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Intel Compute Stick review: The little PC that almost could

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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 free Windows 10 upgrade later this year, too.)

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Intel Compute Stick

The Good

The Intel Compute Stick excels as a media streaming, Web-browsing machine, and it's a $150 PC that can fit into your pocket.

The Bad

The tablet-grade performance isn't suitable for heavy tasks, and spotty Bluetooth connectivity limit this PC's functionality.

The Bottom Line

This inexpensive PC is an exciting experiment, but the tablet hardware can't quite keep up with Intel's vision of a mini-PC.

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

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

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.

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You'll want to pick up a microSD card for more storage. Nate Ralph/CNET

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, including Windows 10 . 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 the Asus Chromebit recently 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

The Compute Stick is powered via the Micro-USB port. Nate Ralph/CNET

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.

Streaming 1080p over sites like YouTube and Netflix works flawlessly, as did playing local HD media. I'd imagine the Compute Stick would be happiest as the streaming end of your media server, getting the content on other devices on your home network to play on any TV or monitor in your house using something like Plex.

Just plug it into an HDMI port. Nate Ralph/CNET

But I went into this with managed expectations: you can generally rule out gaming or complex tasks like image editing on this Atom processor. For our performance tests, we pitted the Compute Stick against the $200 Intel Celeron-powered HP Stream 11 and the $500 Microsoft Surface 3 , which is running on an Intel Atom processor. The Compute Stick was outclassed, though the margin was a bit closer than I expected in some cases.

The Compute Stick's Bluetooth connectivity is spotty at best, and serves up a jittery experience whenever the Stick's Wi-Fi is active. If you were hoping to pair your Bluetooth devices with the Stick, you're going to be disappointed. This flaw, while fatal, wasn't an issue for me, as I generally prefer wireless USB devices anyway. I turned to my old Lenovo N5902, but Logitech's K400 offers a much roomier keyboard and will set you back about $25. This takes up the only USB port, but I struggled to find another use for it anyway -- a combination of the microSD card slot and cloud services like OneDrive and Dropbox handle all of my file storage needs. Your needs may vary, of course.

Conclusion

The Intel Compute Stick feels more like a proof-of-concept than a consumer device. "Good enough" performance in a compact shape has won me over, and while the Bluetooth performance is unreliable you can use the USB port with wireless USB devices -- an arrangement I prefer anyway. But while I've found plenty of use cases for the Compute Stick, I'm also not the average consumer.

If you're just looking for a simple media-streaming device, you've got far cheaper options -- check out the Roku 2 , Roku Streaming Stick, the Amazon Fire TV Stick or the Apple TV . And there's a good chance you already have a laptop or tablet, so the Compute Stick's portability is a moot point.

The Compute Stick is an exciting device, a $150 dongle with better-than-expected performance, packed into a tiny package. I imagine that a future model will work out the Bluetooth connectivity kinks and run on hardware that's a tad more capable, at which point I likely won't hesitate to recommend it for tinkerers. But this experiment will need a few more tweaks before it's ready for public consumption.

Handbrake multimedia multitasking test

Microsoft Surface 3 764Intel Compute Stick 1103HP Stream 11 2112
Notes: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

iTunes encoding test

Microsoft Surface 3 300HP Stream 11 342Intel Compute Stick 419
Notes: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Futuremark Peacekeeper

Microsoft Surface 3 1249Intel Compute Stick 919HP Stream 11 901
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance (browser test)

Sunspider 1.0.2

HP Stream 11 304.2Microsoft Surface 3 524.7Intel Compute Stick 834.8
Notes: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in ms)

System Configurations

Intel Compute Stick Microsoft Windows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD
HP Stream 11 Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 2.16GHz Intel Celeron N2840; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD
Microsoft Surface 3 Microsoft Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z8700; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 128GB SSD
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Intel Compute Stick

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 5