Much more than a TV dongle, a bit less than a full-fledged PC. Intel Compute Stick is kinda like a first iPhone – it’s a great piece of hardware that needs some improvements. The next generation might be the real game-changer for the PC market, but now it’s something aimed at a narrow group of users.
Design and package contents
Intel Compute Stick comes in a simple blue box with Intel’s logo on it, nothing special here but overall design is consistent with other Intel’s products. Inside there is the stick, a power supply with replaceable power plugs, a microUSB cable, and an HDMI extender cable.
Most of the time when the Intel Compute Stick is connected it will be hidden behind a TV so design should not be a major issue. Nevertheless, Intel did a good job in the design phase. Plastics are solid and the big Intel’s logo reminds us that this is not a no name TV dongle with Android system on board. It’s just simply good looking. The device is also much bigger than a typical USB stick. It measures about 102x37x12mm (4.01×1.45×0.47 inches), so it’s a little bit chunky and might not fit behind every TV. That is why included HDMI extender cable comes in handy. With its help there is no problem with connecting the stick to the TV.
On the other hand the stick is lightweight and travel friendly. You can fit it in your pocket and if you only have access to a mice/keyboard you can take it with you anywhere.
After taking a closer look I was surprised to see air vents on the front and on the sides of the device. They are necessary because Intel has decided to apply an active cooling system. Yes, there is actually a small fan inside to help deal with the heat. This small fan can be a little noisy sometimes. It was louder than my laptop, but from the distance when the device is connected to the TV the fan is inaudible.
There are two versions of Intel’s Compute Stick and both of them are equipped with a quad-core Atom Z3735F, integrated 802.11n WIFI and Bluetooth 4.0. Both have a single USB 2.0 port, a MicroSD slot and a MicroUSB port for connecting a power supply. The stick must be plugged in all the time. There is no battery inside, and HDMI port does not provide power.
First and cheaper version is a Linux version running Ubuntu with 1GB of RAM and just 8GB of eMMC storage. It may seem that 1GB of ram with 8GB of storage is not much, but this configuration should be good enough to run Linux smoothly. Moreover, memory can be expanded with a MicroSD card. According to Intel, the stick works with cards up to 128GB. Suggested retail price for this version is about 89$.
The version I had a chance to test packs the same quad-core Atom Z3735F, but with 2GB of RAM (DDR3/1333), and 32GB of eMMC storage. The biggest difference is not amount of RAM, though but the OS. It is running a full version of 32-bit Windows 8.1 and it will be upgradable to Windows 10 for free in the future. Suggested retail price in the US is 150$.
Let’s get started!
My Intel Compute Stick came with a preinstalled version of Microsoft Windows 8.1 with Bing and it was ready to use right out of the box. Users just need to connect it to the TV and to the power supply. That’s all. It takes just a few minutes before the Stick is ready to go.
The only inconvenience comes at the very beginning – to connect Bluetooth mice and keyboard at least a standard mice is needed to setup Microsoft account and pair devices. Typing at this stage can be done with on-screen keyboard. Using standard peripherals is fine too. Although Intel Compute Stick has only one USB 2.0 port, a USB HUB can be used to connect additional devices. 4 Port USB Hub worked perfectly.
Let’s be honest, the stick powered by the Atom Z3735F (Bay Trail) with its 4 cores (basic frequency is 1.33 GHz, up to 1.83GHz), Intel HD Graphics running at 311MHZ and 2GB of RAM is not a speed demon. It’s much closer to the tablet performance than to the desktop PC. But it’s powerful enough for simple, everyday tasks. You are probably thinking “What do you mean by simple everyday tasks?” What I mean is browsing the Internet seamlessly, writing e-mails, watching YouTube in 1080p, watching movies, streaming, writing documents in Word/Excel, do some very simple image editing in Photoshop etc. Even with Compute Stick’s limited hardware all those things can be accomplished. Just remember, this is not a tool for heavy/professional use. It was never meant to be one, nor was it marketed as such. One of the problems from my perspective is limited amount of RAM. 2GB is just not enough for heavy browsing (I usually have over 20 tabs opened in Chrome) or multi-tasking. I need at least 4GB of RAM, your mileage may vary.
The way I feel about the Stick’s performance is subjective, that’s why some cold benchmark data should help get a better view of what, and how fast can be done. This is not a high-end laptop, so in order to check the processing power of the Stick I just used Geekbench 3. The results are as follows:
- Single-Core Score : 770
- Multi-Core Score: 2181
Those results are similar to performance of most tablets with Atom Bay Trail and Windows 8.1. Below some attached screenshots with additional data regarding the performance.
