Intel Compute Stick – digital signage… on a stick

compute-stick-shadowNot sure I’ll get any awards for originality of this headline but in this case the product name really does do what it says on the tin.

I first head of the Compute Stick at the BETT show back when it was a vapourware product so was interested to try one out when they got out to the wider market. Even more so with the fairly low price point that’s currently sitting under the £100 mark courtesy of Amazon.

The reviews don’t lie, but fear not

When I initially read the reviews of the product the signs didn’t sound good, in fact the headline from Gizmodo is pretty damning. Fortunately the last line about really liking kiosk LCD signage is my use-case down to a tee… so we carry on 🙂

For reference and to save taking loads of identical photos here’s the reviews I’m referencing:

http://gizmodo.com/intel-compute-stick-review-don-t-buy-it-1699377058
http://www.techradar.com/reviews/pc-mac/intel-compute-stick-1292183/review

Why buy a Compute Stick?

Until now we’ve either been using recycled PCs that we’ve removed from active service and by combining bits of them together (plus some £20 graphics cards) created something powerful enough to run HD signage effectively.

That’s worked OK until we’ve got to some more recent installs where there’s nowhere to hide an ungainly desktop PC. For those we’ve been getting nettop-esque players that come in around the £300 mark. The Compute Stick comes in around 1/3 the price in comparison and is even easier to mount due to its diminutive size. 

Getting started

Although the Compute Stick comes with a bundled copy of Windows 8.1 with Bing we decided to wipe and reload our own Enterprise license to allow us to join the device to our domain. Some forum posts suggested varying levels of success but in all cases so far a full wipe and reload (from USB media) has been successful.

Unfortunately I can’t say the same about a Windows 10 upgrade though, which got a bit messy on the sole machine we tried before being formatted back to Windows 8.1. The 32GB eMMC storage device isn’t the quickest in the world so large upgrades like this take some time to complete, which makes it a bit galling when they fail right at the end! It seems Intel may start shipping the Compute Stick with Windows 10 as standard soon though.

Tip: before you start I’d advise jumping to the BIOS and enable “Performance” mode.

The Stick hasn’t got a great deal of power behind it anyway so throttling it down further won’t do any favours.

Connectivity

As touched on in the reviews above you only get one USB port to play with so a hub is essential for configuring the Compute Stick. Once you’re done it’s trivial to remote control it via VNC or similar remote access products, which is fine for this particular use case.

One thing to get out the way before you consider one of these devices though… Wi-Fi is awful. No other way of saying it, range is poor, signal drops were common and the Wi-Fi chip seems to somehow slow down the device as well. Seems we’re not alone in experiencing the issue so it looks like a hardware or driver fault https://communities.intel.com/thread/72826?start=15&tstart=0

In a way the Wi-Fi issues don’t matter as we run all our signage players wired anyway. A suitable USB Ethernet dongle was soon purchased; we went for this Startech adapter, which works a treat and has been solid in our testing thus far. It’s also the same size as the Compute Stick and makes a neat combo when held together with a suitably sized cable tie.

http://www.startech.com/uk/Networking-IO/usb-network-adapters/USB-2-to-Gigabit-Ethernet-NIC-Network-Adapter~USB21000S2

Conclusion

All in all it’s safe to say the Compute Stick is far from perfect; it’s Intel’s first go at a new platform and I’m sure the next revision will smooth out a lot of the rough edges we’ve seen in this model. With new Cherry Trail powered devices just around the corner there’s no doubt the platform will get a bit of a performance boost too.

Ref: http://www.stickpcstore.com/blog/intel-atom-cherry-trail-x5-z8500-124092015/

There’s already some interesting hardware appearing but not shipping just yet so keep your eyes peeled. If the MagicStick lives up to its claims it should be a rather impressive device…

https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/magicstick-most-powerful-pc-stick-8gb-ram
http://www.theverge.com/2015/9/2/9244031/asus-vivostick-windows-10-announced

In the meantime if you need a cheap Windows-based signage solution keep an eye out for offers as retailers clear out this generation of Intel sticks.

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