Intel Compute Cards Review – Windows 10 and Ubuntu 17.04 on CD1C64GK, CD1P64GK and CD1M3128MK

The Intel Compute Stick revolutionized the mini PC market through the introduction of x86 based processors making Windows available as an OS option. However, for Intel the biggest target market turned out to be business rather than consumer with digital signage being a key user. As a result Intel have responded with the introduction of the Intel Compute Card. So far they have released four versions of card:

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and they they differ from compute sticks by no longer being standalone mini PCs but dependent on a dock or host device.

The card itself is relatively small with a footprint slightly larger than a standard credit card:

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and is distinguished by the back being printed with details about the card including the model:

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The lack of emphasis on the consumer market is also evident in the rather unobtrusive plain packaging:

On the end that inserts into the dock or host device is a connector which is separated into two sections: a Type C-compliant portion and an extended portion. The Type C portion supports Type C-compliant connections including video with audio and USB. The extended portion supports video with audio, USB, and PCIe. Power is supplied to the card from the device the Compute Card is plugged into using the Type C portion of the connector.

The card uses bidirectional authentication to authenticate a compatible device and card. The authentication uses digital keys which are provisioned by default during manufacturing ensuring only correctly provisioned card and devices work together.

As the card can get hot during heavy workloads it totally relies on the dock or host device for cooling. It is designed so that direct conductive contact with the card surfaces provide heat dissipation. This means the card is capable of operating within all critical component temperature specifications and will produce surface skin temperatures that may violate typical safety guidelines or requirements. To stop the user being burnt when handling the card immediately after use requires the dock or host device to delay the card being ejected if additional cooling is needed to reduce the skin temperature to below 55 °C.

Although the cards now targets OEMs, manufacturers, distributors and channel partners Intel have also released an Intel Compute Card Dock allowing consumers to use a card as a mini PC.

The key specifications of the dock include:

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and it comes with a small power brick with international plug adapters together with a two meter/six foot long power cable and the dock can be used with any of the cards.

Intel kindly provided a dock and three cards (CD1C64GK, CD1P64GK and CD1M3128MK) for review.

After connecting the power cable, a monitor using the HDMI port, a wireless keyboard and mouse that connects through a USB dongle and an ethernet cable, the basic operation requires sliding the card into the dock followed by firmly pushing it in to ensure connectivity.  The card can be removed by pressing the eject button which only works while power is connected. Then depending on the BIOS setting the card will either boot immediately or after the power button is pressed.

As the cards do not come with an OS I first installed Microsoft’s Windows 10 Enterprise product evaluation ISO in order to run my standard set of benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows:

  • CD1C64GK Compute Card
  • CD1P64GK Compute Card
  • CD1M3128MK Compute Card

The results show the improvement the newer SoCs have given the cards over the sticks:

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and shows comparable performance with devices using similar SoCs:

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The results for the Core m3 card are significantly better due to the internal storage being an NVME device rather than eMMC however the fan was noticeably audible when running some benchmarks. Interestingly the eMMC performance of the Celeron card was better than the Pentium card and this is attributed to a tolerance in manufacturing of the eMMC rather than a device characteristic and this difference is reflected in some of the benchmark scores.

Next for each device I shrunk the Windows partition and created new a 10 GB partition so I could install and dual boot Ubuntu. I used a standard Ubuntu desktop ISO however whilst the installation completed successfully the Ubuntu NVRAM entry failed to be created correctly on the Core m3 card and needed to be fixed by manually using the ‘efibootmgr’ command.

For each card I ran some basic commands to look at the hardware in more detail:

  • CD1C64GK compute card

  • CD1P64GK compute card

  • CD1M3128MK compute card

Running my usual suite of Phoronix tests shows a similar performance improvement of the cards over the sticks in Ubuntu:

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with Ubuntu’s Octane result being slightly better than in Windows.

Looking at the individual performance of the Intel Apollo Lake cards against similar devices:

shows the cards performed the best:

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Playing videos under Windows using either a browser (Edge or Chrome) or KODI worked without issue on each device:

  • CD1C64GK Compute Card
  • CD1P64GK Compute Card
  • CD1M3128MK Compute Card

Under Ubuntu the previously seen issue of playing 4K videos in Chrome was encountered even on the Core m3 card and playing the videos at 1080p resolved stuttering and frame loss:

    • CD1C64GK Compute Card
    • CD1P64GK Compute Card
  • CD1M3128MK Compute Card

And again some HECV videos played properly under Ubuntu while some videos resulted in a blank (black) screen just with audio. I also noticed for the first time that one of the working HECV video was actually very slightly jerky in parts on the Apollo Lake cards but played perfectly on the Core m3 card. The drawback however was that the fan is also noticeably audible when playing the video on the Core m3 card.

The internal temperature when playing videos using KODI on the Apollo Lake cards is very similar whereas it is much higher on the Core m3 card although the dock’s fan was able to prevent any thermal throttling:

and the external temperature did not exceed 33/35°C.

Interestingly the ‘temperature cost’ of KODI is very significant on the Core m3 and was obvious after exiting the application:

Network connectivity throughput measured using ‘iperf’ was similar across the cards:

with the wifi performance measuring much better than comparable mini PC devices.

