There’s no shortage of devices that you can plug into the HDMI port of your TV to stream internet video. You can use a Roku Streaming Stick, an Amazon Fire TV Stick, or a Chromecast.
At first glance, Intel’s Compute Stick looks a lot like those media streaming devices. But under the hood, the Compute Stick is a full-fledged computer.
Intel launched its first model in early 2015, and now the company has released a 2nd-gen model with a slightly faster processor, an improved design, and significantly better wireless performance.
The company loaned me a new Compute Stick for the purposes of this review.
Sure, you can use it to stream music and videos from Spotify, Pandora, Netflix, and YouTube. But you can also use it to run Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, Intuit QuickBooks, or other Windows programs. You surf the web with a real web browser like Chrome, Firefox, (or Edge and Internet Explorer, I suppose), and you can play games.
The Compute Stick offers all of those possibilities… as long as you temper your expectations.
It may have the guts of a Windows computer, but this $150 machine offers the kind of performance you’d expect from a cheapnotebook or tablet.
Intel wasn’t the first company to launch a PC Stick. Way back in 2012 we started to see models with ARM-based processors and Android software. A few years later the first models with Intel chips and Windows software popped up.
Then in 2015, Intel launched the Compute Stick. It offered decent all-around performance, but suffered from a few serious limitations. Unlike some of the Chinese PC sticks that preceded it, the Intel model came with a fully-licensed version of Windows and didn’t seem to have any problems with heat dissipation.
On the other hand, it had just a single USB 2.0 port, which made it difficult to use both a keyboard and mouse during setup unless you connected a USB hub. Once the system is set up, you can always connect Bluetooth accessories… but that’s another problem with the original Compute Stick: wireless performance wasn’t all that great.
That model supports 802.11b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. But the range wasn’t very good (I could only really use the computer if it was in the same room as my router), and many users had difficulty connecting to WiFi and Bluetooth devices simultaneously.
So while the original Intel Compute Stick was one of the best devices in its category at launch, it was still kind of hard to recommend for general-purpose use.
In addition to offering a Windows model with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, Intel also launched a cheaper version with Ubuntu Linux, 1GB of RAM, and 8GB of storage. It didn’t sell very well, but Intel is pretty sure that had more to do with the specs than the operating system.
So for the second-generation Compute Stick, Intel addressed pretty much all of those issues.
The new model features two full-sized USB ports, including one USB 3.0 port and a USB 2.0 port. It has 802.11ac WiFi and a better antenna arrangement so that WiFi and Bluetooth can be used at the same time without any problems. I’ve also had no problems using the new Compute Stick in my office which is two floors away from my WiFi router.
This year the company is also doing away with the Ubuntu model. Instead, Intel will offer a Windows version and a version with no operating system at all. But both have 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.
While this means you don’t have to pay for a Windows license if you want to install Ubuntu, Chromium, or a different operating system, it does mean you may have to put a little work into getting everything to work properly. Ian Morrison notes that there don’t seem to be any HDMI audio drivers for Ubuntu yet,
and I wasn’t able to get my demo unit to boot from a USB flash drive at all, even though the UEFI/BIOS settings say that feature should be supported.
Update: After rebooting a few times and switching USB flash drives, I was able to get Ubuntu to run. Audio over HDMI doesn’t work, but a USB adapter or Bluetooth speaker solves that problem. The microSD card reader also doesn’t work out of the box… but just about everything else does seem to work.
The new Compute Stick also has an Intel Atom x5-Z8300 Cherry Trail processor, which is a slight step up from the Atom Z3735F Bay Trail chip used in the first-generation model.
The CPU performance is a little better, and graphics performance has been boosted a bit.
What’s in the box?
When you buy the Compute Stick, you get the tiny computer (which measures about 4.5″ x 1.5″ x 0.5″), a power adapter, and a power adapter which plugs into the micro USB port on the computer.
You may be able to power the Compute Stick by connecting a USB cable to a port on your TV, but you’ll probably get better results if you use the included power adapter.
The demo unit Intel sent me also had a series of international adapters. I’m not sure if the retail version will have all of those options.
Intel also includes a short HDMI extension cable. If you don’t have enough room behind your TV to plug the Compute Stick directly into the display, you can use this cable to let the Stick sort of hang off the HDMI port.
Other features of the Compute Stick itself, which I hadn’t mentioned above, include a status LED that glows blue when the device is turned on, a microSD card slot, and a power button.
What’s coming next?
Intel will also expand the Compute Stick lineup with higher-priced models aimed primarily at enterprise users later this year (probably around April).
While the entry-level Compute Stick can run digital signage, kiosk, or point-of-sales systems, Intel says the 2015 model was primarily purchased by consumers who used it to stream media to a TV.
The new enterprise-friendly models will feature Intel Core M3 or Core M5 Skylake processors, 4GB of RAM, and 64GB of storage. They’ll each have three USB 3.0 ports: one on the Compute Stick itself, and two more on the power adapter.
Prices are expected to start at around $400 for the Core M3 model with Windows 10 software. But you should get much better performance with these models, and can be used as general-purpose computers. The Core M5 model also has vPro security features, which could be useful for business customers that want to use the systems on the go.
