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 very first thing we tested once we had the Access3 hooked up to our sample Vizio M50-E1 4K TV was whether the Access3 delivered on the main benefit of the new Intel Gemini Lake SoC: 4K/60Hz output. From our point of view, this is the real reason to upgrade from the older Apollo Lake generation. When we first booted up, we experienced the telltale laggy mouse movements of a 30Hz refresh rate, and it's a shame that this was the default setting. Luckily, once we got into the display properties control panel, we were able to select 4K/60Hz output. Hallelujah! So we're half way to perfection when it comes to home theater use, but could the Access3 really process streaming 4K video? We'll get to that shortly.
In our opinion, flat-out performance isn't what you buy an ultra-compact PC for, but it does need to get its job done. One of the real challenges of building something as small as the Access3 is getting wireless networking to work. This was the biggest pitfall of Intel's Compute Stick (which is still sold, by the way). It was much smaller than the Access3, and used an internal WiFi antenna, translating to abysmal networking performance in our testing before we gave up on it. In contrast, the Access3 is fantastic with regard to networking. At five feet from our high-powered TP-Link Archer AC5400, it was able to download data at 250Mbps and upload at around 180Mbps. This is very much on par with the high-end stand-alone wireless adapters we've tested. More amazing was that at about 75 feet away and up one story, it still hit 166Mbps download and 80Mbps upload, which is again more than fast enough for any home or business computing need.
So the good news is that you can get access to incoming data with little trouble, but the bad news is that you're going to start waiting on it once it arrives. There are a number of issues that cause this, specifically CPU speed, storage speed, and graphics speed, and we'll address each of them in turn. The biggest, and truly most disappointing, is Intel's terrible track record over the past five years when it comes to pushing CPU performance ahead. Consider that the Celeron N4100 quad-core used in the Access3 is only about twice as fast as the anemic Atom Z3740 quad-core we tested in the Asus Transformer Book T100 way back in December 2013, despite using 50% more power. Seriously, Intel? Five years and all we have is a 33% increase in performance/Watt at the same price? This is clearly a company that's run out of mojo.
What this translates to is a compact PC that isn't particularly speedy at computational tasks. It's about 1/2 to 1/3 the speed of a modern high-end laptop running Intel's latest Core i5-8250U, but more problematic is that it's even further behind very low-cost Pentium CPUs used in inexpensive desktop PCs, as shown in the PCMark10 benchmark below.
Now truth be told, PCMark10's simulated productivity and digital content creation scores are heavily impacted by storage speed, and this is where Azulle probably has a little room to improve. The 32GB solid-state drive is extraordinarily slow, which brought down the benchmark considerably. For example, in all of the simulated app launching and document opening tasks, our Pentium desktop and Core i5 laptop were two to four times faster thanks to their mainstream 256GB solid-state drives. That said, the Access3's drive is much better than a hard drive: it booted in 23.5 seconds, which no hard drive-equipped PC will ever do. So it will still feel faster than your average off-the-shelf "modern" desktop PC saddled with 1990's era hard drive technology.
Alas, the biggest issue we have with the Access3's performance is one we didn't anticipate: graphics performance. While we had no intention of testing games on it, we experienced dropped frames in some YouTube videos, as well as a generally laggy Windows interface. So we ran the trusty 3DMark benchmark to assess it's graphics processing capability. In this test, we included a few more competing products, including the Celeron 2957U-equipped Zotac Zbox nettop PC we tested back in early 2015, as well as a full-sized Core i3-equipped desktop PC from the same year. As shown below, the results weren't impressive:
Our biggest concern is the comparison to the Celeron 2957U in the Zotac Zbox. That PC cost about the same as the Access3 back when it was released in 2015, and while it was bigger, it wasn't so big that it couldn't be used in many of the same ways (it was roughly the size of a cable modem). The Celeron 2957U, interestingly enough, has the exact same graphics chip in it as the "brand-new" Gemini Lake N4100, the only difference is that to cut overall power draw down from the 15W of the 2957U to the 6W of the N4100, Intel reduced the operating speed of the chip. Did we mention that Intel is a company that's run out of ideas? In order to create new categories of chips (i.e., those that can fit in fanless slim PCs like the Access3), Intel is taking it's old tech and slowing it down. And this shows: the Celeron from 2015 is 18% faster than the Celeron from 2018 in terms of graphics, and only about 3% slower in terms of CPU number-crunching. Alas, with the complex 3D animations in the modern Windows 10 operating system, it's graphics power that matters most when it comes to delivering a smooth user interface experience, and the Access3 had a lot of trouble with it. Opening the start menu took 1-2 seconds, minimizing application windows demonstrated noticeable lag, and as we mentioned, some of our YouTube videos skipped frames. Oddly, it was in 1080p videos on Youtube; the 4K samples we tried, including the mind-blowing Alpha Jetman video, worked perfectly. We chalk this up to Intel endowing the Gemini Lake chip with the latest in 4K decompression capabilities, while not focusing as much on less-efficient encoding used in lower-resolution video, in which the onboard GPU was totally maxed out.
So what can we say about the Access3's performance? For the most part, Azulle has done the best it can with the hand it's been dealt by Intel. We'd love to see a speedier storage option (perhaps the 64GB model is actually faster than the 32GB model, which would make it a very worthwhile upgrade), but there aren't many other options in terms of CPUs that can run fanless in a small, unventilated enclosure. The Access3 is most definitely not a desktop replacement, or even a laptop replacement. It is, however, a very capable basic PC for surfing the Internet, checking e-mail, composing basic office documents, and watching some streaming videos (we wouldn't want to watch a whole movie on it, though). It's also ideal for many commercial purposes, such as signage or retail terminals, a market that Azulle also targets.
Overall, we were very impressed with the Access3 from Azulle. It's no speed demon, but it offers a lot of functionality at a very low price. To get anything faster in this palm-sized form factor, we'll need to wait on Intel to design some new CPUs, which probably won't arrive anytime soon. And while we didn't find the Access3 convenient to plug directly into a monitor or TV, it's small enough that it can fit just about anywhere. We also think it looks quite nice, a nice perk at its pricepoint.
Given its high-quality, innovative design, ultra-low cost, and ability to meet the needs of many budget PC shoppers, we'll be adding the Access3 Gemini Lake N4100 PC to our Desktop Buyer's Guide as soon as it becomes widely available. As of our latest update, it's available for purchase for $197.99 from Amazon.