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Four Mini-PCs Receive Special Recognition

Seven Small (But Powerful) Mini-PCs, Reviewed

I've written a handful of mini-PC round-ups now, and they're typically like comparing apples and oranges. With so many possible applications for a capable, compact PC, it's really quite hard to call one better than the others. Having said that, I will acknowledge the products that stood out in specific categories.

To start, allow me to concede that absolute dimensions don't affect me as profoundly as they might influence the buying decision of someone else. Space on my desk is sometimes at a premium, but I'm not swayed by the difference between Gigabyte's 4.5" x 4.2" x 1.1" Brix and Zotac's 5" x 5" x 1.8" Zbox nano, for example. But the quest for smaller enclosures may be more relevant in corporate environments or very specific client installations.

Consumer-Oriented Ultra Compact: Zotac Zbox nano ID65

If you want a tiny PC, but don't want to make the compromises demanded by the NUC devices we looked at today (some of Intel's newer models do add some of the functionality we were missing today), then Zotac's Zbox nano ID65 is a very solid alternative. In exchange for bigger dimensions, you get a platform that can accommodate a 2.5" storage device, includes a memory card reader, an optical S/PDIF adapter, and two external audio jacks. You also get an IR sensor for communicating with a media center remote, if you're so inclined to buy one.

The versatility is awesome in such a small form factor. Out of the box, this is a powerful Core i7-based PC (of course, that's the dual-core mobile version). Add an external Blu-ray drive and the aforementioned remote for a great HTPC. Drop it on a desktop and it uses laughably little space. Or, you can render it invisible by mounting it to the back of a monitor.

My biggest complaint is the single-channel memory architecture, which has a measurable impact on gaming performance. Moreover, we know this isn't going to change when the Haswell-based Zbox nano ID68 shows up. Nevertheless, the ID65 is one of the best-priced, most powerful mini-PCs selling for under $600.

Embedded Ultra Compact: LGX ML300

The ultra-compact form factor might make the most sense in corporate and industrial environments. So, it only makes sense that a fanless PC with no moving parts inside would make a great fit. So long as the passive cooling is effective, there's little maintenance to worry about and zero mechanical failure points.

Expansion is made possible by extra space inside the LGX ML300, even though the enclosure is still really small. What's more, in most of our tests, the thermal results were surprisingly comparable to the actively-cooled competition.

With all of this in mind, Logic Supply's ML300 hits the important check-boxes of a well-built embedded PC. The chassis alone sells for $129, if you'd like to take a stab at building it up yourself, we could see the enclosure serving as the foundation for a special project or two.

Budget Mini-PC: Acer Aspire Revo RL80-UR22

Acer's Aspire Revo RL80 finished in the back of most of our benchmarks. So why do I like it? Two reasons. First, the performance spread between the Revo and some of the other offers is typically pretty narrow. Second, the $430 price tag, which includes an operating system, is less than half of what you'd pay for most of the other contenders. 

As if that's not enough, the Revo comes with a wireless mouse and keyboard, and Windows is pre-installed. Plug in a monitor and you're off to the races. Acer's submission is a little larger than some of the other options in our round-up, but its footprint is still diminutive, particularly on its vertical stand. And it can also be mounted to a monitor, tucked out of the way completely.

Even though the Revo isn't fast relative to today's story, it has plenty of power for a home desktop. Remember, it was only a couple of years ago when we were looking at painfully slow Atom-based PCs. The enthusiast community won't like this thing's limited gaming performance, its restrictive firmware, or the hard-to-remove 2.5" disk drive. But for the price, the Revo is a fantastic little machine.

Mini Gamer: ASRock VisionX 420D

At about 8.5" square, ASRock's VisionX 420D is about twice as large as the NUC-sized devices in this round-up. Then again, it's dwarfed by a standard DVD player, and is smaller than most of the HTPCs you'll encounter with optical drives. Without the thermal restrictions imposed by smaller devices, its Haswell-based Core i5 CPU maintains a 2.5 GHz based clock rate that propels the VisionX to the front of our platform-oriented benchmarks. And when it comes to graphics, the discrete Radeon HD 8850M with 1 GB of GDDR5 is in a league of its own. The included 802.11ac-capable wireless solution is fantastic, too.

