The Intel Compute Stick provides a full desktop experience in an ultra-portable HDMI dongle form factor. It’s like Google Chromecast, but an entire PC instead of just a web browser. I tested both the $150 Windows 8 version and the new $110 Ubuntu version.
TAP TAP TAP. IS THIS THING ON?
The HDMI end goes into a display, the power goes into an outlet, and a blue light comes on but the Stick does not boot. Either tap or long press the power button, then switch the display input source after a few seconds. Just by looking at the Stick you cannot tell if it’s off, on, or booting. Long press the power button and you may end up at the boot menu or the blue light may go off—I suppose making the Stick even more off than previously.
It boots. This is where you need to find a keyboard, then a little later find a mouse. See, there’s only one USB port on the Stick so we ended up swapping peripherals during the setup. This gets old instantly so either get a USB hub or some bluetooth peripherals. Unsurprisingly, the Microsoft bluetooth keyboard we got from our local StaplesMax Depot did not like the Ubuntu version of the Stick so we needed a hub.
You will want to plug the included HDMI extension cable into the Stick or your wifi will be—at least in my experience—absent. Use the micro-USB charger that came with the Stick if you want it to boot at all. It’s a proprietary charger masquerading as non-proprietary. It’s better to find this out now rather than on the road. All of these non-moving parts make for something…squiddy.
GETTING THAT FOR WHICH YOU PAID
I type this now with the intestines. The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. It performs well for the tasks that most people perform most often, but then again we live at a time where my $35 MP3 player has a word processor, plays chess, and even runs the game DOOM.
Web pages load with a small delay but I have little complaint there. YouTube, for example, runs smoothly and overall the Stick is fine for common tasks.
Lag is lag. While typing I get periodic freezes. No words appear and then all of a sudden abracadabra. Opening a folder in the file manager sometimes takes a few beats. There’s a 64-bit quad-core Atom processor inside® but it sometimes feels like Mac OS 8 or Windows 3.1 on 20 year old hardware. Fun fact: the Ubuntu Stick has 1GB RAM / 8GB storage while the Windows Stick has 2GB RAM / 32GB storage. The internet says you can install Linux on the Windows version.
Let’s push things a bit. The Leap Motion is a cool USB device which tracks your hands’ motions and provides an API to do things with that data. Even though the Stick doe—oops, freeze-up—does not meet the minimum requirements, why not give it a try? I’m sure it’s fine and no harm will come of it.
PART NUMBER II
The Leap Motion did not work so I tried rebooting the Stick. And tried. And tried. And tried… Sure, I had not mastered the power button but this was different. The Stick would show the Ubuntu splash screen and then go endlessly dark. Luckily, others had faced the same issue. I simply had to hold the power button for just less than 4 seconds—not 4 seconds, mind you—to get into the boot menu, then choose to recover the BIOS. BIOS recovery did not fix the black screen. Update the BIOS then. That went smoothly, but did not fix it. There were other trials too.
At this point, I just wanted the beginnings of this very blog post off of the Stick. I decided to make a bootable USB drive so I could at least grab the document. I’ve only made “live” CDs/DVDs before and making a live USB stick was more challenging and time-consuming than I had anticipated. I was able to get GParted installed but then decided Puppy Linux with persistency would be easier. I tried doing this on my Linux machine at home but in the end the easiest thing I found was LinuxLive USB Creator on Windows. Prepared, I hoped that the next day I would be able to grab those words up there from the borked Stick.
When I got to work I decided to try the Stick again: same problem, of course. I had a meeting so I left it plugged in. When I got back I tried rebooting, ever the naïve optimist.
It boots!!! And an error message popped up, perhaps the cause of all of this: The volume “Filesystem root” has only 156.5 MB disk space remaining. Where had I seen that before?
My confidence restored along with the bootability, I am continuing this blog post on the Stick. It is behaving well with little lag although Firefox crashed a couple times with one tab open. I’m not entirely sure if this is “normal” or if the trials and tribulations took their toll.
If the self-healing mini-miracle had not happened, would I have been able to boot from the USB stick? No. There’s a Catch-22 because of the sole USB port. The keyboard needs that port to use the boot menu. Using the hub or switching to the hub when at that menu ends all input from then on. There is a micro SD slot, and if I wasn’t exhausted from all of this I would try to boot from it.