How to Find the Best Mini PC
The term “microcomputer” has its origins in the 1970s—the “micro” of the personal computers emerging then lay in stark contrast to the room-size mainframe beasts of the day. But fast-forward 40 or so years, and oh, micro—how you have changed!
Indeed, most of the acceleration toward super-small in desktop PCs has happened over the last five years. Of course, it’s still easy enough to find ordinary business boxes and hulking power towers packed with big video cards and multiple drives. But starting with the “small-form-factor” (SFF) PC revolution of the ’00s, many desktops have gone from half-size towers to compact cubes to, in their most extreme reduction, sticks not a whole lot bigger than a USB flash drive. (A big reason why? Graphics acceleration and other essential features, handled in the past by separate chips or bulky cards, have been subsumed under the CPU.) Nowadays, small-ification is getting to the point where you can’t go all that much smaller; you need to leave some space for ports to plug in a thing or two.
As a result, we’re seeing some clear stratification in the tiny-PC market. The very smallest PCs might be termed the “stick class,” vanguarded by the Atom-CPU-powered Intel Compute Stick we first reviewed in early 2015 (and again in its refreshed, Cherry Trail Atom and Core m3 forms in 2016), followed by similar sticks from Lenovo and Asus.
Next up in size is what we might term the “NUC class.” NUC stands for “Next Unit of Computing,” an initiative by Intel to spur the development of very small Windows-based desktop PCs using its mobile-centric processors. The chip giant has released a series of NUC-branded mini-PC kits in its own line, and several of the traditional PC-component makers have followed suit with similar models: Asus with its VivoMini and VivoPC lines, as well as Gigabyte with its Brix minis.
The NUC PCs and their ilk tend to be around 5 or 6 inches square. Separate from those is a host of Windows PCs that are undeniably small but follow their own shape and size rules. Zotac, a major player in small PCs (and one of the category’s unsung pioneers), offers a huge range of Zbox PCs that range in size from a fat smartphone to a bulky Discman. Systems like the modular HP Elite Slice, meanwhile, are roughly the size and shape of a cereal bowl.
When shopping for a Windows micro-system, it’s wise to keep these four factors in mind.
Bare Bones or Preconfigured?
Not all micro-PCs ship as complete systems; more so than any other class of PC, they tend not to. Especially in the case of Intel’s NUC kits, Gigabyte’s Brix PCs, and many of Zotac’s Zboxes, you get what amounts to a PC kit: a tiny chassis with a motherboard pre-installed (a soldered-on processor is in place), plus, in most cases, wireless connectivity built in. To complete the kit, you have to shop for and install a storage drive (hard drive and/or SSD, depending on the model), RAM modules, and a copy of Windows.
You need to factor those parts and a Windows license into the total cost. The parts you will need, mind you, will be small: the kind that you’d typically find in a laptop, not a desktop. Most micro-PCs make use of SO-DIMMs—laptop-style RAM modules—for their main memory.
Storage varies more. Depending on the micro-PC you are looking at, you may need a 2.5-inch drive (solid-state or hard drive, the size that goes into most full-size laptops), or a new-generation variety of solid-state drive (SSD) that goes by the name “mSATA” or “M.2.” Meant mainly for use in laptops, these small, specialized SSDs look like little circuit boards.
If it is a bare-bones kit, you’ll need to get more than a little hands-on with your micro-PC to get it up and running. But a kit gives you maximum flexibility in terms of component selection. That said, one advantage of a pre-configured system, apart from the easier setup, is the fact that Windows comes pre-installed; you won’t need to install and update the OS and its drivers.
Dedicated or Integrated Graphics?
Most micro-PCs are as “micro” as they are because they rely on the basic-grade graphics acceleration built into the CPU to power their video outputs—no separate video card is involved. The graphics silicon will suffice for productivity work and video playback.
A few outlying models, though, do incorporate the same kind of separate, dedicated mobile graphics chips that appear in gaming laptops. Among them is the Zbox Magnus EN980, which is muscular enough for PC serious gaming at reasonable detail settings at 1080p (1,920 by 1,080).
Connectivity and Mountability
Many (but not all) micro-PCs include mounting kits that let you attach them to the back of an LCD monitor. Check for that feature if space savings of that kind is important to you. And check the back of your monitor for mounting holes (which normally comply to the VESA mounting standard).
Also check for 802.11 Wi-Fi (wireless networking) of some flavor. Most micro-PCs include at least that as a standard feature (and a bunch more also incorporate Bluetooth), but double-check that the system or kit doesn’t require the purchase of a separate Wi-Fi card in the Mini-PCI Express or M.2 form factor. Some do.
CPU Power in a Small-Form-Factor PC
You’ll see a variety of mobile-grade CPUs in the micro-PCs out there, ranging from Intel Atom chips (very basic, and good at best for simple productivity work, e-mailing, and web browsing) up to Core i5 and i7 processors that can do some modest media-crunching and rendering work. (That said, none of the mobile-grade chips in these small PCs is a real substitute for a desktop chip for media pros who need real muscle.) The CPU is generally the single biggest factor in the cost of a micro-PC, so keep an eye on the performance numbers in our reviews for a relative idea of what you are getting. (Rule of thumb? Light office work can easily get by with a Core i3 or Atom-based mini-PC, but you’ll want to err on the side of a Core chip if you’ll need extra pep now and then.)
Check out the list below for our top micro desktop reccomendations. If you’d like to go a bit bigger, head on over to our top choices for standard-size desktops, which include some small-form-factor PCs as well, or see our top all-in-one desktops.
Intel NUC Kit NUC6CAYS Review
Bottom Line: The NUC6CAYS model of the Intel NUC Kit is a small, versatile, upgradable, and highly affordable desktop PC with the same basic feature set as that of a much larger machine.
Polywell B250G-i7 Review
Bottom Line: The Polywell B250G-i7 is one of the most affordable Intel Core i7-powered systems we’ve tested, and it manages to pack lots of connectivity options into its small form factor, too.
Shuttle XPC Nano Review
Bottom Line: The Shuttle XPC Nano ultra-small-form-factor (USFF) desktop PC is an inexpensive and highly appealing choice if you want to connect a PC to an HDTV, have a desire to tinker, or both.
HP Elite Slice Review
Bottom Line: The HP Elite Slice is a modular small-form-factor business PC that can be used in conference rooms or at your employees’ desks, and can be switched to different configurations in just second…
Raspberry Pi Zero W Review
Bottom Line: Add some accessories, and the Raspberry Pi Zero W is a full PC for pocket change, but its potential for DIY electronic projects is its real draw.
Asus VivoStick PC (TS10) Review
Bottom Line: The Asus VivoStick is a full 64-bit Windows 10 computer that’s a lot smaller than a hip flask, or even a cigar tube. It’s short on memory and storage, but can instantly turn a display or TV …
Zotac Zbox Magnus EN980 Review
Bottom Line: The Zotac Zbox Magnus EN980 is designed to facilitate VR gaming in the living room. At this, it succeeds, but this gaming PC is unremarkable in most other respects.
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