Introduction and Setup Impressions

The success of the ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) PCs have made vendors realize that small and power-efficient computing platforms are here to stay. ARM SoC vendors, finding that the tablet market had reached saturation, kickstarted a new product category in the form of 'HDMI sticks'. As a computing platform, they were smaller than the ultra-compact form factor PCs - just looking like an oversized USB key. Intel announced the Compute Stick at CES to bring one of the first Wintel platforms into this space. Late last month, Google also introduced the Chromebit, a Chrome OS-based HDMI stick. Both of these point to the 'stick' computing platform being more than just a passing fad. The Intel Compute Stick we are reviewing today comes with Windows 8.1 with Bing (32-bit) pre-installed, making it ready to roll right out of the box.

The specifications of our Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC review configuration are summarized in the table below.

Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC Specifications
Processor Intel Atom Z3735F
(4C/4T x 1.33 GHz, 22nm, 2MB L2, 2.2W SDP)
Memory 1x 2GB DDR3L-1333 C9
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
Disk Drive(s) Samsung MBG4GC 32 GB eMMC
Networking 1x1 Realtek RTL8723BS 802.11n W-Fi
Audio Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Operating System Windows 8.1 with Bing x86
Pricing (As configured) USD 150
Full Specifications Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC Specifications

The Atom Z3735F belongs to the Bay Trail-T family - the set of SoCs with Silvermont Atom cores that target the tablet market. Analysis of the Bay Trail SoCs has already been done in some of our previous reviews.

The Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC kit comes with the OS pre-installed. The drivers are available from Intel's site. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 10 W (5V @ 2A) adapter with a USB port along with a USB Type A to micro-USB cable, a HDMI extender cable and different detachable power plugs for usage anywhere around the world.

We had a very difficult experience managing our ECS LIVA review with just 32 GB of eMMC storage. Fearing a similar situation, we decided to augment our review unit with a Patriot EP series 64 GB microSDXC card.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. In fact, the review model is the only one of its kind that we have evaluated so far. That said, we are including systems that have comparable cost - so that users can get an idea of how much they are sacrificing or gaining with the stick form factor. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Intel PPSTCK1A32WFC
CPU Intel Atom Z3735F Intel Atom Z3735F
GPU Intel HD Graphics Intel HD Graphics
9-9-9-24 @ 1333 MHz
9-9-9-24 @ 1333 MHz
Storage Samsung eMMC MBG4GC
(32 GB; eMMC 5.0-compatible)
Samsung eMMC MBG4GC
(32 GB; eMMC 5.0-compatible)
Wi-Fi Realtek RTL8723BS 802.11n SDIO Network Adapter
(1x1 802.11n - 150 Mbps)
Realtek RTL8723BS 802.11n SDIO Network Adapter
(1x1 802.11n - 150 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $150 $150
Performance Metrics
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  • Drumsticks - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    Thanks for the review. Can somebody smarter than me explain why exactly 23.976 Hz is important? I assume that's the refresh rate used in movies, but is deviating slightly from that really so noticeable, or why is it so important? *never messed with HTPC stuff*
  • Guspaz - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    In the worst case, you're going to display those 23.976 FPS movies on a 60Hz screen. But they don't divide evenly. Ideally, you want each image to be on the screen for ~41.7ms, but a 60Hz display only works in multiples of ~16.7ms. So the closest you can get is displaying each image for ~33.3ms.

    But as you can see, 33.3ms is not the same as 41.7ms, so you end up having to display some frames for 33.3ms, and some frames for 50ms. The result is that motion that should be smooth appears jittery, because each frame is displayed for a different amount of time.

    The closer your display can get to actually displaying 23.976Hz, the fewer frames you'll need delay like that. If your display can do an even 24Hz, then you'll need to double up a frame every ~42 seconds. Not so bad. And the closer you get, the longer between doubled frames. And if you nail it at 23.976Hz, then you never double frames, and it looks great.
  • madwolfa - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    FWIW, I'm just using Smooth Motion feature of MadVR and it works great with 60Hz displays and 24 FPS content. Needs some GPU power, though.
  • joex4444 - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    The 23.976Hz is technically 24/1001, almost as if it originally derived from an "off-by-one" error in computing frames. Anyways, any multiple of that works just as well as the 23.976Hz display rate. Similarly, any multiple of 24Hz works as well as 24Hz.

    And one may ask what rates are available that are multiples of 24Hz to find a good solution. For example, 48Hz and 96Hz don't exist nor does 72Hz. The next multiple would be 120Hz, so by displaying each frame 5 times, each time lasting 8.34ms, one can similarly achieve a scenario that is fairly jitter free. Though in this case one wouldn't have to occasionally display a frame for an extra 16.67ms, but instead an extra 8.34ms.

    The next multiple available would be 6, yielding 144Hz and a refresh time of 6.95ms.

    In these cases that means going from 60Hz to 144Hz implies that when a frame is displayed an extra refresh cycle to kick the clock back in sync (like leap day does with the calendar), the "lag" experienced decreases from 16.67ms to 6.95ms, making that effect less than half as noticeable. However the real change from 60 to 120/144Hz is that the latter is a multiple of 24 while the former is not. The former, as you say, requires one to either display things for 33.3ms or 50ms and that causes some noticeable problems depending on the scene. Human reaction time is about 100ms, perhaps 80ms in someone young. However that's the time to react to something, we notice things on a shorter scale (see fighter pilots).
  • Laststop311 - Thursday, April 23, 2015 - link

    Actually plasma displays do have 72hz and 96hz refresh rates. Pioneer kuro's have a 72hz refresh mode and panasonics have 96hz refresh mode. The cheaper panasonics have a 48hz mode but it introduced flicker that made it unwatchable so 72hz was the slowest refresh rate that is watchable and compatible with 24 fps film. This was one of their big selling points as they can natively play 24fps blu ray films at their intended speed without 3:2 pulldown. I know this for a fact as I have a Panasonic plasma that can accept a 1080p24 signal from a bluray using 96hz by repeating each frame of the movie 4 times 4:4 pulldown i believe.
  • kyuu - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    I'm not 100%, but I believe the issue is that the disparity in the refresh rate adds up over time and results in skipped frames here and there.
  • babgvant - Thursday, April 23, 2015 - link

    Refresh rate accuracy is important because when it's wrong frames get dropped to keep A/V in sync. For 24p (23.976) this is especially important because there are fewer frames, so it's much more noticeable. In this case 23.973 isn't bad (i.e. there won't be many frames that go missing), but it's not what we've come to expect, and enjoy, from Intel's other systems that get it pretty much perfect.
  • nathanddrews - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    Fortunately, you can pick up 100Mb and 1GbE USB adapters for under $10, so the networking performance can be greatly improved with little effort... but the lack of HD bitstreaming is a complete fail for HTPC use. If it's anything like my other Bay Trail devices, it will also struggle with Steam In-Home Streaming.

    Can't wait for v2.0!
  • mwildtech - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    I have a Baytrail powered Zotac Pico PI320. I'm using the 10/100 Ethernet port, and it does Steam in-home streaming @ 1080p/60 pretty well. Though Baytrail doesn't have QuickSync, the DVXA decoder does a decent job.
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - link

    The issue I foresee is that if you are going to make the setup unwieldy with an adapter hanging off the Compute Stick - then, the advantage of the form factor is lost. You might as well pick up one of the other mini-PCs compared in this review, but that is just my opinion

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