What can you do with a Compute Stick?
But enough about the future. What can you do with the $150 Compute Stick with an Atom x5 processor? Well… just about anything you could do with other Windows computers.
I’ve tested the computer as a media player, light-weight gaming system, web surfing machine, and as a work device. It works best if you don’t ask it to d too many things at once, but it can handle most Windows applications, as long as they don’t require more than 2GB of RAM or high-performance graphics.
For instance, I fired up the PC version of Jet Set Radio, a game that was originally released for the Sega Dreamcast. It plays smoothly at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, but it’s slow enough to be pretty much unplayable if you increase the resolution to 1920 x 1080 pixels.
I used Kodi 15.2 Media Center and VLC media player apps to stream videos from a shared network drive, and had no problems with 720p and 480p H.264 files. I suspect 1080p videos wouldn’t be a problem either. But I was unable to play H.265 videos at any resolution.
Update: After trying different apps, I was able to watch H.265 videos at resolutions of 1080p and even 2160p (4K). Kodi 16.0 release candidate 3 includes better support for hardware-accelerated video playback, as does the Windows 10 Movies & TV app. Both of those were able to handle a 2160p/30 frames per second video without dropping too many frames.
Online video from YouTube and other sites generally streams smoothly. And one advantage to using a real computer instead of a Chromecast to stream online video is that some services don’t require a subscription if you’re using a PC.
For example, you need a Hulu Plus subscription to stream most Hulu content to a dedicated streaming device. But there’s plenty of free content available for PC users. Spotify’s free service also offers more features for PC than for mobile or media streaming devices.
As a work machine, the Compute Stick is a bit underpowered for my needs. I did write most of this review on the Compute Stick. But as a blogger, my work flow typically involves opening 6-12 tabs in Google Chrome at once, including one which I use to write articles and a number of others that I use for research purposes.
The computer feels nice and responsive when I have just two or three browser tabs open. But the more I open, the slower things get. Fire up some other apps like music players in the background, and things get even more sluggish. It’s likely that the limited amount of RAM on this model is more of a problem here than the processor.
Can you use the Intel Compute Stick as a full-fledged desktop? Yes. But that’s not really this tiny computer’s strong suit.
In terms of benchmarks, it’s a little faster than last year’s model. But it’s still a low-power system with entry-level hardware. That’s the trade-off you make to keep the size so small.
The upcoming Core M models will offer better performance, but it’s unlikely that Compute Sticks will ever be true speed demons: higher-performance chips tend to generate more heat, and while there’s a tiny fan inside the case of the Compute Stick, it’s not going to be strong enough to dissipate the kind of heat you’d get from a desktop-class processor.
Another thing to keep in mind is that this model has just 32GB of storage. That’s enough space for some simple tasks, but install a couple of large apps, load up some music or movies, and you can quickly run out of space.
In fact, just installing Windows updates can take up a lot of space.
The first time I booted the Compute Stick, it had just about 19.4 GB of free space available. After installing a few benchmarking tools and downloading a major Windows update, I had only 5.5 GB of disk space left.
Deleting previous versions of Windows freed up a lot of space. But if you don’t plan to use a microSD card or USB device for extra storage, you may find you have to actively keep an eye on your free space.
Is it worth buying?
Maybe. Yeah, that’s what I said last year, and it’s still true in 2016.
The 2nd-gen Intel Compute Stick improves upon last year’s model in some key ways. It’s not much faster, but the improved wireless performance makes it much more useful in many situations. The extra USB port is also a nice addition.
But you still have to ask yourself what you plan to do with a tiny computer that plugs into the back of a PC.
On the one hand, it’s one of the smallest Windows computers you can buy, which could make it an interesting solution for a media streamer, digital signage system, or even portable desktop that you can carry in your pocket and plug into a work, home, school, or hotel room TV.
While the Compute Stick is significantly smaller than a laptop though, it lacks a screen, keyboard, touchpad, and battery. If you plan to carry those things around with you, maybe you should just buy a laptop. You can find some Windows models with similar specs for similar prices. The Dell Inspiron 11 and Lenovo IdeaPad 100s are two recent models that typically sell for under $200.
On the other hand, if you do want a PC Stick, the Intel Compute Stick isn’t the only option. Other companies including Lenovo and Zotac offer their own models, and there are dozens of Chinese models available from AliExpress and other stores and marketplace.
If you step up to a slightly larger case, you can also find a number of mini PCs that may not plug directly into the HDMI port of your TV, but which offer faster processors, more memory and storage, and additional ports.
More Compute Stick insights on the LPX Show
Want to get a better idea of what Intel thinks people will use the Compute Stick for? Check out my interview with Intel’s Bruce Patterson for the LPX Show podcast. The episode also features an interview with developer Ian Morrison about his experiences porting Ubuntu and other operating systems to run on PC Sticks.
You can listen by clicking the play button below, or if you weren’t planning on spending 37 minutes and 42 seconds on this web page, you can click the download button to save the episode for listening on the go.