Intel Compute Stick review: The little PC that almost could

MSRP: $149.00

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.

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6.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 5

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.)

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.

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.

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