The Intel Compute Stick is a desktop computer that’s so small it doesn’t have to sit on your desk at all. Just plug the HDMI connector into a TV or monitor, connect a power source, and you can basically turn any display into a fully functional PC.
The Compute Stick comes in two models: there’s a Windows version with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and a cheaper Ubuntu Linux model with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage… although you can install Ubuntu on the Windows model yourself if you want the extra memory and disk space.
The Compute Stick isn’t actually the first device of its type. Chinese companies have been producing similar mini PCs with ARM processor and Android software for a few years and a handful of those companies started producing Intel and Windows models before the Compute Stick hit the streets.
Now that Intel has entered the space though, folks that might have been wary of buying hardware from companies like MeegoPad, Esense, or Hannspree might be willing to give these Windows PC-on-a-stick things a try.
Intel loaned me a Windows model for the purposes of this review. The little computer measures about 3.9″ x 1.5″ x 0.4″ and weighs less than two ounces. It features an Intel Atom Z3735F Bay Trail quad-core processor, 2GB of DDR3-1333 MHz RAM, and 32GB of eMMC storage. It runs Windows 8.1 with Bing software.
So what exactly are you supposed to do with a computer this small?
What’s it for?
In some senses, the Intel Compute Stick can do just about anything a larger PC can. It’s got quad-core Intel x86 processor, WiFi, Bluetooth, a full-sized USB port, and support for Windows 8.1 or Ubuntu 14.04 Linux. You can use it to watch movies, play (some) games, edit documents, or perform many other tasks.
But it’s a low-power computer that doesn’t have the graphics chops for bleeding edge gaming and doesn’t have enough ports for some common activities.
Intel is positioning the Compute Stick as a device for consumers or businesses. You can plug it into any television to transform it into a smart TV for streaming internet music or video, playing games, web surfing, and more. Hook up a USB webcam and you can use it to Skype from your TV.
Intel says you could even use it to stream PC games from another room in your house using Steam In-Home Streaming (although I haven’t tested this, since I don’t have a gaming PC that meets the requirements).
Enterprise users can treat it like a thin client: plug it into a screen, connect a keyboard and mouse and you can use remote desktop software to connect to a more powerful machine (or you could always use Office or other apps on the Stick itself). You could also use it to power digital signage, kiosks, or other solutions.
There’s a lot you can do with the Compute Stick. The question is whether you really want it to do those things, or if other devices might serve your needs better.
In some ways the Compute Stick and similar mini PCs might exist partly because they can. A few years ago it would have been tough to cram all the components of a fully functional PC into a case this small. But computer components have been getting smaller and smaller. Take apart the Compute Stick and you’ll find a system board with a processor and integrated storage and memory that looks a lot like something you’d find in a recent smartphone or Windows tablet.
Basically the Compute Stick is like a Windows tablet without a screen, but with a full-sized USB port and an HDMI connector. It’s small enough to slide into your pocket, allowing you to take your PC with you wherever you go. Or you can plug it into the back of your TV and forget it’s even there until you need it. Whether it’s something people will regularly use or ignore remains to be seen, but I’m still kind of impressed that we live in an age where this sort of technology exists at all.
What’s in the box?
The Compute Stick looks a bit like a large USB flash drive, but instead of a USB connector on one end, it has a full-sized HDMI connector. There’s a full-sized USB port and a micro USB port (for power) on one side, as well as a small power button.
On the other side there’s a microSD card slot which you can use for removable storage.
There are vents on the top, left, and right sides of the Compute Stick, and if you place your hand over the smaller vent in the top while the system is running, you may feel a warm gust of air since there’s a tiny fan inside the case which helps keep the system from overheating.
The fan is pretty quiet, but it does make a high-pitched whirring sound which you can hear in an otherwise quiet room, or when you put your ear near the Compute Stick. Even with the fan, the little computer can get warm to the touch.
Under the hood the device features a processor, memory, storage, WiFi, Bluetooth, and just about everything else you’d find in a larger computer. There are just fewer ports and options for expansion. There’s no room for a hard drive or disc drive. And since there’s just a single full-sized USB port, it can be tough to connect a keyboard, mouse, and USB flash drive all at the same time.
