Seven Small (But Powerful) Mini-PCs, Reviewed

Seven Small Systems With Fast Platforms

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:

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Header Cell - Column 0 Acer RevoRL80-UR22ASRockVisionX 420DGigabyte Brix BXi7-4500Intel NUCDC3217IYE(Ivy Bridge)Intel NUC D54250WYK(Haswell)LGXML300Zotac Zbox Nano ID65 Plus
CPUIntel Core i3-3227UDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded1.9 GHz3 MB L3 CacheIntel Core i5-4200MDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded2.5 GHz (3.1 GHz Peak Turbo)3 MB L3 CacheIntel Core i7-4500UDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded1.8 GHz (3.0 GHz Peak Turbo)4 MB L3 CacheIntel Core i3-3217UDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded1.8 GHz3 MB L3 CacheIntel Core i5-4250UDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded1.3 GHz (2.6 GHz Peak Turbo)3 MB L3 CacheIntel Core i5-3427UDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded1.8 GHz (2.8 GHz Peak Turbo)3 MB L3 CacheIntel Core i7-3537UDual-Core, Hyper-Threaded2 GHz (3.1 GHz Peak Turbo)4 MB L3 Cache
GPUIntel HD Graphics 4000,350 MHz - 1.1 GHzRadeon HD 8850M,775 MHzIntel HD Graphics 4400,200 MHz - 1.1 GHzIntel HD Graphics 4000,350 MHz - 1.05 GHzIntel HD Graphics 5000,200 MHz - 1 GHzIntel HD Graphics 4000,350 MHz - 1.15 GHzIntel HD Graphics 4000,350 MHz - 1.2 GHz
GPU RAMShared with System Memory1 GB GDDR5,1125 MHzShared with System MemoryShared with System MemoryShared with System MemoryShared with System MemoryShared with System Memory
Sys. RAM1 x 4 GB Hyundai DDR3-1600,11-11-11 1T2 x 4 GB Asint DDR3-1600,11-11-11 1TNotIncludedNot IncludedNot Included2 x 8 GB Transcend DDR3-1600,11-11-11 1T1 x 4 GB Samsung DDR3-1600,11-11-11 1T
Hard DiskSeagate Momentus Thin500 GB, 16 MB Cache,5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/sWestern Digital Blue1 TB, 8 MB Cache,5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/sNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedEmphase EnterprisemSATA 128 GB SSDSamsung Spinpoint M8500 GB, 8 MB Cache,5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/s(includes adapter for 2 x mSATA SSD drives, optional RAID)
Opt. DriveNotIncludedLite-On DL8A4SHSlim DVD-RW(Blu-ray optional)NotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncluded
OSWindows 8 64-bit (upgraded to Windows 8.1 for testing)NotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedWindows 7 Professional x64 (upgraded to Windows 8.1 for testing)NotIncluded
MiscWirelessMouse and KeyboardMedia Center RemoteNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncluded
WiFi2T2R Dual BandAtheros AR5B22802.11nmini-PCIe card2T2R Dual BandBroadcom BCM4352 802.11acmini-PCIe card1T1R Single BandRealtek RTL8723AE 802.11nmini-PCIe cardNotIncludedNotIncludedNotIncluded2T2R Single BandIntel Centrino 2230802.11nmini-PCIe card
Size210 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)
PriceAs 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.

  • 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.