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Intel Compute Stick: Jack of all trades but master of none

By Koh Wanzi - 29 Jun 2015
Launch SRP: S$229


The Intel Compute Stick ushers in pocket PCs as the new form factor for everyday computing and productivity.

A mark of progress

Your smartphone may be a veritable computer in its own right, but does it allow you to work comfortably with Word documents or Excel spreadsheets? Even a larger 6-inch phablet doesn’t cut it, and what are you going to do about input peripherals?

Cue the Intel Compute Stick, Intel’s computer-on-a-stick that turns any HDMI-equipped display into a bona fide PC. You can even hook up a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard to it, or plug in a wireless receiver into its USB 2.0 port for non-Bluetooth peripherals! And by PC, we absolutely mean the real McCoy, complete with the same version of Windows 8.1 (with Bing) that you would run on a regular desktop (which means it also gets a free upgrade to Windows 10). There’s an Ubuntu version too, but more on that later.

To really appreciate what the Compute Stick means for computing, we have to look back on what’s changed over the past half a century. In his 1954 short story The Feeling of Power, science fiction maven Isaac Asimov describes a world that has become so reliant on computers that people have forgotten even the basic fundamentals of mathematics. To even perform simple multiplications, humans in Asimov’s story have to rely on – you guessed it – pocket computers.

At the time of writing, a society where computers are so ubiquitous couldn’t have seemed more far-fetched, not to mention the notion of computers so small that they could fit into your pocket.

Fast-forward to 2015, and The Feeling of Power is looking a little less like science fiction and more a prescient sketch of the world today. Sure, it’s hyperbole. We still remember how to count and many of us are still very good at math. But chipmakers like Intel and device manufacturers are on a quest to design computers in a wide range of form factors that enable them to be present in almost every facet of our daily lives. And now we literally have pocket computers!

The Intel Compute Stick will fit into a large-ish pocket.

With the Compute Stick, Intel’s taken a step forward in redefining the future of computing and making it even easier to fit computers into our everyday routines. It even takes advantage of existing hardware – HDMI displays are a dime a dozen – which means office workers can easily use TV screens in meeting rooms for their presentations without having to cart a laptop around.

In our homes, the Compute Stick has great potential to serve up great entertainment in living rooms. In and of themselves, media-streaming sticks are nothing new. The Amazon Fire TV Stick, Google Chromecast, and Roku Streaming Stick all allow networked content and other streaming media services to be enjoyed on your TV. But that’s exactly the point – they are media-streaming devices, nothing more.

This is just where the Intel Compute Stick stands out. It ships with the full 32-bit desktop version of Windows 8.1 with Bing, which means it can stream media, process documents, play music, surf the web, in addition to a whole lot of other things you could do on your laptop.


Hardware, software and connectivity

Under the hood, this diminutive PC runs a quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F processor, which has a base frequency of 1.33GHz and a burst frequency of 1.83GHz. It is based on a 22nm process node and comes with 2MB of L2 cache. Interestingly enough, this is a 64-bit processor, but we won’t be able to see any benefit of this because of the 32-bit version of Windows and 2GB of RAM, the latter of which is a single-channel DDR3L variant that runs at 1333MHz and 1.35V.

In the graphics processing department, the Compute Stick relies on the onboard Intel HD Graphics, with a graphics base frequency of 311MHz and burst frequency of 646MHz. And as a pocket PC that’s meant to be plugged in on-the-fly as and when the situation calls for it, the Compute Stick doesn’t pack a lot of storage into its small 103.4 x 37.6 x 12.5mm form factor. There is just 32GB of soldered-down eMMC memory, which is just enough to install productivity programs like Microsoft Office and music and entertainment applications like Spotify and Steam.

That doesn’t sound like a lot of space to work with, which is probably why Intel has included a microSD card slot to allow users to access extra storage (up to 128GB) if needed.

The Intel Compute Stick has a microSD card slot for expandable storage up to 128GB.

There’s also a single USB 2.0 port on the other side to connect to a USB hub for additional devices or slot in a wireless receiver. Beside the USB port is the micro-USB port via which the Compute Stick receives power from the included adapter. The Compute Stick can also be powered via a USB port on your display itself, but as we’ll explain later, your mileage may vary. Finally, there’s a power button closer to the HDMI connector – the Compute Stick automatically powers on when you connect a power source, but this button comes in handy if you need to reset the device.

The Compute Stick has a power button, microUSB charging port, and USB 2.0 port on its other side.

Furthermore, the Compute Stick comes with wireless networking and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity options to allow you to surf the web and connect Bluetooth input peripherals. Wireless connectivity is handled by the Realtek RTL8723BS wireless/Bluetooth SoC, which combines WLAN, Bluetooth and an FM receiver in a single module.

However, it uses a 1x1 antenna array, which means that you shouldn’t be expecting a particularly high-speed wireless connection with the Compute Stick or expect it to be able to pick up a wireless signal from the other end of the house. It is rated for a throughput of up to 150Mbps. It also works in the 2.4GHz band only and does not support the 802.11ac wireless standard. So even if you have a dual-band router at home, your Compute Stick will only be able to connect to the 2.4GHz network.

All this hardware interfaces with the HDMI port on any display. The Compute Stick supports up to HDMI 1.4a, so you're technically able to playback 4K video, on paper at least. But as we'll see later, this isn't quite the case.

And as mentioned previously, there’s actually a version of the Compute Stick that will run Ubuntu. We won’t delve much into it as our review unit is the Windows version, but it’s good to know that there’s an option for users who prefer not to run Windows. The Ubuntu version will sport the exact same specifications as the Windows variant, save for its 1GB of DDR3L memory and 8GB of eMMC flash storage.

We get that all these specifications might be a bit hard to digest, so here’s a table summarizing the key specifications of the Windows version of the Compute Stick:-

Intel Compute Stick Specifications
  Intel Compute Stick
  Intel Compute Stick
Launch SRP
  • From S$229
Processor and Chipset
  • Intel Atom Z3735F (1.33GHz, 2MB of L2 cache)
Operating System
  • Windows 8.1 with Bing
  • 2GB single-channel DDR3L RAM
  • 32 GB soldered-down eMMC memory
  • Multi-channel digital audio via HDMI
Networking / Communication
  • Integrated wireless 802.11bgn connection
  • Bluetooth 4.0
I/O Ports
  • 1x USB 2.0 port
  • 1x microSD slot (up to 128GB)
  • 103.4 x 37.6 x 12.5mm
  • 54g

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  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6.5
  • Value 7
The Good
Compact size
Versatile, fully-featured Windows PC
MicroSD card slot for storage expansion
The Bad
Lackluster performance
Slow internet speeds
Requires power adapter to work reliably
Needs other peripherals for it to be truly usable
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