One tip, the performance might be slightly improved by changing the performance settings in the Compute Stick’s BIOS. Balanced performance is set by default. It can be changed to low-power or performance. When the high performance option is set, the stick will no longer allow you to use a 4-port USB HUB without an external power supply.
After testing I see the Intel Compute Stick not only as dongle which will turn your TV into a multimedia center. Thanks to the Windows 8.1 this device can be used as an office tool everywhere where a lot of power is not necessary.
I decided to look at Intel Compute Stick from a little different perspective, from a perspective of a hardcore gamer. I know it’s not a powerful device and it wasn’t designed for gaming. Obviously it won’t run GTA V or even some less demanding modern games. But what’s the limit? What actually can be played on it?
Let’s start with some benchmarks first. I limited the test to 3DMark demo version. First, I tried Ice Storm Unlimited. This test is meant for lower end tablets and smartphones.
The overall result was 10248 points, but the graphic score was only 9722 points. Both results (especially the graphics score) were lower than results of similar equipped tablets with Intel Atom. For quick comparison – ASUS MeMO 7 with Atom Z3745 obtained a score of 13644, with 12824 points for graphics.
Next I tried Cloud Gate Performance to compare the stick to other PCs. This time the score was only 945 points, which places the stick far behind “typical” office PC.
From the benchmarks it seems like Intel Compute Stick is slower than many smartphones and is able to run only some old flash games. It would not be fair to limit the tests just to few tables and points, though. The stick asked for some action!
The only way to check if Intel Compute Stick is suitable for games was to actually run some games on it. It was very hard to choose a proper set of games for this review, not only because of their number, but also because most of them either run perfectly or were just unplayable. In the end I picked up some modern and retro games to get the full picture of Compute Stick’s capabilities:
- Sim City 2000
- Ultima VIII
- Leisure Suit Larry – Reloaded
- Battlefield Bad Company 2
- Counter Strike: Source
- Half Life 2
- Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition
- Dota 2
- Asphalt 8: Airborne
I started with Sim City 2000, Syndicate and Ultima VIII. These classics were available for free on Origin and I already had them on my account. I must say that they worked perfectly. Everything was fast and smooth, which is not surprising as these games are over 20 years old now. They have stood the test of time and it was good to see them again on a big screen. If you are into retro games, then the stick will be more than enough to play them.
On my GOG account I have the Leisure Suit Larry – Reloaded, so I gave it a try. No surprises here, game worked just fine, and that’s about it. Point and click game does not require a FPS check.
After these retro games I assume that every similar title will work just as well, as long as it can be played on Windows 8.1. The possibilities are endless. Nowadays thanks to the services like GOG, Origin or Steam players have access to thousands of retro games, and most of them will work on Intel Compute Stick.
Then I looked for something more recent and more popular. In the end I choose Minecraft, mainly because this game is available both on smartphones and computers so I could compare the stick’s performance to other hardware. For the sake of this review I have installed a Windows demo version. I also had access to the mobile version. I started the game on default settings and I got only about 15 fps. Mining around at this stage wasn’t a big problem, it was still playable, but later in the game when more is happening on the screen 15 FPS will not be enough.
In order to get a more pleasant experience I had to reduce render distance to 2 chunks. After that the game run mostly at 30 FPS with occasional drops when a lot was happening on the screen. In short, Minecraft was fully playable. I would not say it was as nice as on full-fledged PC, or even on a smartphone, and the stick should not be your main choice for playing Minecraft, but it can serve as an occasional platform for mining. For example during travel or when someone else is using your main PC.
Encouraged by the fact that I was able to play Minecraft on a miniature PC I looked for something more demanding. I choose Battlefield Bad Company 2. It’s a game from 2010 so I had a little bit of hope that it will work. Sadly, it was a disaster.
I set the resolution to 1280×720, other settings to low and I only tried a single player mode. It was just unplayable, between 4-10 frames per second. Intel Compute Stick is not good enough for Battlefield Bad Company 2. Period.
Next one on my list was Counter Strike: Source and then Half Life 2, both running on a Source game engine. These are old games, but both are still good and fun to play.
Despite the fact that a newer version of Counter Strike is on the market for a couple of years now, there are people still playing CS:S. At least here in Asia I was always able to find some good servers and had a lot of fun.
