PC On A Stick?

Category: Hardware

Back in May, I wrote about the $9 barebones C.H.I.P. computer that’s so tiny it looks like it would fit in a matchbox. If you want a pocket-sized PC that’s a bit more polished, there’s a category of them variously called “PC on a stick,” “PC stick,” or “Compute stick.” Read on for the scoop on these little gadgets that can turn your TV into a fully functioning computer...

What is a PC Stick?

I’m not talking about hobbyist devices like the C.H.I.P (see Really... a $9 Computer?) here. Nor is this the same as Chromecast or Amazon Fire TV Stick, which are dedicated streaming media servers. A PC stick is a general-purpose computer that can run any sort of application, even Microsoft Office if the stick supports Windows.

In fact, several PC sticks come with Windows 8.1 preinstalled, and are eligible for free upgrades to Windows 10 when that becomes available on July 29. The low cost of these sticks is possible, in part, because Microsoft is essentially giving away Windows 8.1 to OEMs for installation on low-cost mobile devices.

Dozens of manufacturers are offering PC sticks these days, including famous brands such as Intel, Dell, and Lenovo. Google and Asus will roll out a Chrome-based stick later this summer. In reviewing this mushrooming field, I find they have some things in common.

PC on a Stick?

They’re cheaper than Chromebooks, with street prices between $60 and $150. All PC sticks connect to a monitor or TV via an HDMI port. PC sticks are driven by low-cost, low power consumption chips commonly used in low-priced tablets and many smartphones. 2 GB of RAM is standard for PC sticks, with 4 GB available on some models.

Mass storage consists of solid-state (flash) memory; 16 GB on the low end, 32 GB standard, 64 GB is rare and expensive. For example, the Mouse Computer m-Stick at about $320.

PC sticks are generally cloud-oriented, like Chromebooks. Windows 8.1 itself takes about 16 GB, so storage space for apps and user data is pretty limited. WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity supplement micro-USB and USB 3.0 ports. A micro-SD card reader is desirable. For input, a wireless keyboard and mouse are required. PC sticks lack batteries, so they must use external power supplies or draw power via their USB or HDMI connections to powered monitors.

Will a PC Stick Replace Your Laptop?

This isn't the best way to replace a laptop for users on the go. I can’t imagine buying a PC stick for its pocket portability only to find I need a briefcase full of peripherals like a power brick, a keyboard, and a mouse. I would probably go for a PC stick that draws power via HDMI and can accept input via a keyboard app on my smartphone. (The incongruity of viewing work on a 50-inch TV screen while typing on a 5-inch smartphone keyboard is not lost on me.) The Dell stick linked above meets those criteria, and might be useful in a hotel room.

The PC stick falls between single-board hobbyist computers, like the C.H.I.P. or Raspberry Pi, and cloud-centric Chromebooks. Running MS Office on a stick will be very slow, but if you absolutely must get a spreadsheet done no matter how much it hurts, a fully Windows-capable PC stick will get it done. It’s more practical to use the cloud-based Microsoft Office 360 from a PC stick.

PC sticks are definitely not for gaming, video editing, or other CPU-intensive applications. But a person who has a spare wireless keyboard and mouse sitting in a drawer, and wants to surf the web on a huge screen, while sitting on a couch 10 feet away, this could be perfect. I can see that it has application for people with low vision as well.

And a PC stick that runs Chrome, Ubuntu or Android could be a good idea for older or non-technical people who just want to manage their email and surf the web without worrying about viruses or the hassles of maintaining a Windows system.

Does a PC on a stick appeal to you? Might it be a good solution for someone you know? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "PC On A Stick?"

Posted by:

JR Maxwells
06 Jul 2015

A complete meal on a stick. What a novel idea. Now how about a small roll up screen or fold up that would fit in your jacket pocket. With things getting smaller each month, seems to me that it will happen. Am I weird or is there others that think like me? Would it be possible to build a pair of glasses with a "stick" that would project the computer screen in front of your eyes? (Seems a "stick computer" would work) .

