PCs-on-a-stick: Is their niche too small even for them?

Posted by Guy Wright

In recent months there have been almost a dozen announcements about new ultra-small, ultra-cheap, ARM-based, PCs-on-a-stick, but I wonder if there really is a big enough market for these pint-sized PCs.

Yes, these tiny devices are pretty cool to look at. Barely bigger than a USB drive they’ll run Android apps or Linux and ultimately will probably be able to run Windows 8 RT.

Zero Devices’ Z2C, Miniand Tech’s MK802, UG802, FXI's upcoming Cotton Candy, Mele A1000, Valueplus TizzBird Stick N1, Telechips Cortex-A5, IMJ’s MGS, Minix RK3066, Geniatech ATV100, Thanko’s
ANDHDM2S and the Shenzhen Victory Electronics ATVD-001 all boast features like HDMI connections (or ports), a selection of ARM processors, various flavors of Android, varying amounts of RAM and flash-RAM, USB ports, Bluetooth, RF, WiFi, Ethernet, and an assortment of charging/power supply configurations. Some can even sync video, pictures, and music with an Android or iOS smart phone or tablet. They range in price from about $60 up to $200.

But while they could technically be called PCs since they have ARM CPUs, most of the companies who are (or will be) selling these devices are promoting them as a way to turn any TV with an HDMI input into a ‘smart’ TV – not necessarily as ultra-portable computers.

I think there are some problems with these pinky-PCs. First off, the ‘smart TV’ window of oportunity is already closing. Many of the newer TV sets and game consoles are already ‘smart’ and for about the same price as one of these devices you can get a ‘smart’ DVD/Blu-ray player that also happens to play DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

Next, while these devices maybe cute in the press photos once you get all the cables connected they look more like a pack of gum in a nest of baby snakes. Power consumption also seems to be a problem that manufacturers are struggling with. Some have a USB port specifically devoted to power, while others have stated they had to scale back the clock speed because of power issed. And at least one of these devices I researched will come with a power brick that is ten or twenty times larger and heavier than the device itself.

There is also the somewhat sticky matter of input devices. Yes, most manufacturers have some sort of solution available from wireless keyboards and mice to TV-style remote controls (just what I need, another remote control) but they all cost extra money and frankly, there really isn’t a good way to control an application requiring text input from across the room with a remote control.

Data storage might also be a problem for some of these devices. It’s not likely you’ll be able to put your library of digital movies on one of these puppies. Yes, you can connect an external hard drive (for extra money) but you’re going to run out of USB ports sooner or later.

Then there is the fact that a lot of Android apps are specifically designed for touchscreens and most TV sets are not touchscreens. Sure you could buy a touchscreen monitor (and a keyboard and mouse and external hard drive) but if your going to spend that kind of money why not just buy a tablet that already does all those things (and more). Heck, most of the companies promoting these new sticks are also promoting new Android tablets that will be flooding the market soon and are expected to sell for about $100.

Of course, they are cute little buggers and, yes, for $60 you can’t go too wrong.