In the beginning: Cotton Candy
Google recently grabbed a lot of headlines for its new Chromebit, a Chrome OS computer in a HDMI stick. That's fine, but Google and Asus are far from the first to put a computer on an HDMI stick. That honor goes to FXI Technologies Cotton Candy, which released it first model in 2012.
The first model used a Samsung's 1.2GHz dual-core Exynos 4210 CPU, which is based on an ARM Cortex-A9 processor, a Mali 400 graphics processor capable of streaming 1080p video, and 1GB of RAM. For storage it used a MicroSD card.
While it never set the world on fire, the Cotton Candy did start the market for Android-based HDMI sticks. Unlike many of its competitors, Cotton Candy could -- and still can-- be used not just on HDMI-equipped TVs and monitors but on PCs as well. That's because you can use its USB 2 port to run its operating system as a virtual machine with your PC's existing operating system.
In theory, the Cotton Candy is still available today, but, when I checked, the device is no longer available from its company's online store.
The Cotton Candy could be used on computers or as a way to turn an ordinary TV into a "Smart TV." Most of these early model HDMI computers, such as the Rikomagic MK802II, were used as Smart TVs, rather than as an "in your pocket" computer.
A lot of HDMI computer sticks are still more about adding on to your TV rather than converting it into a computer. But, as they've evolved, they've become real computing platforms. Here's what I think of as the best of these that are either available today or will be out shortly.
Tronsmart CX-919 Quad Core RK3188 Android Mini PC
The Tronsmart CX-919 Quad Core RK3188 Android Mini PC is powered with a 1.6-GHz Rockchip quad-core RK3188 processor and comes with 2GBs of RAM.
It also comes with a quite a few ports for such a small gadget. The CX-919 includes microUSB for power, another microUSB for peripherals, one full-size USB 2.0 port, a microSD card slot, and a HDMI plug for connecting to your TV or monitor. It also comes with a toothpick-sized antenna for its built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi.
For an operating system it uses stock Google Android 4.2.2. Unlike many similar devices, the CX-919 works well with the Google Play Store, so you should be able to run pretty much any Android application on it.
Personally, I've found this device to work well. That said, I've known some people to have trouble with its graphics, especially at 1080p. Still, for a street price of $60, it's hard to beat.
MK903V TV stick
If you want a better HDMI Android computer stick, the next step up is the MK903V. It will cost more -- I'm seeing it for $90 these days -- but it's worth it.
This unit comes with 2GB of RAM, 8GB of built-in storage, a microSD card slot, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, HDMI 2.0, 1 USB 2.0 port, and 2 micro USB ports You must use one of these for power.
The real selling point in the MK903V is its 1.8GHz Rockchip RK3288 quad-core CPU, ARM Cortex-A17, quad-core processor. It ups the video ante with its ARM Mali-T764 graphics and 4K video output. It also comes with a wireless remote control.
For its operating system it uses Android 4.4 KitKat software. Still, as the included remote indicates, this is designed to be more of a Smart TV add-on than a standalone computer. Still, it doesn't take much skull-sweat to turn it into a fine PC to go.
Rikomagic V5 TV stick
Many Android sticks are made up of older components. Not the Rikomagic V5 TV stick.
It uses a 1.8GHz Rockchip RK3288 quad-core processor and comes with 2GB of RAM and 8GB to 16GB of built-in storage. That's nice. But, what makes it special is that it supports Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11ac Wi-Fi as well as the usual 802.11b/g/n.
Besides the Gigabit Ethernet port, it comes with two full-sized USB ports, Bluetooth, and a microSD card slot. This makes for a plump HDMI stick with a price above $100.
In addition, the Rikomagic V5 isn't limited to Android. While you can put a desktop Linux on any HDMI stick with work, this one comes with an edition that includes Android 4.4 KitKat installed and another unit with Ubuntu 14.04.
What's that? You don't like Android or Linux? Well, there's still an HDMI computer for you. The new MeeGoPad T01 runs Windows 8.1.
Personally, that's not for me, but thanks to this gadget's Intel Atom 1.33Ghz Z3735F quad-core Bay Trail processor, it can run Windows. Notice I say "it can run Windows." What you get is an unlicensed copy of Windows 8.1 with Bing. To fully use it, you'll need to pay Microsoft for a license. How much? That's a darn good question and I don't have a good answer. OEMs pay $10 a copy, with discount of $10, making it free for them. As a user, I just don't know. If you'd rather pay nothing, you can, of course, install a desktop Linux or Android on it.
The device comes with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, a microSD slot, a microUSB port and a USB 2.0 port. Beside the standard 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, it also comes with WiDi -- a new wireless display technology.
At a price of over a hundred dollars, without full Windows 8.1, I can only recommend this gadget for someone who wants Windows in their pocket today not tomorrow.
Intel Compute Stick
If you can wait for tomorrow though, Intel has a deal for you.
Intel is creating its own HDMI computer stick: The Intel Compute Stick. This will use the 1.33GHz Atom Z3735F Bay Trail processor.
Intel's entry into this market-niche will come in two versions. The first, which will run Windows 8.1 or Windows 10, will include 2GB of RAM and 32GB of flash storage. The second will run the Ubuntu Linux 14.04 Long Term Support (LTS) distribution. Since Linux requires far less horsepower, the Linux stick will come with 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage.
Otherwise, technically they'll be identical. Both will come with full-sized and microUSB ports, Bluetooth 4.0, and 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. One of the microUSB ports will, as with all these devices, be used to power it. The two also come with different price tags. The Windows version will cost $149, while the Linux version will list for $89.
Asus and Google's forthcoming Chromebit will use the 1.8Gh quad-core Rockchip RK3288 ARM processor with Mali 760 graphics. It will also come with 2GBs of RAM, 16GBs of flash storage, 2x2 dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, and a single full-size USB 2.0 port.
So far, that's rather ordinary. The Chromebit does have one nice new hardware feature--an HDMI port on a pivot. This way you should be able to plug it into almost any HDMI port no matter how much clutter there is around it.
The Chromebit also has the same secret sauce that all Chromebooks have: Chrome OS. With this lightweight Linux-based operating system, the Chromebit should sing on this hardware. Google hasn't announced hard pricing yet, but the company has said it will be under $100.