Technology Explained

What Makes Mini PCs so Small? And, the Best Mini PCs You Can Buy Today

Mihir Patkar 20-07-2015

The end is nigh for the hulking tower PC. Computers are fitting into the size of your palm, some as small as thick pen drive. But what’s the technology that has taken them there, and are these mini PCs really good enough to be your primary computer?


As Moore’s Law sets in What Is Moore's Law, And What Does It Have To Do With You? [MakeUseOf Explains] Bad luck has nothing to do with Moore's Law. If that is the association you had, you are confusing it with Murphy's Law. However, you were not far off because Moore's Law and Murphy's Law... Read More , hardware is becoming smaller and cheaper by the day. Meanwhile, as Wirth’s Law states, software development isn’t able to keep pace with hardware. The end result is that we have the same operating systems and programs of yesterday running smoothly on tinier versions of the computers they were built for.

A new generation of mini PCs is making its way into our homes and offices now. These aren’t just media players, although mini PCs serve that purpose better than set top boxes and dedicated media players Cord Cutters: Ignore Set Top Boxes & Use A PC Instead Ditching cable? Stay away from dedicated media center devices. Your spare PC makes for an excellent alternative because it's cheap to set up, more powerful, and forever flexible. Read More . The new lot of mini PCs are proper personal computers. Many of these run Windows, some operate Linux, and there are even a couple with Android-based desktop operating systems.

What Makes Mini PCs Possible?


To understand the miniaturization of the PC, you need to know the basic parts of a computer The Basic Parts of a Computer and How to Upgrade Them Know what the basic parts of a computer are called? Considering replacing parts of your PC? It's time to learn how your PC works. Read More . Over the years, most of these parts got smaller, integrated with other parts, or obsolete.

The big technological innovation came with the motherboard. From 2000 to 2007, hardware manufacturer VIA Technologies has made significant breakthroughs in motherboard size — minimizing the standard ATX and Micro ATX to three new sizes: Mini ITX, Nano ITX, and Pico ITX.


While the motherboard was miniaturized, at the same time, technologists were focussing on “integrated peripherals”. Basically, this means that components which were previously separate add-ons for a motherboard were not being scaled down, instead they were added directly onto the main PCB. The result was a modern motherboard came with all the bells and whistles: ethernet port, USB ports, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, audio output, and other wireless and non-wireless standards.

The last few years have also seen the exclusion of an optical media drive from computers. Most people don’t use CDs or DVDs on a regular basis now, and there are plenty of alternatives to the optical disc Saying Goodbye: 5 Alternatives To The Optical Disc With computers growing smaller and lifestyles going mobile, less devices offer sufficient space for internal optical drives. Presently, the market is kept afloat by Blu-ray consumer home video sales, but in terms of data storage,... Read More that work better while taking up less space.


Finally, chip makers Intel and AMD started integrating the CPU and GPU into a single chip called the APU What Is an APU? The Accelerated Processing Unit, Explained Checking out computer parts for an upgrade? You might have seen an "APU". What is it and how does an APU differ from a CPU? Read More . Unlike AMD, Intel still refuses to call its modern line of processors “APUs”, but nomenclature aside, both companies are making the same thing. This means that you don’t need an external graphics card any more, and today’s APUs are good enough to even play new games, let alone any other needs that a regular user would have.


All of this miniaturization has now reached a point where a computer fits into the casing of an old thumbdrive. The new Intel Compute Stick turns any TV into a Windows PC Intel Compute Stick Turns Any TV Into A Windows PC For Just $149 Read More , and it costs just $149. These devices are obviously not as powerful as the larger mini PCs, but they do serve the same purpose: a proper, full-fledged desktop computer at a fraction of the size and cost.

What Software Can I Run on a Mini PC?


Until 2007, the world was concentrating on better desktop operating systems and the Windows vs. Mac vs. Linux Mac, Linux or Windows: It Really Doesn't Matter Anymore [Opinion] It matters less and less every year what operating system you use, because every year we all spend more time on our computer using nothing but the browser. And browsers are cross-platform. Want to have... Read More debate was still raging. But then Steve Jobs hopped on stage, took a tiny phone out of his pocket, and said this will be our main technological device going forward.

