Stick PCs — computers contained in a device no larger than a USB key and which, when mated with a monitor, become full desktop PCs — have been around for a while. However, they have recently started to gain more visibility, primarily because of their ultra-portability, minimal power/space needs and ease of use. They may not be very useful for things like airline flights, but they open the way for carrying around presentations, creating public kiosks and allowing you to use another's computer without needing to access their data (or allowing them to accidentally access yours).
While there have been other stick PCs on the market, the category has gained more visibility with the imminent introduction of Intel's new Compute Stick.
I checked out a pre-production version of the Compute Stick and was impressed by its ability to turn a display into a light-duty deskbound computer.
Inside the Stick
The $150 Compute Stick is all about miniaturization and packaging. (Note: Because this was a pre-production unit, there may be differences between it and the final product.) Its black plastic and metal case bears the "Intel Inside" logo, weighs just 1.9 oz. and measures 0.4 x 1.5 x 4.5 in., only a little larger than a car's key fob. (The device has two holes in its top for threading a security cable or a lanyard through, in case you're nervous about losing it.)
The Stick plugs into a monitor via its HDMI connector and is powered via a micro-USB port (it comes with an AC adapter, but can also use any USB power source that puts out 10 watts or more). If the Stick blocks any other ports on the monitor, you can use it with the included 7.5-in. HDMI extension cable, which will keep it out of the way.
The Stick also comes with a micro-SD card slot so that it can add up to 128GB of additional storage capacity. There is an on/off button and a blue LED that glows when the Stick is running.
It operates using 802.11n Wi-Fi (note that the Stick operates only in the 2.4GHz band). It also uses Bluetooth 4.0, so you can connect peripherals such as a keyboard and mouse. (Your other option is to connect the Stick to a USB hub; that will also allow you to use an Ethernet connection via a USB-to-LAN converter.)
The system is based on Intel's quad-core Atom Z3735F processor, which has been used mostly for tablets, has 2MB of processor cache and a base speed of 1.3GHz; using Intel's TurboBoost, it can go as fast as 1.8GHz.
While it's running, the processor uses 2.2 watts, making it one of the most power-efficient Atom CPUs available. Despite that, the Stick needs a small fan (which puts out an annoying high-pitched whine) to prevent it from overheating — and the case still gets hot to the touch.
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