How about it Bob, could you use a computer that you can set up anywhere, anytime and not be depending upon external power? Then fold everything and put in your jacket pocket?

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

Yes, it appeals to me for streaming video on my TV screen that is not available through other services, for example my local news station.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

I remember seeing a holograph computer keyboard and monitor some time ago. Technology breakthroughs are coming every day so it's just a matter of time.

Posted by:

Wild Bill
06 Jul 2015

Bob, just to clarify, I believe the sticks running
Windows 8.1 are usually running an Intel Atom processor which is not an ARM-type device. Batting in the same ballpark but with a different bat.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Right, thanks. The Intel and Lenovo sticks have an Atom processor and run Windows. The Dell has an ARM processor and runs Android.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

What a smart idea. I can see the browsing aspect being popular, checking e-mails.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

My experience with hooking a computer to a TV screen (48-inch) because I have poor vision was a flop...the interface insisted I use a very high resolution, which defeated the whole purpose of trying a bigger screen. Everything was incredibly tiny, so I would have had to sit right up against the TV to see it. Unless the PC sticks support a smaller resolution or you had a massive screen, I'm guessing it would have the same limitations for someone with limited vision. I actually had the best luck with an old CRT that did a great job of 600 x 800; the newer monitors really bomb out with a low resolution...the individual pixels are really fuzzy and the overall picture is indistinct, which has been verified by a normal-vision person...it's not just my poor eyesight.

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

Hmmm? -the concept certainly appeals and I for one will be on the look out to buy one and for me the main decision will be whether to go for an ARM or ATOM processor most probably the former. Great article :)

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

Forgive my (seeming) negativity, but wouldn't it be easier to just use the smart phone you probably already have for most of the things discussed here? Most notably, email and surfing the web, like 90% of my co-workers are doing at break time? Am I missing something?

Posted by:

06 Jul 2015

I was thinking of getting one of these Stick PCs (already have Bluetooth keyboard & mouse) to be able to use my HDMI TV in the kitchen for web surfing, email. However, I have a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet with Windows 8.1 which supposedly supports Miracast (?). If I got a Miracast adapter (rather than a Stick PC), would I be able to use my Dell tablet with my HDMI TV? That would sure be cheaper for me. TIA for any comments.

Posted by:

Ralph Bruechert
07 Jul 2015

It seems to me that there are two types of devices called computers. First is the full blown desktop/tower/laptop capable of storing huge files and programs and running complex software: Photoshop, Excel, audio/video editing, etc. Then there is the smaller version, best used for casual web surfing, email, etc. The Stick PC, smart phones, and many tablets, fall into this category. Trying to get a Stick PC to run Excel is futile at best. Ya pays yer money and takes yer choice.

Posted by:

08 Jul 2015

Nothing new here. Linux has had this for years. For one, Linux Puppy takes up just over 500 Meg of space and is a full OS, including e-mail, browser, office suite and more. I use it frequently. It works great and it's FREE.

Posted by:

08 Jul 2015

21st Century version of GetSmart's shoe phone!
I am going to hold out until it is a wearable (implantable?) without any copper connectivity what-so-ever.
Although I do use an ASUS VivoPC (#VM40B) as my HomeTheatrePC (HTPC) for streaming movies to my SmartTV from my NAS.

Posted by:

20 Jul 2015

I bought a repackaged Chromecast for $25 at Tar-jay. It's totally new to me, but seems to work great. How are these sticks different? As far as I can tell, the main difference is having to use Google's Chrome browser with Chromecast. No real problem for me on my laptop or Android phone.

EDITOR'S NOTE: See the second paragraph of the article. Chromecast streams content from your computer to a TV. A PC stick *is* a computer.

Posted by:

Mohd. Ahteram
28 Sep 2015

Hi...its a smart idea to turn the hd tv into pc using the mini processor...but confusion lies whether we would be able to work on ms-office, photoshop, and surf internet as smoothly as we do in desktop or laptop...? Or would it be a futile expense..?

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