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 half a century or so, and—oh, micro, how you have changed!
Most of the acceleration toward super-small in desktop PCs has happened over the last decade. Of course, it’s still easy enough to find ordinary business boxes and hulking power towers packed with big video cards and multiple platter-based hard 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.
Mini PCs: How to Define Degrees of ‘Small’
As a result, we’re seeing some clear stratification in the market for tiny desktop PCs. 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 Asus, Azulle, Lenovo, and others.
These are really only suitable for display/signage use or extremely basic applications, and after a promising debut a few years back, have not seen all that much evolution or momentum. You can still find them on the market, but they have failed to have a major impact. A few vendors (notably, Azulle) still make them, though.
The models next up in size are a bit more dynamic, a bunch 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 line, and Gigabyte with its Brix models, for example).
The NUC PCs and their ilk tend to be around 5 or 6 inches square, though Intel’s 2020 NUC 9 Extreme changes this somewhat. The NUC 9 is a new mini-PC platform that Intel is encouraging partner manufacturers to utilize for many different types of PCs, based on a core-computing module called the Compute Element. While it’s technically a mini PC, full retail models from partners, such as the Razer Tomahawk, can be much larger than the small square boxes we’re used to associating with NUCs.
Separate from those is a host of 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 early innovators), offers a huge range of Zbox PCs that range in size from a fat smartphone to a bulky Discman. Shuttle, too, is another small-PC pioneer, offering machines in a host of shapes. On the macOS side of things, the venerable Apple Mac Mini is a sleek, square silver box with rounded edges that saw a big update in late 2020. Like the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, it received Apple’s homegrown M1 processor, greatly increasing its performance.
Should You Buy Bare Bones or Ready-Configured?
Not all mini 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, Shuttle’s small PCs, and many of Zotac’s Zboxes, you get what amounts to a PC kit: a tiny chassis with a motherboard pre-installed (in some cases, a soldered-on processor is in place, as opposed to a socketed one), plus, in most cases, wireless connectivity built in. To complete the kit, you have to shop for and install a storage drive (a hard drive and/or a solid-state drive, depending on the model) and RAM modules, and install your own operating system.
This arrangement is what’s called in reseller lingo a “bare-bones PC.” You’ll want to make sure you know what you are getting. In some cases, a given mini system is sold in bare-bones form, as well as in pre-configured versions with storage, RAM, and Windows present.
You need to factor those parts and a Windows license (unless you plan to use Linux) 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. Many small PCs like these make use of DDR4 SO-DIMMs—laptop-style RAM modules—for their main memory instead of full-size desktop DDR4 DIMMs.
The form factor of the storage varies more. Depending on the mini PC you are looking at, you may need a 2.5-inch drive (a solid-state or hard drive, the size that goes into most full-size laptops), or a cutting-edge variety of SSD that’s known as an M.2 SSD. Such drives are the size and shape of a stick of chewing gum. Check out our guide to these complicated drives at the link; if you need to install an M.2 SSD in a bare-bones desktop, you need to know about some interface/bus and sizing subtleties before you shop. (It’s easy, otherwise, to buy an incompatible drive.)
If a given system is a bare-bones kit, you’ll need to get more than a little hands-on with it 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 or macOS comes installed; you won’t need to install and update the OS and its drivers.
Should You Get Dedicated or Integrated Graphics?
Most mini PCs are as “mini” as they are because they rely on the basic-grade graphics acceleration built into the CPU to power their video outputs—no separate graphics card is involved. This integrated 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 are Zotac’s Zbox Magnus models, which employ dedicated GeForce graphics muscular enough for serious PC gaming at reasonable detail settings at 1080p (1,920 by 1,080 pixels) and, in some cases, higher resolutions. The 2021 Dell Precision 3240 Compact even makes use of Nvidia Quadro graphics and up to Intel Xeon processors for workstation-grade tasks.
One interesting such dedicated-graphics model from the last couple of years is the Intel NUC Kit NUC8i7HVK (“Hades Canyon”) mini PC, which debuted in the first half of 2018 and only recently went out of support. This small desktop makes use of one of Intel’s pioneering “Kaby Lake-G” processors that were developed in concert with AMD. The chip used here combines Intel Core i7 silicon for the CPU portion and AMD’s peppy Radeon RX Vega M graphics acceleration on the same die. (Earlier Intel NUCs relied solely on Intel’s own integrated HD Graphics or Iris solutions.) That means well-above-average graphics performance in a system this size.
Many of the new Intel NUC 9 models mentioned earlier will undoubtedly offer superior performance, but in a notably larger form factor. The thing is, when you’re dealing with a truly small PC, a dedicated graphics chip is seldom an option, simply because of space and thermal-design reasons. One promising development, though, is the peppier integrated graphics in Intel’s 11th Generation “Tiger Lake” CPUs. Designed for mobile systems, they would also seem a perfect fit for mini PCs, and the integrated Iris Xe graphics silicon has shown solid improvement in our early tests and first Iris Xe laptop reviews. Look for mini PCs based on Tiger Lake CPUs through the start of 2021.
Connectivity and Mountability
Some mini 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, if present, normally comply with 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.
Which CPUs Should You Look for in a Mini PC?
You’ll see a variety of mobile-grade CPUs in the small PCs out there, ranging from Intel Atom and Celeron 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. It’s crucial that you know, however, if you are looking at a mobile-grade CPU (the kind used in laptops) or a desktop-strength chip. The size of the PC isn’t always a good predictor of that. (That said, the very smallest stick PCs will always use mobile chips.)
How to tell? Most of the mini PCs on the market make use of Intel silicon, and the dead giveaway whether you’re looking at a mobile CPU or a desktop one is usually (but not always) the letter at the end of the processor’s number. Look for a “T” or a “K,” or no letter at all, as a dead giveaway for a desktop chip (for example, Core i5-9400T), or a “U” or “Y” (or with the very latest chips, possibly a “G3,” “G5,” or “G7”) for a mobile one. The chip family and generation being equal, you can generally expect more muscle (usually a consequence of more cores and higher base clocks) from the desktop version of, say, a Core i5 than from a mobile Core i5.
What should you glean from that mobile-versus-desktop insight? Our benchmark testing will quantify the trends, but none of the mobile-grade chips in these small PCs is a proper substitute for a desktop chip if you’re a heavy multitasker, or a media pro who needs real processing muscle, say, to convert lots of video or photo files from one format to another. In most cases, the CPU is the single biggest factor in the cost of a mini PC, so keep an eye on the performance numbers in our reviews for a relative idea of what you are getting.
Rule of thumb? For light office work, you can get by with a mobile or desktop Core i3- or Pentium-based mini-PC, but you’ll want to err on the side of a higher-end, desktop-strength Core chip if you’ll need extra pep for serious multitasking, file conversions, heavy calculation-based work, or multimedia content manipulation. Celeron chips, meanwhile, are okay for only the very lightest of tasks, or undemanding digital display/signage use. Atoms (which are mostly gone from the market) are best avoided except for single-use, mostly passive tasks.
So, Which Mini PC Should I Buy?
Check out the list below for our latest mini PC recommendations. If you’re shopping for a small desktop to save money, you’ll also want to check out our picks for the top cheap desktops.
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, or see our guide to the top all-in-one desktops, which tend to be trim and feature built-in displays.