Haven’t got enough space for a full desktop but don’t need the portability of a laptop? Want something small and cheap to use as a server or dedicated emulation machine? A mini PC might be just what you’re looking for.
What Is a Mini PC?
Also known as tiny PCs, tiny desktops, or nano PCs; a mini PC packs in the functionality of a standard PC in a very small form factor. Don’t get confused with other smaller form factor builds like mini-ITX into which you can still fit many standard-sized components (making them a popular choice for gamers with limited space).
Mini PCs generally use smaller components than a standard desktop would. This includes CPUs and RAM designed for use in laptops, the lack of a dedicated GPU in favor of integrated graphics, fanless or passive thermal management (though not always), and much less powerful power supplies.
The Intel NUC is one of the most common examples of a mini PC. NUC stands for “Next Unit of Computing” and was first launched in 2013. The specification typically uses barebones kits that include a case, motherboard, power supply, and CPU. Though NUC refers specifically to Intel’s specification, similar form factors are now available with AMD processors too.
Though not strictly a mini PC, Apple’s Mac mini might be the most well-established and popular computer in this form factor. Since switching to Apple Silicon, the Mac mini has become even more powerful and power-efficient despite the price staying the same. Unlike a NUC or similar barebones kit, the Mac mini is assembled and ready to go out of the box.
They Fit Just About Anywhere
By far the biggest benefit to a mini PC is, unsurprisingly, how little space they take up. They’re the perfect machines for general computing if you find yourself limited by available space. Many can be mounted to the back of a monitor for an almost invisible setup, either using a VESA mount, a 3D printed clip, or some zip ties and crossed fingers.
This also means that you can introduce a computer into spaces that have limited room. For example, you can mount a mini PC (or Mac mini) completely out of sight behind a TV and use it for streaming and conferencing. You could clip one to a projector and use it as a source for video or gaming. You can hide them in cupboards as servers, or in kitchen cabinets as smart home controllers.
In retail and office settings, mini PCs have become popular for their small footprints and relatively low costs. Since they’re light on both power and space, they fit in cars and motorhomes too. They’re arguably more portable than a laptop, though they’re nowhere near as flexible since you’ll still need a display and some means of controlling them on either end. Unlike a laptop, most will fit into a large pocket.
They’re Ideal for Many “Everyday” Computing Tasks
If you need a basic computer and don’t want to spend a lot of money, a mini PC might be a great choice. This is particularly true if you already have a monitor and peripherals to use, simply drop your mini PC into the mix and you’re off. Though less powerful than a full-sized desktop (and in many cases, a laptop too), most mini PCs are plenty powerful for standard computing tasks.
This includes simple web browsing, watching videos, office tasks like word processing and spreadsheet management, and even some more demanding tasks like web development.
Some machines, particularly Apple’s Mac mini lineup, fare better than others in some tasks. The M2 chip that powers the 2023 Mac mini includes a 10-core GPU and media engine with dedicated decode and encode ability, so it’s surprisingly powerful for video editing. Thunderbolt 4 and 10Gb Ethernet make it ideal for accessing source video both locally and across the network.
Want to replace an old laptop that sat on a desk for its entire life? You could save money with a mini PC and get just as much performance out of it and maybe more versatility. A setup with a mini PC at the heart of it could be more comfortable than a laptop if you take advantage of a multiple-monitor setup. For example, the ZOTAC ZBOX CI667 nano barebones mini PC supports triple-monitor setups out of the box.
Even the relatively speaking pricey $599 entry-level Mac mini M2 supports two displays (three if you opt for the M2 Pro version). If you bomb Amazon for deals you can pick up two 1080p monitors for around $160 for a total spend of $759. By comparison, the cheapest MacBook Air is $999.
They’re Great for Streaming and Media or File Servers
Home theater PCs are less common than they used to be on account of cheap set-top boxes like Chromecast, Apple TV, and Roku devices. Even though many TVs now also come with plenty of built-in apps, there’s still a lot of functionality missing that a media-centric mini PC can help with. They sit right on your entertainment unit or can be mounted on the back of your TV for a more powerful streaming and video playback solution.
