Intel Compute Stick (2016) review: A second-gen computer-on-a-stick gets bigger, but better
Nearly every television, every spare computer monitor, or even projectors with HDMI inputs can now be transformed into an instant Windows 10 desktop computer, all with a little sleight of hand. The trick is to palm one of the new generation of micro-desktops, such as Intel's $159 Compute Stick -- no larger than an oversized USB key -- and plug it into a spare HDMI input.
And these micro-size computers have certainly put a new meaning to to the idea of handheld computing. Starting with the original Computer Stick, a surprise hit at CES 2015 and now modestly updated for 2016, you could finally squeeze a full-featured Windows-powered desktop computer into something small enough to slip into a pocket or simply carry in one hand from room to room as needed. The new Compute Stick has a suggested retail price of $159 in the US (roughly) , although real-world prices may be lower.
It's all part of a surprising device design trend of the moment, embracing the humble stick shape. Roku and Amazon Fire TV boxes have been shrunk down to stick form, and the same slim profile can also get you a desktop computer -- as long as you're willing to accept a few compromises.
The Compute Stick and its copycats are not going to be mistaken for high-end machines, in fact, they struggle to keep up with even the least-expensive $200 clamshell laptops, pairing a low-power Intel Atom processor with a mere 2GB of RAM and a tiny 32GB of flash storage (much of which is taken up by operating system files).
But for transforming a television or monitor into a quick desktop PC, you might not need more than simple Web surfing, video streaming, social media and other online-based tasks, all of which work reasonably well on a simple stick PC like this.
And this year's model is a nice step up from the original. The design is a little slicker, with a matte finish and rounded edges. The body is slightly elongated, but that's for a good purpose -- the original had room for a single USB port, while the new version doubles that to two USB ports -- one USB 3.0, one USB 2.0. The Wi-Fi antenna gets a bump to 802.11ac support (weak Wi-Fi reception was a complaint about the original), and the Intel Atom processor has also gotten a generation jump, to the latest version, code-named Cherry Trail. Even with the older processor in last year's model, we were able to stream HD video just fine, although an Atom processor isn't going to be your all-day, every day computer, no matter the generation.
Like the first-gen Compute Stick, or the Asus Chromebit (a similar stick-based system running Google's Chrome OS), this is a fun little experiment in minimalist computing. It's not for everyone, but I can see it being a PC you take on vacation or to business meetings (with all your PowerPoint files preloaded), or something you use to turn a TV in a spare room into a mini-home theater for streaming video.
|Price as reviewed||$159|
|PC CPU||1.44GHz Intel Atom x5-Z8300|
|PC Memory||2048MB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz|
|Graphics||128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 10 Home (32-bit)|
Design and features
The design of the Compute Stick, both first and second-generation, is slick and minimalist, at least at first glance. Of course, actually setting one of these up and running it requires a little more than just plugging it into an HDMI port.
First, you'll need power, so there's a Micro-USB charging cable and power brick. The cable is longer this time, about three feet, but that's still another wire dangling from the chassis. There's a possible future where a newer version of the HDMI spec can pass enough power along to run the Compute Stick, but we're not there yet. There's also a good chance you won't be able to fit the system directly into the HDMI input on your screen -- there's frequently not enough clearance. Fortunately, the Compute Stick includes a short HDMI extender cable.
And, if you want to connect a keyboard or mouse, there are a few options. You could connect wired versions, now that there are two USB ports; wireless versions with USB dongles will work; or Bluetooth is the most seamless way, as it doesn't require anything extra to be plugged into the body. Except for the third option, you're still going to have extra wires or dongles connected to the Stick, and when combined with the power cable and HDMI extender, it can get a little unwieldy.
Intel also offers an iOS/Android app called Intel Remote Keyboard, which allows you to add an on-screen keyboard and touchpad to your phone or tablet. That's handy if you just need to access the system briefly, or just want to keep a mouse plugged in for navigation, while using the phone-based remote keyboard to enter the occasional password or URL.
Ports and connections
|Data||1 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0; micro-SD card reader|
|Networking||802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Last year's first-generation Compute Stick was an OK performer -- fine for general Web surfing and media playback, but prone to occasional sluggishness. The newer CPU in the 2016 version (Cherry Trail vs. Bay Trail, if you're into codenames) performed similarly or even a hair slower in some of our benchmark tests, but you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference. Both traded high scores with another micro-PC, the Kangaroo Mobile Desktop Computer and a very basic $200 Lenovo 100S laptop, leaving us without a clear winner on paper.
Still, at this shallow end of pool, every little bit counts, and it helps that this systems ships with Windows 10 installed, while last year's model came with Windows 8. Windows 10 is better optimized for low-end computers, and is just plain less annoying to use.
In hands-on use, this new version felt a little less sluggish than the original model (perhaps thanks to Windows 10 and its Edge browser), but still struggled with performing multiple tasks at the same time. For set-it-and-forget tasks, such as streaming Netflix or YouTube videos, it worked seamlessly once the stream got started.
Even some basic gaming was not out of the question, although the very small amount of onboard storage will restrict you to only a handful of smaller, older games. A couple of semi-classics that worked for me included Torchlight and Amnesia: The Dark Descent -- both of which are known as games that will play on almost any hardware. If you want to try a larger game, there's a micoSD card slot built in that will accept up to a 128GB card.
Prices for these stick-based PCs are already dropping, getting close to the $100 mark, so at $159, the Intel Compute Stick is expensive for what you get. That said, this new configuration is a good performer (relatively speaking), and has two USB ports, which is potentially very handy.
For a smoother experience for even less money, the Asus Chromebit felt zippier when Web surfing, but as a ChromeOS system, that's all it does -- no installed applications allowed. If you want Windows in a stick, but need more mainstream power, newer versions with Intel's Core M processors are coming later this year, although they'll cost more than twice as much.
As a media streaming/Web-browsing machine for casual or travel use, secure transport of business files and apps, or just a second lease on life for an old TV or monitor, the Intel Compute Stick sits just north of an impulse purchase. If Intel could get it down to around $99, I'd say it's the kind of product everyone should keep around in a drawer for just-in-case use.
|Intel Compute Stick (2016)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (32-bit); 1.44GHz Intel Atom x5-Z8300; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|
|Lenovo Ideapad 100S||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (32-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735F; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 32MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|
|Intel Compute Stick (2015)||Micorsoft Wiindows 8.1 (32-bit); 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|
|Kangaroo Mobile Desktop||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit) 1.44GHz Intel Atom x5-Z8500; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 144MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics; 32GB SSD|