If you’re in the market for a new computer, you might find yourself a bit overwhelmed when contemplating all the options available on the market. But before you rush out and purchase another laptop, stop and consider if a mini PC would be better suited to your needs. In a work-from-home environment, these miniature versions of powerful PCs could be the answer for a lot of folks.
What Are Mini PCs
Mini PCs are exactly that: scaled-down versions of desktop computers. They come in a variety of sizes and offer unique advantages, as well as some drawbacks.
Mini PCs are basically small box-shaped devices riddled with ports that don’t ship with any peripherals such as monitor, keyboard or trackpad. Therefore, they can be a great fit for people who already have those items on hand.
Due to their small size – which can be compared to a few smartphones stacked on top of each other – mini PCs can be quite limited in terms of power (that’s not always the case), although they allow users to perform most essential tasks such as checking email. Hence, examining what tasks you’ll use a mini PC for is key when making the decision whether to go for a full-sized PC or a miniature version.
In case you were wondering, these compact desktop alternatives are not made by obscure companies. In fact, many well-known computer manufacturers sell them. They also come with the warranties and support you would get from buying one of their laptops or full-sized desktops.
Use Cases for Mini PCs
Despite their smallish form factor, mini PCs are big on utility. The ones shipping with lower-end specs can be used to check your email or social media, for some minimal online gaming, or entertainment streaming. If you work-from-home, you can upgrade your power and run your job-specific software including video conferencing apps, without issue. For hobbyists, they can edit pictures and videos, as well as play more intensive games too.
A mini PC could be a great option for parents who want to purchase a computer for their children without breaking the bank. On top of that, with a mini PC you’ll know that your children can only use the computer in the space that you set up, instead of them taking a laptop into their room.
Mini PCs can also be a great choice for businesses. For instance, they can be used to power digital advertising displays or signs or as media hubs in shops or public transportation stations. A lot of business require multiple computers, and luckily most mini PCs can power one or two screens via USB-C, HDMI and Display Port, but some can be connected to up to four screens.
Choosing a Mini PC
When deciding on a mini PC, it’s critical that you pick one based on what your needs are and what peripherals you already have. While they can provide a way to upgrade your computer on a budget, if you also have to buy a full suite of accessories, you’ll need to factor that into the cost, as well.
You’ll also should make sure that you don’t pay for more than what you need. If you’re just looking for something to use in the evenings when you’re off work to watch movies, you could probably get away with a stick PC or a lower-end mini PC. Below you’ll find a list of pros and cons that will hopefully help you decide if getting a mini PC is for you or not.
Pros of Mini PCs
- Better specs for lower costs compared to laptops.
- Small form factor for better aesthetics and portability.
- Some come with trays that allow you to bolt them directly onto your monitor using the VESA mounting system (assuming your monitor is on a stand).
- Allow you to make use of monitors or TVs that you already own.
- Consumes much less power than other desktop towers when in use and when in idle mode, which saves money and is more environmentally friendly.
Cons of Mini PCs
- Many don’t have fans, which can lead to thermal issues when doing heavy processing tasks.
- Those that do have fans will have smaller fans that have to spin faster than ones fitted into tower PCs, which can increase fan noise from the mini PC.
- Most might not be suited for more resource-draining tasks.
- You have to provide your own screen and peripherals, which can add to cost.
- Not as portable as a laptop for travel (unless you can hook it up to a monitor/display at your destination).
Mini PCs fall into two broad categories: the ready-to-go mini PC and the barebones mini PC. Below we detail their characteristics.
Ready-to-Go Mini PCs
Ready-to-go mini PC are basically a plug-and-play option. They work just like a regular laptop or desktop would, right out-of-the-box.
Today, many of these come pre-installed with Windows 11, but you can always install an alternative operating system on them.
Ready-to-Go Mini PC Recommendation
At just over $400, the Beelink SEI8 Mini PC is an affordable mini PC and is a great addition to any home office. A lot of these mini PCs are basically small box-shaped devices with the company logo and various ports, and this Beelink is no exception.
One of the the best things about them is that you can find a spot for them anywhere, even if you don’t have much free space to go around. For instance, you can arrange the Beelink on your desk, tuck it into a cable management tray or set it on a shelf.