Jobs was right and the smartphone ushered in the post-PC era What Does Post-PC Era Mean? [MakeUseOf Explains] Back in 2010, Steve Jobs proclaimed that we were entering the "post-PC era". Much of the discussion around Windows 8, its new Metro interface, and its focus on tablets has focused around the new reality... Read More . This also meant that software developers started concentrating on mobile operating systems and apps, so the growth of the desktop operating system declined.


Declined, but not dead. The desktop computer or laptop is still an integral part of the lives of most people. New operating systems like Windows 10 promises a cross-over platform Windows 10: The Dream Of A Cross-Device Operating System Is Becoming Reality & It's Free Microsoft is boldly stepping into the future with innovative software and hardware. Windows as a service and mobility of experience were the major keywords from the recent Windows 10 briefing. Most importantly, Windows 10 will... Read More that works seamlessly across smartphones and traditional PCs.

As it stands today, mobile operating systems aren’t ideal for use with a mini PC, and there’s a simple reason for that: input. Mobile operating systems like Android and iOS were designed with touchscreen input in mind, and so developers built their apps accordingly. A mini PC uses a keyboard and mouse, so there’s a slight disconnect. There are a few exceptions with forks of Android that are made for desktop, but as a general rule, your mini PC is still best served with a desktop operating system: Windows, Mac, Linux or Chrome OS.

Of course, once you install any of those operating systems, you can also download and install any supported program or game. It is, for all intents and purposes, a full-fledged PC.

What is a Mini PC Good For?



Today, a mini PC has several advantages over a full-sized desktop PC.

  1. Size: Obviously, the biggest advantage is the amount of space you save. Even in a small 5 x 5-inch box, you will get the kind of power that a desktop PC would have had 1-2 years ago. The best part? That is enough for most users.
  2. Power consumption: The hardware for a mini PC is made to run on less power. Gone are those bulky 600W power supply units! In fact, you can even build your own tiny, silent and green mini PCs Tiny, Silent and Green PCs That You Can Build Now This article covers component selection for assembling fanless and green PCs, allowing you to make your very own silent, eco-friendly computers. Read More — although today, it makes more sense to buy one of Intel’s new NUC units, which we’ll get to in a bit.
  3. Customizability: Most mini PCs can be opened up just like a standard desktop PC, and you can swap or upgrade parts. In most cases, the motherboard and CPU/APU are difficult to upgrade, but the rest of the components like the hard drive and RAM can be changed as easily as your old tower.
  4. Cost: Compared to laptops and full-sized PCs, mini PCs are much more cost-effective to purchase and operate.
  5. Design: Since manufacturers are building the mini PC case with integrated power supply, motherboard, and CPU, they are able to experiment more freely with the design. So far, there have been some cool mini PC models released, such as the Zotac ZBox Sphere and the Acer Revo One.

ZOTAC ZBOX Sphere OI520 Series Mini PC with Intel Core i5 barebones system (ZBOX-OI520-U) ZOTAC ZBOX Sphere OI520 Series Mini PC with Intel Core i5 barebones system (ZBOX-OI520-U) Buy Now On Amazon

What Are the Limitations of a Mini PC?


While there is plenty to love about mini PCs, you do have to make some sacrifices.

  1. Power Professionals: Do you want to edit videos? Are you a designer who has Photoshop open all the time? Think again about buying a mini PC. Technically, it will work, but you just won’t get the desired performance out of it.
  2. Gaming: At this moment, gaming-oriented mini PCs aren’t worth the money, even if you’re looking at the powerful Gigabyte Brix or Alienware Alpha. If you’re a gamer, you are better off with a tower PC. That said, the next generation of mini PCs looks promising. Zotac recently showed off the EN970 and Valve’s Steam Machines are coming in November Steam Machines Are Finally Coming! Here's What You Need to Know Read More .
  3. Avoid Stick PCs: Right now, the Intel Compute Stick and the Lenovo IdeaCentre Stick 300 are good ideas, but just don’t deliver in execution. It’s difficult to set up, not very powerful, and has various connectivity issues.