Equipped with the internal Blu-ray option, ASRock's VisionX becomes a high-end home theater and gaming PC capable of handling 3D content at the resolutions and quality settings PC gamers want to use. It's classy-looking enough to live in your living room, but also the perfect size to take to LAN party. If I were still in a dorm with limited room for electronics, the VisionX would be on my wish list.

My biggest issue with the ASRock box is its $850 price tag. Add $130 for a copy of Windows 8.1 Professional and you're just short of $1000. Fortunately, that's not much more expensive than some of the other contenders in today's story. At that price we have to start thinking about similarly-priced mobile devices as well, although it'd be difficult to find something with comparable graphics ability.

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  • 9 Hide
    outlw6669 , January 30, 2014 12:31 AM
    Not a single AMD based SFF PC?
    I am disappoint, this would be a great area for AMD to show their competitiveness.
  • 8 Hide
    ta152h , January 30, 2014 12:50 AM
    @outlw6669I built one based on the A6 5200, and it's perfect for what I need it for. It's low power, more than fast enough for what 99% of the people do, quiet, and inexpensive. I'm a little surprised they didn't choose something based on the Jaguar for that reason, but it might just be a situation where nothing with one was sent to them for review. Certainly this is a poor representation, without both Jaguar and Bay Trail missing. I got to the first page, read what they had, looked at the cases, and moved on. Reading about different versions of Ivy Bridge and Haswell and how they compare to each other is profoundly uninteresting.
  • 3 Hide
    m32 , January 30, 2014 2:04 AM
    I wouldn't mind having a small system like this. Maybe Mid-Year when everyone's CPU/APUs are out, I'll have the chance to make a smart buy. Thanks for the article. :) 
  • 0 Hide
    blackmagnum , January 30, 2014 2:39 AM
    Buy a laptop and hook a screen to it; no compromises.
  • 1 Hide
    mesab66 , January 30, 2014 2:47 AM
    It is interesting that by going slightly larger with the enclosure space (still keeping within cube/rectangle/media player shape) opens up the possibility of so much more power....dedicated gfx, full cpu, etc etc., and, can be cheaper to build - depending on the users requirements.......of course, at the cost of power requirements, etc. I'm thinking most folk would ideally chose a slightly larger form factor for living room/media pc duties.On the other hand, if constraints are tight (form factor in this article) and the end user's requirements match, then these options are worth considering.
  • 3 Hide
    mesab66 , January 30, 2014 2:56 AM
    Maybe Tom's could do some options on Media PC/HTPC builds for a future article?
  • 0 Hide
    s997863 , January 30, 2014 3:38 AM
    Power. I don't care about no power. Where's the love for the old games? If I want to play some of the classics which just don't emulate properly, I have to hunt for a heavy old Pentium3 box and try to get it working. How about a cheap mini PC with miniaturized legacy hardware for full compatibility to dual-boot win98 & XP, with gameports, VGA & S-Video, PS/2 & USB, IDE & SATA external ribbon & power connectors, & a turbo button for choosing between 2 processors 200MHz & 3GHz?
  • 1 Hide
    elgranchuchu , January 30, 2014 5:51 AM
    this was exactly was i was looking for deploying php software
  • 2 Hide
    vertexx , January 30, 2014 6:01 AM
    I am a huge fan of compact systems. Almost everything I have built has been ITX. But I've had a hard time with the NUC form factor. As a desktop, I think it's actually too small. One of those boxes would get lost on my desk, continuously being pushed around by other clutter. Now, if I had a hutch with an optimally sized cubby, that might be a different story.

    VESA mounted on the back of a monitor, these look really clunky, and I'd rather go with an AIO kit using the thin mini-ITX form factor where I have more control over processor choice.

    I'd be more excited if this technology and form factor were applied in a more interchangeable system with a standardized GPU socket. I really like what ASRock and Gigabyte have done with their compact systems. They're not as compact, but having something a little more substantial on my desk is a good thing, and they pack a lot of punch. I just wish the standards were developed to allow builders to replicate that feat - pipe dream, I know.

