Mini PCs buying advice 2013

Mini PC buying advice 2013

Desktop PCs with their large, noisy and cumbersome cases 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 also Best Tablet PC.

Sometimes we want to work on a large desktop monitor, but have limited space available. Using a TV as a display, rather than bringing a 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 a 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 will usually be achieved externally. In the case of really small PCs, such as the Chillblast Fusion Brix and Intel NUC, 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. The Dino PC’s Minisaur offers an external SATA connector and the Zotac Zbox ID65Plus offers an eSATA port.

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 dual-link DVI port to connect a screen with a higher resolution than 1920x1200.

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.

In keeping with the DIY approach, mini PCs typically ship without a keyboard or mouse, and often come without an OS. 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 Hyper-Threading. 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.

The latest high-end Intel processors come with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400 or 5000, which is good enough for entry-level Windows gaming, but less expensive models provide poor graphics capabilities.

AMD processors often provide faster graphics, but this is not the case with the E-350D found in the Dino PC, which delivers disappointing graphics compared to the best Intel processors.

What's the best mini PC in 2013?

Zotac ZBOX nano ID65 Plus

Zotac ZBOX nano ID65 Plus

  • Reviewed on: 14 November 13
  • RRP: £530 inc. VAT
  • Rating: Rated 8 out of 10

By being just a little larger than the smallest mini PCs, the Zotac ZBOX ID65 Plus allows for superior connectivity options. It features a very fast processor and has room for a full-size 2.5in drive or optionally up to two mSATA SSDs for added performance. Note that the price quoted does not include an operating system.

Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190

Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190

  • Reviewed on: 13 November 13
  • RRP: £380 inc. VAT
  • Rating: Rated 7 out of 10

The IdeaCentre Q190 looks the part and has decent build quality. The option optical digital output and optional matching Blu-ray drive make it good for home theatre use, but it could really do with a more modern processor as performance is somewhat lacking.

Intel NUC D54250WYK

Intel NUC D54250WYK

  • Reviewed on: 12 November 13
  • RRP: £295 (barebones) approx £525 as reviewe
  • Rating: Rated 9 out of 10

The D54250WYK is a big improvement over the previous generation. It's much faster and no-longer are you forced to choose between wired Ethernet or wireless connectivity. With four USB 3.0 ports, it has good connectivity for such a small PC. Note that the price quoted does not include an operating system.

Dino PC Minisaur E350

Dino PC Minisaur E350

  • Reviewed on: 15 November 13
  • RRP: £269 inc. VAT
  • Rating: Rated 6 out of 10

Although tiny compared to a full-sized desktop, the Dino PC Minisaur E350 is large, cumbersome and frustratingly slow when compared to most of the competition. Its price, however, is considerably lower than anything else on offer and is therefore a reasonable value for money purchase.

Fujitsu Esprimo Q520

Fujitsu Esprimo Q520

  • Reviewed on: 11 November 13
  • RRP: £389 inc. VAT
  • Rating: Rated 9 out of 10

The Fujitsu Esprimo Q520 is a truly powerful business PC, with excellent ergonomics and superb build quality. It's much larger than the smallest mini PCs but also considerably less expensive and incorporates a DVD burner and internal power supply.

Chillblast Fusion Brix

Chillblast Fusion Brix

  • Reviewed on: 15 November 13
  • RRP: £549 inc. VAT
  • Rating: Rated 9 out of 10

Small enough to fit in a back pocket, the Chillblast Fusion Brix is almost impossibly small and yet one of the fastest mini PCs available. Build quality is excellent and it offers a good set of features, but only modest storage capacity and rather limited connectivity are major drawbacks.

Conclusion

With prices ranging from £269 to £550 and a variety of shapes and sizes, there’s a good range of mini PCs from which to choose, whatever your needs or budget.
Two distinct categories emerge here: the Mini ITX-size Dino PC Minisaur E350 and Fujitsu Esprimo Q520 are significantly larger than the ultra-compact models from Chillblast, Intel, Lenovo and Zotac.

There are also large differences in performance: none of these PCs offers gaming-level graphics capability, yet the Haswell-based systems offer improved graphics performance.

Application performance varies more wildly, with Dino PC’s Minisaur E350 falling a long way short of the competition. It’s noticeably slow in general use, but it also costs around half the price of the most expensive alternatives. If you have minimal space, a small budget and simply want a PC for light use and casual web browsing then this PC is worth a look.

Fujitsu’s Esprimo Q520 is a different kettle of fish. It’s relatively large, but also very fast and offers considerably better build quality than the Dino PC. Its price is also very attractive at £389, making it a very sensible mid-priced purchase for those who don’t need a PC they can fit in a pocket. It’s a great choice for business use and comes with an onsite warranty.

Lenovo’s IdeaCentre Q190 offers unique vertical styling, an optical digital audio output and the option of attaching a matching Blu-ray or DVD drive, making it a good choice for a home-theatre PC. Unfortunately, it’s let down by lacklustre performance and a noisy cooling fan.
The price may be enough to sway you.

The three ultra-compact PCs, Zotac’s Zbox nano ID65Plus and the even smaller Intel NUC and Chillblast Fusion Brix, are all considerably more expensive options.

The Zotac offers the fastest CPU and is large enough to incorporate a full-size 2.5in drive, giving you flexible storage options.

It’s slightly larger size also allows for full-size peripheral connectors and more of them. However, when you add in the cost of an OS, it is rather pricey.

Battling it out for the title of smallest mini PC, the Chillblast Fusion Brix and Intel NUC need to make compromises to achieve such a small size. Neither has room for a hard drive and must therefore use faster, but more expensive, solid-state storage, which means you’ll have a lower storage capacity for your documents and media.

The Fusion Brix is smallest of all, but more severely compromised in terms of connectivity, whereas the Intel NUC offers the very best overall performance and offers twice as many USB ports.

For general use by those who don’t need a really tiny PC we recommend the Fujitsu, while those ultra-compact PC fans who crave the best performance and connectivity should go for the Intel NUC.

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 resultsfrom this benchmark are not absolute. Nevertheless, the results give an idea of the relative performance. A full-size PC would typically score between 3000- and 7000 points.

Gaming

We run two games: Aliens vs Predator, at both 720p and 1080p, High quality; and Sniper Elite V2 at 720p, Low quality, and 1080p in both High and Ultra quality modes. Framerates at these settings are horribly low, but by turning down the quality settings or screen resolution you can usually achieve playable results. The lowest framerate recorded by Stalker Elite V2 is 5fps, even if real performance is lower. We have therefore marked all scores of 5fps as ‘Low’.

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 computer while it’s idling at the desktop and when it has settled down after booting up. We then measure again consumption 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.