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Computers are getting smaller. If you’re in the market for a new desktop PC, it makes sense to consider the new line of mini PCs over a giant tower. But apart from their serious power in a compact package, there are a few things you should know.

As a recent convert to the world of mini PCs, I often mocked these tiny devices as something which would never hold up to the computing power I needed. And that was true for several years. But the recent strides in technology have made me realize that the things that make mini PCs small What Makes Mini PCs so Small? And, the Best Mini PCs You Can Buy Today What Makes Mini PCs so Small? And, the Best Mini PCs You Can Buy Today A new generation of mini PCs is making its way into our homes and offices now. Read More don’t make them any less powerful.

That said, there are still some changes, improvements and trade-offs that you should be aware of before buying one.

Barebones vs. Ready To Go

intel-nuc-1

Typically, you will find several variants of any mini PC you look at, like the Intel NUC What's a NUC and Why Would You Want One? What's a NUC and Why Would You Want One? NUCs can best be described as barebones, small form-factor PCs -- and they're pretty awesome under the right circumstances. Read More — the most popular choice. But read the finer details before you buy. Mini PCs come in two flavors: Barebones and Ready To Go.

A barebones kit includes the case, the motherboard and the processor. You will need to buy and install the hard drive and RAM separately. Typically, these are far cheaper than Ready To Go units. If you want to reuse old computer parts or buy specific parts, the barebones system is the way to go. The Intel NUC5i5RYK ($340) would be my pick.

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A Ready To Go kit also includes the hard drive and RAM, as well as an operating system of your choice. This type of mini PC is ready to be used as soon as you take it out of the box. The Ready To Go mini PC is ideal for anyone who wants to start afresh. With Intel NUCs, you’ll mostly get these from third-party vendors like this.

Both types of units come with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, USB, and other such parts pre-installed.

Intel NUC5i5RYK Core i5 NUC System, 16GB Memory, 240GB M.2 SSD, WiFi, Bluetooth, Pre-Assembled and Tested by E-ITX Intel NUC5i5RYK Core i5 NUC System, 16GB Memory, 240GB M.2 SSD, WiFi, Bluetooth, Pre-Assembled and Tested by E-ITX Intel Core i5-5250U Processor, 3MB Cache, up to 2.70GHz, 2 Cores, 4 Threads Buy Now At Amazon $595.00

No Keyboard, Mouse, or Monitor

keyboard-mouse

When you buy a mini PC, you only get the mini PC, nothing else. You will need to buy a keyboard and mouse, a monitor to hook it up to, and speakers to get sound. Of course, those are the basic peripherals you will need, but you can go wild and get much more.

Again, you can reuse your old monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers as long as they are compatible with the mini PC.

For monitors: The mini PC only has a mini-HDMI output, so your monitor will need an HDMI port. Also, check if your mini PC comes with a mini-HDMI-to-HDMI cable, otherwise you’ll need to buy that. If your monitor doesn’t have an HDMI port, you’ll need an HDMI-to-DVI converter. If that sounds like gibberish, here’s a quick explanation of video ports Video Cables Explained: Difference Between VGA, DVI, and HDMI Ports Video Cables Explained: Difference Between VGA, DVI, and HDMI Ports There are so many video cables out there and it can get confusing. VGA, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort -- what's the difference and why do they even matter? Read More .

Also, if you are buying a new one, look for a VESA-compatible monitor, in case you want to mount your mini PC on your monitor in the future.

For keyboards and mice: You can’t use an old keyboard or mouse with a PS/2 port. Mini PCs only support USB-based or Bluetooth-based keyboards and mice. If you are buying new, I would suggest buying a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse since that frees up a USB port on your unit. For recommendations, check out some of the best wireless keyboards 6 Of The Best Wireless All-In-One Keyboards For Mac and PC 6 Of The Best Wireless All-In-One Keyboards For Mac and PC Wireless all-in-one keyboards turn a boring living room computer into an exciting home theater PC. We've rounded up five of the best models around. But which one is best for you? Read More .