    One thing is for sure, AMD needs to develop it's own equivalent of the NUC and thin Mini-ITX. The success of it's Kaveri line I think would be helped out by innovation in form factor.
  • 5 Hide
    axehead15 , January 30, 2014 6:03 AM
    I think you should compare the Mac Mini to these, that way we can see how it adds up.
  • 3 Hide
    Onus , January 30, 2014 6:35 AM
    It would take a unique set of requirements for any of these devices to make sense, particularly compared to competition. With the possible exception of the ASRock unit, the price is outrageous. If you don't have room by your TV for a [much more powerful and versatile] mini-ITX system, for the difference in cost you can replace your TV stand or component rack instead.

    These are essentially for gadget-freaks with more money than sense.
  • 0 Hide
    bloodroses75 , January 30, 2014 6:40 AM
    Interesting concept for these machines, price to performance is not worth it yet though. Buying an Inwin (or other brand) mini-itx case with power supply and building your own machine from the ground up is a much better deal.As with Intel, the i7s are only dual core? I'd be personally upset if I bought one and realized that after plugging it in. They should have kept a standard with their naming, like on their desktops:p entium= dual core, no HTi3= dual core, HTi5= quad core, no HTi7= quad core, HTand yes, I realize Intel did release an i5 that was only dual core with HT and thought it was a complete rip-off too.
  • 0 Hide
    MajinCry , January 30, 2014 7:18 AM
    Why did people vote down s997863? I'd kill for a mini pc that could actually play NWN 1 and/or the horde of DOS games.
  • 2 Hide
    cleeve , January 30, 2014 7:27 AM
    Why did people vote down s997863? I'd kill for a mini pc that could actually play NWN 1 and/or the horde of DOS games.

    I'm pretty sure any of these will fit the bill for old windows games like NWN 1.

    DOS based stuff has its own challenges, I don't know enough about dosbox emulators but I suspect these are more than powerful enough.

  • 0 Hide
    Bolts Romano , January 30, 2014 7:27 AM
    Thank you for the article, at least now I know some other brands never heard before. It is quite a surprise the price is hitting the same level as a notebook or mac mini price range or lower (remember this mini pc does not come w OS)
  • 0 Hide
    burkhartmj , January 30, 2014 7:37 AM
    these devices are super cool, but it's hard to ignore the fact that one can generally get better performance out of a fully configurable and upgradable ITX form factor for the same price. For niche use cases, these would be incredibly helpful, but I don't see them becoming particularly mainstream.
  • -1 Hide
    MajinCry , January 30, 2014 8:42 AM

    I'm pretty sure any of these will fit the bill for old windows games like NWN 1.

    DOS based stuff has its own challenges, I don't know enough about dosbox emulators but I suspect these are more than powerful enough.

    On the contrary, there are plenty of performance issues with old games when using new hardware. My 6670 and 7850 play NWN 1 piss-poorly with my 965 BE, por ejemplo.

    Intel's IGPUs fare no better nor do NVidia's GPUs. Speaking from experience.
  • 1 Hide
    lockhrt999 , January 30, 2014 8:58 AM
    Why some i7 are dual cores?
  • 0 Hide
    Croc Ography , January 30, 2014 9:23 AM
    Huge fail for the ASRock... Tom's Hardware is not reading their own listed specs:"Audio Channels: 7.1+2 Channel HD Audio Codec with Content Protection and DTS Connect support" -- this means that if you burn your own Blurays or DVD's to PLEX or BMC and any of them have Cinavia on them you will not be able to play them from this HTPC.Therefore this device is useless.
  • 0 Hide
    tntom , January 30, 2014 10:36 AM
    Great article! Thank you! Thank you! I hope this segment becomes more competitive and brings the prices down. Right now the prices are too inflated. All of these have more than enough CPU but except for the Asrock are lacking in GPU performance.Please update with the Brix A8 APU and Iris Pro 5200 when you finish testing them out.
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