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Inside the compact, and perhaps even aesthetically appealing exterior of today’s Mini PCs may well lurk unexpected power. Gone are the days when a hulking tower was necessary to achieve the performance necessary to enjoy snappy productivity and gaming performance. Now a comparable experience may be had from a device not much larger than a toaster. Some extreme examples might well even be mistaken for USB thumb drives.
Keep in mind that despite their surprising computing power, mini PCs are limited to some extent compared to their beefier desktop cousins. Still, the difference in raw power is in many cases surprisingly nominal. If you need a capable machine to carry with you that can fit into a backpack, briefcase, or even your pocket, or just something that won’t dominate your work or personal space, then there is likely a Mini PC available to suit whatever specific use you have in mind.
The HP Pavilion Wave is undoubtedly one of the most unique desktop PCs on the market, thanks to its innovative chassis that broadcasts sound across an entire room. For around $750, the Pavilion Wave is a great product for a home theater, or for minimalists who want to shed extra devices. You can safely store your old speakers and PC for the Wave’s B&O-pedigree sound, just don’t expect to do anything too computationally intense.
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Emily Ramirez has written for MassDiGI and the MIT Game Lab as a blogger and narrative designer. She is active in the innovative media scene, tinkering with the latest tech in XR to understand how the average consumer could benefit from it.
Andy Zahn has spent hundreds of hours researching and testing the latest PC hardware. He has been building and tinkering with computers of all descriptions since childhood. Andy follows the latest news in computer hardware with hawk-like interest, always looking out for the most beastly gaming PCs and bang-for-the-buck deals he can find.
The Ultimate Mini PC Buying Guide
The world of the mini PC is a strange one, where size and style often win out over raw power, but that doesn’t mean you can ignore hardware specifications altogether. The process of finding and buying the best mini PC comes down to determining why you want a mini PC instead of a traditional desktop PC or laptop, what you need a mini PC for, and where you plan on using it. Once you’ve figured out those basic questions, you’ll be ready to focus down on more technical questions like system performance and hardware specifications.
How is a Mini PC Different?
Before you go any further, it’s important to understand that a mini PC is simply a personal computer (PC) that’s significantly smaller than the norm. Beyond that basic qualifier, you can find mini PCs that can act as full desktop replacements and competent gaming rigs, barebones systems that excel at streaming media, and low-powered pocket-sized computers that can’t handle much more than basic productivity tasks.
While there are a lot of affordable mini PCs out there, you can typically expect to pay somewhat of a premium for a mini PC compared to a full-sized computer with the exact same specifications. Mini PCs are also harder to upgrade, and some can’t be upgraded at all. So if you have the space for a full-sized computer, you can usually save some money and leave the door open for an upgrade in the future.
If you really need the portability of a mini PC, or your available space is really limited, then mini PCs are available to fit just about any need. Most mini PCs run either Windows or Linux, and a few run Chrome OS, but the venerable Apple Mac Mini, running macOS, also fits neatly into this category as well.
Usage Scenarios: What Do You Need a Mini PC For?
Before you can choose the right mini PC, it’s important to think about why you actually need a mini PC. This is important because you can save money by just buying a regular PC if space isn’t an issue, but it also comes into play due to the wide variety of sizes and configurations found in the mini PC market.
Size and portability are probably your main concerns if you’re looking for a mini PC, so you may want to consider whether or not a small laptop might meet your needs. Unlike mini PCs, laptops come with a display and keyboard built right in. Laptops also have the option to run on battery power, which you don’t get with a mini PC. Most laptops also include an HDMI output, so you can always plug into a larger monitor whenever one is available.
If you’ve determined that a mini PC really does fit your needs better than a standard PC or laptop, then it’s time to start thinking about how you plan on using your mini PC.
One of the best uses for a mini PC is as a video and music streaming device. If that’s what you’re after, then you’ll want to look for smaller, lower-powered devices. Some of these mini PCs are so small that they can fit into the palm of your hand and plug directly into an HDMI input on your television.
If you’re after a desktop replacement or a gaming rig, but you’re dealing with limited space, then you’re looking for what has sometimes been called a booksize PC. These mini PCs are very small, often the size of a book, but they can pack a lot of hardware in that space.
Mini PCs that are designed for basic productivity tasks and light gaming bridge the gap between the previous two categories both in terms of performance and size, and they’re often quite affordable.