You can get creative though: use a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard and the USB port is free for other peripherals. Personally I tested the Compute Stick with equipment I already had handy, so I connected a Logitech wireless keyboard & touchpad combo unit with a single USB dongle.
This didn’t leave me with many options for connecting other peripherals, but I did pair the Compute Stick with a Bluetooth speaker for a little while to confirm that Bluetooth does work — although it took multiple attempts to get the speaker to pair with the Compute Stick. Other reviewers have noted similarly unreliable Bluetooth performance, but Intel is reportedly working on a software update that might address the issue.
The device is basically a self-contained computer that requires nothing more than a power source to operate — although you’ll probably want to connect a display, keyboard, mouse, or other controller unless you want to use the Compute Stick as a headless system like a file server.
Intel ships the Compute Stick with a few accessories. There’s a short HDMI extender cable that you can use if it would be awkward to plug the stick right into the HDMI port on your display for some reason.
The Compute Stick draws power from a micro USB port and Intel includes a USB to micro USB cable and a 5 volt, 2 amp power adapter that comes with four different sets of prongs so you can use the adapter in most regions around the world.
Note that the USB cable isn’t very long, so you may need a different cable if your TV or monitor isn’t very close to an outlet. But you don’t necessarily need to use the included adapter: I was able to plug the power cable directly into the USB port on one TV in our house with no problems. The Compute Stick ran for hours with no interruptions while drawing power from the TV itself.
Some TVs may not provide enough power though: when I tried the same thing with a different television, the Compute Stick would occasionally reboot or turn off unexpectedly.
How well does it work?
The Intel Compute Stick isn’t a supercomputer. But it’s definitely a computer. You can use it to view presentations or edit documents using office software. Fire up a web browser and you can surf the web, play online games, or stream online videos. Install image, audio, or video editing software and you can use it as a cheap (and relatively slow) media editing workstation.
Just don’t expect bleeding edge speeds. While the Compute Stick boots relatively quickly and handles simple tasks with ease, it offers the kind of performance you’d expect from a cheap Windows tablet… because it has the same kind of hardware as a cheap Windows tablet.
Want to play PC or mobile games on your TV? It can handle Window Store games like Asphalt 8, but don’t expect it to perform as well with graphically-intensive games like Crysis 3 or Far Cry 4.
You may have some luck with some older or less graphically-intensive games though. I installed Superborthers Sword & Sworcery: EP and played through the first level. The adventure game is known for it’s beautiful soundtrack and attractive design… but it was initially designed for iOS devices and it’s not exactly taxing on the Compute Stick’s Intel Atom processor. Still, it’s fun to play on a big screen.
The Compute Stick also makes a decent media center. I was able to stream online video from YouTube, Netflix and Hulu. I installed the Kodi media center application and streamed 720p videos from a shared network drive with no difficulty.
I also tested the system with a few other apps including LibreOffice (for editing documents), Handbrake (for transcoding videos), and 7-zip (for creating compressed ZIP archives). It was able to handle all of those tasks… it just wasn’t exactly the fastest computer I’ve tested.
In fact, even some computers with similar hardware seem to run faster. The Mele PCG03 and Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico are both small desktop computers with Intel Atom Z3735F processors, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and Windows 8.1 with Bing software. They both performed my audio and video test more quickly than the Intel Compute Stick (although the Compute Stick did come out a little ahead of the curve in the Folder Zip test).
Interestingly the results of a Hanbdrake video transcoding test were a little different: the Compute Stick was faster than the Mele PCG03, but slower than the Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico.
Note that none of these systems were as fast as the Asus Zenbook UX305 laptop with an Intel Core M-5Y10 Broadwell processor. While it’s kind of unfair to compare an Intel Atom and Intel Core processor, the Core M chip is a 4.5 watt processor that doesn’t use much more energy than the Atom Z3735F chip found in these mini-computers. But it clearly offers significantly better performance.
All told, the Intel Compute Stick offers reliable performance for certain tasks. But it’s pretty clear you shouldn’t expect miracles from a small, cheap machine.
