Performance, Usage Models and Conclusions
A Quick Talk about Performance
Let’s be very clear about this, the Intel Compute Stick is not built for performance. You will not be amazed by the render rates or gaming frame rates when booting up this device for the first time, especially in comparison to higher end tablets or even low end notebooks. But Bay Trail does supply enough performance to get the job done for the kinds of tasks that you would expect for a direct-to-HDMI device would address. This includes video playback, streaming video, basic data processing and web browsing.
But I know that at least a couple of you are going to be curious about performance numbers on a specific scale. With that in mind I have included results from CineBench and 3DMark to give you an overall view of the status of the stick.
In a single-threaded CineBench workload, the Compute Stick and the Atom Z3735F are pulling out a modest score of just 0.28 points. That is 46% slower than the even the Atom Z3770 from a Windows tablet released last year, not even close when compared to the new Broadwell-bases Core M 5Y70. That’s not totally unexpected, even though the Compute Stick has a better showing once you turn on the multi-threaded workload. With a score of 1.08, the Atom Z3735F is 36% slower than the Atom Z3770 and 70% slower than the Core M 5Y70.
A quick look at the 3DMark Ice Storm results shows that while the Intel Compute Stick can definitely handle the test, it performance remains the same and ending up behind the Z3770 and the Core M product. On the graphics test which is most telling from the 3DMark suite, the Atom Z3735F is 44% slower than the Atom Z3770 and more than 2.6x slower than the Core M 5Y70.
As I said before, the Intel Compute Stick wasn’t going to show well in the benchmarks area and no amount of test cherry picking is going to fix that. But the Bay Trail iteration that we have here is more than capable of addressing very specific workloads that the form factor is targeted at. Video playback at high bit rate 1080p resolutions will play back without hiccups and without stutter. I was able to test YouTube 1080p video, using Flash, which runs at fairly high data rates, and the CPU utilization rested around the 70-80% mark. Flipping over to the 2560×1440 video on YouTube started to peg the processing cores, and 4K… well let’s not bring that up, shall we?
Real-World Use Case Discussion
I think a discussion of individual use cases for the Intel Compute Stick are likely more effective in detailing the specifics of our performance observations.
Multimedia and Home Theater
I think it’s clear that the most obvious use case for the Intel Compute Stick is as a multimedia device or as a low cost home theater implementation. With the HDMI connection built right into the form factor, attaching the device to a TV is dead simple and getting up and running nearly as easy. The wireless 802.11n connection allows you to get the device on your local network in a snap, though you might be somewhat limited with VERY high bit rate imagery (if you have a lot of 50 Mbps Blu-ray rips for example). The inclusions of Bluetooth means you can connect and utilize wireless input devices like mice and keyboards, though it is a bit of pain to set it all up – you are going to need to use a wired or nano receiver based keyboard and mouse to setup and pair the Bluetooth accessories first.
With access to a full version of Windows 8.1 on the Compute Stick, users will have the highest amounts of flexibility for streaming media and media playback. That means you can choose to use VLC or Media Player Classic, if so desired. If you want to integrate a Plex server/client infrastructure in your home or office, the Compute Stick can run the client side of this and stream multimedia without issue. If you want to focus on the commercial streaming clients like Netflix and Amazon, you can do that as well.
In our testing, all of these use cases work very well. I was able to view Netflix movies at 1080p, stream Amazon Prime video, and run a Plex client within the performance envelope that the Compute Stick provides. For viewing YouTube video, we were able to reach 1080p streaming resolutions without hiccups and stutter. Now to be fair – you don’t have a lot of performance headroom to do multi-tasking, so don’t load up the Compute Stick with background processes that can slow things down. When you start using lower performance hardware, you need to be more careful with these specifics than you would with a higher-end PC.
Plex at work
The biggest drawback of the Compute Stick as a home theater device is the interface of Windows 8.1. The Fire TV Stick, the Chromecast, and other dedicated devices implement a proper 10ft interface and ship with a remote control to allow for simplified control while sitting on a couch across the room. Windows 8.1, out of the box, does not offer such an interface with the forced use of a keyboard and mouse on the couch not an ideal situation. You can invest in other accessories that improve the interface issue and you can even find software solutions to give you a similar “10ft feeling”. However, many users may feel hindered on first time use of the device. Could Windows Media Center solve this? Maybe…but it’s another question to ask can the Compute Stick offer the capability to run it.
Small offices that were the target for the original release of the Intel NUC are still a target for the Compute Stick. Any kind of office environment where a user is doing typical office activities like word processing, spreadsheets, form input, etc. will more than likely see the new Compute Stick as having more than enough performance to get the job done. These types of office applications, as well as standard web usage models (watching videos, reading email, browsing the web) are definitely in the wheelhouse of the Bay Trail platform.