Size: Is Bigger or Smaller Better?
The most important consideration when choosing a mini PC is size, and the size of a mini PC is largely dictated by the power of the hardware. Smaller is typically seen as better in the mini PC sector, but there’s a limit to the power of the hardware that you can squeeze into a mini PC that isn’t much larger than a USB stick.
If you’re after the smallest of the small, then you will have to temper your expectations in terms of system performance. The smallest mini PCs are capable of basic productivity tasks, like word processing, web browsing, and email, and some of them are even capable of basic gaming.
If your needs are a little more demanding than that, then you’ll have to step up to a slightly larger mini PC. The term larger is relative, of course, since powerful booksize mini PCs that are able to act as desktop replacements and even competent gaming rigs are significantly smaller than your average desktop PC.
Basic Hardware: Choosing a System on a Chip or Upgradeable System
The general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t plan on upgrading your mini PC after buying it, because most of the computers in this category just don’t provide that option. This is especially true of system-on-a-chip mini PCs, which represent the smallest of the small. These mini PCs are remarkably small due to clever engineering that most of, if not all of, the components necessary for the computer to run on a single chip.
If you have more space to work with, then you may want to look at mini PCs on the larger end of the scale that actually include some upgradeable components. Depending on the system, you may be able to upgrade the RAM, onboard storage, or even components like the graphics card.
Mini PCs built on Micro ATX and Mini ITX motherboards are significantly smaller than standard PCs, but they typically allow you to upgrade at least some of the components over time to prolong the life of the device.
Processing Power: CPU and GPU
This is where you start to dig into system specifications, so it’s important to have a good idea of how you will use your mini PC if you want to make an informed decision. If you’re just looking for a basic productivity machine, then you can skimp on the CPU and go for a unit with integrated graphics.
If you want to use your mini PC as a streaming device, the CPU and GPU still aren’t that terribly important. You need a machine that’s powerful enough to stream, but you don’t really need to chase system specifications. Look for a mini PC that’s specifically designed to stream in full HD or 4K, depending on your television, and you’ll do just fine.
If you’re looking for a desktop replacement, or you want to play fairly new games, then you need to pay close attention to the CPU and GPU. Check the minimum and recommended system requirements for some of the games you’re interested in playing, and select a mini PC that meets or exceeds those requirements.
Memory and Storage: Internal Storage and RAM
Memory refers to random access memory (RAM), which is volatile memory that is used when the computer is on and lost when the computer is turned off. It’s useful for things like multitasking, because each program or app takes up memory while running, and it’s also essential for tasks like image and video editing, and gaming.
For a very basic mini PC that’s intended primarily for streaming, you want a minimum of 2GB of RAM, with a strong preference for 4GB or more. Basic productivity rigs should have at least 4 GB, with more required if you do tasks like image editing and video editing. If you want to play games, then look for a bare minimum of 8GB with a preference for 16GB or more, and check to see if there is any dedicated memory for the graphics. If there isn’t, the memory is shared, and it’s all the more important to go for a setup that includes 16GB or more of memory.
Storage refers to non-volatile memory that doesn’t go away when the mini PC is turned off. You may be familiar with this sort of memory as hard drive space, but most mini PCs don’t actually have hard drives. Solid-state drives take up less space, and some mini PCs have their non-volatile memory actually soldered right on to the mainboard.
The amount of storage you need in a mini PC depends on how you plan on using it. Mini PCs that are used primarily for streaming don’t need much memory at all, just enough for the operating system and a little left over to buffer videos.
More storage is needed if you plan on using your mini PC as a desktop replacement or gaming rig, although the specific amount is highly dependent on your own situation. Some people can get by just fine with 250GB of storage, while others will fill that up very quickly.
Check to see if the mini PC you’re interested in includes USB ports or a dedicated SD card slot. If it does, you can always add more storage with an external USB drive or an SD card.
Operating System: Windows, Linux, or even Chrome?
When choosing a mini PC, the operating system is really up to your own personal preference. If you’re familiar with Windows, then the path of least resistance is to choose a mini PC that comes with Windows preinstalled.
While Windows isn’t designed for use on streaming devices, and the interface is a bit cumbersome for that purpose, it works just fine if that’s what you’re used to. Linux has a steeper learning curve if you already aren’t familiar with it. It’s an acceptable choice for streaming devices, even if you don’t have a lot of Linux experience, but less so if you need to use your mini PC for productivity.
