Intel Compute Stick (2016, Core m3) Review and Ratings
Our Verdict: Intel’s Core m3 version of its Compute Stick gets extra RAM, storage, and CPU power, making it a better PC for more than basic productivity and media playback. But at close to $400, it makes sense only if you need the truly tiny form factor. Read More…
- What We Liked…
- Tiny form factor
- Enough performance and ports to serve as a mainstream productivity PC
- What We Didn’t…
- Expensive for what you get
- Form factor is limiting
- Port placement on power brick is clever, but implementation is cumbersome
Introduction, Design & Features
We’ve seen several incredibly small Windows desktops over the past year or so, from Intel’s originalCompute Stick$103.52 at Amazon and its early 2016 update, to iterations on the PC-on-a-stick theme from both Lenovo (the Ideacentre Stick 300) and Asus (the VivoStick PC)$113.59 at Amazon. These systems are designed to plug directly into a TV or monitor’s HDMI port, making a sort-of instant all-in-one PC that you can also detach and take with you in your pocket (so long as you leave the screen behind). Stepping up just slightly in size, we’ve also tested the Kangaroo Mobile Desktop (which includes a swappable dock and an internal battery) and, in its $199 Mobile Desktop Pro$169.99 at Amazon model, a version that adds room for a 2.5-inch hard drive and extra ports.
These low-cost machines can be useful for basic tasks, but their usefulness is limited by a strict allotment of low-power processors, cramped storage, and just 2GB of RAM. This is, of course, done to keep hardware costs down, as well as to limbo under Microsoft’s line that allows for a free (or nearly free) Windows license. After all, in a system that costs as little as $100, tacking on the price of Windows would result in a huge relative jump in price.
That being said, doing more than the absolute basics on a Windows PC that’s limited by just 2GB of RAM and an Atom CPU can make for a frustrating experience. For those who like the form factor of the recent stick-shaped PCs, but need a more serious slice of computing silicon, it would be nice to have an alternative option.
That’s the idea behind Intel’s Core m3 Compute Stick (specifically, model STK2M3W64CC we tested). It sports the same slim, tiny design as previous models from Intel, but it doubles the RAM to a more usable 4GB, includes a roomier 64GB of eMMC storage (expandable via a MicroSD card slot), and steps up the processor from an Atom x5 (in the current-generation $130 base model) to a Core m3-6Y30 processor. This chip has a variable clock speed that can ramp up from 900MHz to as high as 2.2GHz for short periods. It’s the kind of chip you might find in a very slim 2-in-1 or laptop. This model also adds a pair of full-size USB 3.0 ports, housed cleverly (if not always conveniently) in the power brick.
The result is a stick PC that feels a lot more useful (and is a whole lot less painful to actually use) for things like office productivity and moderate image editing. But, because of the higher-class processor and the fact that more RAM means Intel has to pass on the cost for a Windows license to the buyer, the price jumps considerably. The Core m3 Compute Stick has an MSRP of $395, although it was readily available at Newegg.com when we wrote this for a slightly more palatable $360.
Design & Features
We’ve covered how the Compute Stick looks in our review of the Atom “Cherry Trail”-based Compute Stick earlier in 2016. The shell of the Core m3 model is much the same, in that it’s covered in a mixture of glossy and matte-black plastic. It’s about 4.5 inches long and less than a half-inch thick. This is indeed a tiny PC. But a couple of things with the Core m3 model we’re looking at here are quite a bit different. For starters, it gets power through a USB Type-C connector, rather than the micro-USB power plug on previous versions.
You can see the reversible Type-C connector on the left edge in the image below, along with the MicroSD slot for adding storage beyond the 64GB of eMMC (twice the 32GB found in previous models).
Along the right edge lives a power button and the single full-size USB 3.0 port on the stick itself.
The lower-priced Atom x5-based Compute Stick has two USB ports on its edge. So you lose one on the body of the m3 model. But as you can see in the image above, you get two additional ports here that are actually housed on the power brick, for a total of three full-size USB 3.0 Type-A ports.
This is a novel idea, made possible by the use of a USB Type-C cable that connects the power brick to the Stick, and allows for two-way data as well as power. The Type-C cable that Intel includes in the box is plenty lengthy, at about five feet long. But annoyingly, the USB ports and the USB Type-C power/data cable jut out at a 90 degree angle from the side of the power brick. That could make it easy to accidentally bend cables or break the ports if you aren’t careful—especially if you plug the power brick in by your feet. And if you do plug the brick in near the floor, away from the stick, it can make it tricky to use wired peripherals or external drives. Those ports on the brick will be tough to access, and likely far from convenient to access. You’ll want to use them for things, such as input-device dongles, that you seldom plug and unplug. Hopefully, you can find a power outlet behind your TV or monitor if you opt for this stick PC.
Even if you do manage to find a convenient place for the power brick, plugging the power cable and a USB device into both edges of the Compute Stick itself results in some unwieldy cable issues, with cables sticking out of opposite edges. This is exacerbated by the fact that the USB Type-C cable is fairly thick and stiff, doubtless so that it can handle extra power for peripherals plugged into the brick. Note, though, that as with previous Compute Sticks, an HDMI extension cable is included in the box, so the Compute Stick doesn’t have to stick directly out the back or side of your screen.
It’s also worth pointing out that while the Core m3 chip in this Compute Stick is designed to be used primarily in fanless 2-in-1s and laptops, there is actually a small fan on the back edge of the stick, behind the meshed area in the image above. It’s a tiny fan (for a tiny PC), and therefore emits a mosquito-like sound when it’s running. But the sound is also very faint. In our testing lab (which admittedly isn’t as quiet as an empty living room), we had to put our ear literally a few inches from the fan to hear it at all. The fan kicked on most audibly when we stressed the Compute Stick on demanding tasks, like playing back 4K YouTube videos (which the m3 Compute Stick handled quite well).
Speaking of stressing the Compute Stick, let’s get to the Performance section to see how well our Core m3 model stacks up against a slew of other ultra-compact PCs.