ProsFantastic price; excellent assortment of ports; 4K/60Hz output; great wireless networking built in
ConsToo large to actually be used as a PC stick; offers bare minimum speed for running Windows 10
The name Azulle may not be known to most PC enthusiasts, but it deserves a little recognition. This small PC manufacturer, based in Miami, Florida, is turning out some very innovative compact PCs positioned to upstage the heavy hitters. And so when Azulle reached out to us about testing its latest Access3 Mini PC with Intel's brand-new "Gemini Lake" CPU onboard, we decided to jump at the opportunity.
Mini PCs aren't exactly a new concept. In fact, we've been publishing a monthly guide to building Small Form Factor PCs for the past five years, and we previously tested the Zotac ZBox BI320 "net top PC" in early 2015. As we'll discuss on the next page, while some things have changed quite a bit in that time, one thing that hasn't budged much is the price/performance ratio of Intel's ultra-low-power integrated CPUs. That doesn't mean you can't teach an old dog new tricks, though, and Azulle has worked hard to find just the right form factor to take advantage of the various strengths and weaknesses of these chips. At the same time, it's kept the price down: this device comes in at an MSRP of $190, or about the same as the copy of Windows 10 Pro that it includes! Put another way, it's already earned a point for pricing, but how does it work in practice? Read on to find out!
Special thanks to Azulle for providing a sample of the Access3 Mini PC for review.
Description and Features
Now, we're just going to get one thing out of the way first: while Azulle refers to this as a PC Stick, we're not going to do that. We've tested a PC Stick before (specifically, the Intel Compute Stick), and there are two things that are quite clear based on our testing: first, the Access3 is a lot less "stick-like" than the Compute Stick (we'd call it a palm-sized PC, actually), and furthermore, the Compute Stick was such a bad product that after buying one at retail to review on this site, we decided we had to return it and skip publishing a review. It was just that awful. The Access3 may be bigger, but at least it's a whole lot better!
Specifically, the Access3 is 5.6" x 2.4" x 0.75" including its HDMI connector and WiFi antenna (Azulle's official dimensions oddly include neither, which is to say they're incorrect). In terms of weight, it comes in at 132g (just over a quarter pound) according to our scale. How light is that? Very light! In fact, it's about 10g lighter than the Access3's power adapter, so yes, you'll want to take that into account when travelling! Indeed, the 5V/3A power adapter, which is only slightly more powerful than a typical phone charger, is unusually big and heavy. Azulle's marketing images suggest that you could slip the Access3 into your pocket, but this would be both uncomfortable and would mean you couldn't power up the PC once you got to your destination. At least the total package is still a very portable two-thirds of a pound, far less than any laptop and most tablets as well. This includes the 13" HDMI extension cable that you'll probably need to carry too (we'll return to that topic on the next page). You can see these three components in the photo below, which happens to be everything that comes in the box:
So now that we know exactly how large (or small) the Access3 is, let's talk about what it offers in terms of features. First off, this is the newest version of the Access3, using Intel's Celeron N4100, code-named Gemini Lake, which hit the market in 2018. It's Intel's latest system-on-a-chip designed for ultra-low-power applications. While it's a big improvement over Intel's original Bay Trail, circa 2014, it unfortunately is caught in the same Intel vortex as everything else the chip giant is peddling these days: it offers little more than a new name versus last-generation products, in this case 2016's Apollo Lake. In fact, the CPU is just barely touched (a larger 4MB cache being the biggest change), and the graphics chip may have a new name ("600"), but it has the exact same hardware specifications (12 processing units and a base speed of 200MHz) as the "500" series in Apollo Lake. The only difference is a features update to built-in 4K video processing, as well as native HDMI 2.0. These are great improvements for home theater enthusiasts, but don't mistake Gemini Lake as something you'd want to play games on anymore than its predecessor was.
