Four Mini-PCs Receive Special Recognition
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.