Power consumption for the dock (DK132EPJ) alone was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.3 Watts

Power consumption for the Celeron card (CD1C64GK) in the dock was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.8 Watts
  • *Standby – 1.0 Watts
  • BIOS menu – 5.4 Watts
  • Boot menu – 4.8 Watts
  • Idle – 3.9 Watts (Ubuntu) and 5.2 Watts (Windows)
  • **CPU stressed – 8.3 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • ***Video – 7.4 Watts (HD in Ubuntu) and 7.7 Watts (4K in Windows)

Power consumption for the Pentium card (CD1P64GK) in the dock was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.8 Watts
  • *Standby – 1.0 Watts
  • BIOS menu – 5.1 Watts
  • Boot menu – 4.5 Watts
  • Idle – 3.8 Watts (Ubuntu) and 5.0 Watts (Windows)
  • **CPU stressed – 8.2 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • ***Video – 7.8 Watts (HD in Ubuntu) and 7.5 Watts (4K in Windows)

Power consumption for the Core m3 card (CD1M128MK) in the dock was measured as:

  • Powered off – 0.8 Watts
  • *Standby – 1.0 Watts
  • BIOS menu – 9.7 Watts
  • Boot menu – 7.8 Watts
  • Idle – 4.8 Watts (Ubuntu) and 5.0 Watts (Windows)
  • **CPU stressed – 13.0 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • ***Video – 7.7 Watts (HD in Ubuntu) and 7.9 Watts (4K in Windows)

*Standby is after the OS has been halted and card is available for removal.

**The dock’s fan initially creates a high power demand and before reducing to a constant rate.

***The dock’s fan speed changes due to the temperature and consequently the power figures fluctuate. The value is the average of the average high and low power readings.

Finally the BIOS for each card only has a few key settings available:

One issue I encountered when removing a Sandisk Ultra Fit USB from the front port on the dock is that it is very easy to accidentally press ‘eject’ or catch the ‘power’ button resulting in the card shutting down.

The lack of a USB Type-C port on the dock is also a noticeable omission given a DisplayPort is provided. Neither is there an SD or micro SD card slot.

Overall the card and dock combination works well and the performance is as good or better than equivalent mini PCs. The design is well executed and an the card is a great innovation for computing.

The cards come with a three (3) year warranty and the dock comes with a one (1) year warranty no doubt limited because of the internal fan. The support that Intel offers is very good with regular BIOS updates and drivers available from their support website and RMA for defective devices under warranty in the country of purchase.

However for consumers who are less risk-averse they are expensive especially when compared to other mini PCs using the same Apollo Lake SOCs and when the cost of support is not factored into the purchase price.

The price also reflects the premium of the form-factor. Whilst the card and dock fulfill the functions of a mini PC the cost of ‘portability’ is hard for consumers to justify given the alternatives to the dock such as a card based laptops or a card based all-in-ones have so far failed to materialize. Equally the Core m cards and dock are competing both on price and better configurability with Intel’s own NUC range. From a consumer perspective the Intel Core m3 Compute Stick with pre-installed and fully licensed Windows 10 is actually a better option purely because it is cheaper than the overall cost of the cheapest card (Celeron), dock plus the cost of the Windows 10 software and would then offer a far superior performance than the compute card package.

With Gemini SOC mini PCs already announced it seems unlikely the card and dock will be popular with consumers unless manufacturers can offer products which use the cards at price competitive points. Which is a shame as they are very good products with very good support.

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4 Replies to “Intel Compute Cards Review – Windows 10 and Ubuntu 17.04 on CD1C64GK, CD1P64GK and CD1M3128MK”

  1. Anybody really buying this overpriced useless crap ? So I guess they are all infected by meltdown/spectre. Sounds like “buy our buggy boards only for $530 !” 😉

  2. I’ve long thought we’d ultimately see such devices, where the CPU comes with a pluggable card into the rest of the machine. This one has some drawbacks that may make it unfit to certain environments, like the internal fan. Better have an aluminum enclosure with fins to spread the heat. I also think that the locked-in approach consisting in authenticating each other is a mistake (and a stupid one). What we’ll see will be competitors agreeing on a standard form factor and specifications making them interchangeable. In the end intel will be the only one incompatible with the next standard or will have to drop support for their initial devices.

    For the enterprise market, despite being quite expensive, it may end up reducing the cost of the stock because instead of keeping a few models of full PCs in stock they can keep just the dock and a few board models.

    Oh and I wouldn’t trust too much a mechanism relying on a bit of electronics for the board’s ejection since it’s very likely controllable by software as well 🙂 We’ve all seen CD drives randomly eject when launching certain applications, this time it can get funnier 🙂

  3. I really like the concept here, and had hoped by now we’d see various options for docks, like the Nexdock laptop dock not being vapourware. If Intel could persuade TV manufacturers to fit a Compute Card dock then we wouldn’t have to worry about our smart TVs becoming dumb when the TV manufacturer stop providing updates, or supporting the servers they depend on.

  4. @Paul M
    Manufacturers get rich from you having to buy the next model, not just upgrading the CPU.

    Apple got rich not from making old phones run new hardware but customers having to upgrade to newer designs for hardware.

    The only upgrade model which worked in the mass consumer market for several years was the IBM inspired PC with expansion slots.

    Went through isa, vesa logic bus, many flavours of pci., ide, scsi, sata, serial, parallel printer port, USB etc. Main board formats, CPU socket changes, memory specs, power requirements and cooling needs. The rate of change means designs like docks can soon go out of date as the hardware leaps forward. Back in the PC market again, you use to be able to buy a new CPU to upgrade your old slow motherboard to a speed of CPU it never supported, but it cost a lot of money and was never as fast as a new designed computer and new CPU.

    On a TV just buy a new smart TV box, no Smart TV OS update needed and TV can sell to many countries, many markets with differing needs. China has TV box OS which have no use outside China and China dependant services. Android TV ( based on phone ROMs ) can sell world wide, support many languages.

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