Miniaturization continues to shrink the size of the average PC. What once required several rooms can now fit in your pocket. And while most people think of smartphones or tablets as examples of small, modern electronics, desktops also deserve mention.
There’s a new category, the mini-PC, that’s becoming popular. Early variants, like the Apple Mac Mini and Inspiron Zino HD, have been well received, but now the formula has been improved with the introduction of fanless systems. Tiny, silent and often inexpensive, these miniature wonders save space without eating into your bank account.
Compulab, sold under the name Tiny Green PC in Europe, makes a broad range of small, fanless computers. The company’s mainstream product is the Fit-PC4, which is only 37 millimeters thick and no larger than 190 millimeters in any other dimension, which makes it one of the smallest fanless PCs around.
Several variants are available, but all run AMD processors with 16 gigabytes of RAM, and most have a 500GB hard drive paired with an M.2 Solid State Drive (what’s an SSD?). This gives the Fit-PC4 more power than an Atom-equipped nettop and a Radeon integrated graphics core than can play older 3D games at respectable framerates. Other features include eight USB ports, 802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0.
A basic, Ubuntu-equipped version of the Fit-PC4 sells for about $490. If you drop Ubuntu and the hard disk, you can purchase the diskless system for just $380. Compulab also sells an entry-level barebones unit called the Fitlet, which can be purchased for $275.
Compulab also sells the most powerful fanless mini PC ever created: the Airtop. A $1,472 barebones Airtop sells on Amazon, but if you want a fully configurable version, you must get it from their website. The Airtop can be configured to include either a 65-watt Xeon CPU or a 65-watt Broadwell Core i7 CPU. The discrete processor, like the CPU, can also vary. Options include either an NVIDIA GTX 950 or an NVIDIA Quadro M4000 GPU.
You may not have heard of Cappuccino PC, but they’ve been making small, silent computers for over a decade. The SlimPRO is just one of several models they have available, but an Intel Pentium processor and $724 base MSRP (or $615, if you buy it without Windows) makes the SlimPro SP675FP the company’s most attractive model.
While the Pentium lacks advanced features like Hyper-Threading and Turbo-Boost, it serves up two cores clocked at 2 GHz, which is more than enough for most tasks. Those looking for a bit more grunt can pay $50 for a 2.1 GHz Intel Celeron. Only two gigabytes of RAM come standard, but upgrades are reasonable priced; you can move up to 4GB for $21. A 320GB mechanical hard drive is standard but, again, a variety of upgrades, including solid state drives, can be purchased. And there’s even room for an optional second hard drive or an optional DVD drive.
The base model includes four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, audio jacks, Ethernet, and VGA. A variety of options are available to expand connectivity or fit the system in tight spaces.
As you might have guessed, the powerful SlimPro is not as small as some other options. Still, at only ten inches long, six inches wide two inches tall, it’s just slightly larger than a 3.5-inch hard drive enclosure. If you’re looking for a fanless PC that’s powerful, affordable and will cut down your power bill, the SlimPro SP675FP is a good choice.
The newly announced Shuttle DX30 isn’t yet available but will be in a matter of weeks. Its probable price tag will place it somewhere around $200 — inexpensive for its specs. Shuttle advertises the DX30 as capable of streaming 4k signals to all manner of digital signage. That’s because it uses Intel’s latest low-power processor: Apollo Lake.
The price is low because the processor, a dual-core based on the Atom architecture, doesn’t cost much. Atom processors are not quick, and they have an outdated graphics solution that can’t handle any remotely modern 3D game. Even so, the DX30 should offer solid performance for digital signage, web browsing, document editing, and other simple tasks. It also supports up to 8GB of RAM.
Though only 43mm thick, and 190mm long, the Shuttle offers room for two additional M.2 drives (which are not included in the barebones kit). A stand can be used to hold the system vertically, decreasing its footprint, or the PC can be mounted to the back of a VESA-compatible monitor. The port selection includes four USB 2.0, two USB 3.0, Ethernet and VGA.
Another option for those who want an inexpensive, low-power fanless PC is the D2500CEE by MITXPC. While the name’s not great, the specifications are impressive; an Intel Atom D2500 1.86 GHz processor with two gigabytes of RAM for just $219.
The system’s exterior dimensions are similar to the Shuttle, though the D2500CEE is thicker at 2.5 inches. The increase in girth does not allow for an optical drive, but it does include an impressive array of ports that includes Serial, PS/2, six USB, Ethernet, DVI, VGA and audio jacks both front and back. There are some full-size desktops with fewer connections! The system is also VESA mount compatible.
Like the Shuttle, this is a barebones system, so it does not ship with a hard drive or an operating system. The less expensive Shuttle rig looks a better value, but the D2500CE’s processor slightly is quicker, and its connectivity is more robust.
While the picks listed so far are inexpensive, they’re also not that powerful, which may leave enthusiasts wanting more. Fear not; there is a fanless PC that can satisfy your inner geek, and it’s called the Stealth LPC-630F.
Boasting an Intel Core i7-3520M processor, four gigabytes of RAM and a 128GB solid state drive, the Stealth obviously leaves everything else on this list for dead. Other features include gigabit Ethernet, two DVI ports, four USB ports and an optional 802.11b/g/n WiFi. If you want even more performance you can expand RAM to sixteen gigabytes or upgrade to a 480GB solid state drive. An internal optical drive is not available.
You might expect such serious hardware to increase the Stealth’s size, but the system measures only 8 inches on a side and 2.5 inches tall, which means it’s smaller than the MITXPC D2500CEE or Cappuccino PC SlimPRO. The real price you pay is, well, the price, which starts at $2,190 with Windows installed. So, this one isn’t going to save you money. But its performance will save you time!
You’ll note that none of these PCs are from major manufacturers. While there are mini PCs from companies like Dell and ASUS, they usually aren’t fanless designs, even if equipped with an Atom processor. Fanless is growing, but still a niche.
That doesn’t mean you should be afraid of these systems, however. While they do target a more knowledgeable consumer, and have less robust support, the warranty is often better than what large companies provide. The Fit-PC, for example, has a five year warranty.
What do you think of these systems? Is silence golden, or would you rather have a larger, louder, more powerful rig? Let us know in the comments.