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 Compulab 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 Mica T87 is just one of several models they have available, but an Intel Haswell processor and $667 base MSRP makes the Mica T87 the company’s most attractive model. Unfortunately, Cappuccino’s latest fanless system, the Echo, starts at over $1,000.
The base model of the Mica T87 starts with a T-series (low-power) Intel Core i3 processor. However, users can upgrade to a 35 TDP Core i7 processor. The case supports three 2.5″ storage drives, making the Mica among the more configurable fanless chassis around. The mini PC also supports up to 16GB of RAM and two mini-PCIe slots. However, given its extremely slim profile of 2.7″, it can function in a variety of roles, such as an industrial PC.
The base model includes four USB 3.0 ports, audio jacks, Ethernet, HDMI, and VGA.
As you might have guessed, the powerful Mica isn’t as tiny as most other mini PCs (it uses a full mini-ITX motherboard). Still, at only 8.5 inches long, 9.6 inches wide, and 2.7 inches tall, it’s just slightly larger than a standard mini-PC. If you’re looking for a relatively powerful fanless system, you’ll benefit from the power, reconfigurability, and power efficiency.
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.
At just under $170, the Azulle Byte Plus ranks at the least expensive option on this list. I was hesitant to list it as it competes against the well-regarded ASRock Beebox, which offers similar specifications. However, what puts the Byte Plus over the top is its adoption of the latest Intel processor, the Intel Atom x5. While not a powerful chip by any means, it does incorporate the state-of-the-art in fabrication technology (14-nanometer transistors) along with Hyperthreading and relatively solid integrated graphics — for a mobile processor.
The Byte Plus comes in two models: a $170 base model (pictured above), comes with 2GB of RAM, a 32GB eMMC storage module, and 802.11ac wireless connectivity; for $20 more, you can get a 4GB of RAM version. Overall, it makes for an excellent mini PC, provided your computational requirements don’t involve heavy workloads.
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. ASRock, on the other hand, offers a solid mainstream pick in the Beebox series. Fanless systems continue to grow but remain a niche product.
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.