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Intel Compute Stick Review: Great Idea, Flawed Execution

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We review Intel’s compute stick!

Intel’s Compute Stick is one of those products that makes a lot of sense on paper: an inexpensive pocket PC that you can take anywhere and everywhere, and turns any old monitor or TV with an HDMI connection into a full-fledged PC. It’s a concept that everybody can get behind, and in that regard you’d think we’d recommend it to everybody who needs a cheap, secondary PC, right? Well, not quite – while the idea of a low-cost PC on a stick is sound, Intel’s execution isn’t. Which is too bad, since the Compute Stick could have been a great device, only if it wasn’t so slow and unresponsive. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s check out the specs first:

Intel Compute Stick Specs:

  • 1.3GHz Intel Atom Z3735F quad-core processor
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 32GB of storage, expandable via microSD slot
  • WiFi, Bluetooth

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It looks exactly like what it’s called

Intel didn’t call it a Compute Stick for nothing: it is quite literally a computer in a stick. The way that the Compute Stick is designed is simple and functional – essentially Intel just put all the important bits inside a shiny, plastic stick, stuck a few (and we do mean a few) ports on it and called it a day. There’s a couple of vents built into the body of the Compute Stick along with a tiny, tiny fan that’s meant to draw away heat from the 1.3GHz Atom processor.

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As far actual ports go, you’re not getting much: a single USB port, microSD card reader, power port and a full-sized HDMI plug to put the device in your TV or monitor.

Since the Compute Stick is so small, you can easily hide and place it anywhere near the monitor or TV you’re working with. Since your monitor was wall mounted, we ran the HDMI cable behind it and stuck it on top of the mounting bracket to keep it out of sight. And since the Compute Stick isn’t a power hog (and the internals are basically what’s used on most affordable tablets sans the display and battery) you can use a powerbank to give it juice if you’re not too keen on using the included power adapter.

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Why just one USB port?

The problems with the Compute Stick start with the number of USB ports. We’re not sure why Intel thought including a single USB port in the Compute Stick was a good idea, since most PCs require a minimum of three. Setting up the Compute Stick requires a keyboard AND mouse, since at its core it’s still a Windows PC. That’s not possible with the Compute Stick unless you plug in a USB hub, which will solve the problem. You could probably use the Bluetooth connection, but that’s where the issues start.

See, it seems like the Compute Stick only has one radio for both WiFi and Bluetooth, and it absolutely sucks in multitasking. Connecting a Bluetooth mouse or keyboard is an exercise in frustration, as the Bluetooth unit on the Compute Stick had severe latency issues. Which is a shame, since you’ll need to use a Bluetooth-capable speaker with the Compute Stick if you’re sticking it in a display that doesn’t have speakers built-in (computer monitors).

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The only solution for the input problem is by using a wireless keyboard/mouse combo that uses a single USB receiver. That also means that you won’t be able to plug anything else into the Compute Stick if you don’t utilize a USB hub, and any power-hungry USB device will probably won’t work on the Compute Stick as the USB port only supplies 500mA of power.

Performance issues abound, and it can’t even play indie games without slowing down

After we managed to get around our USB woes, we finally got the Compute Stick running. And with that, we ran into another issue that will plague the tiny computer: it’s not powerful enough for anything more than basic web browsing and video. It can handle Google Chrome fine (just don’t open too many tabs) and basic productivity software such as Microsoft Word and Excel. It can stream video through the net and through our network, which theoretically allows the Compute Stick to become a semi-decent streamer for your TV.

But that’s it, unfortunately. You can’t play games with it – even gentle games like Hotline Miami, a retro-inspired (but very violent) top-down shooter absolutely chugs on it, to the point that we thought we were playing a retro-inspired, top down version of the Matrix with bullet time permanently on. Even with Chrome, you’d have to be concious of the amount of tabs that you’re opening up, as too many will crash the client and the machine.

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Verdict: Interesting machine, but it’s not that useful

We love the idea of Intel’s Compute Stick. We really do. Unfortunately, the execution is awful – a myriad of connectivity issues, poor performance that limits its use and overall experience really didn’t impress us. Yes, you can bring the Compute Stick with you anywhere, but it’s useless without a number of other accessories that don’t travel well. You could put it to work as a streamer for your HD TV, but then again for the price that Intel’s asking for it, you could probably buy a dedicated streamer that can do the job AND output hi-fidelity audio as well to dedicated speakers.

Despite its faults, we have high hopes for the Compute Stick and the inevitable V2. We’re hoping that Intel takes the lessons from the first version of the Compute Stick and applies it to the next iteration.

John Nieves

John is a veteran technology and gadget journalist with more than 10 years of experience both in print and online. When not writing about technology, he frequently gets lost in the boonies playing soldier.

6 Comments

  1. There was already a kick start campaign for phones that can double as a PC. It’s only a matter of time before major brands follow suit. This market is dead on arrival.

  2. Isang usecase neto thinclient for small office. Siguro 1 powerful PC (I7, SSD, Huge RAM) tapos naka thin client lng don mga compute stick. Tipid sa license at kuryente

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