A small, relatively cheap but seriously limited micro PC
Processor: Quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F, RAM: 2GB, Front USB ports : 0, Rear USB ports: 1x USB, Total storage: 32GB, Graphics card: Intel HD Graphics, Display: None, Operating system: Windows 8.1 with Bing
We love Micro PCs. From the Intel NUC to the MSI Cubi, having a proper Windows Computer in a box as big as a pack of posh truffles is a fantastic and cheap alternative to an all-in-one PC for those short of space.
The latest fad, as evinced by the slew of models currently available from Hannspree, Lenovo and Intel, is to take advantage of Intel Atom processors’ small size and low power requirements and to make a PC not much bigger than a Wi-Fi dongle. However, as we found in our review of the Hannspree Micro PC, that although this is an impressive feat of engineering, the resulting PC is so frustratingly limited that we’re not sure we see the point.
The Intel Compute Stick is Intel’s own Micro PC design, and is almost identical to the Hannspree model. You get the same compact chassis with an HDMI plug on the end, the same quad-core “Bay Trail” Intel Atom Z3735F system-on-chip and the same 2GB RAM and 32GB storage. The stick is powered from a microUSB connector, but you’ll need a 2A power supply; as we expected, the 0.5A USB socket on the back of our TV couldn’t get the Compute Stick to boot. The model we reviewed comes with Windows 8.1 with Bing, but there’s also an Ubuntu version available for £90. That edition only has 8GB storage, though, so would work best if you keep most of your files in the cloud.
The limitations of such a small PC are evident as soon as you set it up. The single USB port is one of the bigger problems. This means if you want to have a keyboard and mouse plugged in at the same time, you need to use a wireless model with a single receiver. Even then, there’s nowhere to plug in a card reader or a USB drive, so getting files on and off the Compute Stick could be a bit tricky.
This is an old-fashioned way of looking at things, of course; you could just use Dropbox, OneDrive or equivalent for your file transfers and upload photos straight from your smartphone or Wi-Fi-enabled camera. However, such thoughts of wireless freedom are somewhat stymied by the Compute Stick’s poor Wi-Fi connection. It’s an 802.11n rather than 802.11ac chipset, but only supports the 2.4GHz rather than 5GHz band. This limits where you can use the Compute Stick; in our study, around 10m from the wireless router, a Speedtest.net benchmark showed the Compute Stick could download at less than 0.1Mbit/s – an unusably slow connection. By contrast, a Tesco Hudl 2 in the same room could max out our 38Mbit/s fibre broadband connection thanks to its 5GHz 802.11n support. You’ll have to have the Compute Stick near your router to have any kind of usable network speed.
The single USB port means this is a tricky situation to rectify, as you can’t even plug in a USB Wi-Fi dongle. If you want to add USB ports there’s always the option of a hub, but you’ll need a powered model; we tried a passive hub and it couldn’t even power a wireless keyboard adaptor and a USB key at the same time. The Compute Stick does have built-in Bluetooth, but Windows’ Bluetooth support has always been poor, and we experienced plenty of disconnections with our test Bluetooth keyboard (which is difficult to rectify when you don’t have any input devices plugged in). You can also use Intel’s Remote Keyboard app on your smartphone or tablet in conjunction with a server on the Compute Stick, which works reasonably well for some light web browsing.
The Compute Stick has the same quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F processor as the Hannspree Micro PC, and its performance isn’t up to much. It scored just 9 overall in our benchmarks, hindered by a particularly poor score of 2 in the multitasking benchmark. Intel’s micro PC did complete the multitasking section of the benchmark in half the time of Hannspree’s, however, possibly due to having better heat dissipation.
The Compute Stick copes with most tasks fairly well, such as browsing the web or playing Full HD video, but try opening a web page in another tab while one is still rendering and everything will grind to a halt. The Compute Stick also takes forever to install updates on shutdown; at one point it took 30 minutes to install nine updates, which is tricky for a portable device which you’re meant to take with you (Windows doesn’t take kindly to being interrupted mid-update so you can get your train).
All this left us wondering what we could use the Compute Stick for. It’s a reasonable web browsing and email/word processing device (if you have a Wi-Fi printer) but for a basic Windows machine we’d rather find a couple of hundred pounds and build a PC ourselves, complete with enough USB ports to actually plug things in. It’s not even, as has been suggested in some quarters, a Chromecast substitute, as Chromecast has many features the Compute Stick doesn’t, such as the ability to play HD films from the Google Play store on your TV.
One use does stand out, however; you could use the Compute Stick as a UPnP media server and renderer. With a high-capacity microSD card for your music, a media server such as Serviio installed and using the Foobar2000 music player with the UPnP plugin, we could play music through our TV via the Compute Stick, controlling which tracks were played from an Android tablet running BubbleUPnP. However, you could also use a £30 Raspberry Pi running OpenELEC for the same purpose.
It may be tiny and relatively cheap, but the Compute Stick is seriously limited. It has its niche uses, such as that mentioned in the paragraph above, but if you’re after a properly useful tiny PC you’re better off saving up for something a bit more useful, like an MSI Cubi.
|Quad-core 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z3735F
|Intel Bay Trail
|Ports and expansion
|Front USB ports
|Rear USB ports
|Micro PC stick
|Case size HxWxD
|PCIe x1 (free)
|PCIe x16 (free)
|Serial ATA (free)
|Memory slots (free)
|Drive bays 2 1/2″ (free)
|Drive bays 3 1/2″ (free)
|Drive bays 5 1/4″ (free)
|Memory card reader
|Optical drive type
|Intel HD Graphics
|Sound card outputs
|Windows 8.1 with Bing
|Operating system restore option