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Seven Small (But Powerful) Mini-PCs, Reviewed

Seven Small (But Powerful) Mini-PCs, Reviewed
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I have to laugh at how some ideas that flop get re-spun as the next big thing once technology catches up with the concept. For example, Microsoft pushed the idea of a tablet PC years before Apple popularized it. Back in 2001, the first list of specifications, designed to run Windows XP Tablet PC Edition yielded bulky, slow, and expensive products with uninspiring battery life. Almost a decade later, the iPad showed up with light weight, a better interface, and excellent battery life. It made all of the difference in the world. 

Intel is hoping that its Next Unit of Computing (NUC) is doing the same thing for the mini-PC market. We were first introduced to the NUC at last year's CES. It leveraged the highly-integrated Sandy Bridge architecture to get a Celeron CPU, HD Graphics 2000, HDMI display output, USB connectivity, and GbE connectivity into a tiny little enclosure. Of course, the NUC generated buzz because of its size, the efficiency of its host platform, and the respectable performance Sandy Bridge was known to confer.

The first mini-PC round-up I put together in 2009 (Three Slim Atom/Ion 2 Based Nettop PCs Compared) was limited to dual-core Atom D500-series processors with 1 MB of cache that topped out at 1.8 GHz. The systems were sold with 2 GB of RAM. They were fast enough to surf the Web and play back 1080p video (so long as you were willing to live with occasional hiccups), but compared to low-end desktop PCs, they were simply slow. Most of the workloads in our benchmark suite weren't even viable, and you could forget about casual gaming.

That's not true of Intel's NUC and the other new systems we're testing in today's round-up. Power-sipping Intel Core i3, i5, and even i7 processors sport a minimum of 3 MB shared L3 cache, facilitating true desktop-class performance that is not only suitable for everyday productivity tasks, but even some serious work. Smooth video playback and moderate gaming are an added bonus.

Let's check out the stats of the seven small systems we're reviewing today:


