2015 was the year that HDMI “stick” PCs moved from the periphery of the market to the mainstream. Intel’s Compute Stick, released for $159.99, had the most buzz of these new Windows PCs, combining a tiny form factor with the power of the Intel brand name.
Unfortunately, it suffered from WiFi and Bluetooth issues, and had just a single USB port. Without reliable access to WiFi and Bluetooth, it couldn’t function effectively as a streaming device, and using a USB hub as a workaround to the single, lonely USB port somewhat defeats the purpose of a tiny form-factor PC that can hide behind a TV or monitor.
For 2016, Intel has a new lineup of Compute Stick PCs hitting the market, kicking off with the February release of a lower-end model, packing an Intel x5-Z8300 processor. Does this version address the issues from last year’s model?
While higher-end models of the Compute Stick – featuring Intel Core M processors – will be available later this year, as of this writing, the 2016 update has only one version on the market.
Here’s a summary of its specs:
- Intel Atom x5-Z8300 quad-core processor at 1.44 GHz with burst to 1.84 GHz
- 2 GB of DDR3 RAM
- 32 GB of eMMC flash memory for local storage
- 2x USB Ports – one 3.0, one 2.0
- HDMI Out (includes an HDMI extension cable in the box)
- Micro-SD card slot
- 802.11ac 2×2 WiFi
- Bluetooth 4.0
- Windows 10 Operating System
There are a few key improvements that warrant discussion. Chief among these is that Intel has upgraded the WiFi in the 2016 Compute Stick to dual-band 802.11ac WiFi, and in my testing it is very capable in terms of speed and holding a connection.
This unit also has two USB ports, including one USB 3.0 for higher speed data transfers. Unlike last year’s model, this makes it easy to hook up a wireless mouse and keyboard, or a combination keyboard with trackpad, while still leaving a USB port open for data transfer or for another device, like an Xbox 360 wireless controller adapter.
Intel has also upgraded the processor to the newer “Cherry Trail” generation x5-Z8300 processor, from the prior year’s “Bay Trail” 3735F. The main difference is that the Cherry Trail processors have upgraded Intel HD Graphics, and thus offer some improved performance in graphics-intensive applications. Note that this processor is a slight step down from the Z8500 used in the Kangaroo Mobile PC, which I reviewed a few months ago. For most purposes the chips will be identical, but the Z8500 has a higher turbo speed, a slightly higher execution unit speed, and can support three displays compared to two displays on the Z8300.
Build Quality and Design
These HDMI stick PC’s don’t have much to speak about in terms of this category, but for whatever it is worth, the Compute Stick is an attractive enough device, and it really is downright tiny. Intel thoughtfully includes both an HDMI-extender – for devices with tight spaces around the HDMI adapter – and a variety of power adapters for international use.
In my review of the Kangaroo Mobile Desktop, I noted that I had concerns with how hot the device appears to run. Under normal use it runs hot, but when pushed to complete complex operations or graphically-intensive tasks, its exterior case was downright scorching. This type of heat can cause throttling as well as damage a device over long-term use.
Unlike the Kangaroo, which is passively cooled, the Compute Stick is actively cooled via a fan. It doesn’t always run, but when it does, the resulting whine isn’t exactly an appealing sound. This is less of an issue if you’re using it for gaming or high resolution video consumption, since that is likely to drown out the sound and you’ll be farther away from the device, but if you plan on using it for demanding work applications with the Compute Stick plugged into a monitor, it may be an issue.
That said, if you’re considering a small form-factor PC and don’t need it to be an HDMI stick, the Kangaroo does offer multiple features that the Compute Stick lacks, including a fingerprint reader and a built-in battery, at a price of $99.99, which is fairly significantly less than the Compute Stick.
The Compute Stick’s performance should feel immediately familiar to anyone that has used an Intel 3735F-powered machine over the past few years, as the x5-Z8300 is similar to it in most regards, and will have nearly identical performance in most applications.
Windows 10 performs quite well on the Compute Stick, responding quickly to inputs even when doing a reasonable amount of multi-tasking. I had no issues moving files around or changing settings in the Control Panel even with Hearthstone running and multiple Chrome tabs loaded in the background. Boot times are impressively fast, though not quite as fast as one sees on Chrome OS devices including the Asus Chromebit.
The most important question for this unit is whether or not the WiFi issues from the first generation have been addressed, and I’m happy to say very confidently that they have been resolved. The Compute Stick was pulling over 70 Mb per second download speeds over WiFi two rooms away from my router, in something of a “dead” spot in my house where both a PS3 system and the NVIDIA Shield Console could barely muster 10 Mb per second. I got even more impressive results from the basement, below my router. There also appear to be no issues with the Bluetooth stack, so you can connect multiple items via USB and Bluetooth and experience no problem with any of their connections or general operations.
There are, however, two major limitations to performance on the Compute Stick. The first is that onboard storage is limited to 32GB plus a Micro-SD card slot. Generally speaking I prefer to install applications locally rather than via external storage or an SD card, but with only 32GB available, you may not have that luxury with the Compute Stick. Applications stored on flash memory won’t run as well as those stored on the internal memory.
The second issue is that this system has only 2GB of RAM. Windows 10 still runs quite well with 2 GB of RAM, but keep in mind that many higher-end phones and tablets are now shipping with 3GB or more RAM, and 4GB is likely to be the standard for lower-end computers in the very near future. Some applications, like Google’s Chrome browser, can quickly eat up available RAM and run better with 4 GB.