Again, in order to make it playable I had to reduce graphics quality to the lowest possible and reduce the resolution. Playing in 1080p even on the lowest settings was impossible. 720p was fine, thought.
As you can see from the screenshots framerate varied between 30 and 50 fps, with serious drops when I was surrounded by smoke. Overall, CS:S was fully playable. To be fair I must say that Counter Strike: Source is still a good looking game, but not on the lowest settings. Game looked ugly and there is no other way around it. If you want to play it on miniature PC, then you have to turn a blind eye.
Then came the time for Half Life 2, which also runs on the Source game engine. Basically performance was similar to CS:S. In 1080p and everything on low I got around 15 fps, which of course is too less for a shooter. But after I set the resolution to 720p, everything was smooth enough to play without problems. Of course expect some drop-downs during action-heavy scenes.
HL2 still holds up, the story and gameplay are as great as they were before, so if you don’t mind the looks and reduced resolution, then the stick can be used for playing it without any doubt.
The game I wanted to try the most was Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition. This epic title with expansion packs provides hundreds of hours of gameplay, and it looks great after retouching. So, if the stick could run it, then it would be one of the best possible games to play on it.
After some time with BG2 I have mixed feelings. Baldur’s Gate 2: Enhanced Edition looked gorgeous on a big TV, everything worked great, but framerate was unstable. Usually I had about 30-20 fps, during fights it dropped below 20 fps. The good news is that in this case it doesn’t really matter. BG2 is a slow-pacing game and the one with an active-pause. It does not require constant 30 fps to play it comfortable. Yes, you can run BG2 on the stick, but again is not as good as on a full-fledged PC.
Then I tried Dota 2. Released in 2013 is one of the most popular games on Steam and the first one on that platform to have over one million concurrent players. That means a lot when it comes to its popularity. I set it to 720p right away, turned off all graphics details that I possibly could, and set screen render quality to about 50%.
Results? I know I sound repetitive – as you can see from the screenshots it was visually unpleasant but still playable. But the gameplay is still there. Most of the time game run above 20 fps which is good enough I think. If you want to enjoy Dota 2 in your living room, then Intel Compute Stick is good enough for some quick sessions.
Last but not least I checked Asphalt 8: Airborne from the Windows Store. It was a bit too much for the stick and in this case there is no way to adjust graphics settings and make it work. Game was running slow, below comfortable level. That’s all I can say about it.
The good news is that Windows Store if full of casual games which will run on Intel Compute Stick perfectly. The stick is definitely something that will not only play movies or stream video, but also will provide some casual fun for your kids in the living room.
Is the Intel Compute Stick a good piece of hardware for a gamer? I cannot answer this question clearly. Most of the games I tested were playable, but the experience was on the lower end. Paradoxically if you are a hardcore gamer who is into retro games, you can make use of the Intel Computer Stick, even as your main gaming platform. GOG and similar services offer hundreds of great games. They are cheap, much better than casual games on Android and they will work on the stick just fine.
On the other hand, games like Asphalt 8 and Battlefield Bad Company 2 were too much for the stick to handle. You can connect the stick to your LCD monitor or TV and use for gaming, and as long as you know the limitations of it you will surely find something for yourself. Just don’t expect it to be a full-time gaming platform.
So, should you buy it?
It’s very hard to answer this question. The main problem is – do you really need something like Intel Compute Stick? It’s a real PC, not a powerful one, but still it is one. Comparing it to TV Android dongles or even AMAZON Fire TV is just inappropriate. It has a full version of Windows 8.1 and that itself puts it far above anything with Android, the OS which should have stayed on the smartphones forever. And if you don’t like Windows, then you can pick up the Linux version which is even cheaper and should give you a similar experience.
Intel Compute Stick will not only make your TV smart, it will turn it into a real PC experience, with all the benefits. You can freely use a full version of your favorite browser, you can stream videos and games, and you can even edit your Excel files, prepare a PowerPoint presentation or edit photos, if you really want to. Just don’t expect it to perform as well as your full-fledged PC or laptop. If you are thinking about making your TV really “smart” then there is no better way than Intel Compute Stick. If you just want to have access to some movie streaming services, then there are better and cheaper ways to do it.
With the compute stick Intel is trying something new and only time will tell how market will react to this idea. It’s the best “dongle” on the market but I am not convinced yet. I wish it had more power and more RAM for more professional use. Hopefully this is something we would find in the next generation.