Miniaturization has been a computing trend for decades, but it seems to have accelerated over the past five years. Even Intel’s NUC (Next Unit of Computing), a hockey-puck sized PC, looks large compared to ARM powered “stick computers” that are literally the size of a USB flash drive.
A computer this small is not just portable. It’s pocketable. Users could theoretically attach it to a keychain and have it available anywhere they go. Which begs the question – can a computer this small be useful? Or is it just a novelty item?
What Is An Android Stick PC?
“Stick computer” obviously isn’t a technical term. In truth, there’s no agreed term for the small computers starting to trickle out from various manufacturers. The most likely candidate, in my opinion, is microcomputer. But that’s yet to catch on.
Whatever you call them, these small PCs are different from normal desktops both in size and hardware. Because they are small they can’t fit a powerful x86 processor. Instead they use low-power ARM processors like those found in most smartphones and tablets. This means they can’t run Windows 8, so they run Android or Ubuntu’s ARM variant instead.
Most Android stick PCs connect to a display via HDMI and also offer at least one USB port. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are featured on some, particularly those priced at $100 or more. Though nearly as small as a flash drive, stick computers sometimes require an external power adapter.
Stay Secure While Traveling
Having a computer in your pocket means having a device you control wherever you go. This is a boon to security. There are many places, like libraries and coffee shops, that offer computers for public use – but how can you know they’re trustworthy? They could be loaded with all manner of malware. Even checking Gmail could be a risk.
A pocketable PC skips this issue. It boots from your operating system and can be plugged directly into a display, by-passing the host computer completely. And because these PCs generally run Android they won’t be vulnerable to the Windows malware that dominates public computers and networks.
Stay Productive In A Pinch
People who need to be productive while traveling usually own a laptop, but most people can’t (or don’t want to) take a laptop everywhere. The system will often be left in a hotel room or at home during short trips. Most people have no choice but to rush back if anything requires their attention.
Stick computers partially solve this problem. If you can find a display and a keyboard, you can have access to a computer. Many options, like the Cotton Candy, can even use a laptop display in a pinch.
Display Your Message Anywhere
Business owners may be interested in stick PCs because of their potential for use with digital signage. That’s that technical term for the use of an HDTV, rather than a big sheet of paper or cardboard, as a banner, message board or menu.
Stick computers work great in this role because they’re inexpensive, small, silent, and portable. This means they can be used at with any sign, anywhere – handy for small business owners who visit a lot of trade shows and conferences.
Stream Movies To Any Display
Though useful for work, stick computers can and are equally equipped for play. Most come with a dual-core ARM processor and a GPU capable of 1080p video. This, combined with HDMI-out, can turn any display into a streaming center.
The scenario is easy to imagine. Plug in the stick, load Android, open the Netflix or Hulu app using a wireless keyboard or remote. The interface may not measure up to a dedicated streaming box like the Roku, but the experience will be nearly identical once a movie starts to play.
Many stick computers include a USB port. That means you’ll also be able to play compatible video files off an external flash or hard drive.
Play Games At Home Or Anywhere
Stick computers generally run Android either exclusively or alongside Ubuntu. Android, as you probably know, has an app store full of inexpensive games that range from quick, fun titles like Angry Birds to wonderful ports like Chrono Trigger and original games such as Battleheart. Plugging the computer into a television will provide instant access to a lite game console.
This isn’t an original idea. Ouya is a tiny Android device that’s trying to turn itself into a full-fledged console. Gamestick is even more direct. It’s literally a stick you plug into a display to play games – and that’s it.
Both Ouya and Gamestick will ship with a controller. A typical stick computer won’t, so you’ll have to find your own way to control titles. Controllers built to work with smartphones and tablets, like the MOGA or SteelSeries Free Mobile, should work with a stick computer as well.
Are small PCs the future of computing? Maybe – or maybe not. Though cheap and practical, the power and cost restrictions of these devices also hampers their functionality. Most are slower than current high-end tablets and much slower than any x86 computer. Then again, these tiny PCs aren’t meant to fill the same role. What do you think? Is a stick computer in your future?