Summary And Conclusions
Let's start with the positives: the dual core Pentium barebones PCs we tested are all fairly quiet. But you still have to count on some noise, however minimal, when you buy this kind of mini-PC. Bigger problems surface should you seek to expand on built-in hardware. If you want to upgrade to a faster processor or a high-performance graphics card, you'll need to make your selection very carefully. Compact form factors also mean that not all graphics cards will fit into every one of these cases. Sometimes, there won't be enough vertical clearance; at other times, horizontal clearance may be wanting.
This also explains why the Biostar iDEQ 350G failed to earn any recommendations, even though it attained the best overall test results. The Shuttle XPC could use some additional work on its noise levels, because its small system fans tend to emit a high-frequency whine at elevated RPM levels. The MSI unit is the only one that's not subject to these problems, though it does have certain design weaknesses and isn't very extensible. MSI also used too much plastic on the front panel, and included only a single SATA port - both of these explain why the MSI mPC945 lands in last place.
The AOpen XC Cube MZ915M takes a completely different approach. There's no double core CPU inside; instead, buyers will find a Socket 479 for a Pentium M mobile CPU. In addition, its dimensions are noticeably smaller than the other mini-PC units we covered here. Using a Pentium M processor also has the positive side effects of good performance and low noise - even with a top-of-the line 2.26 GHz Pentium M 780 installed, this unit remains astoundingly silent.
When it comes to extensibility, things don't look so rosy for the MZ915M. There's room inside the compact case only for one hard disk and a slimline optical drive. That said, AOpen has contrived a good solution for adding more capabilities to this box: they offer external enclosures for normal 5.25" drives that match the look of the MZ915M case very nicely. These may be connected to the barebones through a USB port.
When it comes to graphics, you must simply make do with what the i915GM chipset delivers: nobody offers a compatible low-profile PCIe graphics card that you could install inside this case. This PC would, however, make an attractive addition to the executive suite, or perhaps in a medical or professional practice. Not only does the design and color scheme lend itself to such use, but the quiet operation of this unit also makes it well-suited for such environs.
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