For example, playing back a huge 4K HDR media file using an Apple TV or your TV’s built-in software can be a miserable experience. Container files like MKV or obscure formats can present issues, as can video that relies on external SRT subtitle files. You won’t encounter these problems with a mini PC since they’re powerful enough to handle most formats, with plenty of third-party software available to play just about anything.
You can even use them as relatively affordable media servers by running software like PLEX, or share files using Windows, macOS or Linux built-in file sharing. Alternatively, turn your mini PC into a home file server with FreeNAS.
Depending on what setup you choose, your mini PC may still be able to function as a standard computer. Run a web browser when you need it, use it as a network backup location for your Mac, download torrents, or repurpose it entirely by installing a different operating system whenever you want to.
Mini PCs Make Ideal Emulation Machines
You can run emulators on everything from an Android phone to the Xbox Series X and S consoles. But there’s also an argument to be made for a dedicated emulation machine. Set everything up the way you like it, and it’s ready whenever you need it. You don’t need to reboot your Xbox or share system resources with other processes, and you can control everything with a dedicated gamepad rather than having to keep a mouse and keyboard nearby.
Install a Linux distribution like Batocera or Lakka for a ready-to-go gaming-focused Linux mini PC experience. Alternatively, you can install a fully-fledged emulator front-end like RetroArch in Windows or macOS and have it auto-launch when your mini PC or Mac mini boots.
You don’t need a lot of power to run the vast majority of emulators. This includes old arcade boards and 16-bit home consoles, or more modern hardware like the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii. You can dedicate your internal space to ROMs (legally, of course) and expand with external drives. You don’t need the fastest NVMe drive to do this, and you’ll get access to features like save states, the ability to rewind what you’re playing, and video options for scaling or rendering games at higher resolutions.
There’s Lots of Variety at a Range of Price Points
We’ve finally reached a stage where there are a lot of mini PC models to choose from, whether you want to run Windows or Linux. For Mac users, there’s only the Mac mini to choose from, but you can find an older Intel model for cheap on the second-hand market or spend the $599 on an M2 Mac mini for a speedy computing experience that will be supported for years to come.
You can have performance in a nano form factor if you’re willing to pay for it. If macOS fits the bill, you can do a lot worse than an M2 or M2 Pro Mac mini. You’ll get desktop-sized power in a relatively small package, for a fraction of what Apple charges for a comparable MacBook or iMac.
For Windows users, platforms like the Intel NUC and similar AMD Ryzen-powered machines exist, offering great performance. Intel NUC 12 Pro kits like the NUC12WHSi5 come with 12th-gen Core i5 12-core processors and Intel Iris Xe graphics. Alternatively, you can save your money with a Beelink SEI12 or opt for older hardware with the Beelink U59 Pro and still get a 64-bit x86 Intel computer that runs Windows.
Intel NUC 12 NUC12WSHi5
A mini PC built on an Intel 12th-generation Core i5 processor (4 performance, 8 efficiency cores), Intel Iris Xe Graphics, 16GB of RAM and a 256GB PCIe SSD.
Finally, if you’re happy to go for an ARM-powered machine that can’t run Windows, try the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B or another great value Raspberry Pi kit. You’ll need to provide a case and other accessories plus you’ll be limited to operating systems like Raspberry Pi OS, but with a starting price of around $50 it’s hard to complain.
Raspberry Pi 4 Model B
With the Raspberry Pi 4 Model B, you can create all kinds of fun projects, and upgrade gadgets around your home. Alternatively, install a full desktop OS and use it like a regular computer.
But, Mini PCs Are Underpowered and Difficult to Upgrade
Though a mini PC may be fine for everyday computing tasks, the use of laptop chips and limited cooling abilities means that they’re unable to match the performance of a full-size desktop PC in many instances. Much of the time the performance is limited by heat output since there’s not a lot of room inside a small chassis for large coolers.
Mini PCs also lack room for dedicated GPUs like NVIDIA’s GeForce range, AMD’s Radeon range, or Intel Arc cards. They rely on integrated graphics solutions like Intel HD Graphics, with the M2 chip in the Mac mini arguably being one of the better solutions in this regard.
