Selecting the Right PC Stick
A PC stick, also known as a compute stick, is a pocket-sized device designed to plug directly into your TV’s HDMI source input. A PC stick transforms your TV into a personal computer capable of running general purpose software. They support a wide variety of consumer applications, ranging from Web TV, office automation, home theater and gaming; even commercial applications like digital signage.
Due to their market success and popularity PC and compute stick products are now entering their second generation, offering a better overall user experience. We aim to present product features consumers should look at before choosing a particular PC stick brand.
Minimum Hardware Requirements
Any PC or compute stick you’re considering should support these product features:
- Bundled Windows 10 operating system with software license
- Quad-core Intel CPU
- 2GB RAM
- 32GB flash memory (solid state hard drive)
- HD graphics controller (capable of supporting 1080p video playback)
- USB port 2.0
- Bluetooth 4.0
Hard Drive Storage
The stick’s internal 32GB storage is sufficient for most applications. However, applications like home theater may require additional storage capacity for media files. To expand hard drive storage you can attach an external USB hard drive to the PC stick’s USB port. Note: If you chose this option it’s better to select a product with a higher speed USB 3 port.
Another solution is to use a high capacity SD card. SD cards are commonly used to expand storage on your mobile phone. For this expansion option, you’ll need a PC stick with a built in SD card slot. With a SD card there is no external drive or the need for an outlet to power the USB drive.
PC Stick Performance
While typical user applications are not compute (CPU) intensive an under-powered PC stick can certainly impact the user experience: programs take longer to run, the system performs sluggishly. First generation sticks used the Intel® “Bay Trail” CPU chipset which ran at a modest 1.3 GHz. When pushed, performance sometimes suffered under heavy load. Second generation PC stick products have upgraded to the next generation Intel “Intel Cherry Trail CPU” chipset which offers a much higher performance CPU architecture running up to 1.84 GHz.
Even with a faster CPU a PC stick with 2GB RAM may still underperform if a user runs multiple applications at the same time. To combat this problem some product vendors are now offering products with 4GB RAM. This is something to consider if you do a lot of software multitasking.
Due to their small size PC stick circuit board electronic components are very densely packaged. This causes serious heating that requires an effective cooling system. Most PC stick products incorporate a tiny fan along with venting slots on the casing to cool the circuit board.
While fans provide a workable solution, there are two potential problems. First, if you plan to use your PC stick as a home theater system make sure the fan noise doesn’t disturb your viewing experience. Second, over time the tiny fan may become clogged with dust. And if the fan is impacted by dust the PC stick will overheat, resulting in intermittent shutdowns or even permanent damage.
A more innovative approach is to use a passively cooled—fanless—design. With a fanless solution, the PC stick’s case has some type of ridging or other surface treatment that promotes efficient heat transfer from its internal components to the outside air. With this type of cooling system there is no noise or chance of overheating due to fan failure.
Choosing a product with good internal cooling becomes even more important if you plan to use your stick for playing high definition (HD) video. HD video playback, which very compute intensive, can dramatically raise the stick’s core temperature.
If there is a strong WiFi signal you should not have a problem connecting your PC stick to the Internet. However, if the WiFi signal is weak because of walls, floors and multipath interference, then the stick’s WiFi performance can become an important issue.
A PC stick’s WiFi performance is largely about WiFi antenna design. Here the key design factor is WiFi antenna gain. The higher the antenna gain the better its ability to work with weak WiFi signals. Additionally, to maximize signal reception the stick’s WiFi antenna should be external and movable (for example, on a ball-swivel) to better match the WiFi access point’s signal transmissions.
Unfortunately, many PC stick products employ a simple, rigidly mounted internal WiFi antenna with very low gain. This results in poor networking when the WiFi signal is weak. Always select a product with reasonable antenna gain; ideally one with a movable external WiFi antenna.
Another way to connect your PC stick to the Internet is through the use of wired Ethernet. Wired connections have inherently better networking performance and overall stability compared to WiFi. As many home WiFi routers have built in wired Ethernet ports you simply connect a network cable from the router to your stick.
Using a wired connection can be important if you’re using a PC stick for watching streaming HD media. WiFi connections often become unstable when supporting high bitrate streaming media. The result is a video presentation that visibly stutters or pixelates when the WiFi system is under heavy load.
For a wired connection the ideal solution is to purchase a PC stick with a built-in Ethernet port. Alternatively, you can use an Ethernet dongle that plugs into your PC stick’s USB port (ideally a higher speed USB 3 port). However, if you choose this option make sure your stick provides two USB ports; otherwise you may need to add a USB hub to your setup.
Fanless PC stick product with movable high-gain WiFi antenna and wired Ethernet:
Digital Signage Applications
A PC stick is an ideal device for displaying digital signage. Their low-cost, small size, excellent HD video support and built-in networking make them a natural fit. As it runs Windows, you can use your PC stick to display PowerPoint presentations. PowerPoint is an easy way to create and display multimedia digital signage presentations. The pairing of a PC stick with PowerPoint offers an attractive, low-cost way to implement digital signage for small and mid-sized businesses.
However, the big difference between digital signage and other home/consumer applications are its performance demands. Unlike in the home, where it is used intermittently, for digital signage a PC stick will be running continuously, 24×7. Compounding this, the digital sign may be displaying high definition (HD) video in a continuous loop. For this purpose, you need to select a high quality PC stick with a high performance HD graphics controller. We recommend products that incorporate the high performance Intel Gen8 HD graphics controller.
As discussed earlier, HD video playback will dramatically raise a stick’s core temperature. Playing HD video continuously will place a significant thermal load on the PC stick. If you choose a PC stick with fan-based cooling, dust accumulation can seriously impact the fan’s performance, degrading its cooling effectiveness. This can lead to intermittent failures or permanent damage of your PC stick. For these reasons, it is important to select a PC stick device with fanless passive cooling if your digital signs will be displaying HD video–especially in dusty settings.
For digital signs in unattended public settings another important requirement is protection against theft and vandalism. You should select a stick with some type of anti-theft locking mechanism. We would also recommend using wired Ethernet for any Internet connectivity. Along with enhanced network performance a wired connection will provide an additional security layer against hackers aiming to display digital graffiti on your digital signs.
There are a wide variety of PC stick products from reputable vendors. Aside from the minimum feature requirements that I listed earlier, think hard about the main purpose you have for buying a PC stick. Are you looking for a second PC for your kids? A home theater system for watching movies? Or are you a small business owner looking for a low-cost digital signage solution? Based on your answer certain PC stick product features will become very important. Choose wisely.
What We Do
Our company developed PowerSignage™, an affordable digital signage service designed for small to mid-size companies. With PowerSignage customers use Microsoft® PowerPoint® for digital signage content creation and low-cost PC sticks for digital signage display. For more information please visit our website at http://www.powerdigitalsignage.com.
Microsoft and PowerPoint are registered trademarks of Microsoft Corporation. Intel is the registered trademark of the Intel Corporation. PowerSignage is the trademark of Power Media Design Pty Ltd.
CopyrightⒸ 2017 by Power Media Design Pty Ltd., all rights reserved.