Back in the 1980s the PC revolution spun around the microcomputer, as distinct from the mini computer and mainframes that filled rooms and crunched numbers for accommodating businesses and universities. We’re still seeing an ongoing trend in shrinkage, which has resulted in the current mini PC - nothing to do with the old mini computer, and everything to do with a mini micro.
The mini PC’s growth in popularity and shrink in size track the trend for mobile computing, exploiting smaller laptop components that have enabled a downsize from 3ft tower to 3cm mini marvel.
The virtues are obvious. Rather than trip over a box under your feet, you get a diminutive and often times cute cuboid on the desk. It somehow makes the PC more personal when you can actually see it.
The cheaper models shave off substantial amounts from the purchase price by leaving out the operating system. This is a refreshing change from the usual situation of finding unbidden Microsoft software on your PC, now leaving us to make the choice of paying the Windows tax (currently £100 for Windows 8 and £190 for Windows 8 Pro) or trying a more economical or secure alternative.
Linux is the obvious go-to OS for such wee PCs, and for most desktop duties a simple installation of Ubuntu, OpenSuse, Linux Mint or similar is all that’s needed for some powerful cut-price computing. Media-centre software is the other killer app to run on the OS of your choice - just follow the beaten path to XBMC or Plex.
If you prefer a little more hand-holding, there’s always Windows and its Media Center software, although you’ll now need to budget for Windows 8 Pro on your £300 mini PC.
Sampling different Linux distributions is relatively easy with virtualisation software. Well-known examples are VirtualBox for just about every platform, Virtual PC and VMware Player for Windows, while the Mac has two strong contenders in Parallels Desktop and VMware Fusion. Great Windows support is now a given, but Linux and OS X are the harder challenge to fully virtualise. See how these two heavyweights compare.