Chrome OS is a very simple operating system that’s built on Linux, so the learning curve is much gentler. If you use Google docs, Gmail, and the Chrome browser already, then you’ll find Chrome OS very easy to use for both streaming and productivity.
If you want to game on your mini PC, then Windows is the best choice. While a lot of games are available on Linux, Windows is still the platform of choice for PC gamers.
Ports and Connectivity: Accommodating Inputs, Outputs, Peripherals, and More
If you have a specific need for some type of port or connectivity, then it’s important to keep that in mind when looking at mini PCs. The smallest mini PCs typically have built-in Wi-Fi, and some have built-in Bluetooth, but that’s typically it. If you need to plug in headphones, any USB devices, or additional monitors, the smallest mini PCs simply can’t accommodate any of that.
Mini PCs that trend toward the larger end of the scale still don’t have as many ports and connectivity options as your average-sized PC, but they do provide a whole lot of other options. You can find mini PCs with standard USB ports, USB-C ports, Ethernet ports, headphone jacks, and auxiliary audio outputs, and more.
To avoid headaches down the line, identify the peripherals you need to connect to your mini PC, write down all of the ports required by those peripherals, and use that to guide your decision-making process. You can get around some obstacles by adding accessories like USB hubs, but try to find a system that can accommodate your needs right out of the box if possible.
Accessories: Some Systems Need More Than Others
Mini PCs typically come with everything you need to get up and running right away, but there are some exceptions. Some systems are more barebones than others, so it’s important to check what comes in the box.
If your mini PC isn’t designed to plug directly into a TV or monitor, make sure it comes with an HDMI cable, and that the cable is long enough. Otherwise, you’ll want to pick up an HDMI cable of sufficient length.
Similarly, you’ll also want to make sure that your mini PC comes with an ethernet cable and that the cable is long enough, if it actually has an ethernet port.
If you’re starting from scratch, the bare minimum you’ll need to add to your mini PC to get it operational is a mouse, a keyboard, and a monitor. Some mini PCs have built-in Bluetooth for a wireless mouse and keyboard, or you can use a USB mouse and keyboard if the mini PC has enough free USB ports.
Most of the well-known PC manufacturers you’ve heard of make at least one mini PC.
While Acer is best known for their budget-priced laptops, they also have a decent slate of affordable desktop computers and some surprisingly competent mini PCs. If you’re looking for a mini PC that comes with Chrome OS installed instead of Windows for basic productivity or streaming 4K video, they have some intriguing options.
This is another manufacturer that’s better known for their laptops than desktop hardware, but that expertise in working with tight spaces translates quite well into the mini PC field. Their VivoMini line, in particular, is a series of great little barebones mini PCs that are quite affordable and come with some surprising features like VESA mounts that allow you to bolt directly to the back of a monitor.
This manufacturer made its name producing high-quality components like motherboards before moving into the surprisingly-affordable laptop market. Their products still tend to be a bit more affordable than the competition, and their mini PC options range from tiny booksize gear like the CubiN to the slightly larger, and much more powerful, Trident 3 gaming PCs.
This manufacturer has been one of the more popular desktop and laptop manufacturers for a long time, and they have some very interesting mini PC offerings. Prices tend to be fairly high, but some of their options, like the Pavilion Wave, pack in a whole lot of extra functionality.
Best known for furnishing CPUs to other manufacturers, Intel is also in the hardware game with a number of highly capable mini PCs. Their offerings range from powerful barebones kits that require you to finish building the system to surprisingly competent palm-sized mini PC sticks that plug directly into your monitor.
Conclusion: How to Pick the Best Mini PC
The mini PC category is fairly broad and services a lot of different usage scenarios, so it’s important to know what you need your computer to do before you start looking. Focus on your specific needs, whether that be streaming video, playing games, or just basic productivity, and then go from there.
Size is an important concern when selecting the best mini PC, because they’re available in a fairly wide range of sizes. If you’re dead set on a mini PC that will fit in your palm, for instance, your gaming options will be limited, as will your future upgrade options. So you have to figure out what you need your mini PC to do, and then find one that can accomplish those goals while still meeting your size constraints.
Performance and specifications are all predicated on the way you plan on using your mini PC, just like any computer. Go with a mini ITX system with a discrete video card if you want to play games now with the option to upgrade later, or a smaller, less expensive system on-chip if size is more important than performance.