What You Can Upgrade and What You Can’t

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Unlike a tower PC, the number of things you can upgrade in a mini PC are severely limited. The smaller size means that the motherboard does not have as many slots for different parts, nor is there any physical room available to fit them. In fact, if you open up a mini PC, you’ll find it is perfectly packed with no room for anything more.

So while you would normally buy a Core i3 CPU now and upgrade to Core i7 Decoding Intel's Laptop Processor List [Technology Explained] Decoding Intel's Laptop Processor List [Technology Explained] The modern computer processor has always been a complex piece of technology, and that shows no signs of changing. Such complexity brings a challenge to companies such as Intel. Making great products is one thing,... Read More later, that’s not the case with mini PCs. The CPU can’t be upgraded. Well, that’s not entirely true — you could technically upgrade it if you’re up for a bit of soldering, but that voids your warranty and no manufacturer recommends it. Besides, in case you do want to upgrade, it would make sense to just buy the next version of the barebones kit, transfer the parts you can, and sell your old mini PC online.

What parts can you upgrade or transfer? Simple. The RAM and the hard drive.

Laptop RAM, Not Desktop RAM

laptop-ram

I feel a special mention needs to be made here that mini PCs support only laptop RAM and not desktop RAM. Laptop RAM is smaller than desktop RAM and typically costs slightly more — the price difference isn’t huge though.

Also, before you buy RAM for your mini PC, check how many DIMM slots it has. Most mini PCs come with two slots, but there are some which support only a single slot (read terms you need to know when buying RAM 8 Terms You Need to Know When Buying Computer RAM 8 Terms You Need to Know When Buying Computer RAM While RAM tends to be fairly easy to find and install, tracking down RAM compatible with your system can prove to be a bit more challenging than a casual user may be expecting. Read More ). You don’t want to be stuck with three RAM sticks and no place to fit one of them. For the typical two-slot config, 8GB of Kingston HyperX Impact is sufficient for most folks.

In fact, make sure you know how much RAM you really need How Much RAM Do You Really Need? How Much RAM Do You Really Need? RAM is like short term memory. The more you multitask, the more you need. Find out how much your computer has, how to get the most out of it, or how to get more. Read More , so you don’t overspend.

Kingston Technology HyperX Impact 8GB Kit 1600MHz DDR3L CL9 SODIMM 1.35V Laptop Memory (PC3 12800) HX316LS9IBK2/8 Black Kingston Technology HyperX Impact 8GB Kit 1600MHz DDR3L CL9 SODIMM 1.35V Laptop Memory (PC3 12800) HX316LS9IBK2/8 Black High-performance memory for gaming notebooks, small form factor PCs and Steam Box systems Buy Now At Amazon $50.53

Hard Drives: M.2 vs 2.5″

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Mini PCs typically support one of two sizes for hard drives: M.2 and 2.5-inch. The M.2 is only flash storage, while the 2.5-inch format allows for flexibility between an SSD and traditional HDD. It’s important that you know which one you are buying.

M.2 is the new version of what was earlier called “mSATA”. These SSDs are a bit longer and narrower than a standard SSD. In fact, they look a lot like RAM sticks. M.2 is typically a bit faster than a standard SSD. The preferred choice is the 250GB Samsung EVO 850 ($100).

Samsung 850 EVO - 250GB - M.2 SATA III Internal SSD (MZ-N5E250BW) Samsung 850 EVO - 250GB - M.2 SATA III Internal SSD (MZ-N5E250BW) Powered by Samsung V-NAND Technology. The Most Evolved Form Factor With Optimized Performance for Everyday Computing Needs for Ultra-Thin Laptops. Buy Now At Amazon $101.00

2.5-inch drives are cheaper and available in larger capacities than M.2. A 2.5-inch SSD is faster than a 2.5-inch HDD; but an HDD usually offers more storage capacity than an SSD. Go with an SSD 5 Things You Should Consider When Buying An SSD 5 Things You Should Consider When Buying An SSD The world of home computing is moving towards solid state drives for storage. Should you buy one? Read More if you want speed and capacity. Pick an HDD when capacity is what matters, not speed. I would again recommend the 250GB Samsung EVO 850 ($100), as well as the 1TB Seagate Hybrid ($76).

