The size of the average laptop has shrunk considerably in the last few years. Manufacturers have pushed themselves to create the smallest, most powerful laptops possible: the rise of the ultrabook. But at the same time, the thin laptop’s deskbound cousin has also been undergoing a drastic slimming regimen. Mini PCs have come into their own.
A mini pc is any computer small enough to tuck away on a shelf, in the same space that a modem might take up. They’re energy efficient, whisper quiet and versatile computing devices designed to serve in a multi-use environment.
The Big Advantage: Tiny size
Wherever you want to put a computer, a mini computer will fit. It’s the ideal size for a media center pc in your living room. It can be tucked away behind your monitor, giving you more desk real estate. They aren’t invisible, but they come pretty close.
The Disadvantages: Less horsepower, no room to grow.
No matter how efficient and well made the components in the mini-pc are, there is an upper limit to how powerful they can be. The restricted room within these tiny pc cases doesn’t allow for the heat sinks and fans a full-powered pc would need. The graphics capability is directly affected by the small space. Without room for a large, distinct graphics card, the mini-pc will always be unable to run the top of the line video games and visual effects.
And the computer enthusiast who loves to seriously tinker with the configuration of their pc is out of luck. Mini-pcs have almost no customer-replaceable components. At best, you’ll be able to upgrade the RAM or the hard drive. For everything else, the components are soldered together on a single logic board. If one sub-component fails, the whole board needs to be replaced.
An Acronym too long: BYODKM (Bring Your Own Display, Keyboard and Mouse)
Most mini PCs are sold without a display, keyboard or a mouse, on the assumption that you have these accessories already. If the mini-pc is replacing your existing desktop, then there’s no need to by a second set. In the case of a brand new addition, the type of peripheral depends on the situation. A media center mini-pc in the living room should be as unobtrusive as possible, so a discrete wireless keyboard and mouse would be the best fit, with your television as the monitor. As an alternative, you could take the more technologically complex route and run the mini-pc without its own keyboard and mouse, by using another computer on your network to remotely control and administer the mini-pc. This can be a fun party trick, but most home users are better off avoiding the added hassle.
Without further ado, here are a few of the choices out there for the prospective mini PC purchaser.
The first manufacturer to enthusiastically enter the mini pc market was Apple, with their Mac Mini. The Mac Mini launched in 2004. It was aimed at people switching from Windows to Mac, users who already had the other computer accessories and so didn’t need the monitor, keyboard or mouse. The current models of Mac Mini are only 1.4 inches tall and just under 8 inches wide, weighing 3 pounds. Tiny! Like most of the other Apple products, the Mac Mini has no internal optical drive, so your DVD collection won’t do you much good until you buy an external optical drive. But to compensate, the Mac Mini has a variety of other data transfer options: an sd card slot, 2 thunderbolt 2.0 ports, 4 USB 2.0 ports, as well as the network connections. The Mac Mini also has an infrared receiver for use with an optional remote control.
Adding a Mac to an existing Windows network always introduces the spectre of irritating technical complexity, especially for file transfers between devices. Interoperability has improved greatly over the last 5 years, but be prepared for the possibility of randomly baffling errors.
The Intel NUC PC is described as “barebones” and it lives up to the label. It has the essential basics for entry level computing, but no bells or whistles. The only additional feature this barebones PC has is an IR receiver, making it compatible with a remote control. Price is the barebones mini PCs strongest selling feature.
HP ProDesk 600 G1
Another entry level Windows mini PC, the HP ProDesk 600 G1 is aimed towards the business market. There’s an increased level of
data security management and access control for the files stored on the ProDesk. The added layers of security don’t detract from the basic functionality, so this PC could easily disguise itself as your home computer.
ZOTAC ZBOX Sphere
There’s no rule that a mini PC has to be a small box on your desk, and this PC proves that. The ZOTAC ZBOX Sphere will definitely stand out. Its distinctive shape isn’t just esthetically interesting: the design of the sphere allows easy access to the internal components for configuration changes. The Zbox has room for a second hard drive, and more RAM. And the built-in Bluetooth connectivity works well with your existing Bluetooth peripherals.
The future of mini PCs
The pressure to make the PC smaller and more efficient will keep producing smaller iterations of the traditional desktop computer. There are computers now available for about $150 that are the size of an USB memory stick. The lack of additional ports makes these tiny computers less than ideal for the average user, but the amount of computing power that we can now fit into an 2 inch stick of plastic is mind-blowing. Intel will be releasing a new Broadwell processor in 2015 which will again push the computing power in mini PCs up in a significant way.
In parallel to the mini PC market, several companies are producing multimedia and gaming devices that can increasingly do more and more of the traditional PC tasks. As an example, the Matricom G-Box is a set-top box running the Android operating system, giving it access to almost all of the smartphone apps made for Android. With its media center functionality and app access, set-top boxes like the G-box will compete with traditional mini PCs for the crucial space in your living room. With new devices based on Valve’s Steam service, and Google’s own Nexus Player coming soon, it will be very interesting to see how the battle plays out in the next few years.