Last year, Intel fulfiled futurists’ dreamswith its Compute Stick, a pocket-size,Windows-equipped PC that let you turn a monitor or an HDTV into a large-screen, allin-one desktop in seconds. This year’s iteration still looks like a jumbo USB stick (albeit with an HDMI plug), but it has updated hardware and a couple of new features that improve its connectivity. Ultimately, however, the new Compute Stick is an evolutionary step, not the radical upgrade it needs to be to distinguish itself from up-and-coming competitors.
DESIGN AND FEATURES
The Compute Stick measures 0.47 by 1.5 by 4.5 inches (HWD), so it looks like a large pack of chewing gum. Overall, it’s a bit longer than last year’s version, which measured 0.5 by 1.5 by 4 inches, and a bit more compact than the 0.67-by- 1.2-by-4.8-inch Asus Chromebit. Both Compute Sticks and the Chromebit have removable caps to protect their HDMI plugs when they’re not in use. The black matte fiish on the new Compute Stick seems like it will be more resistant to scratches than the older model’s, but both devices have a similar design, with relatively large cooling vents and a prominent Intel logo on the top surface. There’s now a USB 3.0 port in addition to the USB 2.0 port, so you can connect a keyboard and Intel Compute Stick STK1AW32SC $159 L L L L m For Pocket Computing, Intel’s Device Still Sticks HARDWARE REVIEWS a mouse simultaneously. Alternately, you can plug in a USB dongle for a wireless keyboard and mouse, and keep the USB 3.0 port free for hard drives. You will, however, still need a wired USB mouse to connect a Bluetooth keyboard or mouse, as Windows 10 doesn’t automatically search for devices. In comparison, the Chromebit looks for Bluetooth devices during its initial setup. For wireless connectivity, the Compute Stick has Bluetooth 4.0 and has upgraded to dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi. As before, there’s 32GB of integrated eMMC flsh storage, with 19.6GB free after accounting for the Windows 10 Home OS and its recovery partition. That’s not a huge amount, but it’s certainly more space than the 16GB you get on the Chromebit (which, admittedly, comes with 100GB of free Google Drive storage to balance things out), and you can add up to 128GB of storage to the Compute Stick via the microSD card slot. Setup is fairly straightforward. First, you plug the Compute Stick into a free HDMI port on a computer monitor or an HDTV. You may need to use the included HDMI extension cable in tight quarters, but as long as you have enough space behind your display, the device is light enough to stay plugged in. Connect the included AC adapter to the micro USB port on the device, and you can then hit the Compute Stick’s Power button. (You can also power the Compute Stick by connecting to a USB port on your HDTV, a convenience that the Chromebit lacks. But the AC adapter that comes with the Compute Stick has a permanently attached cable, so you’ll need a spare micro USB cable, such as from your smartphone, to connect the system to your HDTV’s USB port for power.) The Compute Stick comes with a one-year warranty. Our review unit had an Atom x5 processor, but other versions of the Compute Stick will be available soon with either Intel Core m3 ($399) or Core m5 ($499) CPUs. Both of these models come with a USB Type-C port, 4GB of memory, and 64GB of eMMC flsh storage. The Intel Core m3 confiuration comes with Windows 10; the Core m5 vPro model, which is aimed at the business sector, doesn’t come with an operating system. Business customers for that model will need to work with a value-added reseller to choose which version of Linux or Windows 10 (Enterprise, Pro, Education, and so on) will work best for their needs.
The Compute Stick features an Atom x5-Z8300 processor and 2GB of RAM, which helps keep the price low and the system compact and cool. (The Cherry Trail–based Atom x5 is a quad-core CPU that only requires a minuscule, quiet fan to keep it from overheating.) The Compute Stick’s score of 1,324 on the PCMark 8 Work Conventional test is on par with what we’ve seen from other inexpensive desktops. That score falls just behind that of last year’s Compute Stick (1,414) and the Zotac Zbox CI320 nano Plus (1,496). The Compute Stick was at the back of the pack on the Handbrake test, though, returning a time of 8 minutes, 53 seconds. The older Compute Stick was a bit faster (8:20), but the Zbox and the HP Pavilion Mini were signifiantly speedier (7:22 and 7:19, respectively), thanks to their faster-clocked processors. Gaming performance was good for the category, but that doesn’t really mean a whole lot if you’re, say, a true enthusiast. The Compute Stick returned a good score of 1,606 on the 3DMark Cloud Gate test, beating the other sub-$250 systems handily. Only the $449 Pavilion Mini was better (2,814). Its frame rates on Heaven and Valley at medium quality settings were equivalent to slideshows, though. You might be able to play Minecraft on the Compute Stick at low resolution with the Optifie mod installed, but you’d probably be happier with simpler games like Candy Crush Saga.
The new Intel Compute Stick is a solid update for one of the smallest PCs available. The 802.11ac Wi-Fi, USB 3.0 port, and improved 3D graphics are certainly welcome additions. But the 2GB of memory and 32GB of storage are drawbacks if you’re an early adopter who wants something signifiantly better than the previous model. Of course, you are still getting an instant Windows 10 PC you can stick into an HDMI slot on your TV for just $160. We awarded the fist Compute Stick an Editors’ Choice on the strength of its innovation, but we don’t believe that the new model’s relatively minor improvements merit a repeat. That decision comes sharply into focus when you consider that the Asus Chromebit has much of the Compute Stick’s media viewing and online functionality, but costs $74 less. True, the Chromebit doesn’t run Windows, but if your primary activities are viewing movies on Netflx, shopping for deals on Amazon, and updating your Facebook status, it does the job just as well.