Seagate 1TB Gaming SSHD SATA 8GB NAND SATA 6Gb/s 2.5-Inch Internal Bare Drive (ST1000LM014) Seagate 1TB Gaming SSHD SATA 8GB NAND SATA 6Gb/s 2.5-Inch Internal Bare Drive (ST1000LM014) Solid State Hybrid Drive, boots and performs like an SSD Buy Now At Amazon $80.69

CPUs: Intel vs. AMD

intel-amd

Let’s go back to the part you can’t upgrade easily: the processor. On the desktop front, Intel’s new line-up of processors Intel Core M: What's so Great About the Processor? Intel Core M: What's so Great About the Processor? The Intel Core M is the most hyped processor in years, and with good reason: it's at the heart of a new revolution in laptops. Read More is remarkably superior to AMD’s recent offerings. Even in the laptop world, Intel CPUs typically consume lower power and thus give you better battery life. But things are different in the world of mini PCs.

Mini PCs use the same processors as laptops. However, since battery life isn’t a concern, low power consumption takes a backseat. And recently, AMD’s Radeon-powered laptop processors have stepped it up in the graphics department, out-performing Intel’s offerings in the same price.

Naturally, you can’t buy an Intel NUC with an AMD processor. But several third-party manufacturers use AMD processors, which offer better performance for gaming and image processing, like with the Gigabyte Brix. In fact, if you plan to use a mini PC as an HTPC for your TV, several experts recommend going with AMD over Intel.

Gigabyte AMD A8-5557M CPU Radeon HD 8550G Mini PC Barebone Components GB-BXA8-5557 Gigabyte AMD A8-5557M CPU Radeon HD 8550G Mini PC Barebone Components GB-BXA8-5557 CPU included: AMD Richland Processor A8-5557M 2.1G/3.1G Buy Now At Amazon $195.95

Gaming is a Bad Idea

gamer

While AMD’s processors might be better than Intel’s when it comes to gaming, the world of mini PCs is still not great for a gamer. Even powerful mini PCs don’t run the latest games very well. If you’re an avid gamer, I’d suggest you avoid a mini PC as the experience just won’t be good enough to justify the investment. If you’re a casual gamer and aren’t picky about getting the highest graphics settings available, then sure, a mini PC will get the job done.

However, remember that this is the situation right now. Several manufacturers are working on better gaming mini PCs, and Valve’s upcoming Steam Machines Steam Machines Are Finally Coming! Here's What You Need to Know Steam Machines Are Finally Coming! Here's What You Need to Know Read More should provide more worthy options too.

Check If It Has Windows & Consider Linux

windows

Barebones PCs, because of their nature, don’t come with Windows or Linux or any operating system pre-installed. After all, there is no hard drive, right?

But even with non-barebones mini PCs, you will find that some come with an operating system and some don’t. You need to check that before you purchase. The item’s description will state clearly whether it “supports Windows” or “comes with Windows”. As a thumb rule, the word “Supports” means that it can work, but isn’t pre-installed.

Mini PCs also work perfectly with Linux, so you might want to consider that. In fact, it’s the better way to go if you’re making a media center 5 Great Linux Media Center Distributions To Transform Your TV 5 Great Linux Media Center Distributions To Transform Your TV Read More , since it’s completely free.

