Intel clearly didn't spend much time on the Compute Stick's design. It's a plastic, rectangular black stick that's simply boring. Aside from a plain, white Intel logo, the only bit of style its got are vents for some of the tiniest computer fans I've ever seen. Beyond that, you've got one full-sized USB port for your accessories (a USB hub is pretty much required); a micro-USB port that connects to the AC adapter; a micro SD card slot (for up to 128GB more storage); and a power button with a lone blue power LED. While it's small, it's not exactly svelte -- it's about the size of four typical USB sticks joined together. The Compute Stick is purely utilitarian, although its lack of flash probably won't matter much since it's mainly going to be stuck behind a TV or monitor. There might be some slight cosmetic changes once it hits retail, but I wouldn't count on anything drastic.
For the most part, the Compute Stick is a device that proves it's possible to build a tiny computer in stick form, but it leaves the door open for others to refine that concept. I'd imagine plenty of third-party computer makers would like to take a stab at making a more stylish version, perhaps one that's thinner and made out of metal instead of plastic. It's also a market that Google is getting into with its Chromebit, which is basically the Chrome OS version of the Compute Stick.
Aside from the device itself, Intel gives you a few accessories to get started: a short USB cable and AC adapter for power, a handful of plug attachments for the AC adapter and an HDMI extension cord (for when you can't fit the Compute Stick directly into an HDMI port).
Setup and performance
If you're paying close attention, you'd realize by now that there's one major flaw with the Compute Stick's design: It only has one USB port! Intel assumes you'll plug in your own USB hub to get your keyboard, mouse and other accessories connected. But if you don't have one handy, it can really throw a wrench into the entire setup process. Sure, if you're buying the Compute Stick, you've probably got a hub around, but having a single USB port still isn't very user-friendly.
I was able to get both my wireless keyboard and mouse connected to the Compute Stick with a single USB receiver, luckily enough. I also learned the hard way that you really need to connect the USB power cable to the AC adapter to properly boot the Compute Stick. I spent days trying to get it up and running by plugging it into one of my TV's USB ports (though, oddly enough, some testers have managed to get it working on their USB ports).
Once you've sorted the power and input situation, using the Compute Stick is pretty much exactly the same as every other Windows 8 computer. If you're connecting it to a monitor on your desk, you probably won't be too wowed -- it simply feels normal. The real magic behind the Compute Stick occurs when you connect it to other displays. I first tested it out on my HDTV, and it was a bit trippy navigating Windows on a 50-inch screen with a keyboard and mouse on my coffee table. (Yes, I know this is normal to you HTPC nerds out there.) The more displays I plugged the Compute Stick into, the more amorphous the very idea of a PC became -- and really, that's exactly what Intel wants.
Given the Compute Stick's specs -- a 1.3GHz Atom Z3735F (with burst speeds up to 1.8GHz), 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage -- I didn't really expect it to be a strong performer. And, sad to say, my testing pretty much confirmed that. It was fine for light web browsing and basic productivity tasks, but it slowed down quickly once I started piling on browser tabs and opening up multiple applications. I was constantly fighting with memory-hungry Chrome; all it took was one rogue video ad or Flash embed to bring things to a halt. It's pretty much netbook-level performance -- usable, but you have to be very careful about overloading it.
The Compute Stick handled my basic daily workflow -- browsing the web, chatting with coworkers and friends on Slack and other IM clients and editing images occasionally -- but everything felt too slow for comfort. This isn't something that you can use as a secondary computer very easily. And you can forget about running games, as the benchmarks above make clear. 3DMark11, a five-year-old 3D benchmark, was pretty much a slideshow on the Compute Stick. It could barely even muster running Hotline Miami, a fairly simple 2D game.
But really, the Compute Stick isn't truly meant for heavy usage, or for playing games. And that's partially why I'm not recommending it for now. It's a proof of concept through and through. And even when Intel and its partners deliver better versions, they'll still have a very limited purpose. It's a perfect form factor for computer labs and kiosks, since you can carry dozens of them in your pockets instead of lugging desktops around. But unless future Compute Sticks get a lot cheaper, you'll probably be better off with a cheap laptop or tablet.
As disappointing as it is for most uses, the Compute Stick might be useful if you're simply looking for a slim media computer for your living room. It can access network shares easily just like any PC, and it managed to play 1080p MKV files and YouTube streams easily (as long as you don't have too many other things open). Still, you can probably find small home theater PCs for around $200 that can do a lot more.
Configuration options and the competition
In addition to the $150 Windows 8 Compute Stick is a $110 model with just 8GB of storage and 1GB RAM running Ubuntu Linux. That's going to be less useful for most people, but the lower price makes it a much more palatable test device for some hardware geeks (though you won't be installing Windows on 8GB of storage). Intel says it's not publishing an official retail price for these devices, so there's a good chance they'll be available for much less over the next few months.
The Compute Stick has a few competitors like the MeeGoPad T01 and the (seemingly discontinued) FXI Cotton Candy stick, but in terms of hardware from companies you'd actually know, Google's recently announced Chromebit is its main foe. That device costs only $100 and runs Chrome OS on a Rockchip CPU and 2GB of RAM. If you're just looking for a simple web-browsing dongle, the Chromebit might just be enough. And since most people don't expect Chrome OS to do everything a full Windows computer can, the fact that it's relatively underpowered probably won't be too noticeable. Google also put a lot more effort into the Chromebit's design -- it's significantly thinner than Intel's entry and it also swivels up around the HDMI part so it's not a huge eyesore sticking out of your TV or monitor.
In this price range I'd also recommend looking at inexpensive Windows laptops like the $200 HP Stream. It can also connect to displays over HDMI, and -- gasp! -- it's also a fully functional laptop.
After testing out the Compute Stick for a few weeks, I was reminded of Intel's first foray into mobile processors. For years it showed off ugly prototype phones at CES and other tech conventions that nobody in their right mind would buy. They were just meant to prove that Intel could actually make mobile processors. The Compute Stick shows that Intel can build an entirely new form of computing device, but it fails to prove why anyone would want one.