The past few years have seen the rise of a new form factor in personal computers: the mini PC. Moore’s Law and the miniaturization of motherboards have made computers smaller than ever before. And it’s slowly replacing the good old beige box.
Rightly so, when you consider that mini-PCs today are powerful enough to serve the needs of most users. Both Intel and AMD have powerful APUs now that take care of the graphics requirements for any non-gamer, and hard drives and SSDs are cheaper than ever.
In case you’re looking to buy a new desktop, or perhaps build an HTPC for cheap, you should first check out some of these awesome mini PCs. They might just be a better deal. But before you take the plunge, consider the limitations of Mini-PCs.
Often, you’ll need to account for the price of buying Windows for your mini PC and adding a keyboard and mouse. So when we looked for the cheapest mini PC option, the Inspiron i3050 edged out our previous favorite, the HP Stream Mini, due to Dell’s much-liked aftersales service. It comes preloaded with Windows 10, although that limited 32GB of storage is going to be used up by the operating system itself. And it includes a wired keyboard and mouse.
Don’t worry though, with four USB ports (one of which supports USB 3.0) you’ll be able to add external hard drives quickly. Ready to go out-of-the-box, the onboard graphics and 2GB of RAM should offer sufficient horsepower to play HD videos, but 4K might be a problem. But more than anything else, this is the perfect solution for anyone looking to build an HTPC or cord cutters who want a PC.
While the Stream Mini didn’t make our list, its more powerful sibling is a good “ready to go” choice. The HP Pavilion 300-220 Mini is surprisingly small for the hardware that comes inside, which includes a 500GB hard disk drive preloaded with Windows 10.
Keeping your costs down further, HP’s mini PC also ships with a wireless keyboard and mouse, which isn’t something you see often in this range of devices. Its Pentium processor is surprisingly decent, although not as powerful as a Core i3. Still, coupled with the 4GB of RAM, it should easily handle day-to-day computing. You should be able to use it for Microsoft Office or browsing the Internet, as well as multimedia requirements like watching HD videos. Don’t count on 4K support, though.
Intel has been leading the mini PC bandwagon with its desirable Next Unit of Computer (NUC) series. These small form factor devices look great and offer easy hardware upgrades. Intel publishes official guides on how to replace or add parts, and the Internet is full of forums that have detailed instructions you can follow.
The NUC5i5RYK is the best model of the lot, as it comes with a powerful Core i5 dual-core processor and the Intel HD 6000 graphics chip. It’s not a complete system, though, and requires the installation of a laptop hard drive and laptop RAM — not a bad deal since you can buy these for cheap according to your needs. For example, you can get a 2.5-inch SSD for faster performance. For those interested in high-performance, check out Intel’s $650 Skull Canyon NUC kit, which offers a combination of quad-cores and Intel’s Iris Pro integrated GPU.
Since this article was published, Intel has released a new version of the mini PC, the Intel NUC Kit NUC6i5SYK.
If you aren’t hung up about Windows 10 or can install it yourself if need be, then the CompuLab fit-PC4 Pro Linux is a wonderful cheap Linux PC you can buy. The quad-core AMD processor and the Radeon HD4800E graphics processor will combine to deliver some oomph to your multimedia needs, as well as allow you to play some basic games without much problem. The 4GB of RAM can seem limiting, but this is one of the few mini PCs to come with two DDR3 DIMM slots for your memory, so you can expand the RAM as you see fit.
More than anything, it’s the connectivity options that make it a hit. CompuLab has thrown in six USB 2.0 ports and two more USB 3.0 ports, along with an mSATA connector, and topped it with two HDMI ports and a memory card slot. So yeah, you can set up dual monitors for productivity, connect it to a monitor as well as a TV, turn it into a media hub, or whatever else you want.
You could even get the $379 barebones fit-PC4 Pro, and add your own SSD and RAM to it. But again, that will mean you’ll have to buy and install Windows or any other operating system.
Yes, most mini PCs are not meant for gamers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any at all. Of the current options, the Origin Chronos stands out from the crowd for its customizability, size, and cooling.
The most basic version of the Chronos comes with a 3.2GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 6500 processor, 8GB of DDR4 RAM (2666MHz), 120GB SSD, and a discrete 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 950 graphics card. And that will set you back by approximately $1500. All of these specifications can be upgraded, with even the new Nvidia GeForce GTX 1080 graphics card available as an option.
This would mean you can play pretty much any game out there. As CNET notes in its review, the Chronos is also a capable virtual reality gaming machine. The custom cooling system is important for this tiny PC to remain cool, but apparently that results in the fans making a lot of noise, unlike those silent fanless mini PCs. Overall though, there is nothing out there which is as compact and powerful as the Chronos.
Customize and order your own Chronos at the official site.
Don’t Buy a Mac Mini Right Now
For a long time, the Mac Mini has been one of the best small computers you can purchase. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this article (June 2016), we can’t recommend buying one. It’s just not the right time to buy a Mac Mini, according to MacRumors’ Buyer’s Guide.
The current Mac Mini was released in 2014 and hasn’t got an update since then. It’s also difficult to upgrade the Mac Mini when compared to other mini PCs. Instead, wait till Apple launches a new version (hopefully later this year) and buy that.
Also, we do not recommend buying an NUC or other mini PC to make a Hackintosh PC. Several hardware errors have been noted over popular mini PCs such as the Intel NUC, Gigabyte’s Brix, and Zotac’s ZBox, with Wi-Fi, NFC, and HDMI audio usually not working well.
Sticks and Portables
What’s your take on Mini-PCs? Do you think they’ll replace your desktop?