The Best Mini PCs You Can Buy Today

Intel NUC5i5RYK ($370)


Intel has been at the forefront of the mini PC movement with its Next Unit of Computing or NUC line of computers What Is an Intel NUC? What to Know and Why You Might Want One Intel NUCs can best be described as small, barebones PCs that are pretty awesome under the right circumstances. Read More . The NUC comes with a custom Intel motherboard and a fifth generation Intel processor, ranging from the i3 to the i7. These devices look great, are easily upgradeable, and are silent while running. They are barebone units, which means you have to purchase and install the RAM and hard drive yourself, which is great since you can either reuse your old computer’s parts or buy specific parts depending on your usage. Among the available models at the moment, the Intel NUC5i5RYK seems like the best value-for-money proposition. Be advised that you’ll need to buy a keyboard and mouse as well.

HP Stream Mini ($179)


If you’re buying a PC on a budget, don’t look any further than the HP Stream Mini. It’s tiny, it’s cute, and yet it’s powerful enough for basic computing. It even comes bundled with a wireless keyboard and mouse! The 2GB of RAM is limiting for the multi-taskers among us, and the 32GB of internal storage is annoying, but a quick RAM upgrade and a great external hard drive The 8 Best Portable Hard Drives You Can Buy Right Now Read More can fix those issues.

Lenovo ThinkCenter M93 Tiny ($555)


For a business professional setting up computers in an office, the ability to tinker around with the components isn’t as important as security and service. Lenovo’s ThinkCenter M93 Tiny is made for such office spaces. Apart from a Core i5 processor, 4GB RAM and a 500GB HDD, you’ll get Lenovo’s enterprise-level security and 3-year next-business-day on-site warranty.

Apple Mac Mini ($499)


It won’t run Windows, but who cares? The Mac Mini is still one of the best mini PCs around, and you get all of Apple’s bag of goodies with it. Again, the keyboard and mouse add to the initial costs, so it’s a pricey proposition, but the device is absolutely worth it. Plus, unlike most Apple devices, pre-2014 Mac Mini can be easily upgraded Want to Get More from Your Mac Mini? Start With These Upgrade Tips If you've just picked up a Mac Mini, here are some tips on what to upgrade and how to do it. Read More with more RAM or a better hard drive.

Edit: post-2014 Mac Minis aren’t easily upgradeable. You’re better off getting those upgrades at the time of purchase.

Acer Chromebox CXI-4GKM ($240)


You can run Android apps on Chrome OS now, which is just another reason to give Chrome OS a second chance 5 Reasons To Give Chrome OS A Second Chance Google’s launch of Chrome OS was one of 2011’s most disappointing moments. Perhaps the biggest disappointment of Chrome OS was its performance. Since then, Google has been gradually updating Chrome OS. The user experience has... Read More . If all you want is a lightweight device to turn your TV into a PC, the Acer Chromebox might be just what you need. Yes, the hardware seems underpowered, but Chrome OS runs smoothly on these low-powered specs, unlike Windows. Remember to buy the CXI-4GKM system, which comes with a made-for-Chrome keyboard and mouse and 4GB of RAM, instead of the usual 2GB you find on most Chrome devices.

Coming Soon: Jide Remix Mini [No Longer Available] 


Yes, we think Android isn’t ready to be a mini PC operating system yet, but there’s one company which begs to differ. Jide’s new Remix Mini comes with Remix OS, which is a fork of Android made to work like a desktop operating system, complete with a taskbar, file manager, multi-tasking, keyboard shortcuts and more. You can check out Liliputing’s full review of the Remix Mini for more details. It’ll cost just $30 eventually, and even $20 if you back it during its Kickstarter phase, but you’ll have to wait for this one.

Mini PCs vs. Tower PCs vs. Laptops

Some of our tech-inclined brethren have suggested that instead of a mini PC, it makes more sense to buy a laptop and connect it to a screen with an HDMI cable. Others say that mini PCs are just not good enough to replace a tower PC yet. Where do you stand on this fight between mini PCs, tower PCs, and laptops?

Related topics: Buying Tips, Computer Case, Mini PC.

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  1. nirav mistry
    August 29, 2016 at 4:33 am

    i was just plan to satup small network for traching enviorment.
    i want to know it is suitable for software developer , it is capable to execute php server like xamp, android studio and visual studio

    please help me to select zero client or thin client

    • nirav mistry
      August 29, 2016 at 4:36 am

      i was IT tutor, and want to establish small lan with 10 pc

  2. ianken51
    January 10, 2016 at 4:57 am

    I have a H-P Pavilion 500 series as my games box. I also have an old AMD Athlon 64 x 2 based Compaq Presario that is in need of updating. I'm interested in the Mac Mini as a replacement for web browsing and general use.

