The Intel Compute Stick is a PC packed into a tiny package. It plugs into a display's HDMI port, giving you a full Windows 8 PC you can tote anywhere. It'll be available later in April for about $150 (about £100, or AU$194).
Don't expect to do heavy image editing or much gaming on the lightweight Atom processor, a part that's usually found in Intel-based tablets. And the Compute Stick needs to be plugged in to power at all times via its Micro-USB port, so you can't necessarily hook it up anywhere.
But great streaming video performance, built-in Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a compact size and a low price could make this a great option for anyone looking for a pocketable PC.
There isn't all that much to the Compute Stick. It's a little bigger than a Chromecast and plugs into your TV or monitor via an HDMI port. It's packing a quad-core 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735F processor paired 2GB of RAM and has 32GB of storage space. A microSD card slot on the side can support up to 128GB cards, so you'll have plenty of room to maneuver. There's a USB port so you can plug in external devices or a USB key. Wi-Fi b/g/n connectivity is built in, as is Bluetooth 4.0, so you can pair your peripherals.
The competition isn't too stiff in the PC-on-a-stick space, but the Asus Chromebit recently caught our eye. It's a bit cheaper at just under $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 on most of the monitors I paired the Compute Stick with.
Intel is pitching the Compute Stick as a cheap way to cram a PC into a tight space. We haven't finished running the Compute Stick through our battery of tests, but the hardware is in line with mid-tier tablets -- check back soon for our full review.
Streaming 1080p video over YouTube and Netflix works flawlessly, and you'll have no trouble getting around Windows 8. Apps and the like fired up effortlessly, and I rarely ran into stuttering menus, nor did things take an interminable amount of time to load.
You can generally rule out gaming on this Atom processor: lighter, mobile friendly fare like Halo Spartan Assault will work. And (more importantly) it can run Minecraft. The experience isn't silky smooth when you crank up the game's (admittedly meager) visual effects. Distant objects pop into view at inopportune times, and you can feel the framerate take a dive in more complex scenes, with lots of critters around. My PC at home offers a much smoother experience, but I can't quite fit my gaming PC in my pocket.
It isn't all creepers and cave spelunking, though. The Compute Stick can't draw power over HDMI, which means you'll need to keep it plugged in to power via its Micro-USB port. There really isn't any way around that, but it can be problematic: I live with curious cats and a good tug on the cable will pull it out of the Compute Stick and shut it right down.
It boots in just a few seconds, but there's obviously no battery inside, so cutting the power means you'll likely lose anything you haven't saved recently. This isn't a design flaw so much as a necessary evil, though. I did accidentally knock the Micro-USB cable out a few times while I was testing, but if you keep it out the way behind your television or monitor, it should be fine. You could also potentially plug the Compute Stick directly into a USB port on your television, much like Google's Chromecast -- that should cut down on cable clutter.
The Compute Stick is not going to be for everyone, and it certainly won't replace a proper desktop or laptop. But packing a full PC into such a tight space for about $150 is exciting, especially since I can run full Windows apps (with reservations). The Compute Stick will also be available with Ubuntu Linux for about $110 (roughly £74, or AUD$143), with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. The aforementioned Asus Chromebit will make for an interesting alternative, but while I'm something of a fan of Chrome OS I'd still rather pay a bit extra for the full Windows treatment -- especially with Windows 10 being right around the corner.