The Intel Compute Stick is a PC that fits in the palm of your hand and costs $150, £115 or AU$229. It plugs into a display's HDMI port, and -- when connected to Wi-Fi and peripherals -- offers the full Windows 8 experience. (Like all current PCs, it's eligible for a freeupgrade later this year, too.)
But having the full Windows experience doesn't necessarily mean you'll have the best experience. The Stick houses a lightweight Atom processor that's usually found in Intel-based tablets, so don't expect to do any heavy image editing or high-end gaming. The Compute Stick needs to be plugged in to power at all times -- there's no battery -- via its Micro-USB port, and Bluetooth performance is finicky at best.
But this is nevertheless a exciting little experiment from Intel, as the Stick offers a great HD streaming experience you can fit in your pocket. You don't want it as a primary PC in your home, but don't too quick to dismiss it. Hobbyists and tinkerers especially may find the Compute Stick well worth the price; those with less patience should opt for something like the HP Stream 11 laptop, which offers a more polished, self-contained bargain Windows experience for just a bit more cash.
Design and features
There isn't all that much to the Compute Stick. It's a little bigger than a Chromecast, and plugs into a TV or monitor via an HDMI port. The Stick can't draw power over HDMI and there's no battery, so you're going to need to keep it plugged in, too: there's a Micro-USB charging port on the side.
The Stick is powered by a quad-core 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735F processor paired with 2GB of RAM, and has 32GB of storage space. A microSD card slot on the side can support up to 128GB cards. There's a USB port on the side so you can plug in external devices or a USB key, and Wi-Fi b/g/n connectivity is built-in. Bluetooth 4.0 is also available, but it's woefully unreliable -- we'll get to that in a bit.
The Stick runs Windows 8.1 with Bing. Don't be alarmed: it's a full version of Windows that Microsoft offers to device manufacturers at a deep discount. Bing is the default search engine system-wide when you first run it, but there's nothing stopping you from changing that once you're up and running. As it's a full Windows PC, there's nothing (save performance limitations) stopping you from installing whatever you'd like,. There's also a model that runs Ubuntu Linux, which is slightly cheaper at about $110.
The competition isn't too stiff in the PC-on-a-stick space, but therecently caught our eye. It's a bit cheaper at $100 (about £70 or AU$130), but also runs Chrome OS instead of Windows, with all the requisite drawbacks you'll find from the browser-centric operating system. It does offer a hinged design that'll make it a bit easier to fit into tighter spaces, which I like: I found I needed to use an HDMI extender cable on most of the monitors and televisions I plugged the Compute Stick. The Compute Stick also isn't fanless, but the low hum was pretty much inaudible unless I got very close.
Connections and performance
Intel is pitching the Compute Stick as a cheap way to cram a PC into a tight space, but there's only so much you can expect out of tablet hardware. The PC never felt sluggish while I used it, and things never took an interminable amount of time to load.