Also on the spec list for our test model is 4GB of RAM and a 32GB solid-state drive, the former being totally adequate for basic PC usage, the latter being almost entirely inadequate. The issue is that as shipped, Windows 10 takes up about 16GB of the available 29GB of formatted capacity, and major Windows updates, which arrive every Spring and Fall, require 10GB of free space to install. Do the math on that and you'll find that if you want to store practically anything other than the operating system itself, you'll need to use add-on storage. An upgraded Access3 with 64GB of onboard storage is available for an extra $90 (or 50% more than the base model's $190 MSRP), and while this would be better for running a number of applications off of, we think the $280 price puts it in an entirely different price class in which it can't really compete. We'd stick with the base model. On the bright side, the Access3 gets integrated Intel 3165 802.11ac wireless networking plus Bluetooth, and of critical importance is the external antenna that Azulle has included with the Access3. While it may make the device a bit more ungainly, it's also what allows the built-in WiFi to actually work. We'll provide some performance numbers on the next page, but as a bit of a sneak peak, we'll say that we were able to pull down 150Mbps at a location from which our previous Intel Compute Stick couldn't even connect to the Internet. We're talking exponentially-better performance here.
As we mentioned, the Access3 isn't exactly pocket-sized, and it's most definitely not what we'd call a stick PC. For comparison purposes, we've provided a photo of the Access3 next to a traditional USB thumb drive, which is what most people probably associate with a pocketable PC product. They aren't remotely similar in size. And the bad news about this isn't so much that you can't pocket the Access3, but that you can't actually use it as a stick PC at all. On all three HDMI-equipped monitors/TVs we tried using it with, it would not fit. We've shown two examples of this fitment issue in the photo below. Either there were other ports that blocked the Access3 from being inserted, or the frame of the monitor got in the way, or as in one case, the monitor was too close to a wall to allow the 5"+ Access3 to be inserted into a rear-facing HDMI port. In short, we'd bet the chances of being able to fit the Access3 directly into a monitor's HDMI port, as shown in Azulle's promotional photos, is going to be very slim. And unfortunately, the HDMI extension cable that Azulle includes is only 13" long, which isn't going to be long enough to even use the Access3 with most TVs without having the device dangling in the air. We think Azulle should just give up on the whole "stick PC" concept, include a standard 3-foot HDMI cable, and call it a day. This would avoid a whole lot of frustration and disappointment.
The good news is that Azulle makes the most of the Access3's relatively large size when it comes to ports. In addition to the obvious HDMI connector, the Access3 also features two USB 3.0 ports, a 3.5mm audio jack for headphones (our guess is that a microphone is not supported, but we didn't test this), plus a microSD card slot for cards up to 256GB. It's possible that larger cards, such as SanDisk's 400GB model, would work, and that Azulle simply hasn't updated its specifications to keep up with the rapidly-increasing capacities of these tiny cards. Also included is a Kensington lock port, which will be of great help for commercial installations of the Access3, as well as a Gigabit ethernet port, an impressive piece of tech to cram into a device this size, but again one that will mostly be of use to commercial users. Home users will almost certainly be using the built-in wireless. The one letdown in terms of exterior features is the power button, which is surprisingly small. If the Access3 is positioned behind your monitor or TV, you'll need to do a lot of fishing around to find it. Ideally, Azulle could make the button larger and round like standard PC power buttons, construct it from tacky rubber rather than slippery plastic, or ideally both (a big round button on top would we awesome!).
One last thing we'll mention about the Access3 is that it's made of a metal heatsink-like material. Azulle has added ridges to what would otherwise be a slick metal surface like a modern laptop's shell (we're guessing its some type of magnesium alloy), and this greatly increases heat dissipation potential. In our testing, the Access3 got noticeably warm under heavy load (as when installing large Windows software updates), and our recommendation would be to avoid placing it on delicate surfaces, like an antique wood desk.
All in all, we're quite impressed with the Access3's design, so let's turn to the next page for our in-use impressions.