- 8th Gen Intel Coffee Lake i5-8279U (2.4GHz, Turbo 4.1GHz, 4 Cores, 8 Threads)
- 16GB DDR4 RAM on 2 memory slots. Max supported 32GB
- 500GB M.2 SATA SSD
- Intel Iris Plus Graphics 655 (supports 4096×2304@30Hz Dual HDMI)
- Ethernet: 1000Mbps LAN
- Wi-Fi 5
- 4x USB 3.0 ports, 1x USB-C port, 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 2x HDMI inputs
The SEI8 comes with either Windows 10 Pro or Windows 11 Pro out of the box. The dual HDMI ports offer added functionality, making this mini PC a real productivity beast, despite it being smaller than a peripheral DVD player.
Barebones Mini PCs
There are plenty of mini PCs that ship ready-to-go, but if you’re looking to save some money, take advantage of lots of customization options, or have an interest in tinkering, you can also get what’s called a barebones mini PC.
These devices usually ship with the case and the motherboard, but you have to add the memory and storage. You may be able to source these parts individually for less money than buying a pre-built mini PC. The big advantage here is that you can buy the parts that suit your specific set of needs, however you’ll have to put them together (or get someone to help you).
Barebones Mini PC Recommendation
At just under $600, the Intel NUC 10 barebones mini PC doesn’t come with an OS, you can pick what you want to run on it. Your choices range from Windows and Linux to macOS.
- Intel Core i7-10710U 1.10 (4.70 GHz, 6-Core Processor)
- Intel UHD Graphics
- Supports up to 64GB DDR4 SODIMM memory
- Supports 2.5″ drive bay, M.2 NVMe, SDXC card slot
- GbE LAN
- Wi-Fi 6
- Bluetooth, Thunderbolt 3, One USB Type-C, 3x USB 3.0 ports, 1x USB-C port, 1x LAN, 1x HDMI input, one headphone port
The i7 processor can handle the demands of multi-tasking including doing more resource intensive tasks such as video editing or music creation. Basically you can customize the machine’s hard drive and memory to run exactly what you need whether you’re using the device at home or in the office.
An i7 processor can also handle some gaming, but if you’re really looking to run the best PC games on a mini PC, they make PCs specifically for that purpose.
Gaming Mini PC Recommendation
- Intel i9-11900KB, 3.3 GHz, 8-Core
- Intel UHD Graphics
- Supports up to 32GB SODIMM memory
- GbE LAN
- Wi-Fi 6
- Bluetooth, 2 Thunderbolt 4, USB Type-C, 8 x USB 3.1 Gen2 ports, 1 x USB-C port, 1 x LAN, 1 x HDMI input, one headphone/microphone combo port
If you’re a passionate gamer who doesn’t have room for a full-sized desktop tower, you can still get your PC gaming fix with the Intel NUC11BTMi9 barebone. This unit includes a powerful integrated graphics card and the popular gaming chips Intel Core i9s.
They’re also the biggest of the minis. However, they’re much smaller than a typical gaming PC, so if you’re moving into tiny dorm room soon or turning your game room into a nursery, a mini gaming PC could be the solution to playing big games without taking too much space.
Frequently Asked Questions
What's the difference between a stick PC and mini PC?
While researching mini PCs, you may come across products called stick PCs. They usually cost less than $200, which is great, but you should be aware that they are going to be limited in scope due to their size. On the other hand, they can be great for folks who travel a lot, since they’re truly pocket-sized and come with a HDMI port. This allows users to simply plug their mini PC into a hotel TV, connect to the Wi-Fi and have their choice of entertainment. Or perhaps add the finishing touches on a presentation. You’ll get added Windows functionality and options to hook up your USB keyboards and mice.
Do mini PCs use mobile chips due to their small size?
Some of them do. These types of mini PCs are great for casually checking emails in the evening or for streaming entertainment on the TV. But this is generally not because of size limitations. Actually, some mini PCs run full-on desktop chips, so you’re not going to be skimping on your processor quality by getting such a device. They can be as functional as any PC, if they have the right chip inside.
Are mini PCs bad for gaming?
Unless you specifically seek out a gaming mini PC, you’re probably doing to struggle with most intensive PC games. They just don’t have the onboard capabilities, such as a dedicated graphics card. However, if you’re really interested in gaming, consider kitting out a bare bones mini PC or getting a larger (but still relatively small) mini PC built for gaming.
Image credit: Unsplash
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