Intel® Compute Stick - STK1AW32SC

(Intel® Atom™ x5-Z8300 Cherry Trail CPU with Pre-Installed Windows® 10)

The new Intel Compute Stick being a second generation device sets an expectation that it will be better than the original version. Let's look at what has changed and what the implications are.

What's Different

Unlike before when there was a lower-specced Ubuntu model and a Windows 8.1 (later Windows 10) model, this time there is only a new model Intel Compute Stick (ICS), either with or without Windows. The SOC has been upgraded to an x5-Z8300 'Cherry Trail' CPU together with an improved GPU. Wifi has been enhanced to dual-band 802.11ac and a USB 3.0 port has been added. So a new Ubuntu model is not offered. 



Construction

The device is very well made with proper consideration to thermal cooling. Whilst the device has a fan which is only activated when necessary, the CPU has a mounted heat sink using actual thermal paste. Additionally there are two internal antenna which help with the considerably improved wifi.

        


First Boot

I normally perform a full backup of the eMMC using a Linux LiveCD before booting so I can always (theoretically) restore the device to its factory settings. Initially I encountered some problems with USB 3.0 hubs and the USB 3.0 port and also getting Linux to boot. Eventually I ended up using a powered USB 2.0 HUB for my KVM and external drive connected to the USB 2.0 port, and I used an Ubuntu 15.04 LiveUSB in the USB 3.0 port. Once booted I created a backup using the command 'dd if=/dev/mmcblk0 of=/mnt/external_drive/ICS2_mmcblk0.dd bs=4M'. I then powered off, disconnected everything, reconnected my KVM to the USB 2.0 port and powered on. Rather than Windows booting cleanly it decided to perform an automatic repair and only after 'diagnosing' the PC and restarting did Windows 10 set-up appear. Once configured, Windows proceeded to download and install updates including the dreaded Windows 10 version 1511 build 10586. This updates requires a lot of space to install successfully (as in a massive 13.5 GB of free space) so don't install anything until this hurdle has been completed. Eventually and some six hours later I was able to run 'disk cleanup' and get nearly 17 GB free. Newer retail products may well already have the latest updates already applied so consider this just a cautionary tale.



Windows

The new ICS model has improvements across the board. The wifi is substantially better as is the graphics capability. A comparison against the original ICS is posted here. Temperatures maxed at around a comfortable 60 oC when running the benchmarks and quickly dropped down.

        


Ubuntu

The pre-installed Windows 10 runs as a 32-bit OS and the BIOS has two options for selecting the operating system: Windows 32 bit and Windows 64 bit. To run Ubuntu I changed the BIOS setting to Windows 64 bit and also enabled booting from USB. However I found that Ubuntu 14.04.03 (edit: sometimes) hangs and the minimum release to successfully boot was Ubuntu 15.10 (edit: 15.04 is EOL). OOTB everything works except (and unsurprisingly) sound or audio over HDMI.  


Unfortunately Intel's current strategy covering OS support on the compute stick is to follow their processor strategy which excludes Linux support on “tablet” processors. Intel's position is that the new ICS model will support various versions of Windows and has the potential for Android support as well but no Linux at this time for Intel Atom processors. The good news is that Skylake Core-m processors do have Linux support so the upcoming Core-m compute sticks will support Linux.

I'm currently running Ubuntu 15.10 and have been experimenting with upgrading the kernel to the latest Linux version e.g. v4.5-rc3 (see www.kernel.org).



Conclusion

As an upgraded Windows Intel Compute Stick the STK1AW32SC fulfils the intended improvements creditably. Even running Ubuntu on the latest model is highly viable due to the wifi improvement and additional USB 3.0 port. However given the complexity of developing the required HDMI audio driver coupled with the imminent release of the Core-m compute sticks those with sound requirements might have to skip the Ubuntu 'Cherry Trail' ICS or endure a potentially long wait.