LAS VEGAS - Stick computers are nothing new. Inexpensive Android Mini PCs from no-name brands have run Google's mobile OS on inexpensive but effective processors from RockChip or AllWinner for several years now. However, this week Intel wants to ratchet things up a notch with its $149 Compute Stick. The new, quad-core Atom-powered mini PC runs Windows 8.1 from inside a form factor the size and shape of a USB Flash Drive.
Due out later this spring, the Compute Stick has everything we've come to expect from a stick PC. On one end, the device has a full-size HDMI plug which attaches to your TV or monitor. On its side is a microUSB port which plugs into the wall for power using a standard USB cable. A second, full-size USB port allows you to attach peripherals while a microSD card slot provides memory expansion possibilities. It also has a power button, something Android sticks lack.
In addition to its USB port, the Compute Stick can pair with peripherals such as keyboards and mice using its Bluetooth radio. It also supports 802.11n Wi-Fi for connecting to the Internet and your home network.
On the inside, the Compute Stick sports a quad-core, BayTrail-T Atom CPU, 2GB of RAM and 32GB eMMC storage memory. It comes preloaded with Windows 8.1 with Bing (the free version of Windows). Though many other stick computers become extremely hot to the touch after just a few minutes of use, Intel reps told us that their device will remain cool to the touch.
The most obvious use of the Compute Stick is as a home theater PC and media server. Though it doesn't have a lot of internal storage for movies, photos and music, it can add up to 128GB via microSD card or connect to an external hard drive via USB. Like any Windows PC, it will have easy access to all the major streaming services, including Netflix and Hulu.
However, there's no reason the Compute Stick can't be someone's primary or secondary PC. Atom Baytrail processors are not great for gaming or crunching video, but they can handle light productivity work, Web surfing, email and social networking very smoothly.
Because the Compute Stick is so portable, you can carry it with you from home to work and use it in both places, provided that you have a screen and input device (keyboard, mouse) in each location. Taking your whole PC with you provides a high level of physical security. Nobody in your office can hack your PC when you're out if the entire computer is sitting in your pocket.
In addition to the $149 Windows version, Intel will be offering an $89 Linux model with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage. Consumers who are really price sensitive and just want to run an open source media server may find the low-cost model appealing. However, most Android Mini PCs, which cost as little as $40 in some cases, can also run some form of Linux.
We look forward to putting the Windows version of the Intel Compute Stick through its paces some time closer to launch. If it lives up to its promise, this device could open up a whole new market for USB key-sized computers.