Intel Compute Stick Review

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Intel delivers an impressive first step in the ultra-small PC movement

When Intel announced the Compute Stick earlier this year at CES, we were excited. There are a handful of devices already on the market that get content onto your TV. Amazon’s Fire Stick and Google’s Chromecast are both competent devices, and then there are more powerful devices like the Roku. The main difference is that Intel’s Compute Stick is a full-fledged x86 Windows 8.1 PC—and it makes a big difference.

With any of the other content devices, you usually have to play by the rules negotiated between the device manufacturer and the content producers. If, for example, HBO doesn’t license to Roku, you won’t get to watch HBO programming on your Roku device. Having a full PC lets you skip through all that red tape. You can do almost anything you want, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

Intel Compute Stick

The Compute Stick is going to be priced at $149, which isn’t cheap. But what you’re paying for really is the cost of Windows 8.1. We’re sure Intel is getting a nice discount from Microsoft at the OEM level, but typically, Windows adds roughly $100 to a normal desktop computer. However, depending on device usage and price, Microsoft will offer special pricing in the range of $25 to the OEM. You can technically get another OS installed, but if you want the most flexibility, we recommend leaving the pre-installed Windows installation intact.

Intel sent us a Compute Stick configured with 32GB of storage space and 2GB of memory. Now, when using the Compute Stick, one must be open-minded. It’s not meant to be a powerful PC; it’s not meant to run Crysis. It’s meant to be a general computing device. Web browsing, chatting, emailing, movie watching, music listening. The Compute stick only has an Bay Trail 4-core Intel Atom Z3735F CPU running at 1.33GHz. This CPU is what usually gets put into tablets, so it competes with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon family. For reference, the Snapdragon 600 runs at 1.7GHz and has a dual-channel memory controller versus the Atom’s single-channel setup. Granted, the Atom runs x86 and thus supports the massive PC software ecosystem. So with that in mind, let’s take a look.

On the outside, the Compute Stick is minimalistic in design. It’s slender and black and has slits for intake and a small fan that exhausts hot air. The fan isn’t loud by any measure, but does emit a high-pitched whine. You won’t notice it if you’re playing music, but you will in a quiet environment. The sound isn’t a show-stopper, but it’s there. If you’re just reading content and emailing, you won’t hear it. Install an application, though, and it will spin up.

On one side of the Compute Stick is a micro-USB port for charging, and a regular USB 2.0 port for accessories like a keyboard and mouse. The other side has a Micro-SD slot, if you feel 32GB is too claustrophobic. For light computing duties, we didn’t feel the need to upgrade. The only outbound connector on the Compute Stick is the lone HDMI output. Plug the Compute Stick in a TV’s HDMI input or a normal display and you’re good to go. We opted for a 24-inch Dell LCD panel. Internet connectivity is handled by 802.11bgn. Unfortunately, no 802.11ac support is integrated, and the onboard Wi-Fi is only single channel 2.5GHz with no 5GHz support.

On bootup, we went through the normal Windows 8.1 setup phases, and input our information and personal preferences. Once that was over, we landed on the desktop. It felt like a normal PC, which is awesome because the Compute Stick is so small. After all Windows updates were installed, we loaded our usual array of apps: Google Chrome, Skype, TeamViewer, VLC, Spotify, and Steam.

Once Steam was installed, the Compute Stick became another beast entirely.

Intel Compute Stick
Yep. It’s a full-fledged PC.

Valve enabled Steam Home Streaming a while ago, and we realized that the Compute Stick would be a pretty great solution—and it was. We tested Ori and the Blind Forest, Grand Theft Auto V, and DOTA 2. All games played without fail through Steam Home Streaming and felt like we were playing on an actual desktop. We then attempted to play games natively on the Compute Stick—that was a futile exercise. Even Valve’s original Portal was a miserable experience with all settings turned to low or off. Streaming is where the Compute Stick really excels, and we’re happy to stick to that.

Aside from streaming, performance on the Compute Stick was relatively good. With four or more casual applications open, you start to feel the effect of having only 2GB of RAM and limited CPU power. Chrome tab refreshes start to noticeably lag. General computing performance is on par with a netbook.

We ran some basic benchmarks on the Compute Stick, since it can’t really handle our usual array of desktop-class benchmarks. For reference, we included numbers from an Intel Core i7 4960X desktop with 8GB of RAM (thus showcasing a David vs. Goliath scenario):

GeekBench 3.3.2 32-bit
Compute Stick (default BIOS settings)
Single-core: 781
Multi-core: 2195

4960X Desktop (optimum default BIOS settings)
Single-core: 3413
Multi-core: 20891

As you can see, the Compute Stick isn’t meant for heavy-duty PC chores or native gaming. It really is meant for casual work or content consumption and entertainment. For all intents and purposes though, that’s fine by us.

Intel Compute Stick
Portal 1 running on low settings. Unplayable framerates at below 20FPS.

For those who do light workloads on their computers, the Compute Stick offers an attractive, low cost, and simple solution. Gamers who are looking for a light-weight streaming streaming solution should give the Compute Stick a serious look. Associate Editor Alex Campbell indicated that wiping the Windows installation and replacing it with a Linux install with Steam would make for a streaming solution with low OS overhead.

There’s a lot of promise in the Compute Stick platform. Consider this iteration a step in the right direction, pointing to a bright future for small computing machines. There will be a day when a device such as this will be able to hold its own as a full-fledged HTPC. For the Maximum PC reader looking for a powerful solution, though, today is not that day.

[Updated April 22, 2015: Clarified pricing for Windows licensing]

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