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A guide to PC sticks: What can they actually do?

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intel compute stick

They may well be the future of home computing, but what is a PC stick?

There’s a new breed of ultra-portable PC out there. The kind that drops the bulky body, the bundled-in keyboard, and even the display.

PC sticks whittle things down to a tiny dongle-like device. At first glance they look like the kind of thing that, prior to the cloud, we’d all save our documents and files onto for easy transportation – except with an HDMI connector in place of USB.

A number of major manufacturers have released such PC sticks over the past year or so. This isn’t a mere trend, then, nor is it a gimmick brought about by cheap and cheerful PC peripheral makers.

Here we run through five of the best-known PC sticks out there, along with what they can do and how much they cost.

Google Chromebit HDMI

And now for something completely different: the Google Chromebit HDMI, made by Asus.

As you might have guessed, this is no Windows PC stick. Rather, it runs on Google’s own lightweight Chrome OS.

This actually has the potential to work far better than the aforementioned Windows sticks, because Chrome OS places much less demand on local resources.

Related: Chromecast tips and tricks

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Other than the OS, the Chromebit has the same USB 2.0 port, Bluetooth 4.0, and Wi-Fi connectivity of the other sticks on this list. However, it’s powered by a less capable Rockchip 3288 SoC. Still, the aforementioned difference in OS should make the performance shortfall a moot point.

Google’s PC stick also has half the internal storage of the others, but again, Chrome OS does most of its heavy lifting in the cloud, with no real "local" apps to lean on. It’s a good job, really, because there isn’t even a microSD slot here.

The Google Chromebit HDMI will available now in the States for $85 (around £56), which compares favourably with most of the Windows crowd.

Whether the loss in traditional OS power and flexibility that comes with that is something you can swallow… Well, that’s the big question you need to answer for yourself.

Intel Compute Stick

The first three of our featured PC sticks are actually very similar indeed. In fact, they’re built on more or less identical components.

First up we have the Intel Compute Stick. As with the others on this list, the Intel Compute Stick plugs into any monitor or television with an HDMI connection. The idea is to then plug in a keyboard and mouse via USB 2.0 or Bluetooth (or most likely a combination of the two) for a full PC setup.

See also: Intel Compute Stick review

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It then provides the choice of a full(ish) Windows 8.1 experience, though there’s also a cheaper Ubuntu version in the pipeline.

As with the rest, the Intel Compute Stick doesn’t really offer a full desktop experience in the truest sense. It’s intended for light usage, and once you start running multiple tasks it gets into trouble. After all, it runs on an Intel Atom Z3735F CPU, which is more or less a tablet CPU (though it is 64-bit), and that’s backed up by a mere 2GB of RAM.

32GB of storage means that you won’t be storing heaps of media files on it, though common to the rest there is a microSD slot for expansion purposes.

The Intel Compute Stick is also one of the most expensive around. You can pick one up for around £130 on Amazon, which is similar to the Lenovo equivalent, but dearer than the rest.

All in all, then, it’s not a particularly great purchase at present.

Lenovo Ideacentre Stick 300

The Lenovo Ideacentre Stick 300 has identical specs to the Intel Compute Stick, including the same Intel Atom Z3735F CPU with 2GB of RAM, the same 32GB of storage, and the same connectivity.

Just to be clear, that connectivity includes a microSD slot for storage expansion, Wi-Fi, a USB 2.0 port, and a Micro USB port.

It also runs Windows 8.1, though again only in the lightest sense possible. You won’t be booting up Battlefield on this little thing, that’s for sure.

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Like the Intel (and every other Windows 8.1 or Windows 7 device for that matter), it’s also eligible for a free Windows 10 upgrade when that launches at the end of this month.

The Lenovo Ideacentre Stick 300 hadn’t shown up in the UK at the time of writing, but it should do so in July some time, and it should cost around £130 like the Intel Compute Stick.

Archos PC Stick

Here’s another stick to sport exactly the same specs as the Intel model, but the Archos PC Stick has a trick up its sleeve. It costs a lot less than its direct rivals.

At just £79, the Archos PC Stick costs about £50 less than Intel’s and Lenovo’s efforts. Or it will, when it finally hits the UK.