The biggest problem I encountered while testing the little computer was mediocre WiFi range. The system has built-in support for 802.11n 2.4 GHz WiFi networks. I got strong WiFi performance when using the system with a TV that sits right next to our router in the living room on the first floor of my house. But when I tried plugging the computer into a TV in my third floor office, performance was spotty at best, and non-existent at worst.
Intel seems to know that the WiFi performance is nothing to write home about. The company provided a reviewer’s guide that made recommendations for testing Steam’s in-home game streaming. Intel says you’ll want a “high-speed low-latency connection” which you can get by connecting a USB-to-Ethernet adapter or a USB 5.0 GHz 802.11ac WiFi adapter. In other words, the built-in WiFi probably isn’t good enough for streaming games.
Can I run other operating systems?
Intel offers the Compute Stick in two configurations: you can buy a model with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage and Windows 8.1 or a cheaper version with 1GB of RAM, 8GB of storage, and Ubuntu 14.04 Linux.
Want to load Ubuntu or another operating system on the higher-priced model? You can do that…
You can access the Compute Stick’s BIOS/UEFI settings by hitting F2 when the device boots. From there you can enable or disable Secure Boot or adjust other hardware settings. In order to run Ubuntu you’ll need to find the option that says “Select Operating System” and change it from Windows 8.1 32-bit to Ubuntu 14.04 LTS 64-bit then save your options and shut down the computer.
Next, you’ll want to either follow our guide for installing Ubuntu 14.04.2 LTS 64-bit software (which will prevent you from being able to boot into Windows unless you alter the bootloader every time you want to switch operating systems), or our guide for installing Ubuntu 14.10 64-bit with a 32-bit bootloader (which is a bit clunkier, but which lets you dual-boot both Windows and Ubuntu and choose between operating systems whenever you turn on the computer.
Next, you’ll want to download a 64-bit build of Ubuntu or a similar operating system and then create a bootable microSD card using Unetbootin or a similar tool. Insert the microSD card in the Compute Stick, turn on the computer and hit the F10 key to bring up the boot menu. You should see two options: the first is internal storage, and the second is the microSD card. If you only see one options, you probably didn’t prepare the card properly (or tried an unsupported OS). I was able to load Ubuntu 14.04.02 64-bit using this method, as well as Ubuntu 15.04 64-bit. But WiFi didn’t work out of the box with either operating system.
Linux Mint 17.1 and Fedora 21 wouldn’t load at all. I was able to access the GRUB bootloader menu with these operating systems, but I couldn’t get the full OS to load.
You may have better luck with other operating systems, but it’s worth noting that the BIOS does say only Windows and Ubuntu are supported. I checked with Intel, and I was told that the software that will ship with the Ubuntu version of the Compute Stick is a version of Ubuntu 14.04 LTS that has been tweaked to work properly. Users may be able to load Ubuntu or other operating systems on their own, but there’s no guarantee WiFi, audio, or other hardware components will work.
Intel plans to ship the Ubuntu version of the Compute Stick in June. It’s possible the company could offer software that will let you load Ubuntu on the Windows version or integrate the driver stack into other operating systems at that time. But if you really want to run something other than Windows on the Compute Stick, for now the company is suggesting you buy the Ubuntu model.
There are a few things to keep in mind: You’ll need a wired keyboard or one with a USB dongle in order to hit F2 and F10 at boot. Bluetooth keyboards won’t work.
That means you’ll need to use the computer’s only USB port for a keyboard, which is why you need to prepare a bootable microSD card to load an alternate operating system. There’s no free port to connect a USB flash drive or disc drive.
What alternatives are there?
If Intel had released the Compute Stick a few years ago, it might have been a revolutionary device. These days it’s just the latest in a line of small, inexpensive devices that can transform any display into a computer.
As mentioned above, there are already a handful of other mini PCs with Intel Atom processors and Windows software from device makers including Zotac, Mele, and MeegoPad.
There’s an even larger number of devices with ARM chips and Android software. The Rikomagic MK802 with an Allwinner processor and Android 4.0 software launched almost 3 years ago, and since then we’ve seen dozens of similar devices.