    Do PC based WiFi keyboards and mice work or must they be Apple versions?

    I have a H-P 18" led monitor. Will this work?

    • Justin
      January 18, 2016 at 12:36 am

      They Work!

  3. Anonymous
    July 21, 2015 at 4:56 pm

    All formats have market, but only tower are real grow for new video card with coolers, and space for expansion cards

  4. Anonymous
    July 21, 2015 at 2:50 am

    We have more than one PC running most of the time, and I'm writing this now on a mini from Chin, running an authentic version of W 8.1 that is usually used as a media PC on y HDTV. Works just fine, and cost about $100 US.

  5. Anonymous
    July 21, 2015 at 2:17 am

    Almost every Apple computer can run Windows with Bootcamp. It doesn't natively with it. I have also been able to triple boot the Mac Mini to Windows, Linux, and OS X.

    • Mihir Patkar
      July 30, 2015 at 6:10 am

      Of course. However, I prefer not to do Bootcamp now. For the weirdest reason possible: keyboard shortcuts.

      My life is governed by keyboard shortcuts. And I like that my muscle memory can differentiate between the Macbook Air keyboard and my regular PC keyboard. What this means is that I don't end up using Mac shortcuts on Windows, or the other way around.

      Maybe that's just me though.

  6. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 11:09 pm

    The Intel NUC does not have any audio output besides the one you get through the HDMI interface. So consider that you will need a HDMI capable monitor with speakers or with an headphone jack in order to get audio output.

    • Mihir Patkar
      July 30, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Yes Arturo, you'll have to use the standard 3.5mm headphone/mic jack. I just end up using BT speakers. Better long-term solution, imo, especially when Bluetooth speakers are so cheap now.

  7. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 11:02 pm

    Good point: you have to plan ahead the amount of RAM you should need in the next four years. At least get 8 GB. I recently bought a Macmini late 2012 (Core i7) on rebate (in Mexico) and easily upgraded RAM from 4 GB replacing two 2 GB memory modules with two 8 GB modules.

    • Mihir Patkar
      July 30, 2015 at 6:12 am

      Agreed! Knowing the RAM helps a lot. It's the thing we most often overlook, isn't it?

  8. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    "[The Mac Mini] won’t run Windows, but who cares?"

    Presumably, the many, many users who've installed Parallels and Windows and are - I assume - about to discover that it never worked.

    • Mihir Patkar
      July 30, 2015 at 6:14 am

      Come on Jon, you know I meant that it won't run Windows out of the box.

  9. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 2:55 pm

    The Mac Mini won't run Windows, eh? Ever heard of Boot Camp (introduced in 2006 with OS X Tiger for Intel)?

    • Mihir Patkar
      July 30, 2015 at 6:15 am


  10. Anonymous
    July 20, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    "Plus, unlike most Apple devices, the Mac Mini can be easily upgraded with more RAM or a better hard drive."
    1. As of the Early 2014 Model, Mac Mini's are no longer RAM upgradeable. They ship with on board memory.
    2. An easy upgrade for the Hard Drive? Sure if you have a little bit of experience with not ripping apart a mother board. Swapping out the internal drive or adding a second with the additional hard drive kit (ie. the server model's secondary drive setup) is not easy to someone who's never done it before. You have to remove certain screws, and make sure you release specific cables or you will rip cords off of the board and ya well, good luck getting apple to replace that with Apple Care.

    • Mihir Patkar
      July 30, 2015 at 6:17 am

      Whoa, the 2014 Mini isn't upgradeable? I didn't know that, thanks for letting me know. Totally my mistake there. I appreciate that, Zack!

      • Anonymous
        July 30, 2015 at 6:22 am

        Yup. We got one for a staff member only to see the same on-board memory just like the Macbook Air's, Pro's, and Macbook. Only machine that I believe is still upgradable is the Mac Pro. All other devices are now on-board only. Best bet, if you can afford to max it's memory, you better do it. Thanks apple.