The Mailman Has Arrived: Four Mini-PCs on the Test Bench

Summary: Design Or Practical Value - No Barebone System Has It All

The four barebone systems that were tested cost between approximately $170 (ECS) and $340 (Shuttle). They can therefore be seen as direct competitors to notebooks in the entry-level category - provided they have the appropriate hardware equipment. All systems are designed to be used with the Intel Pentium 4, so that heat losses of up to 80 watts can occur. This heat build-up is tackled by the manufacturers in extremely varied ways : while Shuttle (XPC SB61G2) and Soyo (Mini Dragon 651) opt for a more or less effective heat pipe solution, MSI (Mega PC) and ECS (EZ Buddie) have integrated conventional CPU coolers.

To achieve the lowest possible operational noise level, high levels of heat flow can only be controlled by an ingenious thermal concept. None of the test candidates adopts new strategies in this respect. Temperatures of more than 50° C still build up within the Shuttle housing (hard disk sandwiched with CD ROM), which may cause damage when permanently in use. There is no defined air circulation. The same problem applies to the Mega PC from MSI : as soon as an efficient AGP graphics system is integrated and a high level of system stress occurs, the risk of overheating is imminent, at least in the case of the hard disk. ECS and Soyo equip their systems with sufficient fans and opt for external power units. ECS, MSI and Soyo opt for the no longer incredibly up to date SiS 651 chipset. Disadvantages must be accepted when using the onboard graphics : the image representation and quality do not reach the standard of Intel graphics, especially when connected to a TFT monitor.

Shuttle offers the most up to date hardware overall : dual channel for DDR 400, FSB800, Hyper-Threading support, serial ATA support. If it wasn’t for the restriction regarding thermal capacity, we could recommend the system.

With the Mega PC, MSI offers an interesting product, although the same restrictions apply as in the case of the Shuttle. In addition, there are some shortcomings with regards to certain details. With one exception, the workmanship is very good.

The EZ Buddie from ECS offers gimmick fans a rotation controller for overclocking on the front of the housing. Although ECS has less difficulty with heat, there are deficits regarding quality of workmanship.

The Mini Dragon system from Soyo is still in the beta stage. In the test it was not possible to boot it up using USB 2.0 and the hard disk in the second housing. The idea behind both housings is good, but implementation has not quite succeeded yet. The cheap look of the product is the main reason why prospective purchasers might be put off.

Checklist for an Optimum Mini-PC :

  • Overall thermal concept (air flow) ;
  • Low noise (control) ;
  • High performance (graphics and CPU) ;
  • Ergonomic operation (form, labeling, covers and storage, scratch-proof surfaces) ;
  • Appearance and aesthetics (switching and operating elements, color) ;
  • Connections and interfaces (features) ;
  • Minimal weight and dimensions ;
  • Attractive price.

At this point, I’ll just mention a few final thoughts. The variety currently achieved amongst the mini barebones is already amazing, even if the mass market takes little notice of this. Manufacturers and developers are searching for the perfect overall concept. In doing so, the requirements that forward-looking developers stipulate in the performance specifications are anything but trivial : the future of the PC lies in the compact form along with high performance and universal interfaces. The computer should do its job virtually noise-free and, above all, be based on a thermal concept. Operational convenience and ergonomics are a must, as are quality appearance and aesthetics. The Mini-PC of the near future will compete with the low-cost notebook ; the traditional, chunky metal PC in the form of a container on wheels will at best be confined to the shadows.