What Is a Computer Stick?

A brief guide to affordable, portable computers

Close up of the Intel W5 Mini PC computer stick
While not for everyone, there are certain situations that make a computer stick truly useful.

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A computer stick is a single-board, palm-sized computer that resembles a media streaming stick (such as the Amazon Fire TV Stick or Roku Streaming Stick). They are sometimes referred to as compute sticks, PC sticks, PCs on a stick, computers on a stick, or screenless PCs.

Computer sticks feature mobile processors, graphics processors, flash memory storage, RAM, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, operating systems, and an HDMI connector. Some computer sticks also offer microSD card slots, micro USB, and/or USB 2.0/3.0 ports for storage expansion.

How to Use a Computer Stick

Computer sticks are simple to set up and use as long as you have the necessary equipment. To get started, you’ll need:

  • A free HDMI port on a television, monitor screen, or desktop or laptop PC.
  • Power from a nearby USB port or outlet.
  • Keyboard and mouse. (Bluetooth wireless models will prove more convenient.)
  1. Once plugged in, the computer stick will start its boot sequence. Switch the television or monitor input to the HDMI port with the computer stick in order to view the system’s desktop.

  2. After you pair a keyboard and mouse for full control and connect the computer stick to a local wireless network, you’ll have a fully-functioning computer ready to go.

    Some computer sticks have mobile apps that serve as digital keyboards.

Due to the limitations of hardware, computer sticks don’t make the best choice for processor-intensive programs like Photoshop, Pro Tools, 3D games, or multitasking. However, computer sticks do have an attractive price-point—generally between $50 and $200, but some can cost upwards of $400 or more. They are also highly portable. When combined with a folding Bluetooth keyboard with touchpad, computer sticks gain the advantage of flexibility and power for the size.

Advantages of a Computer Stick

Given that we have desktops, laptops, smartphones, and tablets, it’s understandable for someone to question the practicality of also owning a computer stick. While not for everyone, there are situations that make a computer stick truly useful. Some examples are:

  • Secondary family PC: Instead of getting the kids their own desktop, you can turn any compatible television into a computer for them to use. This lets them surf the web, run apps, or play games, all on a big screen and without you having to grant access to your own devices. Plus, if it’s on the main family television, it’s easier to monitor the kids’ activity.
  • Smarter than a Smart TV: Smart TVs are great, but they have some constraints—namely, limited app support, difficult mouse or keyboard controls, and limited portability. A computer stick can do everything a Smart TV can as well as turn any television into a Smart TV.
  • Travel companion: Laptops can be bulky and heavy to carry around. Have a work presentation or trade show to do? Plug a computer stick into a projector to run PowerPoint slides or video. Relaxing in a hotel room? Use a computer stick like a media center to stream your favorite media or music on the room’s TV screen.