Though you can upgrade some components (like the RAM, storage, case fans, and so on), many mini PCs cannot be upgraded in terms of the processor. The CPU is soldered to the board, and even if you’re handy with a soldering iron you’re going to have BIOS issues if the board doesn’t support the chip you’re upgrading to. It should go without saying that Apple scores particularly poorly in this department, with even the unified memory soldered to the logic board.
Outside of RAM and storage, you’re going to need to make sure any mini PC you settle for is good enough for the time you expect to keep it. Don’t just buy a mini PC for today, think about the years to come and how the hardware will age. Think about how often you like to upgrade, and whether you can live that long with the same performance.
You Can Also Do Better for Gaming
Some Mini PCs like the AMD Ryzen 5 5600U-powered ACEMAGICIAN AMR5 advertise themselves as mini gaming PCs, complete with RGB lighting and questionable styling. But these machines still rely on integrated graphics, which means they’re a poor choice for gaming in comparison to even low-end dedicated GPUs.
ACEMAGICIAN AMD Ryzen 5 5600U Mini PC
Effectively an AMD equivalent of Intel's NUC specification, this Ryzen 5-powered mini PC has 16GB of DDR4 RAM, a 512GB SSD, and comes with Windows 11 Pro but lacks the dedicated GPU necessary for impressive gaming performance.
You’ll struggle to hit 1080p at playable frame rates in modern AAA titles like Doom Eternal or Forza Horizon. Older titles will fare better, and if you mostly stick to esports favorites like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Valorant then you’ll probably get along just fine since these games are highly optimized and run great on a wide variety of hardware.
This is why we recommend mini PCs for emulation or playing classic games, but not as dedicated gaming machines for playing the latest titles. Laptops with discreet mobile GPUs are often criticized for lackluster performance, but they’re a better choice in this area. Even a handheld PC like Valve’s Steam Deck (which costs less than many Intel NUC models) is a better choice if gaming is a top priority for you.
The Mac Mini with an M1 or M2 Apple Silicon chip is one of the best desktop Mac models period, and performs better than many of its cheaper counterparts. Unfortunately, macOS is far from the ideal gaming operating system. You can always play DirectX 11 games using Windows on ARM running in a VM like Parallels, but native titles are still thin on the ground compared to a Windows setup.
If you’re buying a computer for gaming, your money is better spent cobbling together a DIY PC from second-hand or older parts. Scour Facebook Marketplace and eBay for old mining GPUs, cheap cases, and spare sticks of RAM and you’ll come out with better frame rates and higher visual fidelity. You might pay a bit more, but it’ll be worth it.
You’ll Still Need Peripherals (and Windows)
A mini PC might seem like a bargain even compared with some laptops, but you might need to spend more to get the most out of your purchase. If you don’t already have a display in mind, you’ll need a monitor. You can spend around $80 to $120 on a cheap 1080p model on Amazon if you’re desperate, but you’ll have to make sacrifices in terms of image quality and motion handling
You’ll also need a set of peripherals if you don’t have a keyboard and mouse lying around. For a living room PC, a lapboard might be appropriate. If you’re putting together something for emulating retro titles, a good retro controller is a must.
Aiming to run Windows? Don’t forget about Windows licensing. Many mini PCs are compatible with Windows but they don’t come with Windows installed (especially barebones models). You can run Windows 11 without paying if you’re prepared to live with less functionality and the pesky “Activate Windows” overlay, but many will want to buy it outright.
In some instances, the cost of peripherals, a display, and a Windows license will cost more or less the same as a cheap laptop. It can make the value proposition disappear entirely, considering a laptop is a truly portable workstation.
If you’re looking to use your mini PC as a media streamer, server, or emulator, you can install Linux, set up your server using an existing monitor (and then unplug it), or just use the TV in your living room to save a few hundred dollars.
Consider a Handheld PC Too
If you lack the space for a full-sized desktop but want a PC that can play games, consider a handheld PC like the Valve SteamDeck. These share many similarities with mini PCs since they’re small, can run Windows or similar desktop operating systems, and make ideal emulation machines but they’re focused largely on gaming (including playing the latest releases).
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