Recently I was taking my three mutts to the vet’s office and found that the checkout area where they frequently swipe my credit card was actually powered by an Intel NUC mounted to the VESA connection on the back side of the monitor. The Intel Compute Stick would likely be an equally solid performer for the point-of-sales (POS) terminal that was currently using the NUC, but at a dramatically lower price. A potential pitfall though for general purpose productivity users is the single USB port it provides. Office environments are more likely implementing low cost input devices that require their own USB port. Something like a POS system will require a USB input for a card swiper or signature pad. This means that users will need to complicate the Compute Stick installation somewhat with the requirement of a USB hub.
In part of the documentation from Intel they claim that the Compute Stick could operate as a client for Steam in-home streaming. But that requires some work because the 2.4 GHz 802.11n wireless controller included with the device really won’t up to the task. Intel suggests using a USB to Ethernet adapter to get a hard-wired connection to the Compute Stick or to install a USB-based 802.11ac adaptor. In our testing, both of these suggestions work. We were able to use Steam streaming with the Compute Stick, playing GRID 2, Skyrim, and other titles from a high end gaming PC when connected through a 10/100 Ethernet adaptor or 802.11ac ASUS dongle. The issue with that? It basically starts a deterioration of the entire premise of the Compute Stick to begin with. It no longer appears to be a free-standing computer “on a stick”. So while it is possible to use for this task, I don’t see it as a great option or utilization of resources.
Steam in-home streaming…kind of.
I did find that the device was more than capable of running some basic Steam games locally. If you are a fan of Super Meat Boy or FTL style games, the Intel Compute Stick was able to run those games perfectly. With the resurgence in this classification of gaming, it should continue to be a growing segment of the market. Running the environment in Steam Big Picture mode still works as well, giving you the option to get some kind of adequate 10ft user experience. However, this will require use of a Bluetooth or USB-based gaming controller for the best results.
Some Super Meat Boy!
Thin Client/Mom & Dad
Finally, in a similar vein to the productivity use case for the Compute Stick, I think the device works well as a thin client for schools and libraries as well as that computer you need to buy and setup for your parents or grandparents. Considering the majority of this usage will be through a browser, whether that be looking up medicine dosages on Google or viewing the latest videos of your kids on YouTube, the Compute Stick offers more than enough performance and capability for the task. And because of the low cost of the device, you can feel free to set this device up on several TVs or monitors in a group environment without breaking the bank.
Pricing and Availability
The Intel Compute Stick using Windows 8.1 with Bing, model number STCK1A32WLC, is currently on the market for just $149. That gets you all the hardware and the Windows 8.1 software, preinstalled. The Linux variant, STCK1A8LLC, has 8GB of local storage rather than 32GB and 1GB of system memory rather than 2GB and sells for $110.
These prices make the Compute Stick incredibly compelling in the same way that the low price of things like the Raspberry Pi did. I realize that $150 is a lot more than $40, but when you start to compare the included features of the Compute Stick like the microSD card slot, on-board storage, HDMI and wireless networking that would cost extra for the Pi, you might find the price gap shrinks quite a bit.
As the Intel Compute Stick launches, it will quickly become one of the most cost efficient and capable ways to integrate a Windows 8.1 PC in the world. Powered by a quad-core Bay Trail processor, the Compute Stick has a surprising amount of horsepower to power multimedia playback, office applications, and typical web usages. It does not have enough performance compete with a 15W to 35W TDP notebook by today’s standards, but it doesn’t intend to with its $150 price point.
The feature set of the Compute Stick makes it an easy plug and play device for several usage models which are detailed above. With 32GB of local storage and a microSD card slot, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0, and the embedded HDMI connection, you can buy a monitor or TV and a Compute Stick for a fully functional PC environment.
As you might expect, there are some quirks for something this unique and new. First, the need to have a set of USB input devices in order to setup the wireless Bluetooth devices means that setup is not as simple as it should be. A single USB port also means that some use cases will require a USB hub, essentially doubling the physical size of the Compute Stick platform. The standard Windows 8.1 interface is great when installed on a monitor but is problematic with a TV and the TV's need for a “10ft UI”. Also, the need for an external USB power input means the device isn’t quite plug-and-play.
Despite these challenges, I came away more impressed with the Intel Compute Stick as a device than I expected to. While on the surface and immediately following CES I thought it would be a gimmick at best or as a way to show the power efficiency of Intel SoC going forward, I now find that the form factor could be very compelling to a very specific subset of users. And for enthusiasts that are looking for an easy to setup an extension of their main PC for media streaming and MAYBE game streaming, the $150 investment seems worth a shot.