Intel(NASDAQ:INTC)has given Microsoft an answer to the Google Chromebit stick computer.
The new Compute Stick brings Windows 8.1 to an ultraportable device that fits in your pocket. It is a full-powered computer just roughly the size of a big flash drive. It is a new profile for a device running Windows in an emerging category, which has yet to prove itself viable.
Using a Compute Stick (or a Chromebit) requires a monitor with an HDMI port as well as a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. It is a new method of computing that makes it easy to turn any HDMI-equipped television into a quasi-computer. That makes it possible to do everything from checking your email during a commercial break to creating an alternative to using set-top boxes like the Amazon Fire TV, Roku, or Apple TV.
It remains to be seen exactly how people will use stick computers (or if they will use them at all), but Intel has delivered a device that holds some promise. It is not a traditional computer, but it packs the power of one, and that should lead to all sorts of interesting applications.
It is not just for Windows
While the $149 Windows version has gotten most of the media attention, Compute Stick is also offered in a Linux version for around $110. Though Linux has never caught on as a mainstream operating system, it is perfectly viable for light web functionality and would make a decent engine to power an entertainment system.
Linux is also less resource intensive than Windows, which might be a good thing on a device that has fairly limited on-board memory (1GB for the Linux version or 2GB for Windows). Both versions do have the same Intel Atom processor, but the WIndows model has a 32GB hard drive while the Linux one only has a scant 8GB.
Those differences in specs may defeat any of the reasons that make the Linux Compute Stick attractive unless saving a few dollars on an already cheap device is important to you.
It can power kiosks
Though portable computing and home entertainment are the most obvious uses for the Compute Stick, Intel points out on its website that the device makes an excellent brain for a kiosk (though the language is a bit stilted):
PC-Like Embedded: A reliable low-power solution for developers creating light digital kiosks with no-effort installation and delivering streaming or static HD content on displays located anywhere.
Compute Stick would also be an excellent way to power billboards, in-store displays, and other uses that require a computer. The inclusion of an SD memory card slot also helps with these possibilities as it allows for storage of large amounts of video or other display data.
Compute Stick still has its limits
The tiny device works fine for basic Web browsing and even using programs like Microsoft Office. It is also powerful enough to stream video from Netflix, Hulu, or any other similar offering, but it is not a high-powered machine.
Compute Stick has a quad-core Atom processor -- a technology that Intel itself describes as "a processor for smartphones and tablets." That means that while you can get a lot done with the mini-computer, you probably would not want to use it for heavy-duty gaming, video editing, or other intense applications.
That limitation may someday disappear as Intel has hinted at building versions of the Compute Stick with more powerful processors if the initial versions take off. Until then, however, the company has created a new type of Windows computer that could fill a number of niches. It is not a powerful machine by desktop or laptop standards, but it is pretty impressive for the small package it comes in.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. He wants a Compute Stick and will probably buy one though he can't imagine what he will do with it. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), Intel, and Netflix. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Netflix. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.