What’s more, the Archos PC Stick will come preloaded with Word Mobile, Excel Mobile and PowerPoint Mobile, which is a curious thing to bundle it with, given the whole "dinky desktop" focus. It does highlight the between-two-stools dilemma these first-generation PC sticks face, however.

Related: The Windows 10 Start Menu explained

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Oh, and we should also note that the Archos looks a little funkier than the others, ditching the sober black of its pricey rivals in favour of a flashy blue suit.

The Archos PC Stick will ship with Windows 10 pre-installed, so there’ll be no fiddly upgrade required. As this suggests, though, it won’t be available until at least the end of July.

There doesn’t seem to be a firm release date for it, though.

Dell Wyse Cloud Connect

The Dell Wyse Cloud Connect has been around for more than a year. So, has the giant PC maker stolen a major march on Intel, Lenovo and co? Not quite.

The Dell Wyse Cloud Connect has a similar form factor to the rest, but it’s actually doing something completely different. It’s powered by Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and a modest dual-core Cortex-A9 ARM SoC (backed by 1GB of RAM), which makes it more akin to TV dongles such as the Google Chromecast than this new breed of plug-in PCs.

Related: Remix Mini is a computer powered by Android

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The idea here is to grant you secure remote access to the files and documents stored on your real computer at home or work.

It has the exact same connectivity options as the PC brigade, though. So, there’s Bluetooth 4.0 and USB for hooking up a keyboard and mouse, Wi-Fi, and a microSD slot for storage expansion purposes. It only has 8GB of local capacity, however.

The Wyse Cloud Connect is arguably a slightly out-of-date concept now, then, but you can still find examples for sale online for around the £90 mark if you’re interested. Given the greater power and flexibility of the newer alternatives, this seems a bit steep to us.

Have any more questions about PC sticks? Let us know in the comments section below.

PGrGr

July 22, 2015, 11:31 am

All very well, but the title of the article is "A guide to PC sticks: What can they actually do?" This article doesn't answer that at all.

What can you actually do with them? What is their intended purpose? I can't work it out. They don't offer enough storage or capability to replace an office PC. They don't offer enough storage to replace a media server. They don't have the graphical oomph required to work as a console repalcement. They are much more expensive than a streaming only device like the Chromecast.

What are they actually for? It looks to me like more of a marketing gimmick than anything, but I'd be happy to be put right.

Crowdedbrain

July 22, 2015, 11:45 am

To be honest the site I run had a long term loan of another PC Stick not mentioned above, this was made by Hannspree - called the MicroPC. Pretty much the same spec i.e. 2GB RAM, 32GB SSD Storage, Intel Atom CPU 1.33-1.83Ghz (Turbo) etc. I ended up mainly using it as a remote solution. For example I would connect back to my main office PC from another location so I could work. It performs well for this purpose. It also proved effective at streaming HD content from my Kodi Media Server. I even had some success running Steam games played over the In-Home Streaming option. The main problem with these devices is you need a little USB hub to expand the USB ports (usually there is only one) and a keyboard/mouse is needed to get the most from it - not to mention a monitor! This all adds to the cost of course! Wireless performance can also be damped by its lack of dual-band support (i.e. on this model it only supports 2.4Ghz)

Losingthewires

July 23, 2015, 3:43 pm

We have taken a partner product based on this design and adapted it to use Window 8.1 Pro or Enterprise. It also run Windows 10.

This device has 2 X USB and an audio socket making it ideal for Skype/Skype for Business etc.

In this way, it can become a secure home working, portable hot-desking or even in-office solution. It can be AD joined, GPO managed, encrypted using BitLocker with PIN/TPM (it has TPM 2.0) and use the same VPN to secure data tranfers as laptops and other tablets.
Able to run full Windows and associated applications such as Microsoft Office, this is an ideal, low cost tool to facilitate home working, flexible working etc.

We have done the same with a slightly larger (smartphone sized) product.

James Hilton

May 18, 2016, 7:42 pm

i bought a Lenovo stick 300 to use with an ultrawide monitor, but it doesnt support 2560x1080 res, are there any options?

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