Intel's Compute Sticks stick it to Windows To Go, Chromecast

Tiny PCs are sysadmin and thin client friendly, to a point

Intel compute stick

Quick review "Little Stick. Big Surprise." That's what Intel says about its Compute Sticks, the new 'smaller than an iPhone' mini-PCs designed for portability and ease of use

The Intel Compute Stick (ICS) is perhaps best thought of as the mutant offspring of a Raspberry Pi on steroids and Google Chromecast. The offspring emerges as a tiny computer CPU, RAM and storage on a small motherboard contained within a reasonably well finished case. Protruding from the case is a HDMI male adapter ready to plug into any display boasting its female counterpart.

The ICS is a full working PC with Windows 8.1 for Bing a quad core Atom processor Z3735F running at up to 1.83 GHz, 2 GB memory, 32 GB of on-board storage, b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth and a microSD card slot. An Ubuntu version shaves the RAM to 1GB and storage to 8GB. The RAM's soldered on so forget upgrades and ponder buying the Windows version and installing Ubuntu rather than making do with a wimpily-specced machine. Not many people complain about having ‘too much storage’.

If you like lots of USB ports on your devices, then you'd better invest in a USB hub. There's only a single USB 2.0 port on the ICS, but this is due to the very limited real estate on the stick - size always counts, regardless what your mother told you.

The ICS has an active airflow design, as it sucks in air at one end, goes over a heatsink and then blows it out the other. To its credit, the fan can barely be heard when idling (I wasn't actually sure if it was on or not). When under bigger load, I could hear the fan a little bit, but only being in a dead silent room. For a device like this that will be hidden away behind a screen, I'd rather it was more compact and a little more grunt with a fan, than completely fanless.

The Wireless and Bluetooth capabilities are a must have, as you probably don't want your stick to end up looking like a deformed octopus. Although the wireless works quite well, it may not be enough if you're streaming high amounts of data, such as 3D graphics. I found it to work perfectly on using a remote desktop/thin client at the standard 1920 x 1080 resolution, and still works fine for Netflix in HD, but those two mediums are going to be more latency and missing packet friendly than some other streaming functions.

Out of the box, you can plug one end into your visual device of choice through its HDMI port, and provide it power through the micro USB port. The power plug provided puts out power at 2A, which seems to be the standard in newer smart phones and tablets these days. It still seemed to run fine when plugged into a 1A USB port too, which you too can try if you like to live dangerously. As a note, the device can't be powered over HDMI. There is hope that Intel will implement this in future versions of the stick.

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