent it from overheating -- and the case still gets hot to the touch.
The Stick's configuration includes 2GB of 1.3GHz single-channel DDR3L RAM and 32GB of eMMC flash storage; 23GB of that is available for use out of the box. It has Intel's HD Graphics engine along with 64MB of dedicated video memory; the graphics engine can tap into 979MB of the system's RAM, providing just over 1GB of available video memory. As a result, the Stick did surprisingly well when I ran HD-resolution images and videos -- even though the system tops out at a resolution of 1920 x 1200.
Testing the Stick
Over the course of a week of daily use, I operated the Stick with several displays, including a Philips desktop monitor, a pair of Epson projectors and a Samsung 48-in. TV. I also used it with different Wi-Fi routers and networked printers. I tried it with a number of peripherals, including a wired keyboard and mouse, an external hard drive, a USB drive and a USB hub. I used Bluetooth to connect the system with a Cambridge Audio Minx Go speaker and an Adesso wireless keyboard. I had no problem using any of these devices.
And what about performance? I found it adequate, but underwhelming. For example, when I tested with with PassMark's PerformanceTest 8, it scored a 479.8, as compared to the score of 505.9 I got from a Dell Venue 10 Pro 5055 tablet equipped with the same processor, graphics and RAM. In addition, the Stick took a lethargic 31.5 seconds to start up, compared to the Dell's 15.5 seconds.
On the other hand, I found that the Stick provided enough processing power for working with mainstream applications such as Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint (which I installed separately with no problem) as well as online programs like Gmail and Skype. It was reasonably fast for surfing (I tried it with the Chrome, Internet Explorer and Opera browsers), and worked like a charm for watching video using Netflix, MLB.tv and YouTube. On the downside, this micro-PC tended to bog down at times when several apps were working at once. On a few occasions, it left me waiting for it to complete tasks with no control of the pointer.
In addition to Windows 8.1 with Bing, the review system came with the basic Microsoft mix of apps (such as Paint, Internet Explorer and Notepad) as well as the Kindle e-book reader, but without any type of antivirus software.
Deliveries of the Intel Compute Stick are expected to start in June and pre-orders are available. The Windows version I looked at will sell for $150. For Linux aficionados, a model loaded with Ubuntu 14.04 LTS will be available for about $110; it will have the same processor, but contain 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage space.
A marvel of miniaturization, the Compute Stick can turn any HDMI-equipped display into a full Windows 8.1 computer. It may not be the fastest PC around, but this tiny computer puts the emphasis on utility and flexibility.