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Mini PCs buying advice: what you need to know when buying a mini PC

What you need to know when buying a mini PC

Desktop PCs aren’t very cool. Large, noisy, cumbersome boxes surrounded by cables aren’t the kind of thing many of us would want to put up with if we didn’t have to. But neither is the laptop always an appropriate solution.

See Group test: What's the best mini PC?

Sometimes we want to work on a large desktop monitor, but have limited space available. Using an existing television as a display, rather than bringing an additional monitor into the room, may be a preferable option.

A mini PC can be an ideal solution in such cases. Based on small, low-power components, they take up a fraction of the space of a traditional desktop PC or laptop, and don’t require unnecessary parts such as an expensive built-in screen, battery and keyboard.

Many are so small that you can mount them to the back of a monitor and create your own all-in-one PC. This has the advantage that you can upgrade your display without needing to replace the entire system.

Lower power consumption can also mean reduced cooling requirements and quieter operation, so you could use a mini PC as a media-centre PC without the distraction of whirring fans.

There are disadvantages, of course. A mini PC doesn’t have enough internal space for a discrete graphics card or a desktop (3.5in) hard drive. You’ll have to rely on integrated graphics solutions and, in most cases, a single laptop (2.5in) drive.

All other upgrades and expansion will usually be achieved externally. In the case of really small PCs, such as the Zotac Nano XS, there may be room only for a plug-in mSATA SSD.

With this in mind, you’ll need to pay particular attention to the connectivity options supported by a mini PC. If you want to hook up external storage, look for USB 3.0 ports. Chillblast’s Fusion NUC instead provides Thunderbolt connectivity, but compatible drives are more difficult to come by and simple Thunderbolt-to-USB 3.0 adaptors have yet to surface.

For connecting the PC to a standard LCD monitor you can use HDMI, but if you’re thinking of creating a DIY all-in-one PC you’ll need a DisplayPort, Thunderbolt, HDMI 1.3 (or above) or dual-link DVI port to connect a screen that has a native resolution higher than 1920x1200 pixels.

If you’re creating a mini media centre you can pipe audio through your HDMI connector, but if you have an external music system with digital inputs you may also want an S/PDIF connector on your mini PC.
In keeping with the DIY approach, mini PCs typically ship without a keyboard or mouse, and often come without an operating system. This leaves you free to make your own choices. Remember to factor in the cost of these items.

Performance from a mini PC can be very good – especially when it uses an SSD as the boot drive. A wide range of processors are available, from low-end Intel Celeron chips to quad-core Core i7s with Hyperthreading. AMD processors are also available, with low-power versions that can help the mini PC run cool and quiet.

Whatever your choice of CPU, this component will also be powering the graphics – and this is where you’re most likely to notice performance limitations. None of the mini PCs reviewed here have separate graphics chips. The faster Intel processors come with integrated HD Graphics 4000, which is good enough for low-end Windows gaming, but less expensive models provide poor graphics capabilities.

AMD processors often provide faster graphics. A good example is the A8-4555M chip found in Sapphire’s Edge VS8. This incorporates Radeon 7600G graphics and is capable of much higher gaming performance, although it still falls far short of any proper gaming PC.

Conclusion

All the mini PCs reviewed here are small, but there are some big differences between them. Most obvious is the variation in price, and more expensive options such as the Mac mini or Chillblast Fusion NUC deliver considerably better performance. Alternatively, you could be paying for the industrial-strength build quality and interchangeable panels of the TinyGreen PC.

In the Mac mini’s defence you could opt for a less-powerful version, which would entail you paying around half the price.

Some users won’t require high performance or impeccable build, though. For casual computing, the less expensive models from MSI, Sapphire and Zotac will offer sufficient performance for tasks such as consuming multimedia, web browsing and a bit of office work. Do watch out for storage and expandability options, though.

The Zotac Nano XS will heavily rely on external storage but, if size matters, it’s difficult to beat: it is considerably smaller than any of the other mini PCs in our group test, without sacrificing too much in terms of build quality or connectivity.

If you have any interest in gaming, avoid the MSI Wind Box DC110 with its inferior Celeron processor. It was unable to even begin our test game. If you won’t be playing games, it’s a great low-cost system that doesn’t require you to install your own operating system.

For gaming, the Sapphire Edge VS8 is a clear winner, if not a substitute for a proper gaming PC. Its integrated AMD Radeon HD 7600G graphics place it well ahead of the field in gaming performance, despite it running somewhat slower in general applications. The Sapphire also has plenty of internal storage and good connectivity.

If pocket-sized performance is what you require most, Chillblast’s Fusion NUC sits around the middle price-wise, but delivered superb benchmark results. The lack of USB 3.0 may be a sticking point, since fast peripherals can be connected only via Thunderbolt. Its 128GB of internal storage is fast and double that of the Zotac Nano XS, but you’ll still want an external drive.

Each of these PCs is compromised in some way, whether it’s by high price, low performance or limited connectivity. Which is best will come down to your specific needs.

For fully embracing the mini PC concept we have to recommend the Zotac Nano XS AD13 plus. If designer looks, leading performance and a bulletproof OS are important to you then the Mac mini is also a great choice, and available at a lower price when not in the high-end configuration we’ve reviewed here.

For a great all-round system with class-leading gaming performance, Sapphire’s Edge VS8 is a sensible option at a decent price. It should fulfil the needs of most users, but if you have more stringent performance requirements you’ll need to look elsewhere.

How we Test

Application performance

Core system performance is measured using PCMark 7, an industry-recognised test suite that uses 25 workloads to measure areas such as storage, computation, image- and video manipulation, web browsing and gaming. We understand that results from this benchmark are not absolute, with Intel driver issues in Windows 8 meaning video-transcoding tests can present sub-optimal results. Nevertheless, the results give an idea of the relative performance.

A full-size desktop PC would typically score between 3,000- and 7,000 points with current hardware.

Gaming

Mini PCs aren’t great for gaming, although there are some very noticeable differences in performance. We’ve run a single game, Aliens vs Predator, at 720p and 1080p resolutions with high-quality settings enabled. Framerates at these settings are horribly low, but by turning down the quality settings or screen resolution you can usually achieve playable results.

No overclocking

We allow overclocking of the processor only in dedicated gaming computers. Given the low-power nature of a mini PC, overclocking simply isn’t on the agenda.

Power consumption

We measure the power consumption of each PC while it’s idling at the desktop and has settled down after booting up.

We then measure again while pushing each PC to the limit by running Prime95 with the maximum number of available threads, simultaneously running PCMark 7’s storage sub-test. Real-world power consumption will fall somewhere between these two measurements, depending on use.

Subjective assessment

It’s not all about speed. We also pay close attention to the physical characteristics of each mini PC, its noise output and build quality, and take note of important features such as the quality of components.

Warranty and support

Differences in warranty terms can affect our verdict. Obviously, longer warranties are better, but we also look at the terms and conditions – specifically, whether faulty systems must be returned to the vendor
at your own cost, and whether both parts and labour are included.

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