Acer Revo
RL80-UR22
ASRock
VisionX 420D
Gigabyte Brix
BXi7-4500
Intel NUC
DC3217IYE
(Ivy Bridge)
Intel NUC
D54250WYK
(Haswell)
LGX
ML300
Zotac
Zbox Nano
ID65 Plus
CPU
Intel Core i3-3227U
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
1.9 GHz
3 MB L3 Cache
Intel Core i5-4200M
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
2.5 GHz (3.1 GHz Peak Turbo)
3 MB L3 Cache
Intel Core i7-4500U
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
1.8 GHz (3.0 GHz Peak Turbo)
4 MB L3 Cache
Intel Core i3-3217U
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
1.8 GHz
3 MB L3 Cache
Intel Core i5-4250U
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
1.3 GHz (2.6 GHz Peak Turbo)
3 MB L3 Cache
Intel Core i5-3427U
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
1.8 GHz (2.8 GHz Peak Turbo)
3 MB L3 Cache
Intel Core i7-3537U
Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded
2 GHz (3.1 GHz Peak Turbo)
4 MB L3 Cache
GPU
Intel HD Graphics 4000,
350 MHz - 1.1 GHz
Radeon HD 8850M,
775 MHz
Intel HD Graphics 4400,
200 MHz - 1.1 GHz
Intel HD Graphics 4000,
350 MHz - 1.05 GHz
Intel HD Graphics 5000,
200 MHz - 1 GHz
Intel HD Graphics 4000,
350 MHz - 1.15 GHz
Intel HD Graphics 4000,
350 MHz - 1.2 GHz
GPU RAM
Shared with System Memory
1 GB GDDR5,
1125 MHz
Shared with System Memory
Shared with System MemoryShared with System Memory
Shared with System Memory
Shared with System Memory
Sys. RAM
1 x 4 GB Hyundai DDR3-1600,
11-11-11 1T
2 x 4 GB Asint DDR3-1600,
11-11-11 1T
Not
Included
Not Included
Not Included
2 x 8 GB Transcend DDR3-1600,
11-11-11 1T
1 x 4 GB Samsung DDR3-1600,
11-11-11 1T
Hard
Disk
Seagate Momentus Thin
500 GB, 16 MB Cache,
5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/s
Western Digital Blue
1 TB, 8 MB Cache,
5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/s
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Emphase Enterprise
mSATA 128 GB SSD
Samsung Spinpoint M8
500 GB, 8 MB Cache,
5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/s
(includes adapter for 2 x mSATA SSD drives, optional RAID)
Opt. Drive
Not
Included
Lite-On DL8A4SH
Slim DVD-RW
(Blu-ray optional)
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
OS
Windows 8 64-bit (upgraded to Windows 8.1 for testing)Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Windows 7 Professional x64 (upgraded to Windows 8.1 for testing)Not
Included
Misc
Wireless
Mouse and
Keyboard
Media Center Remote
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
WiFi2T2R Dual Band
Atheros AR5B22
802.11n
mini-PCIe card
2T2R Dual Band
Broadcom BCM4352 802.11ac
mini-PCIe card
1T1R Single Band
Realtek RTL8723AE 802.11n
mini-PCIe card
Not
Included
Not
Included
Not
Included
2T2R Single Band
Intel Centrino 2230
802.11n
mini-PCIe card
Size
210 x 210 x 35.3 mm
(8.26" x 8.26" x 1.39")
200 x 70 x 200 mm
(7.87" x 2.76" x 7.87")
29.9 x 107.6 x 114.4 mm
(1.18" x 4.24" x 4.5")
116.6 x 112 x 39 mm
 (4.59" x 4.41" x 1.55")
116.6 x 112 x 34.5 mm
 (4.59" x 4.41" x 1.36")
196 x 36.75 x 131.20 mm
(7.72" x 1.45" x 5.17")
127 x 127 x 45 mm
(5” x 5” x 1.77”)
Wgt.
998 g (2.2 lbs)
2665 g (5.88 lbs)
371 g (0.82 lbs)
500g (1.1 lbs)
478 g (1.05 lbs)
1111 g  (2.45 lbs)
537 g (1.18 lbs)
Price
As Tested: $430
(Newegg)
As tested: $980 (with added Windows 8.1 Pro x64)

Hardware: $850 (MSRP)
As tested: $954.98
(with added Windows 8.1 Pro x64, Intel 525 Series 180 GB SSD and 2 x 4GB Crucial DDR3 SO-DIMMs)

Barebone: $530 (Newegg)
As tested: $701.95
(with added Windows 8.1 Pro x64, Intel 525 Series 180 GB SSD, Intel 7260 Wireless AC card, and 2 x 4 GB Adata DDR3 SO-DIMMs)

Barebone: $250.97 (Newegg)
As tested: $833.97
(with added Windows 8.1 Pro x64, Intel 525 Series 180 GB SSD, Intel 7260 Wireless AC card, and 2 x 4GB Crucial DDR3 SO-DIMMs)

Barebone: $375 (Newegg)
As Tested: $1245.65
(with Windows 7 Ultimate x64. Tested with Windows 8.1 Pro x64 for benchmarks)

Case Only: $129 (Logicsupply)
As tested: $709.98
(with added Windows 8.1 Pro x64)

Hardware: $570(Amazon)

Interestingly, despite the Core i3, i5, and i7 nomenclature, each machine in our round-up sports a dual-core Hyper-Threaded processor with at least 3 MB of shared L3 cache and clock rates between 1.3 and 2.5 GHz. The Core i3s don't benefit from Turbo Boost of course, and the Core i7s enjoy 4 MB of L3, but their basic specifications are so similar that we aren't expecting huge differences in processing power.

Although these mini-PCs share some important traits, they're targeted at very specific usage models. We'll discuss each one's characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses on the following pages.

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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
    Quote:
    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
    Quote:


    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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