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HolidayBuyer's Guide
Computers

Four ways to make the most of Intel's Compute Stick

Intel's little dongle that can isn't for everyone. Actually, it isn't for most. But this little gadget is a cool way to stay connected.

Nate Ralph/CNET

Intel's Compute Stick has tablet-grade hardware, and offers steady HD streaming performance in a package not much bigger than Google's Chromecast. The hardware's inability to serve up a steady Bluetooth connection while on Wi-Fi is going to be a deal-breaker for most, but pop in the USB receiver for a wireless device and you'll get a flawless experience -- I'm smitten with my old Lenovo N5902 , but Logitech's K400 offers a much roomier keyboard and will set you back about $25.

And the Intel Compute Stick is cool: you're getting a full Windows PC packed in a tiny package, and while it's more of a tinker toy than a desktop replacement, this curio has all but earned a permanent home in my gadget bag in ways that far more common, capable tech just can't.

A pocket home-theater PC

The Compute Stick is far from the ideal choice for a home-theater PC (HTPC), and even off-the-shelf options like the $70 Apple TV or a $40 Amazon Fire TV Stick will get you oodles of stuff to watch, if that's all you're interested in.

Just plug it into an HDMI port Nate Ralph/CNET

But the Compute Stick is decidedly more portable that your typical media-streaming device. And it's a full Windows PC, which means you've got the full retinue of Windows apps at your disposal: fill a 128GB microSD card with (legally acquired) movies and music, install VLC or Plex or whatever else you'd like, then plug it in behind your TV and forget all about it.

The traveler's companion

Many hotels frown on using their TV this way, but I loathe carrying a laptop around when I travel so having a full PC in the space of a dongle and a compact wireless keyboard is a tantalizing prospect.

You've spent most of the day trudging through airports, and a warped sleep schedule compounded with jetlag means you're not falling asleep anytime soon. Sure, you've got a phone and a tablet, but the best the 32-inch TV in your hotel room has to offer is yet another "Moonshiners" marathon on the Discovery Channel. Sure, you could sit through it (it's a great show). Or you could pop the Compute Stick into the readily accessible HDMI port and watch your own movies, or play a bit of Minecraft on a set of decent speakers.

An impromptu workstation

Most of the work I do lives online, but I've still got plenty of projects kicking around in apps that aren't connected to the cloud. The Compute Stick shows off its versatility here: plug it into a display's HDMI port, hop on Wi-Fi, and once OneDrive and Dropbox are done syncing I've got most of my digital life on hand.

The Compute Stick is small, but capable Nate Ralph/CNET

This setup obviously wouldn't fly in a work environment with stringent security requirements, and I've already got a work-issued laptop. But having a personal PC at my disposal wherever I can find a spare HDMI port feels like the future.

The family-friendly PC

I've been thinking about getting my mom an all-in-one PC. But since she's already got a TV, the Compute Stick would cut down on the clutter tremendously: just flip the television over to the right HDMI input, grab the wireless input device of choice and she's off. I'd save a significant chunk of change, and she'd have a functionally invisible PC that won't take up any space and still offer everything she needs to stay connected.

But is it right for you?

If you're not sure if Intel's Compute Stick is right for you, then it probably isn't -- especially in light of its flaws. But experimenting with different ways to use it has been a lot of fun. And hopefully it's a sign of things to come.

Someday, a Compute Stick successor will deal will those woeful Bluetooth connectivity issues and the technology will offer a better alternative to having a Micro-USB cable dangling about. But until then, if you've got a project in mind or are intrigued by the potential of carrying a PC everywhere, it's worth the $150, £100, or AU$194 -- $99 if you're comfortable with Linux -- asking price.