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Tucking an entire PC onto a thumb-sized USB stick may sound like science fiction, but that's exactly what the best PC sticks manage. Like slipping a laptop into your pocket, these tiny computers let you do word processing, browsing, and even light gaming without lugging around so much as a laptop-sized chassis.
Intel's Compute Stick CS125 is a great example; it takes our top slot because of how simple it is to slide into the USB or HDMI port of a TV or monitor and get down to business, and it includes a MicroSD slot for adding up to 128GB of storage and USB input ports for adding a mouse and keyboard.
Continue reading for our best PC stick picks, or head over to our best mini PCs roundup for more tiny computing options.
It may come as no surprise that Intel PC sticks embody many of best things the format has to offer—after all, the processor is most of what makes a mini PC stick what it is. The one Intel includes in the very affordably priced Compute Stick CS125 is a solid example. It’s a quad-core Atom x5-Z8300, a mobile chip with a respectable 1.44-GHz clock speed. Paired with 2 GB of RAM, you get enough performance to handle everyday word processing, Web browsing, light gaming, and streaming HD movies and shows.
Setting up the Windows 10-equipped CS125 is straightforward, but takes a few steps. You can plug the 4.5-inch-long device directly into any HDMI port on your TV or monitor, or use the included extension HDMI cable if space is tight. The stick has two ports (a USB 2.0 and a faster USB 3.0) for accessories such as a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard, and you’ll need a keyboard to go through the initial setup.
Overall, the CS125’s collection of features make it a great value PC stick for most purposes. Its 32-GB embedded MultiMediaCard (eMMC) flash storage isn’t a huge amount of space, but you can use the micro SD card slot to expand up to 128 GB. The dual-band 802.11ac-supported Wi-Fi connection also offers a quick, reliable network.
Another benefit to a tiny, portable PC you can use with your own displays and input devices is that they can come at reasonable costs. The W5 Pro Mini PC a great example, with a quad-core Intel Atom x5-Z8350 CPU that helps provide everything you need to get streaming video and basic desktop functions on your TV. There’s a configuration with 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of eMMC flash storage that does the job just fine, but you can also pay extra and get a performance boost from the higher-end version with 4 GB of memory and a 64 GB of storage.
The W5 Pro comes in a compact 3.9-inch long case, cooled by a fan that makes very little noise. It offers Bluetooth and dual-band Wi-Fi connectivity, two USB ports for accessories, and a micro SD card slot to expand your storage. There’s a micro USB port for the included power adapter that you can plug into a wall outlet, but you can also power it using a portable power bank. This can come in handy when you’re on the go.
Azulle’s line of PC sticks includes design features unique among most of its competitors, and they’re found on the budget-friendly Quantum Access model as well. One easily visible difference is the adjustable antenna for improving Wi-Fi signal reception, though you may need to take some extra care to make sure it doesn’t snap off. Another difference is something that’s missing — its fan-less design means no vents or fans on the device and less noise during operation.
The Quantum Access delivers strong value and performance as well, with a 1.33-GHz quad-core Intel Atom Z3735F processor and 2 GB of RAM that can handle most day-to-day tasks. It supports Bluetooth 4.0, but on the downside, it only offers single-band 802.11g/b/n Wi-Fi. There’s also only one full-size USB-A 2.0 port, along with a micro USB port and a micro SD slot. That means if you want to connect multiple devices that use full-size USB ports, you’ll need to use a USB hub or consider using a keyboard/mouse combo.
If you’re looking to get truly functional performance from a PC stick, you’d do well to look to the Intel Compute Stick CS325. More powerful hardware is packed into its 4.5 x 1.5 x 0.5-inch frame than just about any other out there. Its Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor is lightning quick for a CPU designed for low power consumption. It comes with 4 GB of RAM, 64 GB of eMMC storage (expandable via a micro SD slot), and the 64-bit version of Windows 10. All this adds up to a mini computer that can multitask more efficiently, work with larger files, play more games, run more intensive programs like Photoshop, and stream higher-resolution content, including 4K. That’s well beyond what the typical PC stick on the market can offer.
The CS325 is also more flexible with inputs than other options, with a USB 3.0 port on the stick itself and two more of them on the power adapter. It’s very convenient since you can have both a mouse and a keyboard connected at the same time, even if they need separate USB ports, in addition to another accessory like an external hard drive. It also supports Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi in terms of networking.
Google’s Chrome OS is a light and nimble operating system that takes advantage of the Internet and the cloud, so putting it use on the lightest and nimblest computers makes a lot of sense. This is exactly what Asus does with the Chromebit CS10, creating an effective portable PC with a very low price tag. Powered by a quad-core Rockchip RK3288C ARM-based processor and 2 GB of RAM, its performance won’t match up to a full Chromebook, but it can certainly do more than just video streaming like a Chromecast.
The Chromebit includes a somewhat limiting 16 GB of built-in storage, but it comes with 100 GB of free Google Drive cloud storage for two years. It’s a big help to have your files synced and accessible from anywhere, rather than have to switch out additional SD cards or external hard drives for storage — especially considering the device comes with no micro SD card slot and only one USB 2.0 port. You’ll likely want to use the USB port for a wireless mouse/keyboard combo or a USB hub for more flexibility.
At the highest end of Intel’s PC sticks is one with the hardware to potentially serve as a full on-the-go desktop machine. The Compute Stick CS525 comes equipped with a Core m5-6Y57 processor, a 6th-generation Core chip based on Intel’s Skylake architecture that’s usually found in tablets and 2-in-1 laptops. Combined with its 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of integrated eMMC storage, you won’t feel like you’re compromising on performance like you might with the slower hardware on other PC sticks. And, with Bluetooth 4.2, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and three USB 3.0 ports (one on the stick and two on the power adapter), it has about as much connectivity as you can get, minus Ethernet.
The reason the CS525 is for businesses or expert users comes down to the operating system — it doesn’t come with one. The product might make the most sense for you if, for example, you’re a business with a license for multiple copies of Windows 10 to install on your organization’s devices. Individuals wanting to run Windows would have to pay the additional cost for a license and go through the installation process. But if you’re looking for the most powerful PC hardware you can carry around and plug into any HDMI port, it may be well worth the investment.
Unsurprisingly, Intel leads the PC stick pack with its CS125, a well-rounded option with good expandability and peripheral options. For a slightly cheaper alternative, consider Terryza's excellent W5.