Also, know that if you want to get the free Windows 10 upgrade on your new mini PC and it doesn’t come pre-installed, it’s not as simple as installing Windows 10 Is Your Computer Compatible with Windows 10 & Can You Upgrade? Is Your Computer Compatible with Windows 10 & Can You Upgrade? Windows 10 is coming, possibly as soon as July. Are you eager to upgrade and will your system be eligible? In short, if your computer runs Windows 8, it should also run Windows 10. But... Read More directly. You will first need to install Windows 7/8/8.1, depending on which one you have with the original key, and then upgrade to Windows 10.

Check Size and Option to Mount

vesa-mount

One of the coolest parts about the mini PC is that its small size makes it perfect to mount behind your monitor or TV, hidden away discreetly. However, online buyer reviews have several people with 20-20 hindsight suggesting that you check the size of the mini PC before you buy it.

Mini PCs come in different sizes and the amount of space available between your TV and your wall might not allow for it. Similarly, the mounting plate behind monitors won’t fit every single size. Grab a measuring tape and check before you buy — you don’t want to regret this later.

The magic words you are looking for are “VESA compatible” — both on your monitor and on your silent mini PC 5 Silent Fanless Mini PCs That Will Save You Money 5 Silent Fanless Mini PCs That Will Save You Money Miniaturization continues to shrink the size of the average PC. What once required several rooms can now fit in your pocket. There's a new category, fanless Mini PCs, that's becoming popular. Read More .

Is It Wise to Wait?

wait

One question everyone has when they are changing their PC: Should I wait, is there something better coming along? Well, when it comes to technology, there is always something better coming along. For example, the upcoming Intel Skylake 6th gen processors are better; the Valve Steam Gaming Boxes will up your gaming quotient.

Like with any computer or mobile technology, if you are willing to wait more than a month, you will always find a better deal. The question really becomes how long you are willing to wait. If you can wait a month, wait it out. If you need it sooner than that, buy it now and forget about the regret factor.

Recommend a Mini PC!

I have been using an Intel NUC and absolutely love it. I also got a chance to play around with a Gigabyte Brix as well as the HP Stream Mini. Which mini PC would you recommend for someone looking to buy?

Image credits: Intel, Gigabyte, AMD, Zotac, Microsoft, c ps / FreeImagesDabnotu / Wikimedia

  1. James Mac
    October 8, 2016 at 10:46 am

    I use a NUC at work (info security) and think it's pretty good. I did have problems updating drivers to start with, but since then it's done all I've asked of it.

    I'm currently mulling buying a 6i5SYH. Point is, there is an application I'd like to run demos of which requires a large amount of RAM memory (over 16GB) to run well. Buying a laptop would be stupidly expensive (it'd need to be a hardcore gamer machine with features I don't need). A NUC would be much cheaper - but of course it has no screen or keyboard.

    Question is, would a cheap-ish laptop used to control the NUC be a solution, and how would you connect the two?

  2. Alok
    August 28, 2016 at 6:45 am

    Intel NUC NUC5i5RYK: is it good enough to run software like Ansys, Solidworks &
    openFOAM?

  3. likefun butnot
    September 8, 2015 at 2:22 pm

    There's a pretty big difference between m.2 and mSATA. m.2 is a direct interface to the PCI express, while mSATA is simply an oddly-shaped SATA connector (so data has to pass through a disk controller before it hits the PCI express bus). In practice, this means that data transfer rates can be much higher and disk latency will be lower for m.2 devices, but m.2 is also still relatively exotic compared to mSATA connectors at the moment.

    I use a Haswell i5 NUC for my HTPC. It's more than fast enough for Kodi or running a virtual machine or two. As a computing device, it's relatively credible and I do like low power/low noise for something that's always on and sitting behind my TV in my living room. I suspect that it's more than fast enough to support game streaming, even if its own GPU isn't that great. A NUC is probably a pretty solid choice for that application as well.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 8, 2015 at 4:52 pm

      Spot on. The difference, at the moment, is more theoretical than practical. Every test online shows marginal improvement, which isn't something 90% of our readers would care about. I do think that with M.2 prices dropping, it makes the more logical choice though.