Want to run Android apps (including Netflix, YouTube, or Kodi) on your TV? You can pick up an Android box or stick for about a third the price of a Windows-powered Intel Compute Stick. Some of these devices can also run Ubuntu or other Linux-based software.
But if all you’re looking to do is turn your dumb TV into a smart TV your best bet might be to buy a dedicated device like an Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast, or Roku Streaming Stick. These are all devices that look a bit like an Intel Compute Stick, but they’re designed specifically for bringing smart TV functions to a television.
They’re easy to use, don’t require a Windows license, and sell for around $35 to $50.
Want the full Windows experience? You could always just connect a Windows notebook, tablet, or larger desktop PC to your TV. All you need is an HDMI cable or an an Intel WiDi or Miracast wireless display adapter.
Most notebook or desktop computers are more powerful than a Compute Stick… but they’re also typically more expensive. If you’re using a PC you already have though, this could certainly be a better option. And if you don’t already have a PC or don’t want to bother with constantly connecting and disconnecting it from your TV, there’s another option: buy a cheap Windows tablet.
Some models with HDMI output and USB 2.0 ports sell for about half the price of an Intel Compute Stick.
But note that there are pros and cons to any of these options:
- A Windows tablet, notebook, or full-sized desktop isn’t as compact as a Compute Stick. It’ll take up more space in your office or living room when in sue and probably won’t fit in your pocket when not in use.
- Roku, Amazon Fire, Chromecast, and other dedicated TV devices cannot run Windows apps and many don’t even have a basic web browser.
- Android boxes with ARM chips can’t run Windows apps either, and while you can install Ubuntu or other GNU/Linux software on some models, you often have to make do without hardware-accelerated graphics.
- Other Windows TV boxes tend to be a bit larger, with the exception of models that seem to be based on the same design as a Compute Stick… but most of those come from Chinese companies which may not have the same kind of name recognition (or customer service) as Intel.
Should I buy a Compute Stick?
Maybe. I mean, it depends what you want to do with it, right?
The Intel Compute Stick makes an interesting option for folks looking to create a home media center. Not only can you install Kodi or other media center software for local playback, but you can also stream internet video from just about any service that supports a web browser.
Among other things, that means you can stream TV shows and movies from Hulu without paying $8 per month for a Hulu Plus subscription (which you’d need to pay if you wanted to stream Hulu content to a Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV, or most smart TVs or smartphones).
On the other hand, there’s not a lot of built-in storage space for storing your music or movie collection, there’s only a single USB port and a single microSD card slot for expanded storage, the built-in WiFi adapter doesn’t have a very strong range, and there’s no optical disc drive. So this might not be the best solution if you were planning to watch DVDs or Blu-ray discs, add a TV tuner for streaming live TV, or storing downloaded, ripped, or recorded videos.
Looking for a cheap way to add an extra computer to your home? The Compute Stick is relatively affordable, compact, and versatile. You can use it for email, web browsing, casual gaming, productivity, and much more. But it’s hardly the only device that fits that description: you might be better off with a cheap laptop.
Still, the Compute Stick could be a useful addition to your home. It’s small enough to leave plugged into the back of you TV all the time, even if you only use it some of the time. It’s low-power enough that you could connect it to a large hard drive, connect it to your home network, and turn it into a personal media server or home backup solution. And it’s compact enough that you can slide it into you pocket and carry from place to place so that you can take your personal computer form home to school, work, vacation, or anywhere else.
As a consumer device, I certainly don’t think the Compute Stick is a must-buy. But it’s also not a must-avoid. As long as you have a good idea of what it can do and how you plan to use it, the Compute Stick might make a useful addition to your home.
Things become more interesting when you start to consider it as a device for enterprise users or for the DIY/maker set.
Businesses could buy a bunch of Compute Sticks, load some enterprise software on them, and distribute them to works for use at home or while on business trips, where they may not have access to a company’s more powerful computers. Or they can be loaded with remote desktop software, making it easy to remotely login to those work PCs from other locations.
Tinkerers could use the Compute Stick to build their own laptops, home automation systems, robots or other devices that I haven’t even thought about yet.