All that said, the Intel Compute Stick 2016, much like the Kangaroo Mobile PC, has quick, responsive performance as a general rule; below I’ll move into how it performs with some specific applications. Note that the Compute Stick is actively cooled by way of a small fan, whereas the Kangaroo is passively cooled. As a result, the Compute Stick doesn’t get as warm under load and appears to encounter less throttling, but you will definitely hear that fan if you keep the Compute Stick working hard and don’t have background noise to cover it.
Office applications run better in Windows 10 than they did in Windows 8, and despite the low-power Atom processor in the Intel Compute Stick, Microsoft’s Office applications all run well on the Compute Stick. There are some caveats, though.
The Compute Stick is excellent for running PowerPoint presentations, and is perfect for basic Word document creation and light spreadsheets. The x5-Z8300 processor is powerful enough to handle relatively complex tasks, but users will find slowdown for advanced Excel calculations, manipulating heavy Word templates, and so on; keep in mind that the 2GB of RAM will also be a factor.
For casual consumers that use Office programs for personal or light business tasks, the Compute Stick will be sufficient, but MS Office road warriors will notice the drop-off between this device and something like an ultrabook packing even a Core M processor; these folks should wait for the Core M version of the Compute Stick due for release later this year.
With regard to traditional Java-based PC Minecraft, I tested both with and without the Optifine plug-in, and I found generally similar results as with the Atom 3735F-based systems. Without Optifine, all graphics settings need to be turned down to stay around 20-25FPS; with Optifine, there’s a framerate boost and hitting 25-30 FPS is achievable at 1080p, however Minecraft does run better at 1366×768 resolution on these lower end devices.
In addition to the traditional Minecraft experience, anyone who owns Minecraft can also get a copy of the Windows 10 Minecraft Beta. This version is based on the Pocket edition that is available for mobile, and it has much better performance in lower-end systems in particular, as well as built-in controller support. That version of Minecraft runs smoothly at 1080p.
Simply stated, this system isn’t ideal for hardcore Minecraft players; for a budget system that can play Minecraft or act as a server, I’d look instead to something like the Signature Edition MSI Cubi 221US for a cheap Minecraft PC, as that system’s Broadwell 3205U processor is fairly significantly more powerful than the Compute Stick. The Compute Stick will work for short-term play for traditional PC Minecraft, but it does run the lighter and less-demanding Windows 10 version very well.
Gaming and Hearthstone
Like most budget PCs, the Intel Compute Stick 2016 is not designed for gaming, and won’t take the place of your gaming rig or Playstation 4 any time soon. Usual caveats aside, you can play some games on this device, provided that you keep your expectations in check. The Intel Cherry Trail HD Graphics are significantly upgraded from the Bay Trail HD Graphics, seeing an increase from four Execution Units to twelve Execution Units (and all the way to sixteen EU’s in the more powerful x7-8700 found in the Surface 3 tablet).
Even with this jump in power, your best bet for gaming on the Intel Compute Stick is older Source Engine games, like Half Life 2, and newer indie games like Nuclear Throne or Axiom Verge. Those latter two games ran quite well on the Compute Stick using an Xbox 360 controller, and navigating Big Picture Mode with that controller or a Steam controller feels great. Half Life 2 was playable at around 30 FPS with all settings on low and resolution of 1366×768. More modern AAA games, even those that run fairly well on lower-end hardware like Rocket League and Tomb Raider (2013) aren’t playable.
Fortunately, the Compute Stick’s excellent WiFi makes it a great candidate for streaming games from other, more capable devices. Using the free Xbox app for Windows 10, you can connect the Compute Stick to your Xbox One; over WiFi, the quality was decent enough, but I wouldn’t recommend it for online competitive games like Call of Duty or Destiny. Using a wired connection via a USB Hub with Ethernet port, the situation improved, and the experience was impressive. Streaming using Steam yielded a similar result, with generally good performance over WiFi especially for slower paced titles, and really solid performance over a Wired connection.
The first-generation Intel Compute stick launched with high expectations, and unfortunately did not meet those expectations. Fortunately, this new 2016 edition fulfills the promises that Intel made last year. This device is small and exceptionally portable, but is also capable and reliable. It has short boot times and handles MS Office documents, video streaming, and light gaming as well or better than I expected.
This Compute Stick thankfully has fantastic WiFi with excellent range and speed, and the combination of two USB ports and reliable Bluetooth makes it an easy device to control. Intel really has addressed most of the issues with last year’s version.
There are a few competitors to this device that are worth considering.
The first is Lenovo’s version of the Compute Stick, the IdeaCentre 300, which has an Intel 3735F processor; it comes with Windows 10, but has only one USB port. I’ve seen it on sale as low as $90, and at that price, it may be worth a purchase if you’re not concerned about the second USB 3.0 port on the Intel Compute Stick.
The second option is the Kangaroo Mobile Desktop PC. It has a larger form factor, so you can’t “hide” it as easily behind a monitor or TV, but it also has a built-in battery and a slightly more powerful processor, and most importantly, it is significantly less expensive at a $99 MSRP.
All things being equal, though, if you’re in the market specifically for a Windows-based HDMI stick PC, the new Compute Stick is compelling; Intel didn’t just fix the WiFi issue, they moved it far into the top of its class in terms of range and speed. That’s a critical item for a device with this form-factor. Paired with competent and responsive performance from its Cherry Trail generation processor, and a second USB port, it is clear that Intel produced the market-leading product we thought they were bringing to market last year.