Seven Small (But Powerful) Mini-PCs, Reviewed

ASRock VisionX 420D-8G1T88

We've seen a number of powerful home theater-oriented mini-PCs from ASRock. The first model I reviewed was the Core 100HT-BD back in 2010. It stuck out as a high-performance option in a sea of Atom-powered nettops thanks to its Core i3 CPU. Over time, that product evolved into ASRock's Vision family, which culminates in the VisionX 420D we're evaluating today.

While the 420D's Core i5-4200M processor doesn't have the extra megabyte of shared L3 cache compared to the Core i7s in this round-up, it does offer the highest base clock rate at 2.5 GHz, and it ties the most aggressive Turbo Boost frequency of 3.1 GHz. Consequently, and helped by Intel's Haswell architecture, we expect it to lead the CPU-oriented benchmarks we'll be running.

The VisionX's real differentiator, though, is its Radeon HD 8850M graphics chipset. With 640 shader cores at 775 MHz and 1 GB of dedicated GDDR5 memory at 1125 MHz, this is essentially an underclocked Radeon HD 7770. We should see 3D performance notably quicker than the GPUs built-in to Intel's mobile processors.

Originally, ASRock told us to expect the VisionX 420D to sell for $700. With no operating system. It recently surfaced on Newegg going for $850, though. Add in $140 or so for Windows 8.1 Professional, and you're looking at close to $1000.

Bundle And First Impression

ASRock's package includes the VisionX 420D, an media center remote with batteries (this is the only bundled remote in our round-up), power and data cables for an extra SATA drive, an AC adapter and cables, and an HDMI-to-Micro-USB cable for use with the MHSL input. More on that shortly.

The Vision line's newest addition doesn't arrive in a new enclosure. ASRock continues leaning on a classy black brushed aluminum box measuring 7.9" x 7.9" x 2.8". Weighing 5.9 lbs, it's the largest and heaviest PC in our round-up, but that's somewhat relative. In reality, this system isn't much wider than a DVD.

Up front, you'll find an optical drive slot, headphone and microphone inputs, a memory card reader, an infrared sensor for the remote, a USB 3.0 port, the power button, and the MHSL input.

The rear I/O panel offers HDMI and DVI video outputs, an eSATA port, six USB ports (five of which support third-gen data rates), a GbE port, the power supply input, optical audio output, and analog audio connectors.

A single button releases the plastic cover. Immediately below is the removable optical and hard drive cage. ASRock populates the two memory slots with 4 GB of Asint DDR3-1600 for a total 8 GB, which is plenty, even for a full-sized desktop. The 1 TB Western Digital Blue mechanical drive spins at 5400 RPM. ASRock offers enthusiasts an mSATA slot if you'd prefer to boot from an SSD. Our sample came with a slim Lite-On DVD drive, though there should be an optional Blu-ray, too. ASRock is ahead of the curve when it comes to Wi-Fi, bundling a Broadcom BCM4352 802.11ac Wi-Fi card. The board also integrates Bluetooth 4.0 functionality.

Special Features And Livability

Although this is the largest PC we're testing, and even though you can't attach it to a monitor's VESA mount, the VisionX 420D justifies its size with exclusive features like optical storage and powerful discrete graphics. It's clearly aimed at the HTPC space, but is just as comfortable handling general-purpose duties on the desktop. This system is also capable in games. Thanks to its Radeon HD 8850M GPU, it's the only PC truly capable of playable 108op performance.

That MHSL (Mobile High Speed Link) port on the front of the box is the exact same size as an HDMI output. The difference is that MHSL supports both data and video, and can actually interface with MHL-compatible devices to not only charge and sync, but also to mirror their displays on a monitor. That sounds cool; however MHL compatibility is limited, including the Sony Xperia Z, Xperia Z Ultra, HTC One, and Galaxy S3 (with Micro-USB-to-five-pin-adapter).

Perhaps more practically, the MHSL input can also be used as a pass-through. For instance, you could plug a PlayStation 4 into the PC and switch between the PC and console output on the monitor using ASRock's included A-Tuning software. 


ASRock VisionX 420D
Chipset
Intel HM87 Express
CPU
Intel Core i5-4200M, Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded, 2.5 GHz (3.1 GHz Peak Turbo Boost), 3 MB Shared L3 Cache
Graphics
Radeon HD 8850M, 775 MHz GPU
Graphics
Memory
1 GB GDDR5, 1125 MHz (4500 MT/s)
System
Memory
2 x 4 GB Asint PC3-12800, 1600 MT/s DDR3, 11-11-11-28-1T
Hard Drive
Western Digital Blue, 1 TB, 8 MB Cache, 5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/s
Optical Drive
Lite-On DL8A4SH, Slim DVD-RW (Blu-ray optional)
Operating System
Not Included
Included Peripherals
Media Center Remote
Internal Interfaces
Memory Support
Dual-Channel, 2 x DDR3L SO-DIMM slots, 1.35 V, 1333/1600 MT/s, 16 GB Max
Mini-PCIe
One slot (occupied by bundled wireless card)
mSATA
One slot
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA
3 x SATA 3 Gb/s (Two used for optical and hard drive)

