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Intel Compute Stick (Core m3) review: The most powerful stick PC yet

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The Intel Compute Stick was a revolutionary product when first introduced in 2014. It put a full Windows 8 (later Windows 10) PC powered by an Intel Atom processor into a body not much larger than a USB key, all for a remarkable price of around $150 in the US, or £115/AU$229. Similar micro desktops followed, including an excellent Chrome OS version from Asus and an updated Intel version with better performance and two USB ports (handy for connecting accessories or memory sticks).

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Intel Compute Stick (Core m3)

The Good

This upgraded Intel Compute Stick has a faster Core m3 processor and extra USB ports on its power brick.

The Bad

It's much more expensive than the original Atom versions, and loses one USB port on the stick itself. Onboard storage is minimal.

The Bottom Line

The latest Intel Compute Stick takes a big leap forward in power -- and price -- while still being capable of turning any TV into a PC when not traveling in your pocket.

Still, an Atom-powered PC-on-a-stick can only do so much, and while these micro desktops were fine for streaming video or basic web surfing, they weren't up to being an all-day, every-day PC.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The latest version of Intel's Compute Stick offers a serious component upgrade, along with a few design tweaks. Instead of low-power Intel Atom processors, which still power most laptops at the very lowest end of the price scale, the new Compute Stick uses one of Intel's impressive Core m3 processors.

The Core M line is meant for small, thin PCs, usually laptops or tablets, and offers a balance between price, performance and power efficiency. This second generation of Core M chips are substantially better than the first-gen ones (as found in the original 12-inch Apple MacBook), but much of that gain is in battery life, which isn't going to matter in a micro desktop like this.

The first Compute Stick had a single USB port, which made it hard to connect both a USB keyboard and mouse, unless you had a pair of accessories that worked off a single USB receiver (like Logitech's "Unify" mouse/keyboard combos), or used Bluetooth devices. The second-gen Compute Stick, released in early 2016, added a second USB port, which was one of our favorite new features.

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Two USB ports are located on the power brick.

Sarah Tew/CNET

For the Core M version, Intel splits the difference. The Stick itself has a single USB Type A port (along with a microSD card slot and a USB-C port for power), but the included power brick has two USB 3.0 ports built into it. That's more ports overall, but they're now split between the Stick and its power supply. And that power brick is now substantially larger, which may be necessary to run the more powerful processor inside.

There's another big difference between this Compute Stick and previous versions. While the Atom-powered models all cost around $150 in the US, trading up to the Core m3 CPU means a much higher price, $389 (£339 or AU$629). A Core m5 version is also out there, for about $100 more.

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The first-, second- and third-generation Compute Sticks.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There are two ways to look at this. If you're comparing it with the previous Compute Stick models, that's a hefty jump, and certainly makes this feel much less like an inexpensive secondary PC -- almost a throwaway -- you can carry in your pocket. But, if you compare it with other Core m3 laptops and desktops, it's actually very reasonably priced. Other PCs with the same processor typically don't get below $500 in the US, and frequently cost much more.

Intel Compute Stick 2016 (Core m3)

Price as reviewed $389
PC CPU 0.90GHz Intel Core m3-6Y30
PC memory 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz
Graphics 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515
Storage 64GB Flash Storage
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit)

The advantage of a micro desktop like this is that it doesn't require any real desk space. The HDMI plug at one end connects directly with a monitor or TV (a simple HDMI extender cable can help if it's a tough fit), and the PC can live right behind the screen. For anyone traveling to meetings and delivering presentations, it's easy to just stick this in your pocket, then plug into a TV or monitor in a conference room or hotel, and have your full PC up and running in minutes -- no need to download cloud-based files or try to connect to a remote PC. Physically carrying your entire PC around in your pocket also has some real security benefits.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While the first- and second-gen Compute Stick PCs worked fine for basic web surfing and video viewing, they could definitely chug, even under moderate workloads. In the case of the more powerful Core m3 version, it was easy to forget we had a simple stick-based PC hooked up. Performance was far better than that of the Atom Compute Stick we tested just six months ago, and on par with the handful of more expensive Core M-series systems we've seen (note that most of the Core M-series PCs we've tested use the even faster m5 and m7 CPUs).

There's also not a ton of storage space for installing apps, such as Photoshop or Microsoft Office -- just 64GB, plus a microSD card slot for possible expansion. So you may end up relying on cloud-based tools, such as Pixlr for photo editing, Netflix and other streaming services for video, or Google Docs and Office 365 for productivity. When we tried them out, the Core m3 Compute Stick ran each of those smoothly, as expected.

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Intel Compute Stick is the third generation of a pocket-size computer that connects to your TV via HDMI.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Full-service PC on a stick

Depending on your point of view, the Compute Stick is either a very expensive upgrade to the previous models, or a fairly inexpensive Core M-series desktop. I find micro desktops make great secondary and travel computers, but I'm not sure one would ever be my main PC.

For the price, you can't beat the performance and convenience, but if connectivity and storage space are key, for another $150 or so, you can step up to a Mac Mini or a small Windows desktop such as the Acer Revo One or HP Mini.

Of course, none of them will fit in your pocket like the Compute Stick does.

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Intel Compute Stick (Core m3) 814Samsung Galaxy TabPro S 856Intel Compute Stick (2016) 1,925HP Stream 11 (2016) 4,756
Notes: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Intel Compute Stick (Core m3) 4,887Samsung Galaxy TabPro S 4,722Intel Compute Stick (2016) (32-bit OS) 1,991HP Stream 11 (2016) 1,610
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

System configurations

Intel Compute Stick (Core m3) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 0.90GHz Intel Core m3-6Y30; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 64GB Flash Storage
HP Stream 11 (2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Celeron N3050; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 144MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD
Intel Compute Stick (2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (32-bit); 1.44GHz Intel Atom x5-8300; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 0.90GHz Intel m3-6Y30; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 128GB SSD
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Intel Compute Stick (Core m3)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8