  4. Andrew Kelley
    September 8, 2015 at 9:39 am

    Drivers for some of the more obscure graphics that are used in the Mini PCs, Nvidia , Radeon, and even some Intel chips are notorious for causing problems for many wishing to install Linux on them. Although in many cases you can "work around" the issues they do not always leave you with a system that is 100% what it should be. I have noticed that support for the Nvidia and Radeon chips has actually been getting much better so I personally look for these when considering the purchase, i tend to shy away from the Intel chips unless I know that I will be installing a flavor of Windows.

    Of course these are issues found mostly in the "lower end" devices that do lag behind in being up-to-date with the latest and greatest, but that is what makes the pricing so appealing, and for a simple Box to stream movies to your TV, you really don't need anything more.

    The Raspberry Pi however is a whole different creature with its ARM architecture the OS's (although there are only really a few to choose from) have to be designed specifically for them and it seems that they function splendidly for streaming directly after booting from an install, it couldn't get easier.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 8, 2015 at 11:51 am

      Thanks for taking the time for this reply, Andrew! I really appreciate it :)

  5. Nate W Thibodeau
    September 8, 2015 at 3:03 am

    I got the Intel i5 model NUC with a Samsung m.2 250gb OS drive and a 1tb 2.5in ssd.. Love it!

    It replaced 2 older SFF desktops i was using....HP dc7800 Core2Quad SFF desktop I was using as a Server 2012 R2 box and a Dell Optiplex 760 SFF Core2Duo unit I was using as a Media Center DVR.

    Those older SFF units took nearly 200 watts when inuse....the NUC....10-20watts max. Performance is far better and the little thing sits right under my monitor stand. Freed up so much space and much less cable clutter now. Worth every penny!

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 8, 2015 at 8:19 am

      I'm amazed by the NUC. I can't figure out how Intel has packed so much power into this tiny box, while making it so energy-efficient. It's awesome!

  6. Andrew Kelley
    September 7, 2015 at 10:24 pm

    I bought my first MiniPC nearly 6 years ago a Zotac MiniMAG with the Intel ATOM next gen NVidia ION graphics. It was a no brainer to install Ubuntu Linux and XBMC on the box and with the 4GB of ram and the Dual core Atom I have been streaming all my Movies and TV shows to my 54inch HD TV ever since. My everyday use PC is actually a newer Asus EEEBox with the dual core Intel Atom D2700 2.13Ghz w/NVidia graphics. With the hyper-threading capabilities this little Atom packs a powerful punch for a little guy, especially when running Linux.

    I have used and sold several Foxconn Mini PC's for clients that are still in use today, in fact one of the first ones I put together is running Windows 7 Ultimate and is dedicated to my phone system, knocking out robo-callers and telemarketers / spammers of all kinds. In all the ones I have put together I think you really need to pay attention to the graphics and the availabilities of up-to-date drivers for your preferred OS.

    Now allong comes the Raspberry Pi and I have a new interest in being even more Mini. My daughter's TV is run by my first Pi. using openelec and XBMC, I have since bought a Raspberry Pi2 and am in process of setting up my next Home Theater system with the Pi2 pushing it all. As I am not a gamer, the appeal of energy savings is a draw, and I just like to see how compact I can make things and still be useful. There is no end to the tasks you can place on these tiny PC's, and for the price you can have 20 or more of these little boxes running for the cost of one of their larger cousins.

    • Mihir Patkar
      September 8, 2015 at 8:18 am

      Wow, a 6-year mini PC user! That's a unique perspective around here, I'd love to hear more about your experiences, Andrew. If you wouldn't mind, could you elaborate on what you meant by "pay attention to graphics and drivers"? I think that was an important point, as someone who has set up several mini PCs, I'm sure you have more to add to that line.

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