1 x mSATA 6 Gb/s (unused)
I/O Panel Connectors
DVI
1
VGA
none
HDMI
1
DisplayPort
Not Included
Thunderbolt
Not Included
MHSL Input
1
USB
1 x USB 2.0, 6 x USB 3.0
Memory Card Reader
MMC, SD, MS/PRO
Network
1
eSATA
1
Digital Audio out
Optical/HDMI
Analog Audio
Five rear, two front
IR Sensor
Yes
Ethernet & Wireless
LAN
Integrated Gigabit
Wi-Fi
2T2R Dual Band, Broadcom BCM4352 802.11ac, mini-PCIe card
Bluetooth
Integrated Bluetooth 4.0 / 3.0 + High Speed Class II
Audio
HD Audio Codec
Analog and S/PDIF: Realtek ALC1150
HDMI: Intel Display Audio
Audio Channels
7.1+2 Channel HD Audio Codec with Content Protection and DTS Connect support
Physical Specifications
Size
200 x 70 x 200 mm
(7.87" x 2.76" x 7.87")
Weight
2665 g (5.88 lbs)
Price
As tested: $980 (with added Windows 8.1 Pro x64)
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50 comments
    Your comment
  • outlw6669
    Not a single AMD based SFF PC?
    I am disappoint, this would be a great area for AMD to show their competitiveness.
  • ta152h
    @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.
  • m32
    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. :)
  • blackmagnum
    Buy a laptop and hook a screen to it; no compromises.
  • mesab66
    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.
  • mesab66
    Maybe Tom's could do some options on Media PC/HTPC builds for a future article?
  • s997863
    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?
  • elgranchuchu
    this was exactly was i was looking for deploying php software
  • vertexx
    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.
  • axehead15
    I think you should compare the Mac Mini to these, that way we can see how it adds up.
  • Onus
    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.
  • bloodroses75
    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:Pentium= 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.
  • MajinCry
    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.
  • cleeve
    623172 said:
    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.
  • Bolts Romano
    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)
  • burkhartmj
    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.
  • MajinCry
    21257 said:
    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.
  • lockhrt999
    Why some i7 are dual cores?
  • Croc Ography
    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.
  • tntom
    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.
  • oj88
    <div class="bb-quote" style="border: 1px solid rgb(0, 0, 0); padding: 10px 5px;">Quote:<br>Buy a laptop and hook a screen to it; no compromises.</div><br>Agreed. For example, with a little bit more than $1,000, you can get an entry level gaming laptop like Lenovo IdeaPad Y510p, which is much more powerful than all the NUCs here.<br>http://www.laptopmag.com/reviews/laptops/lenovo-ideapad-y510p.aspx
  • leonsim
    Please Please Read this comment...1 of the most overlooked part of this review is the sound.... THE SOUND !!!!The fans of these machines shriek like a wailing she-hound at times during high loads,it would had helped a lot if you did include or update this review with some benchmarks or comparison of the sound coming from these machines.As i am a current user of an old-REVO (from acer), the only serious downside to the machine is the fan sound, i had to pry open and left it exposed on 1 side to get rid of that pitchy fan sound.I'm now seriously considering upgrading it since it has been 2 years using it and would appreciate it alot if you'd update your this review to reflect that since all of your above machines i did actually look into them few weeks prior and haven't actually made my decision yet.Thanks, and even if you don't do it (update review) but keep in mind to include it next time in other reviews as i feel that sound coming for a email and general web surfing machine is very irritating. (On a gaming machine though sound really doesn't matter when you have your speakers on going BOOM BOOM BOOM! But on a machine just for old people in the house study room trying to read emails and surf net [facebook] that little sound coming from that single machine in the whole room is jz distracting)
  • crenwelge
    ASRock is too incompetent to build a reliable system. that's why they don't provide an OS with their computer, so they can blame any problems on you/your OS. I speak from experience, having bought one of their mini computers and shipping it back to them 5 times until I finally gave up. It was the most incredible waste of time dealing with them; they are either grossly incompetent or dishonest. I would steer clear of any ASRock system.
  • RedJaron
    47340 said:
    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.

    Aside from an enterprise space where they need a not-so-thin client and desk space is a premium, I'm with you. I just can't see the point of spending more than $650 on what is essentially a miniaturized home office PC. Unless you really need the desktop real estate, if you're going over $500 for something like this, why not just get a mATX?

    The one exception here is the Acer. Except for the lack of an optical drive, it's a rather complete machine for $430. If you needed a simple, easy machine for a child, grandparent, or other less tech-savvy person, this isn't a bad way to go. The lockdown firmware actually might be a benefit so they don't screw it up.

    But that still leaves the question of what situation you'd want one of these boxes instead of a $500 laptop that includes the OS, display, hard drive, RAM, and possibly a more robust CPU. If you really need a bigger display than 15.6", get the laptop, buy a $120 monitor, and you're still under the cost of most of these devices.

    623172 said:
    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.

    My experience has been that it's a game-by-game basis, and it's one of the reasons I keep my old machines laying around. I've successfully run titles as old as the original X-COM and Duke 3D and more recent things like Homeworld on my i7 + 6870. Most of the fixes have been specific to the game, not necessarily the hardware. Black & White had texture issues with my older 8800 at first, but a quick search and command line flag fixed that. Strangely I didn't see the issue on the 6870. KotOR and KoTOR 2 would cause thermal restarts on my older X1650 until I disabled the vertex buffering, and that was even a WinXP system of the same era as the game. I may reinstall NWN on my current box and see what happens.

    But it's easier to pull out my old PIII Win98 box for retro gaming ( I've never successfully run FFVII on anything past DX7. ) Though I do realize that few people want to hold onto and store hardware that old. Hopefully my wife doesn't make me throw them out any time soon.